Since the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Committee gave up the ill-conceived idea of naming regionals after cities in time for the 2007 Tournament, the four regions have been constant--East, South, Midwest, and West. That changes this year, as the South and Midwest take a one year break. In their place, we'll have the Southeast, with its regional in New Orleans, and Southwest, which wraps up in San Antonio. In my preseason projection, I have the winners of these two regions meeting in the National Semifinals.
After the jump, it's time to take a look at the region I project will hold the nation's second overall seed, the Southeast.
Reminder: The Southeast Regional will be played on Thursday, March 24 and Saturday, March 26 at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, site of the 2012 Final Four.
Chicago Pod (March 18 and 20)
1. Michigan State (Big Ten Champion): The Spartans slipped a bit at the end of the regular season, dropping down to a 5 seed. It didn't matter, as MSU missed a second straight National Championship game appearance by two points, and that was with PG Kalin Lucas out of action thanks to a ruptured Achilles tendon. Lucas is back, and so are most of his teammates from last year, though Raymar Morgan graduated and Chris Allen transferred to Iowa State. Even with those losses, the return of Lucas and co. (Draymond Green, Korie Lucious, Delvon Roe, and Durrell Summers) should be more than enough to keep Tom Izzo's team at the top of the Big Ten
16. East Tennessee State (Atlantic Sun Champion): The Buccaneers finished a game behind the four A-Sun co-champs, but outlasted the quartet to claim the conference tournament crown. Murry Bartow has just about everyone back from that team, led by seniors Tommy Hubbard, Justin Tubbs, and Micah Williams. However, Belmont and Lipscomb also have veteran squads that will provide a stiff challenge to the Bucs. Keep an eye on: Belmont, Lipscomb
8. Dayton (A-10 at-large): The defending NIT champions did lose quite a bit of personnel (Marcus Johnson, Rob Lowery, Mickey Perry, London Warren), but they kept their coach (Brian Gregory) and two biggest stars (Chris Wright and Chris Johnson), while adding a strong group of newcomers. The Flyers' ultimate success may depend on how well freshman PG Juwan Staten, Drake transfer Josh Parker, and returning defensive stalwart Paul Williams replace the production lost when Marcus Johnson, Lowery, and Warren left UD Arena.
9. Notre Dame (Big East at-large): The Fighting Irish will take a step back with the graduation of Luke Harangody and PG Tory Jackson. However, Mike Brey's squad shouldn't fall completely out of the picture because 1) they showed they can win without Harangody during a brief late season stretch that catapulted the team back into the NCAA picture and 2) the Irish return a lot of experience. Tim Abromaitis, Tyrone Nash, and Carleton Scott are all back in the frontcourt, with Purdue transfer Scott Martin back from an ACL injury to add further scoring punch from the wing. Scott Hansbrough is the key backcourt returnee, so he may see some time at the point, if Brey doesn't slot a freshman in the 1 spot.
Denver Pod (March 17 and 19)
5. Butler (Horizon champion): Read more about the Bulldogs in part one of my Intriguing Bracket Teams series. Keep an eye on: Detroit, Wright State
12. Utah State (WAC champion): The Aggies were one of the last teams in the 2010 field, after they fell to New Mexico State in the WAC final. However, they did claim their third consecutive regular season crown, and the seniors will be looking to complete a clean sweep this season. Even though PG Jared Quayle graduated, Stew Morrill's backcourt is still loaded, thanks to returning starters Tyler Newbold and Pooh Williams and 3-point specialist Brian Green. The frontcourt, anchored by Tai Wesley and Nate Bendall, is solid as well. Since Utah State's closest challengers from a season ago lost far more, look for the Aggies to be back on top of the WAC heap. Keep an eye on: New Mexico State, Nevada
4. Missouri (Big 12 at-large): The Tigers boast a guard-heavy lineup, featuring PG Michael Dixon and SGs Kim English and Marcus Denmon, but they'll need more production inside, particularly on the boards, to reach their full potential. One of Mike Anderson's big hopes at improving that unit, McDonald's All-American Tony Mitchell, was ruled ineligible, but may join the team for the second semester. Right now, returnees Laurence Bowers, Justin Safford (back from an ACL tear), and juco transfer Ricardo Ratliffe are Mizzou's best hopes inside.
13. First Round: Georgia (SEC at-large) vs. Missouri State (MIssouri Valley at-large): The Bulldogs, who struggled for much of the season before becoming a dangerous team at the end, return SEC POY contender Trey Thompkins and the versatile Travis Leslie, while adding Mr. Georgia Basketball Marcus Thornton up front and Tennessee State transfer Gerald Robinson to the backcourt. Mark Fox's team could end up far higher than this if the returnees and newcomers get on the same page quickly. On the other hand, the Bears had a nice postseason run last season, winning the CollegeInsider.com Tournament over Pacific. Head coach Cuonzo Martin has most of that squad back, led by Fs Kyle Weems and Will Creekmore.
Tampa Pod (March 17 and 19)
6. BYU (Mountain West at-large): The MWC race between the Cougars and San Diego State will be one of the most fascinating ones in the nation. Jimmer Fredette spurned the NBA and will team with Jackson Emery to form one of the most potent starting backcourts in America. The frontcourt is a bit of an issue for Dave Rose, thanks to the graduation of Jonathan Tavernari and Chris Miles, but Noah Hartsock, James Anderson, Brandon Davies, and Chris Collinsworth (back from an LDS mission) are more than capable of stepping up to fill the void.
11. Minnesota (Big Ten at-large): If Tubby Smith's team can make it through the season without the controversy and trouble that plagued their 2009-10 campaign, this will seem low. Sure, Lawrence Westbrook and Damian Johnson are gone, and that's a significant amount of points to replace. However, a frontcourt unit led by Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson is bolstered by the debut of Trevor Mbakwe, who spent last season suspended. Devoe Joseph and Al Nolen will anchor the Gopher backcourt, which will be bolstered by several talented newcomers, including Maverick Ahanmisi, Chip Armelin, Austin Hollins, and Maurice Walker, who like Joseph is in the Canadian National Team system.
3. Florida (SEC champion): The Gators lost only oft-criticized F Dan Werner from last season's squad, which returned to the NCAAs after a two-year absence. Chandler Parsons, who saved UF's tournament hopes with two buzzer-beaters last season, leads the returnees, while Alex Tyus wised up and came back to school. They will be joined up front by senior Vernon Macklin and frosh Patric Young, one of the most highly-regarded recruits in program history (and that's saying something). PG Erving Walker should be even better as a junior, while his backcourt mate, Kenny Boynton must work on his efficiency. Billy Donovan's club needs to be far more consistent this campaign, though. Otherwise, another nerve-wracking Selection Sunday awaits.
14. North Texas (Sun Belt champion): The Mean Green boast a senior-heavy lineup--6-7 F Eric Tramiel was the only significant offseason loss--making them a slight favorite in an unpredictable conference. Next season should be a tough one for Johnny Jones, as he'll have to replace a 2011 senior class of seven regulars, but the group, led by George Odufuwa, Tristan Thompson, and Josh White, could make their final campaign in Denton one to remember. Keep an eye on: Denver, Florida Atlantic, South Alabama, Western Kentucky
Charlotte Pod (March 18 and 20)
10. Marquette (Big East at-large): With Lazar Hayward's graduation, this is Jimmy Butler's team. He'll get major help from Jae Crowder, a juco transfer who happened to earn the NJCAA's Player of the Year award in 2010. Darius Odom-Johnson will be counted on to anchor the backcourt, while Junior Cadougan, who made a quick return from a ruptured Achilles tendon late last season, should be an impact player at the point, replacing Maurice Acker. With Buzz Williams' knack for getting the most out of his team's talents, the Golden Eagles will continue to be a tough Big East opponent night in and night out.
2. North Carolina (ACC at-large): If the young Tar Heels grew up significantly during the offseason, they'll be a strong national contender. If they didn't, another season on the bubble (or in the NIT) could await. Preseason All-American Harrison Barnes, the top-rated recruit in the country, joins a team that had all of the tools, but was lacking the toolbox last season. Barnes should be a force on the wing, while John Henson and Tyler Zeller (if he stays healthy) will hope to dominate on the inside. Larry Drew and Will Graves will provide leadership for the guard unit, but freshmen Kendall Marshall (at the point) and Reggie Bullock (at the 2) should see significant minutes. This team has too much talent (even with the transfer of the Wear twins to UCLA) to be completely underwhelming two years in a row.
15. Coastal Carolina (Big South champion): The Chanticleers looked to be on their way to the NCAAs, until they ran into perennial Big South contender Winthrop in the tournament final. That moment of March magic relegated Coastal to the NIT. Cliff Ellis had to reload after losing rebounder extraordinaire Joseph Harris, Mario Edwards, and Logan Johnson. Chad Gray and South Carolina transfer Mike Holmes will anchor a strong frontcourt. In the backcourt, Chants' fans also have a lot to look forward to, thanks to the return of Kierre Greenwood and Danny Nieman, two versatile guards, and the addition of Albany transfer Anthony Raffa. Keep an eye on: Liberty, UNC Asheville, VMI, Winthrop
Only one more region to go, and that's the Southwest. Those capsules will be posted tomorrow, along with the complete bracket.