Welcome to the conclusion of my Early Bracketology series, which features the final region, the Southwest. This region temporarily replaces the Midwest, which will be back in 2012.
After the jump, it's time to take a look at the final 17 teams in my preseason bracket, along with some closing stats and comments.
Reminder: The Southwest Regional will be played on Friday, March 25 and Sunday, March 27 in San Antonio.
Tulsa Pod (March 18 and 20)
1. Kansas (Big 12 Champion): The Jayhawks will have to rebound from last season's shock Second Round exit at the hands of Northern Iowa without three starters, most importantly PG Sherron Collins and F Cole Aldrich. Josh Selby, the top-rated recruit in the country, is the heir apparent to Collins, but with the added benefit of being a more reliable scorer. However, his eligibility is still very much up in the air, even at this late date. As for the returnees, Bill Self will be looking for the Morris twins and Tyshawn Taylor to live up to their potential; Travis Releford and Mario Little to have a good campaigns after redshirting; and his massive cast of role players (Brady Morningstar, Tyrel Reed, Thomas Robinson) to come through in key moments. However, if Selby is declared ineligible, KU may slide a bit because of the gaping hole at the point.
16. First Round: Jackson State (SWAC champion) vs. Lafayette (Patriot champion): The Tigers lost leading scorer Garrison Johnson, but return everyone else from a team that rolled through the SWAC, finishing 17-1, before falling to Grambling in the tournament quarterfinals, a defeat that relegated them to the NIT. Obviously, three more wins is the goal for Tevester Anderson's squad. Fran O'Hanlon's Leopards put together a nice late season run, which ended at the hands of archrivals Lehigh in the conference title game. Lafayette, led by senior F Jared Mintz, junior F Ryan Willen, and junior G Jim Mower, has a great shot at going one step further this season, but with the young rosters who featured in the league last campaign another year older, it will be a fascinating, competitive race. Keep an eye on (SWAC): Alabama State, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Texas Southern Keep an eye on (Patriot): American, Bucknell, Holy Cross, Lehigh
Denver Pod (March 17 and 19)
5. Georgetown (Big East at-large): Last year, the Hoyas were in position for a high seed, then dropped four of their last six in the Big East. A storming run in New York propelled them up to a 3, where they were stunned by Ohio in what turned out to be C Greg Monroe's last game. This season's team will be a bit more guard-oriented, as Austin Freeman and Chris Wright will be the focus of the offense, unless Julian Vaughn steps up and adequately replaces Monroe's interior production and Hollis Thompson does more with his considerable talent.
12. UNLV (Mountain West at-large): Since Tre'Von Willis will return to the team after reaching a plea agreement in a domestic violence case, the Runnin; Rebels return all five starters from last season's team that earned an 8 seed. However, not all is rosy in Sin City, as Willis has been dealing a knee issue (and still has to sit out three games, two of which are slated to be exhibitions), and three-point sharpshooter Kendall Wallace is out for the season with an ACL tear. Still, there's more than enough talent for Lon Kruger's side to make it back to the field.
4. Tennessee (SEC at-large): Raise your hand if you thought the Volunteers were done after four players were arrested on drug and weapons charges on New Year's Day? After all that turmoil (and the dismissal of Tyler Smith), the Vols beat Kansas in Knoxville days later, went 11-5 in the SEC, and missed the school's first Final Four appearance by a point. Tennessee will have to attempt to replicate that magic this season after a summer plagued by scandal. They'll also have to do it without the graduated J.P. Prince, Bobby Maze, and Wayne Chism. The three suspended players who return--Brian Williams, Melvin Goins, and Cameron Tatum--form the core of the 2010-11 Vols, alongside SG Scotty Hopson, Bruce Pearl's new go-to guy. Frosh Tobias Harris, soph Kenny Hall, and UNC Wilmington transfer John Fields will be called upon to help Williams and Tatum in the frontcourt, as Chism and Prince's production will be hard to replace.
13. Wofford (Southern champion): The Terriers nearly won an NCAA game in their first appearance, falling to Wisconsin by 4 despite having a late lead. Coach Mike Young's squad, loaded with veterans, led by senior F Noah Dahlman, is capable of doing it again. However, Wofford will have to replace G Junior Salters, one of their main 3-point threats. Considering that five returnees shot better than 30 percent from beyond the arc, that shouldn't be a problem. Keep an eye on: Appalachian State, Chattanooga, College of Charleston, The Citadel
Tampa Pod (March 17 and 19)
6. NC State (ACC at-large): Sidney Lowe has yet to make the NCAA Tournament in four seasons back in Raleigh, but that could all change this season, with a roster that mixes the experience of veteran PF Tracy Smith and PG Javier Gonzalez with a highly-touted recruiting class, featuring SF C.J. Leslie, scorer Lorenzo Brown, and PG Ryan Harrow, who threatens to move Gonzalez to the bench (or the occasional three-guard set). If the newcomers get the hang of the college game quickly, the Wolfpack will be an ACC contender, and Lowe's Red Blazer Realty jacket might just make an appearance in the Tournament.
11. UCLA (Pacific-10 at-large): Bruin fans would like to forget last season, one plagued by injuries and dismissals (and having seen them play three games in Anaheim last November, I agree with them). Ben Howland has his work cut out for him this season, but there is hope thanks to a good forward corps (Reeves Nelson, Tyler Honeycutt, and 6-10 freshman Joshua Smith) and a decent backcourt, featuring 6-5 Malcolm Lee, who will see more time at the 2 spot, as Jerime Anderson and juco transfer Lazeric Jones have their chances to take over at the point. UCLA should be better than last year, especially with the Pac-10 being down again, but the team will have to grow significantly to get back to national contention.
3. Syracuse (Big East at-large): The Orange lost Andy Rautins, Arinze Onuaku, and NBA first-rounder Wes Johnson from a team that fell in the Sweet Sixteen to Butler (and probably would have gone further had Onuaku not left SU's Big East quarterfinal loss to Georgetown with a leg injury). So with those three key pieces gone, you'd expect the 'Cuse to take a step back, right? Well, thanks to a whole slew of talented returnees (Rick Jackson and Kris Joseph in the frontcourt; Sccop Jardine, Mookie Jones, and Brandon Triche in the back) and some interesting newcomers, like 6-3 scorer Dion Waiters and 7-foot Brazilian C Fabricio de Melo, the Orange will remain a major force in the Big East and nationally.
14. Fairfield (Metro Atlantic champion): With three-time defending champion Siena going through a transition period, look for the Stags, the club that nearly ended the Saints' run in the MAAC final last year, to carry the conference flag into the NCAAs this season, especially since they host the tournament. PG Derek Needham is the Stags' unquestioned leader, even as a sophomore. Frontcourt strength is an issue as a pair of 6-8 players, Anthony Johnson and Mike Evanovich, graduated. However, Warren Edney and Yorel Hawkins return after missing time last year with injuries, so does Greg Nero, who was out since the end of the 2008-09 campaign with an immune disorder. Plus, 6-11 junior Ryan Olander is expected to step up considerably and turn into the unit's anchor. Keep an eye on: Iona, Niagara St. Peter's, Siena
Cleveland Pod (March 18 and 20)
7. Wichita State (Missouri Valley champion): Read more about the Shockers in part two of my Intriguing Bracket Teams series.
10. Vanderbilt (SEC at-large): The Commodores hope to not be a 4 seed this year, as they fell to a 13 at the first hurdle in both 2008 and 2010, in radically different fashions. They never had a chance against Siena in '08, while Murray State needed a shining moment to stun the 'Dores last season. Vandy will still be a force in the SEC, even without C A.J. Ogilvy, who declared for the NBA Draft as a junior, and G Jermaine Beal, who graduated. That's because they return two dangerous scorers, 6-7 slasher Jeffery Taylor and 6-4 G John Jenkins, and shift Brad Tinsley to the point to replace Beal. 6-11 Festus Ezeli and 6-9 Steve Tchiengang will have the best shot to replace Ogilvy inside, but getting the ball to Jenkins and Taylor more often may lead to better results in the long run.
2. Ohio State (Big Ten at-large): Evan Turner is gone, but the Buckeyes are going nowhere. Thad Matta returns a strong group of veterans, including William Buford, Jon Diebler, Dallas Lauderdale, David Lighty, and adds six freshmen. The newcomers are led by 6-9 F Jared Sullinger, the co-MVP of the McDonald's All-American Game (along with UNC's Harrison Barnes) and 6-6 SF Deshaun Thomas, who like Sullinger was the top rated player at his position in several publications. With all this talent, it's possible you might see a few "Evan Who?" signs pop up in Columbus this winter.
15. Stephen F. Austin (Southland champion): Danny Kaspar's Lumberjacks fell to Sam Houston State in last season's Southland final. With three starters back, G Eddie Williams and Fs Jordan Glynn and Jereal Scott, SFA has a great shot at making their second tournament in three years. Point guard is a question, as 5-7 Denzel Barnes may have to make the transition from the bench to the starting lineup (or freshman Darius Gardner could also take the job for himself). Still, there's more than enough talent on the roster for the Lumberjacks to create lots of problems for their conference rivals. Keep an eye on: Sam Houston State, Southeastern Louisiana, Texas State
Well, that's 68 teams. Here's the complete bracket, so you can see how everything fits together.
Again, to see the other three region capsules, click these links:
The conference breakdown is as follows:
Big East (8): Pittsburgh, Villanova, Syracuse, Georgetown, West Virginia, Notre Dame, Marquette, Connecticut
Big Ten (7): Michigan State, Ohio State, Illinois, Wisconsin, Purdue, Minnesota, Northwestern
Big 12 (7): Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Baylor, Texas, Texas A&M, Colorado
ACC (6): Duke, North Carolina, NC State, Virginia Tech, Maryland, Florida State
SEC (6): Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Georgia
A-10 (4): Temple, Dayton, Richmond, Xavier
MWC (3): San Diego State, BYU, UNLV
Pac-10 (3): Washington, Arizona, UCLA
MVC (2): Wichita State, Missouri State
22 one-bid leagues: America East, Atlantic Sun, Big Sky, Big South, Big West, Colonial, Conference USA, Horizon, Ivy, Metro Atlantic, Mid-American, Mid-Eastern, Northeast, Ohio Valley, Patriot, Southern, Southland, Southwestern, Summit, Sun Belt, West Coast, Western Athletic
On the flip side, the First Four Out are Miami, New Mexico, St, Louis, and Seton Hall. After them, in the Next Four Out group, are Mississippi, Clemson, Oklahoma State, and Louisville. Since this is preseason, these eight clubs, and everyone else for that matter, has a chance to make me look silly in March. And the chances are very good that a few teams out there will do just that.