After the jump, it's time to take a look at the region I project will be opposite the East at the Final Four--the home of the No. 4 top seed--the West Region. Just a reminder, these teams are presented just as they are in an actual bracket: the No. 1 seed's pod is at the top, and the second seed's grouping is at the bottom.
Reminder: The West Regional will be played in Anaheim on Thursday, March 24 and Saturday, March 26.
Washington Pod (March 17 and 19)
1. Pittsburgh (Big East Champion): While Jermaine Dixon graduated, the other star performers for a team that finished two games behind Big East regular season champion Syracuse return. The Panthers' two biggest stars, PG Ashton Gibbs and backcourt mate Brad Wannamaker are complemented by a group that may be ready to make the next step, including Gilbert Brown, Dante Taylor, and Travon Woodall, and several talented newcomers--Lamar Patterson (injury hardship), Talib Zanna (redshirt), and J.J. Moore.
16. Princeton (Ivy Champion): The Tigers finished two games behind Cornell in last season's Ivy race and made it all the way to the CBI semifinals, where St. Louis ended their season. With Sydney Johnson getting his five leading scorers from a year ago back, look for Princeton to take the Big Red's place at the top of the Ancient Eight. Keep an eye on: Cornell, Harvard
8. Virginia Tech (ACC at-large): Read more about the Hokies in the ssecond part of my Intriguing Bracket Teams series. The Hokies' frontcourt depth, hampered by JT Thompson's ACL tear and Allan Chaney's heart ailment, could impact their seed ceiling.
9. Richmond (A-10 at-large): The graduation of guard David Gonzalvez and forward Ryan Butler leave two significant holes for Chris Mooney's squad, but with Kevin Anderson still manning the backcourt and versatile big men Dan Geriot and Justin Harper still on board, look for the Spiders to challenge in the Atlantic 10 once again.
Tucson Pod (March 17 and 19)
5. Gonzaga (West Coast champion): The Bulldogs finished the season in disappointing fashion, falling to St. Mary's in the WCC final, earning an 8 seed in the NCAAs, where they quietly exited in Round Two, thanks to a loss to Syracuse. Matt Bouldin is gone, but that's the only significant personnel loss for Mark Few. However, Demetri Goodson, Steven Gray, Elias Harris, and Robert Sacre will have to step up to get the Zags this high up the S-curve, especially as another daunting out-of-conference slate awaits. Keep an eye on: Loyola Marymount, St. Mary's
12. First Round: Colorado (Big 12 at-large) or Northwestern (Big Ten at-large): Read more about the Buffaloes in part one of my Intriguing Bracket Teams series. You can find out more about the Wildcats in part two.
4. Washington (Pacific-10 champion): The Huskies started to win outside of Seattle in the nick of time last year, which earned them a Pac-10 Tournament title and two NCAA wins. They'll have to try to repeat that performance--without the early road struggles, that is--without Quincy Pondexter. The other four starters, led by guards Isaiah Thomas and Venoy Overton and rising senior forward Matthew Bryan-Amaning, do return, and are complemented by sophomore SG Abdul Gaddy, who's hoping for a better 2010-11 campaign, and highly-recruited forward Terrence Ross.
13. Ohio (Mid-American champion): The Bobcats will have the target on their back in the MAC this season after their storming run through the conference tournament and stunning 14 over 3 upset victory over Georgetown in the NCAAs. Like so many teams, Ohio brings back the bulk of last season's roster D.J. Cooper, Tommy Freeman, DeVaughn Washington), but needs to replace a couple of key player (6-10 F Kenneth van Kampen and 6-2 G Armon Bassett [H/T to Tim Burke for the correction]). Still, the conference's other typical contenders lost more, which means the Bobcats are the tentative favorite. However, remember how crazy the typical MAC race is. Keep an eye on: Akron, Kent State, Miami (Ohio)
Chicago Pod (March 18 and 20)
6. San Diego State (Mountain West champion): Read more about the Aztecs in part two of my Intriguing Bracket Teams series.
11. Connecticut (Big East at-large): While the Huskies are likely to not be as bad as they were last season, it's not clear if they'll be good enough to be safely in the Tournament. Jerome Dyson, Gavin Edwards, and Stanley Robinson are all gone (and so is Ater Majok, not that he helped much), and while Jim Calhoun has brought in a bunch of freshman to help out Kemba Walker and Alex Oriakhi. if UConn gets through the inevitable growing pains early, they could surprise in the Big East. If not, they won't be in the final field of 68.
3. Illinois (Big Ten at-large): The Illini seniors, PG Demetri McCamey, C Mike Tisdale, F Mike Davis, and F Bill Cole, undoubtedly have redemption on their mind after a disappointing 2009-10 campaign in which miserable non-conference results and a 10-8 Big Ten mark led to the NIT. This followed up a 2008-09 season that ended at the hands of Western Kentucky on the very first day of the NCAAs. Bruce Weber had better hope his club is ready to play to its potential, as 2005's National Runner-up finish seems like it happened decades ago.
14. Oakland (Summit champion): The good news for the Golden Grizzlies (and bad news for the rest of the Summit League) is that forward Keith Benson is back for his senior year. The bad news (and good news for the conference) is that two of last season's key pieces Derick Nelson and Johnathon Jones graduated. Still, the presence of Benson alone gives Oakland a chance, especially with sophomore guard Ledrick Eackles and senior forward Will Hudson around, ready to take on a bigger role. Keep an eye on: IUPUI, Oral Roberts
Tulsa Pod (March 18 and 20)
10. Florida State (ACC at-large): The Seminoles have plenty of defense, even with Solomon Alabi in the NBA. The question for Chris Singleton and company is whether they can score enough. If Leonard Hamilton can get his team to improve its overall shot selection, it's possible. That means Singleton and senior guard Derwin Kitchen need to get the ball to players like Deividas Dulkys, Michael Snaer, and even Xavier Gibson (who shot 40% from outside on just 15 attempts) when a three-ball is necessary, instead of taking the shot themselves.
2. Kansas State (Big 12 at-large): With Denis Clemente gone, the Wildcats need someone to play the point. If Frank Martin can solve that issue (sophomore Martavious Irving is an option, though he's got to improve his assist/TO ratio, and JC transfer Juevol Myles is another), it will be another big year for an Elite Eight team that still features Jacob Pullen, Curtis Kelly, and Jamar Samuels, though Dominique Sutton is another loss, as he's transferring. (late correction, thanks to Joel Schoonover for the e-mail)
15. Weber State (Big Sky champion): Last March, the Wildcats came very close to returning to the NCAAs for the first time since 2007, until Anthony Johnson had the second half of a lifetime. That put Montana in the Tournament and Weber in the NIT. While Johnson, and most of the Grizzlies guards, have graduated, Randy Rahe has a talented group remaining in Ogden, led by Big Sky POY Damian Lillard. The frontcourt is an issue, thanks to the graduation of 6-8 Steve Panos, but if senior Trevor Morris and junior Darin Mahoney can step up in his place and help out junior Kyle Bullinger, the Wildcats will be able to win the league crown easily. Whether that translates into postseason success is a different story though. Keep an eye on: Montana, Montana State, Northern Arizona, Northern Colorado, Portland State
That's half the field of 68. Tomorrow, it's the temporary return of the Southeast Region.