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By B. Scott Mohr
Parity has been the norm this season as no team has been a dominant force. But even with that parity, there are probably less than 10 teams capable of winning the national championship. Villanova, Duke, Michigan State, Virginia, Gonzaga and Kansas look like the best bets to cut down the nets.
Just don’t tell that to Purdue (28-3) or Butler (20-13), both of which have earned a ticket to the Big Dance.
The Boilermakers and Bulldogs believe that they can make some noise in the tournament. And rightly so. It’s just if they both win their opening games, they will meet in the second round of the East Regional, hence, one of the teams will silenced. Purdue won 19 in a row and was the talk of the country before losing three straight in early February. The Boilers reached the championship game of the Big Ten tournament but lost to Michigan.
Matt Painter’s squad, a No. 2 seed, opens play at 12:40 p.m. (TruTV) Friday in Detroit against Cal State Fullerton (20-11), in what should be a cakewalk. Cal State earned a bid by winning the Big West championship.
Some analysts are saying Purdue has a legitimate chance to reach the Final Four. Butler, a No. 10 seed, meets Arkansas (23-11) in the second game, also on TruTV.
The Bulldogs and Southport High School graduate Joey Brunk are well-coached by LaVall Jordan and are fundamentally sound on offense and defense. They made it to the championship game in 2010 and ’11 before losing to Duke and Connecticut, respectively.
The region also features No. 1 seed Villanova, which Butler defeated earlier this season. The Wildcats will meet the winner of the Long Island University Brooklyn-Radford play-in game.
An interesting game in the region pits No. 3 seed Texas Tech (24-9) against No. 14 seed Stephen F. Austin (28-6) at 7:27 p.m. Thursday on TruTV.
While some pundits are saying Texas Tech is finally getting healthy and could make a run to the Elite Eight, others are noting that the Red Raiders have lost five of seven games after a white-hot start. They are facing a program that won’t be intimidated, as Stephen F. Austin is in tournament for the fourth time in five years.
The Lumberjacks entered the 2016 tournament as a No. 14 seed and dominated West Virginia in a 70-56 stunner.
Despite being an 11-point underdog, don’t be surprised if the Lumberjacks are celebrating again late Thursday night. The Red Raiders have not won an NCAA tournament game since 2005, most recently losing to Butler 71-61 in their 2016 opener.
The West Region features No. 1 seed Xavier (28-5) and Southport graduate Paul Scruggs, who scored a career-high 15 points earlier this season. The freshman is averaging 4.8 points.
North Carolina (25-10), Michigan, (28-7), Gonzaga (30-4) and Ohio State (24-8) are the second through fifth seeds, respectively.
The Tar Heels will entertain No. 15 seed Lipscomb (23-9), which is making its first appearance in the tourney. The Bisons will run and run and run some more against North Carolina. But this up-tempo team is probably just going to hurry its way to a blowout loss. Lipscomb was pasted by Purdue, Alabama and Texas earlier this season.
Michigan enters the tourney on a roll and is one of the hottest teams in the country, having won nine straight games and the Big Ten tournament.
The region also features No. 8 seed Missouri (20-12), coached by 1995 Purdue graduate Cuonzo Martin, and Texas Southern (15-19), the only team in the tournament with a losing record. Coached by former Indiana University mentor Mike Davis, the Tigers lost their first 13 games of the season. Texas Southern, which qualified by winning the SWAC tournament, meets North Carolina Central in a play-in game Wednesday.
In another play-in contest, Steve Alford and his UCLA Bruins (21-11) met St. Bonaventure Tuesday. Alford, who led the Hoosiers to the 1987 national championship when hitting 7-of-10 3-pointers against Syracuse, steered the Bruins to the Sweet 16 in 2014 and 2015. But that’s not going to happen this year.
The South Region features Virginia (31-2), the overall No. 1 seed. The Cavaliers, unranked at the beginning of the season, lead the nation in scoring defense (53.1 points per game) by a large margin, and their opponents have scored more than 60 just eight times.
Cincinnati (30-4) is the No. 2 seed, followed by third-seed Tennessee (25-8) and fourth-seed Arizona (27-7). Davidson is the No. 12 seed and knocked Notre Dame out of the tournament when winning the Atlantic-10 tournament for an automatic birth. The Irish accepted a bid to the NIT and played Hampton Tuesday night (result unavailable at press time).
The Midwest Region features perennial powerhouses Kansas, the No. 1 seed, Duke, the No. 2 seed, No. 3 seed Michigan State and No. 4 seed Auburn. It won’t be a surprise if the Spartans make it to the Final Four.
The oddmakers have Villanova as a 5-1 favorite to win it all, with Duke 8-1, Michigan State 9-1, Virginia 10-1, Gonzaga 15-1 and Kansas, 18-1). Purdue is 28-1 and Butler is 75,000-1. The Cinderellas of all Cinderellas are North Carolina Central and Long Island University Brooklyn, each given a 10-million-to-1 chance. Other longshots are Texas Southern, 8.5 million-1 and Radford, 8 million-1. Let the games begin.
Purdue, Butler tournament-bound
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