- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 16, 2008

THE FIELD

1. UCLA

Record: 31-3

Conference: Pac-10

Previous NCAA appearances: 41

2. Duke

Record: 27-5

Conf: ACC

Previous NCAA appearances: 31

3. Xavier

Record: 27-6

Conf: Atlantic 10

Previous NCAA appearances: 17

4. Connecticut

Record: 24-8

Conf: Big East

Previous NCAA appearances: 27

5. Drake

Record: 28-4

Conf: Missouri Valley

Previous NCAA appearances: 4

6. Purdue

Record: 24-8

Conf: Big Ten

Previous NCAA appearances: 21

7. West Virginia

Record: 24-10

Conf: Big East

Previous NCAA appearances: 20

8. BYU

Record: 27-7

Conference: Mountain West

Previous NCAA appearances: 21

9. Texas A&M;

Record: 24-10

Conf: Big 12

Previous NCAA appearances: 8

10. Arizona

Record: 19-14

Conf: Pac-10

Previous NCAA appearances: 26

11. Baylor

Record: 21-10

Conf: Big 12

Previous NCAA appearances: 4

12. Western Kentucky

Record: 27-6

Conf: Sun Belt

Previous NCAA appearances: 19

13. San Diego

Record: 21-13

Conf: West Coast

Previous NCAA appearances: 2

14. Georgia

Record: 17-16

Conf: SEC

Previous NCAA appearances: 9

15. Belmont

Record: 25-8

Conf: Atlantic Sun

Previous NCAA appearances: 2

16. Mississippi Valley St. Delta Devils

Record: 17-15

Conf: SWAC

Previous NCAA appearances: 3

BRACKET BULLIES

UCLA: The Bruins are seeking their third straight Final Four berth, something that hasn’t happened since the Wizard of Westwood was still busy winning championships. UCLA has the superlative point guard (Darren Collison), an efficient big man (Kevin Love) and a desire to play grind-it-out defense on every possession. The Bruins won’t lose early.

Connecticut: Few teams have an inside presence like Hasheem Thabeet, and that’s what makes the Huskies a particularly fearsome draw. Connecticut’s last NCAA memory consisted of slinking out of Verizon Center as George Mason celebrated punching its Final Four ticket. This time, it’s the rising Huskies who have a chance to ruin a celebration on the way to San Antonio.

Xavier: This is the Musketeers’ 17th NCAA trip in the last 23 years, and arguably their most imposing team in that stretch (though the 2003 David West-team might have a case). Former Oklahoma guard Drew Lavender is one of several players who could carry Xavier to its second Elite Eight since 2004 and perhaps even further than that if the draw breaks right.

BRACKET BUSTS

Brigham Young: The Cougars never did anything particularly bad this season and are deserving of the respect they’ve received. Nevertheless, they aren’t the most accomplished bunch, either. They have an early victory over Louisville when the Cardinals were struggling, but were only tested so often in the so-so Mountain West. Don’t expect much more than one victory maybe.

Arizona: Don’t get fooled by the brand name, which has retained some legitimacy even as the Wildcats have specialized in earning No. 8 seeds in recent years. Despite unquestioned talent (Jerryd Bayless, Chase Budinger), Arizona will not survive to see the second weekend of the tournament. There are better sleepers to choose from than the Wildcats.

Purdue: It is with reluctance the Boilermakers are included in this list. Matt Painter has done a fine job with a young team, and any team that can sweep Wisconsin merits all the respect accorded to them. Still, this is a team that played in a relatively down league and one only one game of significance outside of Indiana. Purdue isn’t a great surprise pick.

Duke: Go ahead and pencil the Blue Devils into the second weekend. They merit that respect and will earn a spot there. But don’t anticipate much more. Duke is this year’s answer to 2006 Villanova and 2007 Oregon. Both of those teams relied on four-guard sets and savvy play, and both were bounced in the regional final. A similar fate could await the Blue Devils.

DREAM DRAWS

Xavier: The Musketeers drew destiny”s team Georgia in the first round and will get either youthful Purdue or scuffling Baylor in round two. Sean Miller”s team should win twice while in the nation”s capital.

Arizona: It has nothing to do with the draw. It has everything to do with the fact the Wildcats have a draw at all. Arizona is 19-14 (with three wins over wretched Oregon State) and has lost eight of its last 12. Regardless of schedule strength, Arizona playing anyone even Huggy Bear and West Virginia is a good deal.

NIGHTMARE DRAWS

Brigham Young: Poor Cougars. They weren’t done in by Mormon obligations being bracketed into Thursday-Saturday games but rather losing at UNLV in the Mountain West. The Cougars would get UCLA in the second round, and that’s enough for even the most devout Provo denizen to offer up another four-letter word.

Western Kentucky: Get ready to defend, Hilltoppers. Drake will spread out the Sun Belt champions from beginning to end, far more so than anyone else they’ve seen in the last few months. Coach Darrin Horn, a rising star, will very much earn a new gig if he can engineer a 5-12 upset.

BRACKET BESTS

Best low-profile player, non-Stephen Curry division Courtney Lee, Western Kentucky: He didn’t play great in the Sun Belt final against Middle Tennessee State, but Lee is the reason Darrin Horn’s Hilltoppers will be a tough out. The 6-foot-5 swingman averaged 20.4 points, sprinkling in three 30-point outings as Western Kentucky went 27-6. With Rider’s Jason Thompson missing the field, Lee becomes the best player you haven’t seen.

Best former walk-on Adam Emmenecker, Drake: It’s been an impressive ride for the Bulldogs’ senior, who has gone from afterthought to the Missouri Valley player of the year. Drake is in the tournament for the first time since 1971, and they have a Euroball style to thank. In the middle of it all is Emmenecker, who at 6-foot-1 has made himself especially valuable despite not making a 3-pointer.

Best revival Baylor: No tent was needed for this, just a superb guard (Curtis Jerrells) and the steady hand of coach Scott Drew. The Bears have climbed out of massive mess stemming from the death of a player and the cover up of former coach Dave Bliss and reached the tournament for reached the first time since 1988 and just the second time in a half-century.

MATCHUP TO WATCH

Connecticut vs. San Diego: The most plausible of the 4-13 games for a surprise will be played in this regional. It isn’t so much an indictment of the Huskies as it is well-deserved respect for the Toreros, who beat Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga to earn their way into the field. It could be a blowout, but more likely this will be close heading into the final five minutes.

Patrick Stevens and Stephen Whyno

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