Here's the breakdown of last of the four regions in my bracket. Come back tonight for the Final Four.
1. UCLA beats Mississippi Valley State in Anaheim, Calif. Reports are that Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is recovering from an injury, but the Bruins will be fine without him in this game.
9. Texas A&M beats 8. BYU in Anaheim. I’ve gone back and forth on this game quite a bit. The Aggies still have Dominique Kirk, Josh Carter and Joseph Jones from last year’s team, though, so I’ll go with them over the Cougars’ stingy defense.
5. Drake over Western Kentucky in Tampa, Fla. Another battle of two mid-majors. I’ll take the Missouri Valley champs, who are ranked fifth in offensive efficiency and fourth in free throw shooting. The Bulldogs won the conference regular season and tournament, as well as the biggest mid-major game of the year at Butler.
4. Connecticut over 13. San Diego in Tampa. It’s so tempting to take the Toreros in an upset, given the Huskies’ recent underwhelming NCAA Tournament performances. It’s been four years since UConn was really impressive – even though they made the Sweet 16 two years ago, they needed some big escapes to get there before George Mason knocked them out.
Still, Hasheem Thabeet is just too much of a force for me to pull the trigger. San Diego isn’t that great, and almost surely wouldn’t have won the WCC if the tournament wasn’t on its floor.
11. Baylor beats 6. Purdue in Washington, D.C. The Boilermakers’ defense ranks sixth in turnover percentage, but the offence is 288th in two-point field goal percentage. Yikes. Baylor’s rise from the ashes of the Patrick Dennehy murder is perhaps this season’s most incredible story, so my heart picks the Bears to make a splash on the national stage.
3. Xavier beats 14. Georgia in Washington. The Bulldogs got a lot of attention for their stunning run to the SEC Tournament title, but the Musketeers are just too good. We know it full well here in Atlantic 10 country; Drew Lavender and Stanley Burrell will show everyone else in this game.
7. West Virginia beats 10. Arizona in Washington. The Mountaineers and Wildcats are ranked 22nd and 23rd in Pomeroy respectively, which makes this a tough pick despite the national chorus shouting down Arizona. Still, I go with the Mountaineers’ 36th-ranked defensive efficiency to the Wildcats’ rank of 177.
I also factor geography into this one. West Virginia has a much shorter travel distance – 211 miles to 2,287 -- and familiarity with the building from playing Georgetown there.
2. Duke beats 15. Belmont in Washington. The Bruins rank 150th in three-point defense and 294th in two-point defense. Just as importantly, Mike Krzyzewski won’t let the Blue Devils forget last year’s first-round loss.
1. UCLA beats Texas A&M in Anaheim. Bruins star Kevin Love is ranked fifth in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. You’ll look smart when you tell people that as Love has a big game against the Aggies.
5. Drake beats 4. Connecticut in Tampa. I’ve got four reasons: the romantic in me, belief in Drake’s talent, skepticism of the Huskies’ talent beyond Thabeet and UConn’s recent schedule.
Since beating Notre Dame at home on Feb. 13, the Huskies’ results: OT win at South Florida; home win vs. DePaul; loss at ‘Nova; win at Rutgers; home win vs. West Virginia; loss at Providence; home win vs. Cincinnati; Big East tournament loss to West Virginia that Dick Weiss described to me as being very ugly.
3. Xavier beats 11. Baylor in Washington. Simply put, the better team wins again.
2. Duke beats 7. West Virginia in Washington. The Mountaineers will have a lot of fans in D.C., but Duke will have more. The key number is 203: West Virginia’s rank in three-point FG % given up and free throw % made. Both play right into the Blue Devils’ hands.
Regional Semifinals in Phoenix, Ariz.
1. UCLA beats 5. Drake. Thirty-nine years after these teams last met in the NCAA Tournament, the Bruins beat the Bulldogs again. Back in 1969, the final score was 85-82. It won’t be as close this time, as the Bruins ride a home-ish crowd to victory.
2. Duke beats 3. Xavier. We don’t know yet whether this will be the first or second game of the day, but we do know the Musketeers will be the overwhelming crowd favorite. I can’t help thinking this game will resemble last year’s thrilling Xavier-Ohio State game, going right down to the wire. But yet again, there will be one Musketeers miss or mistake that wins the game for the Blue Devils.
Regional Final in Phoenix, Ariz.
1. UCLA beats 2. Duke. It could be the highest-rated game in the tournament, though it won’t be the best-played. The Blue Devils have the edge in three-point shooting, the Bruins have it in the paint. So the deciding factor is at point guard, where Darren Collison is far superior to Greg Paulus. UCLA proves a team can make the Final Four three years in a row.