5 Things to Watch in the NCAA Tournament

We're down to the final three weeks of the season...

By Ryan Wilson
|  Thursday, Mar 15, 2012  |  Updated 6:40 AM EDT
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If the next two weeks are anything like the first 24 hours, the 2012 NCAA Tournament will be a fitting end to a great season. Iona began the week as a surprise bubble team and by Wednesday night they surprised everyone by blowing a 25-point lead to BYU.

Here are five other storylines to watch as the final 64 teams prepare for the Big Dance.

1. Syracuse's chances went from good to nonexistent. The Orange have been embroiled in controversy all season, but as coach Jim Boeheim rightly pointed out last week, "These kids care about two things: How they play and where their girlfriend's are."

Boeheim made the comments after Syracuse squeaked by UConn in the Big East Tournament -- and following a Yahoo.com report that revealed a cover-up of failed drug tests.  But it's one thing to have a singular focus, it's something else entirely to do it with backups. Which is exactly the task facing Syracuse, now without sophomore big man Fab Melo, who will miss the tournament because of eligibility issues.

How important can one player be? Consider this cold dose of reality, via CBSSports.com's Thomas Casale: "When Melo was suspended for three games earlier this season, the Orange were minus-34 in rebounding differential and averaged 60 points per game. Now, with Melo out for the NCAA tournament, freshman Rakeem Christmas will need to step up. Christmas has played C and PF, averaging 2.5 points in 10.1 minutes this season."

Syracuse is the No. 1 seed in the East bracket but No. 2 Ohio State now has to be the favorites to advance to the Final Four (although keep an eye out for No. 3 Florida State, ACC Tourney champs). In fact, the Orange will be lucky if they get past No. 5 Vanderbilt or No. 4 Wisconsin in the regional semifinals.

2. Watch out for UConn? It seems like a ridiculous sentiment given that, two weeks ago, we were talking about the Huskies as a bubble team at best and NIT-bound at worse. But that was before Jim Calhoun returned after missing a month with back troubles. He took his familiar place on the bench for UConn's regular-season finale, and his presence returned immediate dividends.

In the 12 previous games, the Huskies had lost nine times. In the four subsequent contests, they won three (including a 2-1 record in the conference tournament) and their only loss came against Syracuse, 58-55, in one of their most consistent performances of the season.

But unlike a year ago, when UConn won five games in five days to capture the Big East Tournament crown, and then proceeded to win six more for their third NCAA title under Calhoun, this unit is lacking a two things: Kemba Walker and experience.

But while UConn might be young, Jeremy Lamb, Shabazz Napier and Alex Oriakhi were all critical components in the team's success in 2010-11. And just like last year, they're under no real pressure; no one expects them to do much. If they get past Iowa State in the second round, they'll meet Kentucky, the tourney's top seed. One thing to keep in mind: the Huskies beat the Wildcats last year in the tournament, with many of the same faces on both teams.

3. Will a No. 1 seed finally lose to a No. 16? It's never happened in the history of the NCAA Tournament (they're 0-108 all-time), so the laws of probability suggest that it's not likely to happen this year either. But Ken Pomeroy of KenPom.com, who knows more about the analytics of college basketball than anyone, thinks that the time may have arrived, noting that "2012 has produced three of the strongest 16-seeds in the history of the tournament." Obviously, Syracuse should be worried (they face UNC-Asheville), but Pomeroy writes that he'll be paying particular attention to "whomever emerges from the Lamar/Vermont game to take on UNC. This will be the year." He admits that the odds remain long, just not as long as history suggests.

Either way, the Heels, like the Orange, will likely be without one of their best players: big man John Henson. Unlike the Orange, Henson hasn't been suspended and isn't out indefinitely. He injured his left wrist during the ACC Tournament, missed the final two games, and now he's questionable for Friday afternoon's game. UNC still has one of the biggest front court's in the country with Tyler Zeller, James Michael McAdoo and Harrison Barnes, but Henson blocks shots as effortlessly as he inhales, and he fundamentally changes the opponent's offensive game plan. Maybe his absence won't be a problem for the Heels. Then again, maybe it will.

4. Should Kansas be worried? If you watched Sunday's selection show, you saw plenty of schools ecstatic to qualify for the tournament. When CBS announced that Kansas would be No. 2 seed in the Midwest region they displayed all the excitement you might expect from someone who just had their car stolen.

It's an understandable reaction; the Jayhawks were 27-6, Big 12 regular season champs, and winners of nine of its last 10 games. They expected a top seed. They'll no doubt use the slight (perceived or otherwise) as motivation as they make their way through the bottom of the bracket.

But No. 15 Detroit, their first opponent, shouldn't be overlooked. For starters, they're out of the Horizon League, which sent Butler to back-to-back Final Fours. Then there's this (via the Law Vegas Review-Journal): Detroit has more McDonald's All-Americans on its roster than the Jayhawks. Plus, Kansas, no matter their seed, has a history of early-round struggles. In case you're wondering, only four No. 15 seeds have knocked off a No. 2 seed, the last coming 11 years ago when Hampton beat Iowa State.

5. Barack Obama has filled out his bracket. In 2009, the president correctly picked UNC to win it all and he's going with the Tar Heels again in 2012. He has them beating Kentucky.

"They are an older team, more experienced team," he told ESPN. "I think Kentucky is unbelievably talented, but I think Marshall's play, (Tyler) Zeller's play – I see North Carolina winning it all. And, since they won it for me the last time I picked them, hopefully I will be able to get a little redemption for the last two years."

Ah, yes, the last two years. In 2010, Obama had Kansas beating Kentucky (Duke defeated Butler), and in 2011 the president liked Kansas over Ohio State (UConn beat Butler -- though to Obama's credit, he had UConn making it to the Elite 8).

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