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West Region: Team by team breakdown

March 18, 2009

UCONN- The Huskies come into the NCAA tournament after losing a heartbreaking game in the Big East tournament to Syracuse in six overtimes. UConn has now lost its last two games with a loss in the regular-season finale to Pittsburgh. The Huskies should be able to regroup with Big East co-Player of the Year Hasheem Thabeet (13.7 points, 10.9 rebounds and 4.6 blocks) and fellow standouts in A.J. Price (14.0 points, 4.7 assists) and Jeff Adrien (13.6 points and 10.0 rebounds). UConn is down to basically a seven-man rotation since guard Jerome Dyson was lost of the year with a knee injury, but the Huskies have a proven coach in two-time national champion Jim Calhoun to lead the way. 

CHATTANOOGA- Chattanooga won 14 of their final 20 games, including a three-game run in the conference tournament. Chattanooga (18-16) earned its 10th tournament appearance and first since losing in the opening round to Wake Forest in 2005. The Mocs will forever be remembered for their run to the Sweet 16 in 1997 with upset wins over Georgia and Illinois as a 14 seed. This year’s team is led by three-point threat Stephen McDowell (18.3 ppg) and inside force Nicchaeus Doaks (13.9 ppg, 8.7 rpg).

BYU- BYU was able to keep the gravy train going in 2008-09 despite losing three starters, including center Trent Plaisted. Senior Lee Cummard, the 2007-08 MWC Co-Player of the Year, did return this season and didn’t disappoint on his way to MWC first-team honors. Sophomore Jimmer Fredette also joined Cummard on the first team after being a role player off the bench as a freshman. Swingman Jonathan Tavernari, the other returning starter, was nearly the third Cougar to average 16-plus points (15.9) and was the team’s top rebounder (7.3 rpg).

TEXAS A&M- The Aggies put a huge blemish on their NCAA tournament resume when they blew a 21-point lead and suffered a devastating loss to Texas Tech in the opening round of the Big 12 tournament. However, the NCAA committee was forgiving and allowed Texas A&M to go dancing for a 10th time in school history. It will be a fourth straight appearance for A&M and second under coach Mark Turgeon. The Aggies bowed out last year in the second round to UCLA in a tightly-contested game (51-49). Texas A&M (23-9) lost a few key players from last season’s team — Joseph Jones and Dominique Kirk — but sharpshooter Josh Carter returned and averaged a team-high 14.1 points. Donald Sloan (11.7 ppg, 3.0 apg) ran the point with precision, while juniors Bryan Davis (10.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg) and Chinemelu Elonu (10.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg) picked up the slack in the paint. The Cowboys opened the season 14-1 before beginning conference play with a 3-7 record. They finished the season winning their last six conference games before the Texas Tech upset.

Purdue- Purdue finished the regular season with a 24-9 record and grabbed the No. 3 seed in the Big Ten tournament with a conference record of 11-7. Defeating Penn State, Illinois and finally Ohio State in the championship game, the Boilermakers were able to win the first conference title in the school’s long history and earn an automatic berth in the Big Dance. Purdue has made the NCAA tournament 22 times but hasn’t seen the Sweet 16 since 2000 when it lost in the Elite Eight. Their rich history boasts two Final Fours (1969, 1980) but no national titles. The Boilers have three players who score in double figures with sophomore guard E’Twaun Moore (13.8 ppg) leading the way. The other scoring leaders are 6-foot-10 sophomore forward JaJuan Johnson (13.1 ppg and 5.7 rpg) and 6-foot-8 sophomore forward Robbie Hummel (12.8 ppg and 6.8 rpg). With only four seniors on the roster and none making a major contribution to the bulk of the scoring, Purdue is definitely a young team on the rise and ready to make an impact in the Big Dance.

NORTHERN IOWA- The Panthers get quality production out of their starting five, as everyone averages 8.4 or more points. However, the key players are junior forward Adam Koch (12.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg), sophomore guard Kwadzo Ahelegbe (11.8 ppg, 3.2 apg) and junior center Jordan Eglseder (10.1 ppg, 6.5 rpg). Northern Iowa has not won a NCAA tournament game since making its debut in 1990, a 74-71 upset over No. 3 seed Missouri.

WASHINGTON- Isaiah Thomas has returned to the college ranks. No, the legendary Indiana guard didn’t magically receive another year of eligibility, but Washington’s version of Isaiah Thomas — no relation — is wreaking havoc on the hardwood. The Freshman All-American was lights out in his first year of college basketball, leading the Huskies (25-8) in scoring (15.4 ppg). He also averaged 3.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists. His effort was enough to lead Washington to a Pac-10 regular-season title and 14th berth in the NCAA tournament. It’s the first time since 2006 that Lorenzo Romar, the Pac-10 Coach of the Year, and the Huskies (14-14 in the tournament) are going dancing. It also completed a terrific turnaround for Washington, who finished one game under .500 (16-17) in 2007-08. Aside from Thomas, Pac-10 first-teamers Justin Dentmon (15.0 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 2.5 apg) and Jon Brockman (14.9 ppg, 11.2 rpg) were shining stars. Junior Quincy Pondexter (11.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg) was also a key figure. Washington bowed out in the Pac-10 semifinals to Arizona State, but they still won nine of their last 11 games.

MISSISSIPPI STATE- The Bulldogs were aware of the challenge that lay ahead. The odds weren’t in their favor of making the Big Dance in 2009 unless they miraculously swept through the SEC tournament. Mission accomplished. With an upset of Tennessee in the SEC title game, Mississippi State (23-12) punched their 11th ticket to the NCAA tournament and second straight. MSU bowed out in the second round to Memphis in 2008. The Bulldogs have been knocked out in the second round in their last three tournament appearances. After being a dominant force in the SEC last season, the Bulldogs had to claw their way through the 2008-09 campaign after losing three starters that averaged 10.5 or more points. Their two returning starters — juniors Jarvis Varnado and Barry Stewart — were able to lead a youthful team in 2008-09. Varnado not only was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year for a second straight season, he also led the nation in blocks (4.7 bpg) again. Stewart was second on the team in scoring (12.4 ppg). Freshman point guard Dee Bost shined in his first season of SEC ball (averaging 4.3 assists) and sophomore Ravern Johnson showed a sweet touch from behind the arc (40.7 percent).

MARQUETTE- The Golden Eagles had it in cruise control heading into February before they encountered the gauntlet of their Big East schedule. Sadly to say, Marquette (24-9) didn’t survive. They lost six of their last nine regular-season games, which included the final four to Connecticut, Louisville, Pittsburgh and Syracuse. In that stretch, the Golden Eagles paid the ultimate price losing senior point guard Dominic James to a broken foot. He will be a cheerleader as Marquette, who lost 76-75 to Villanova in the Big East quarterfinals, makes their 27th NCAA tournament appearance. The Golden Eagles are making a fourth straight tournament appearance, but have not made it past the first weekend since Dwyane Wade led Marquette to the Final Four in 2002-03. First-year coach Buzz Williams has done an admirable job replacing Tom Crean, who is now coaching at Indiana. However, without James, Marquette will turn to first-team All-Big East guard Jerel McNeal and second-team All-Big East guard Wesley Matthews to lead the charge. Junior forward Lazar Hayward is also a key component.

UTAH STATE- Coach Stew Morrill and the Aggies didn’t leave their NCAA fate up to the committee. Despite having a stellar season, many questioned whether Utah State deserved an at-large bid to the Big Dance in the event they didn’t win their conference tournament. The Aggies put all uncertainties aside after thumping Nevada 72-62 in the Western Athletic Conference title game — earning an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. It will be the school’s 18th NCAA tournament and sixth time under Morrill. The last time Utah State (30-4) was in the NCAAs they lost in the first round to Washington (2006). In their last 12 NCAA appearances, they have made it out of the first round just once (2001). This Utah State squad is hoping to turn the tide. The Aggies won 24 of its first 25 games, which was the best start in school history. They also won their first 12 conference games. Senior forward Gary Wilkinson, the 2008-09 WAC Player of the Year, and sophomore Tai Wesley are quite a pairing in the frontcourt, and junior college transfer Jared Quayle has made a splash in the backcourt in just his first season on the D-I level.

MISSOURI- Thanks to coach Mike Anderson, the Tigers have their bite back. After enduring a slew of tumultuous situations which featured NCAA violations, off-the-court incidents and empty postseasons, Missouri (28-6) is going dancing for the first time since 2003 after knocking off Baylor in the Big 12 championship game. It was Missouri’s first postseason conference title in 16 years. The last was when legendary coach Norm Stewart guided Mizzou to a Big Eight title. But in just Anderson’s third season, Mizzou is stirring up as much buzz as their football team’s recent rise on the national scene. Anderson has used some family bonds to get Missouri on the right track. His nephew and Vanderbilt transfer DeMarre Carroll is the team’s leading scorer (16.8 ppg) and rebounder (6.0 rpg). Frontcourt mate Leo Lyons (14.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg) is no slouch either. The Tigers are a deep team. They have 10 players that have appeared in 33 or more games and all 14 players have appeared in 11 or more outings. Missouri heads into their 22nd NCAA tournament winners in 11 of their last 13 games.

CORNELL- The Big Red punched a ticket to the Big Dance by winning a second straight Ivy League title. It is the fourth time in school history Cornell (21-9) is headed to the NCAA tournament. However, they are still seeking their first tournament victory. Cornell is 0-4 (losing twice in 1954) on college basketball’s grandest stage. They have a similar look to last year’s tournament team as four starters and 14 lettermen took the court in 2008-09. Sharpshooter Ryan Wittman, a junior forward, is the team’s top scorer, averaging 18.5 points. He is a career 43.4 percent shooter from three-point range. Junior guard Louis Dale, last season’s Ivy League Player of the Year, was right on his career scoring average (13.5 ppg) despite missing the first eight games with a hamstring injury. Seven-foot senior center Jeff Foote, a transfer from St. Bonaventure in his second season with Cornell, was also instrumental, averaging career-highs in points (11.8) and rebounds (7.1). Perhaps experience will finally get Cornell a tournament win.

CALIFORNIA- The Golden Bears come into the NCAA tournament having lost four of their past six games after starting the season 20-6. The latest loss was in the quarterfinals of the Pac-10 tournament against Southern Cal, and California junior guard Patrick Christopher knows the team has to regroup. “Now it’s time to be mature and come together collectively and put together two good halves,” said Christopher, the second-leading scorer at 14.6 points. “We’re playing all great teams from here on out.” Cal’s leading scorer is Jerome Randle at 18.4 points and 4.9 assists per game. Theo Robertson is the third scorer who averages double figures (12.8), but the Golden Bears need to rebound better with no players who average double figures in boards. Jamal Boykin leads the team at 6.4 per contest. Cal last played in the NCAA tournament in 2006 and lost in the first round to N.C. State.

MARYLAND- The Terps (20-13, 7-9 ACC) have had a few years of struggle since going to back-to-back Final Fours and winning the 2001 National Championship but are back in the tournament for the 23rd time in school history. Their tourney status was in question before beating highly ranked Wake Forest in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament. That plus wins over North Carolina and Michigan State were enough to have the youthful Terps dancing again. Maryland plays lockdown defense for such a small lineup and they live and die with the performance of junior guard Greivis Vasquez, who led the team points (17.2), boards (5.5), assists (5.1) and steals (1.4) this season.

MEMPHIS- A few extra made free throws and we might be talking about Memphis as the defending national champions. But the fact remains the Tigers were anti-clutch at the free-throw line in the 2008 championship game and that allowed Kansas to steal a national title. Memphis took some heavy losses following the national championship collapse, including losing the top pick in the 2008 NBA draft Derrick Rose. Well, Memphis didn’t flinch in 2008-09. Freshman sensation Tyreke Evans came in to replace Rose and cleaned up on his way to Conference USA first-team and Freshman of the Year honors. Defensive specialist Antonio Anderson became an offensive presence as well, while Robert Dozier and Shawn Taggart were a tag-team frontcourt pairing. Memphis (31-3) has taken four straight C-USA tournament titles and own a 61-game conference winning streak. They also own the nation’s longest winning streak at 25 games. Memphis makes its 22nd NCAA tournament appearance and fourth straight. They have made it to at least the Elite Eight in their last three outings.

CS NORTHRIDGE- The odds might be stacked against Cal-State Northridge (17-13) heading into the NCAA tournament and getting there hasn’t been easy. The Matadors cut down the nets after defeating Pacific in the Big West Conference championship game to earn the school’s second NCAA berth. The first came in 2001 when they won the Big Sky tournament crown. But coach Bobby Braswell and his boys deserve a ton of credit making it this far with the tumultuous situation they have endured. In January, leading scorer Deon Tresvant was suspended following an arrest in a suspected burglary. In February, starting point guard Josh Jenkins suffered internal injuries in a car accident that ended his season. Yet, the Matadors still won the Big West regular-season and tournament titles. Senior Tremaine Townsend (10.9 ppg, 8.4 rpg) helped keep the team on track, and senior guard Rodrigue Mels stepped up his scoring after the departure of Tresvant and Jenkins. The Matadors are an experienced-laden team as 13 players are upperclassmen.

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