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Chris Dufresne’s NCAA tournament region-by-region picks

MIDWEST REGIONAL

First round: Kansas def. Lehigh; Northern Iowa def. Nevada Las Vegas; Michigan State def. New Mexico State; Houston def. Maryland; San Diego State def. Tennessee; Georgetown def Ohio; Oklahoma State def. Georgia Tech; Ohio State def. UC Santa Barbara.

Second round: Kansas def. Northern Iowa; Michigan State def. Houston; Georgetown def. San Diego State; Ohio State def. Georgetown.

Semifinals: Kansas def. Michigan State; Ohio State def. Georgetown.

Final: Kansas def. Ohio State.

How it plays out: Kansas wasn’t ready to defend its 2008 title last season when it lost in the Sweet 16 to Michigan State, which made it all the way to the title game in Detroit. But this Kansas squad, led by veterans Cole Aldrich and Sherron Collins, is clearly the class of the bracket. Guess what: The Jayhawks (we’re saying) are going to get a payback chance when they meet Tom Izzo’s Michigan State team in the Midwest Regional semifinals in St. Louis. The other side of the bracket appears headed for an Ohio State-Georgetown matchup, featuring two of the tournament’s biggest stars in Evan Turner (Ohio State) and Greg Monroe (Georgetown). Of course, there will be other games played in the bracket. You want a No. 13 over No. 4 shocker? Try Houston over Maryland, just, well, because. We know No. 4 owns a huge advantage, historically, with a 79-21 first-round record. But we loved Houston’s energy in its upset victory over Texas El Paso to win the Conference USA’s automatic bid. We loved better the breathless announcer’s final countdown call of the victory: “Houston, we have liftoff!” We’re guessing he had that one written down, on an index card, ready for launch.

WEST REGIONAL

First round: Syracuse def. Vermont; Gonzaga def. Florida State; Butler def. Texas El Paso; Vanderbilt def. Murray State; Xavier def. Minnesota; Pittsburgh def. Oakland; Brigham Young def. Florida; Kansas State def. North Texas.

Second round: Syracuse def. Gonzaga; Butler def. Vanderbilt; Pittsburgh def. Xavier; Brigham Young def. Kansas State.

Semifinals: Syracuse def. Butler; Pittsburgh def. BYU.

Final: Pittsburgh def. Syracuse

How it plays out: You’re asking: where are all the first-round upsets? Where is the risk-taking, the hunches and the coin-flip picks? Sorry. We see the West basically going true to form in the early going, with none of these matches raising many goose bumps. The exception might be No. 3 Pittsburgh vs. No. 14 Oakland only because any time you match those names together people think of the Steelers and Raiders and the Immaculate Reception involving that pass Franco Harris did or didn’t catch in 1972. Never mind that this Oakland is a Summit League team from Rochester, MI. — you know which team Al Davis is rooting for. Syracuse has been one of the year’s great stories and Jim Boeheim is, in many minds, the coach of the year. The school earned its second No.1 seeding even though West Virginia won the Big East tournament title and ended up as a No. 2. The big question Syracuse faces is the NCAA condition of big man, Arinze Onuaku, who injured his quadriceps in his team’s first-round loss to Georgetown in the Big East tournament. Also, no team has ever won the national title after losing in the first round of its conference tournament, so that’s why Pittsburgh is headed to Indianapolis.

EAST REGIONAL

First round: Kentucky def. East Tennessee State; Wake Forest def. Texas; Cornell def. Temple; Wisconsin def. Wofford; Washington def. Marquette; New Mexico def. Montana; Missouri def. Clemson; West Virginia def. Morgan State.

Second round: Kentucky def. Wake Forest; Wisconsin def. Cornell; Washington def. New Mexico; West Virginia def. Missouri.

Semifinals: Kentucky def. Wisconsin; West Virginia def. Washington.

Final: Kentucky over West Virginia.

How it plays out: Look for Kentucky to kick blue grass all the way to Indianapolis, the star freshman guard to be questioned for a test he took in high school and the coach to high-tail it out of town one step ahead of the infractions committee. Wait, that could never happen to a Final Four team coached by John Calipari — at least not twice in three years. Say what you want about Calipari — the man can recruit and rekindles excitement. This bracket has some upset potential, starting with a minor one with Wake Forest over Texas, a team that spent time at No. 1 this season before falling off Earth’s edge. This is also a prove-it bracket for the Pac-10 as Washington shows a tiny portion of the world it belongs in the tournament with shocking wins over No. 6 Marquette and No. 3 New Mexico before a not-so-shocking loss to West Virginia in the regional semifinals. We fell in love with Cornell (The Big Red) a couple of years ago when they lost the “brain bowl” against Stanford at the subregional in Anaheim. Just because Cornell was the first team in the tournament doesn’t mean it will be one of the first teams out. In the end, think Kentucky. Freshman guard John Wall plays like he has jets in his sneakers and is the first- or second-best player in the country, depending on your opinion of Ohio State’s Evan Turner. Kentucky’s problem, if you can call it one, is starting three freshmen in a tournament where maturity usually counts. Michigan, remember, couldn’t even get it done with the Fab Five.

SOUTH REGIONAL

First round: Duke def. Winthrop (play-in winner over Arkansas Pine Bluff); California def. Louisville; Utah State def. Texas A&M; Siena def. Purdue; Notre Dame def. Old Dominion; Baylor def. Sam Houston State; St. Mary’s def. Richmond; Villanova def. Robert Morris.

Second round: Cal def. Duke; Siena def. Utah State; Baylor def. Notre Dame; Villanova def. St. Mary’s.

Semifinals: Siena def. Cal; Villanova def. Baylor.

Final: Villanova def. Siena.

How it plays out: Admittedly, this bracket is riddle wrapped in an enigma. Where to start? Cal, which is a veteran team, is going to dispatch Louisville and then take down Duke in a second-round shootout. That’s right, Washington and Cal are going to the Sweet 16 and the Pac-10 will get a big bank loan and be able to remain basketball solvent until USC comes back from probation and UCLA figures out an off-season plan to beat Fullerton and Long Beach. The other team to watch here is Siena, which made noise last year when it bounced Ohio State out in the first round. The first-round pick over No. 4 Purdue might not even be an upset because the Boilermakers are not really a No. 4 playing without injured star Robbie Hummel. Siena will then jump Utah State, which will use a gift first-round placement in nearby Spokane to topple No. 5 Texas A&M. Siena, after much soft-focus CBS air-time, finally loses to Villanova in the regional finals. It all seems so black-and-white and, using logic such as this, it is really shocking that people have such a hard time picking bracket winners.

FINAL FOUR

So here you have it: Kansas and Pittsburgh on one side with a battle of the Wildcats — Kentucky and Villanova — on the other. That leaves us with two top-seeded schools, a No. 2 and a No. 3. Why not? Villanova, in fact, got to the Final Four last year by beating Pittsburgh in the East regional final. This year there’s room for both schools — at least on bracket paper.

CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

In a year when UCLA, North Carolina, Indiana and Connecticut didn’t make the tournament, you can’t do much better than a Kansas-Kentucky final in Indianapolis, so that’s what we’re hoping for. Expect Kansas’ experience with Aldrich and Collins to be the difference against a younger Kentucky team. Two years later, with a different team, Calipari is going to face Kansas with a chance to steal the giant prize. The result, as it was with Memphis, will be the same.


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