Breaking: Amile Jefferson to Duke

Amile Jefferson has committed to Duke University, becoming the Blue Devils’ second commit in the high school class of 2012, joining shooting guard Rasheed Sulaimon. Jefferson, a 6-foot-8, 200 pound forward from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, played at Friends’ Central School in Philadelphia. His team has made consistent appearances in the national rankings over the past few years.

Duke entered the recruiting process for Jefferson late in the game, but were able to come on strong enough to snag the power forward, who is touted by Scout.com as the #3 power forward in the class of 2012. Jefferson was also considering Villanova along with Ohio State, North Carolina State, and Kentucky. “Duke was always a school I had interest in,” he said in an interview with Scout.com on January 15. “I’ve been talking to Coach K. You go there, you know you have a chance to compete for national championships and play with some of the best players in the country.”

Jefferson averaged 18.5 points and 9.6 rebounds per game for Friends’ Central during his junior season. He led the team to its third consecutive PAISAA title and was named Gatorade State Player of the Year. One of the reasons why Jefferson is a great fit at Duke is because like many of his future Blue Devils teammates, he is not used to losing. His high school team went 75-9 in his first three years there.

He recently finished the regular season for the Phoenix when Friends Central fell 55-53 to The Westtown School in the Friends School League semifinal. Jefferson led the way for Friends Central with 26 points, 10 rebounds, and two blocks. They moved on to compete in the Pennsylvania Independent Schools Tournament, where they capped off Jefferson’s illustrious high school career with a fourth consecutive state championship, finishing with a 22-5 record. Amile finished his senior season averaging 19.8 points per game and had a double-double in his team’s state title victory over The Westtown School.

Amile brings to Duke the perfect combination of strength, size, speed, and power. He’s the type of player that can hurt you all over the floor, with an uncanny ability to get to the hole and a quickly developing perimeter game. Head coach Jason Polykoff at Friends’ Central told Crazie-Talk that the most impressive part of Amile’s game was actually not one of his numerous physical tools. “One of the reason why so many schools wanted Amile was because besides his physical abilities he has such a high basketball IQ,” Polykoff said. “He’ll come into his college program with an understanding of the game that not all freshmen have.”

Polykoff contended that although Amile is one of the top seniors in the country, he still has some work to do before he takes his game to the next level. “He knows that he needs to get stronger and ready to play against these other guys that have these developed bodies. He knows he needs to improve his outside shot,” Polykoff said. “He can handle the ball for someone his size but he can always work on his perimeter game and attack the ball off the dribble. He finishes pretty well but now he’s got to be ready to finish with contact.”

His coach also told Crazie-Talk that Duke’s main draw for Jefferson was its tradition of excellence both on and off the basketball court. Playing for Mike Krzyzewski, arguably the greatest basketball coach on the planet, is quite the draw, but Jefferson truly desired to play in awinning basketball environment. But according to his coach, Duke means more to Amile than just basketball. “I think Duke basketball aside, the academic reputation of Duke is very appealing to him,” Polykoff added. “He’s a kid that is used to going to rigorous academic schools throughout middle school and high school. If you can combine high academics with a good basketball program, that’s kind of his niche.”

One of the most impressive facets of Amile’s game is his unselfish outlook on the game of basketball. He is the type of player that will do whatever it takes to help his team win a basketball game, whether that is scoring 30 points or taking two shots and pulling down 15 rebounds or blocking five shots. “It’s very rare for somebody of his skill nowadays to be more concerned about the team than the individual, and he’s been doing that since he was a freshman, Polykoff said. “He just wants to win.”

The addition of Jefferson is a significant victory for the Blue Devils in what has proved to be a very difficult recruiting season. He will add extra depth to the team next year and has the potential to develop into a prolific scorer in years to come. His devotion to academics as well as basketball and the Duke basketball tradition indicates that Amile intends to stick around- don’t expect a one and done from this kid. Before he tries to take his talents to the pros, he wants to win a ring or two. Polykoff was adamant that the sky truly is the limit for Amile Jefferson. “If he improves the way he’s improved over the last four years, he’s one of the best seniors in the country right now I don’t see why he couldn’t remain one of the best players in the country at the college level.”

Welcome to the Duke basketball family, Amile. See you in August.

Recap: Crazie Talk at the 2012 Jordan Brand Classic

The 11th annual Jordan Brand Classic (Photo: Crazie Talk)

Crazie Talk headed down to the Queen City on Saturday for the 2012 edition of the Jordan Brand Classic.  This was our second straight year at the event.  Last year, we had the chance to see three Duke guys play (Austin Rivers, Marshall Plumlee, and Mike Gbinije*) and a TON of other talent, including four members from Kentucky’s national championship squad this year- Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, and Kyle Wiltjer. The game featured many stars whose names we’ll soon hear called at the NBA Draft in a few months. Needless to say, we decided it’d be worthwhile to check the event out this year.

The Legend. (Photo credit: Lipofsky Basketballphoto.com)

We started out to Charlotte in the afternoon, luckily having better weather this time than the tornadoes we faced last year.  The first game we saw in Time Warner Cable Arena, home of the 7 win & 52 loss Charlotte Bobcats, was the international game, featuring some of the best young talent from around the globe.  Lucas Silva Dias from Brazil (18 points, 12 rebounds) and Federico Mussini (21 points) from Italy led the way for their team to an 89-87 victory in overtime.  I was beyond thrilled to have the chance to watch a 16 year old by the name of Domantas Sabonis though, a member of the losing squad.  He is the youngest son of NBA and international legend Arvydas Sabonis, who I fondly remember watching as a kid. Here’s to hoping he can make it big like his father did.

Next up was the regional game featuring some of North Carolina’s finest.  This game included a number of seniors committed to top programs, including Peter Jurkin (Indiana), Brandon Bolden (Georgetown), and Montay Brandon (FSU), to name a few.  Outside of Brandon, there were also guys going to other ACC schools: Clemson (though Josh Smith did not actually play), Wake Forest, and Virginia Tech. The one performance that really stood out to me was that of co-MVP Montrezl Harrell.  Harrell will be heading off to Blacksburg to join Seth Greenberg and the Virginia Tech Hokies next season.  Watch out for him, folks.  He finished with 22 points on 11-14 shooting, 12 boards, and seven blocks, a number of which came in key points in the game, including the opposing squad’s last-second shot to try send it to overtime.  He has the potential to make a huge impact on both sides of the ball next year in the ACC.

Around 7 PM, the All-American game tipped off.  This is the one that everyone came to see.  It’s the game that included the #1 and #2 players in the nation who just on Wednesday announced where they’ll be playing their college ball: Nerlens Noel and Shabazz Muhammad.  It also featured four top high school phenoms who will be playing next year in the Triangle area: Rodney Purvis (N.C. State), J.P. Tokoto (UNC), Brice Johnson (UNC), and Rasheed Sulaimon (Duke).  Noel, Purvis, Tokoto, and Johnson were part of the East squad, while Muhammad and Sulaimon were on the West.

The East got off to a quick start, going up 10-0. J.P. Tokoto led the way early with a couple of nice finishes.  He definitely looked like the most athletic player on the court, at least early on.  The West’s first points actually came off the hands of Brice Johnson.  Johnson must have trained with Tyler Zeller, as he tipped in a missed shot…lol.  Funnily enough, those were Brice’s only “points” of the game.  At times, he really seemed to disappear from the game, and he was the only player not to score in the game.  And despite Tokoto’s strong start, he didn’t do much in the second half, finishing with only 8 points, all of which came in the first 20 minutes of the game.

The first half, though, was very sloppy.  It reminded me quite a bit of the Nike Hoop Summit just one week before, in which the U.S. squad of many of these players was beaten by a team of international phenoms, including Duke recruit Andrew Wiggins.  At the JBC, the teams combined for 22 turnovers in the first half and shot 1-19 from 3.  A bright spot in that stat line was that the lone three came from future Blue Devil Sulaimon, who finished the half with 7 points and 7 rebounds.

A number of players made themselves known in the second half though with some solid play. Alex Poythress (Kentucky commit, former Duke recruit) finished the game with 16 points on 7-8 shooting.  In the end, Sheed’s squad won the game 99-95.  The two MVPs were Shabazz Muhammad (20 points) and Rodney Purvis (22 points).  Muhammad’s had an impressive stretch here against some of the nation’s (and world’s) best. He recently was named MVP of the McDonald’s All-American game and also became the all-time leader in points scored in the Nike Hoop Summit after his 35-point performance.  As he announced last week, he’ll be heading off to Westwood next season, choosing UCLA over Duke and Kentucky.

Purvis and Sulaimon were definitely going at it throughout the game.  You could see a little competition brewing between the two.  It’ll be interesting to see what happens when they meet again in conference play in the upcoming season.  Sulaimon, for the most part, played well.  He finished with 13 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 assists.  He did have 4 turnovers though, many of which came on some poor decisions and off-target passes.  It’s important to note that he was playing out of position in this game. The West team was playing without a true point guard, and so Rasheed, a natural 2-guard, took on many of those duties.  (Quick aside: UNC-bound Marcus Paige was supposed to carry that role, but he was absent from the game, recovering from foot surgery.)  The future Duke guard was 3 of 6 from beyond the arc and showed clutch play down the stretch, hitting a big 3-pointer in the game’s closing minutes.

Though Purvis outscored Sulaimon, the West squad got the W. (Photo: Crazie Talk)

Many are quick to compare Rasheed Sulaimon’s game to that of former National Champion and current Trail Blazer Nolan Smith.  I’ll have to admit…their styles of play are eerily similar.  They’re both great shooters who move around on the court well and can create for themselves.  After the game, we met up with Rasheed for a quick interview:

He seems like a great guy who is just excited to put on that Duke jersey and play his heart out each and every game.  You can’t hope for a young man much better than that.

Another senior in the game was Tony Parker, a Duke recruit from Georgia who has been on Duke’s radar for quite some time.  He’ll be deciding between Duke, UCLA, Kansas, Ohio State, and UGA on Friday, so be on the lookout for that announcement.  After the game, he did say that playing for Coach K and a school like Duke with so much rich basketball tradition and great academics is a draw for him, so that does give us a glimmer of hope.

Well, that’s it for us at the Jordan Brand Classic.  Got questions or comments on anything we said?  Let us hear them!

*We’re hearing reports that Michael Gbinije is to transfer from Duke. If that’s the case, we wish him the best of luck wherever he ends up. Thanks for the one year! Stay alert for any updates on this developing story.

Tobacco Road Turnover

The Final Four has finally arrived, but for the second staight year, no team on Tobacco Road will be vying to cut down the nets this Monday. Instead, both Duke and UNC have shifted into offseason mode, which means a ton of chatter about early entry, recruiting, and projecting what next season’s squads will look like.

It’s safe to say that the top of the ACC next year will look very, very different.

On Monday, Duke officially said goodbye to Austin Rivers, ending an up-and-down season that, for better or for worse, revolved around Rivers. He became the stuff of legend on February 8th in Chapel Hill, but Duke struggled down the stretch and bowed out in Coach K’s first Round of 64 exit since 2007. Junior center Mason Plumlee still has yet to make a decision. This past season was Mason’s best yet, but he will likely not be a lottery selection in this year’s class. His decision will likely influence the decisions of recruits, like Amile Jefferson and Tony Parker. But until Mason chooses to go pro or not, we’ll have little to no idea what this Duke team will be like next year.

But Duke isn’t the only school with uncertainty lying ahead in 2012-2013. This afternoon, Harrison Barnes, John Henson, and Kendall Marshall announced their intentions to join Tyler Zeller as potential lottery selections in this year’s NBA draft.  Sophomore Reggie Bullock is the only remaining member of Carolina’s starting five who will be returning next year. It has been rumored that freshman James Michael McAdoo is also considering leaving early for the draft as well.

Many Duke fans are glad we'll never have to see these guys again. (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet.com)

As you can imagine, these losses will be a great loss for the Tar Heels in the team’s efforts to repeat as ACC regular season champions next year. Barnes, Marshall, Henson, and Zeller accounted for just over 68% of North Carolina’s scoring last season. Barnes, Henson, and Zeller also combined to form arguably the nation’s most formidable frontcourt. The three accounted for 54.9% of the Tar Heels’ rebounds in 2011, and were much of the reason why North Carolina was the top rebounding team in the country at 45.2 boards per game. You also can’t forget about the role Marshall played as a distributor, setting the ACC assists record while averaging 9.8 per contest. With Kendall gone and Stilman White headed on a religious mission for the next two years, Huckleberry Hound will probably look to senior Dexter Strickland and freshman Marcus Paige to take up point guard duties.

This decimation of Carolina’s roster is an interesting twist in what has been an eventful offseason for the ACC thus far.Even with a recruiting class of four players coming in next season, North Carolina is essentially starting from scratch. As Carolina looks to rebuild (or as the national media will say ad nauseum, ‘reload’) and with Duke’s roster in flux, N.C State seems primed for a run to the top of the league. The Wolfpack, fresh off of a Sweet 16 run, will add three McDonald’s All-Americans as freshmen (T.J Warren, Rodney Purvis, and Tyler Lewis) next season – with the possibility of adding a fourth in Amile Jefferson. The only current N.C State player considering the draft is C.J Leslie, but regardless of his decision, State will be very, very strong next season. If Plumlee does indeed enter the draft and Duke misses on its three remaining targets, it won’t be unexpected to see the balance of power shift away from the blues next year.

This is just the beginning to what looks to be an eventful offseason. We’ll know more and more about what the Blue Devils will look like in the coming weeks.

 *     *     *

P.S. Remember November 13, 2009, when Harrison Barnes promised to leave a legacy at UNC? That ‘legacy’ will include zero championships of any kind, zero Final Fours, and a losing record against Duke. That’s really something to Skype home about.

Follow us on Twitter @crazietalker!

Trey Zeigler Visits Duke

Central Michigan shooting guard Trey Zeigler is on Duke’s campus Friday, according to team sources. Zeigler announced he was transferring from Central Michigan on Wednesday after his father and head coach, Ernie Zeigler, was fired after the Chippewas went 11-21 last season. In two years at Central Michigan, Zeigler played a huge role in the Chippewas’ offense. He led the team in both scoring and rebounding last season, averaging 15.8 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. He will have two years of college eligibility remaining after he transfers.

The Blue Devils are very interested in the prospect of Zeigler joining the team. Although he did not receive an offer from Duke as a high school senior, Zeigler, a native of Mount Pleasant, Michigan, was a highly touted recruit coming out of high school. Despite not receiving an offer from Duke, he did receive interest from the coaching staff and was very interested in playing for Duke during his high school career. He received scholarship offers from Arizona State, Michigan, Michigan State, Oklahoma, and UCLA before ultimately deciding to play for his father at Central Michigan.

He is exactly the type of player that Duke needs. Zeigler is a long and versatile wing player, something that the Blue Devils severely lacked last season. He has the ability to handle the ball and can play point guard, shooting guard, or small forward. He can finish at the rim with the best of them, and matches up much better on the defensive end with many of the ACC’s current stars. This news comes as a bit of consolation for Duke fans, as signs are currently pointing to both Austin Rivers and Mason Plumlee departing early for the NBA. We are still waiting on official announcements from both of them as to their future plans.

Duke has a great record with recruiting transfers, and rarely has one who has visited campus not ended up playing for the Blue Devils. Notable Duke transfers from the past include Roshown McLeod, Dahntay Jones, and current Duke guard Seth Curry. Curry was the last player to transfer to Duke, coming from Liberty University after the 2009 season. He sat out the entirety of 2010 before becoming eligible to play.

Mailbag: NCAA Tournament Edition

We had to much fun with our last mailbag, we figured we’d just have to do it again. The NCAA Tournament is our favorite time of the year, so we’re here to answer all your questions about Duke and March Madness.

The Blue Devils prepare for their first round game with an open practice in Greensboro (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet.com)

First, let’s take a look at a couple questions about Duke’s chances in the tournament this year.

Q: How far can Duke go this year?@jameezy9
Q: After now seeing the brackets, what’s CT’s honest expectations of the Duke team?@mrgoodvar

Our most honest assessment is that this is going to be a very tough road for Duke this year. The selection committee was not kind to the South region this year, which is by far the hardest of the four. This is particularly perplexing because the top seed in this year’s tournament, Kentucky, resides in the South. Typically the selection committee would seek to reward the top overall seed with the easiest road to the Final Four, but apparently this year that is not the case. The South region is stacked full of talented teams- other than Kentucky teams like Baylor and Indiana appear to be particularly dangerous. Luckily for Duke and Kentucky, two of the other biggest threats in this region, Wichita St. and UNLV both went down on Thursday.

As for Duke, this is a team that came off of a difficult stretch late in the season. After the first round none of these games will be easy, regardless of their opponent. Our predictions for the South region had Duke advancing to the Elite 8 before falling to Kentucky, but to even get there will be a challenge. We hope that Duke will find its form and be able to accomplish this. Luckily for us, Duke has proven all year that it will play up or down to its competition, so having other tough teams in the region could actually be beneficial for the Blue Devils. Our predictions have Duke defeating #10 seed Xavier in the second round and #6 seed UNLV in the Sweet 16. We already know the latter will not be happening. There simply isn’t another team in this region that will be able to compete with Kentucky, unfortunately. They are too talented and Anthony Davis will give this team fits inside.

We received quite a few questions about Duke forward Ryan Kelly and his availability.

Q: So what’s the update on Ryan Kelly? I feel we need him to make a deep run.@dukesjayash
Q: Will Ryan be back for the NCAA Tournament?@bryan_williams2
Q: Is Ryan Kelly going to play Friday? And if he does at 100%?@Dukeallday24

Losing Ryan Kelly will hurt Duke for sure. (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet.com)

We learned yesterday that Ryan Kelly would not be available to play in Duke’s first round contest against Lehigh. His availability beyond then remains to be seen. Rumblings around campus have been that Kelly’s sprain was fairly severe, and it appears the team has been rushing to try and get him back on the court as soon as possible. I would say they will probably be cautious in doing so as to not jeopardize his ability to play later in the tournament and train during the offseason. At the moment, I would say that it is doubtful that you see very much of him this weekend, and if you do he will be far from 100%.

As for Kelly’s importance to this Duke team, it is unquestionable. When Ryan Kelly plays well, this team wins basketball games. Duke is 17-1 in games where Ryan scores 10 points or more. It was clear that this team was missing something while playing without him in the ACC Tournament. Not only do they lack a big body that eats up space in the paint, they lose one of their better shooters and most versatile matchup problems. Let’s all hope for a speedy recovery, because it will be hard for Duke to be successful beyond the first weekend without Ryan Kelly.

Q: If Duke & UK meet in the Elite 8, we’ll all start having 1992 flashbacks. What does Duke need to make it happen?@jstorm64

First thing’s first- Duke is going to have to make it to the Elite 8 to face Kentucky. But in order to make it to the Elite 8 and to knock off Kentucky, the Blue Devils will have to follow the same gameplan. First and foremost, they’ll need to shoot the lights out. They cannot afford to have a game where they don’t knock down their long range shots against any opponent in this region, let alone Kentucky. They will need to get the Plumlee brothers involved early and often inside. Throughout the season, the Miles and Mason have been Duke’s two most efficient options on the offensive end. But more than anything, this team will need to defend the hell out of any team they face, especially on the inside. They’ll need to lock down the opposing team’s big men- for Kentucky this would mean Anthony Davis- and crash the board relentlessly. If these two meet in the Elite 8 we’ll have many flashbacks about the greatest college basketball game ever played 20 years ago. But fact of the matter is, Duke was the more talented team in that game. This year, they won’t be, so there is a much slimmer margin for error when going up against a power like Kentucky. Unfortunately, to make a long story short, they will need to be nothing short of perfect.

Q: Heard anything on Amile Jefferson and what are our chances in your mind on Shabazz?@dukefan6190

Amile Jefferson’s situation continues to be a mystery to us. It was our understanding that Amile would be prepared to make a decision this past weekend, but it appears he has chosen to wait a bit longer and weigh his options. This indicates that the competition for Amile between Duke and NC State is a bit closer than we originally thought. Our best guess is that he is waiting until the offseason to see whether certain players from Duke or NC State will decide to leave early and go pro before making his decision. It is unclear, however, whether that decision will be motivated by playing time or whether he is waiting to see if certain players he wants to play with will have left school before he arrives. Hopefully more on this situation becomes clear to us soon.

As for Shabazz Muhammad, he continues to weigh his options. My gut feeling is that Duke’s chances to land Shabazz are fairly good, but only time will tell at this point. If this season has showed us anything, it’s that we need a player like him to come here.

Q: How could anyone pick Missouri to get past the Elite 8 with Frank Haith as their head coach?@Mark_Jessup

Well, it’s pretty easy. We picked Missouri to get to the Final Four in our preview of the West region. Although Haith’s reputation as a head coach is suspect due to his past endeavors, you’ve have to hand it to him and his team because Missouri is playing some fantastic basketball right now. Other than Michigan State, who many consider to be the weakest and most vulnerable of the #1 seeds, there isn’t much other competition in the West region for them to face. Other than that, it’s just a case of a hot team playing great ball. They’ve proven to be an offensive juggernaut, and we believe that will at least get them through one of the weaker regions in this year’s tournament.

Q: Most memorable tourney game prior to being in college?@Caroline12White

Great question. As for my most memorable Duke game, it would have to be Duke coming back from 22 points down in the Final Four against Maryland in 2001. I remember staying up late and watching that game with my parents when I was just nine years old. That was probably one of the most exciting basketball games of my childhood and really got me hooked on the NCAA Tournament.

As for my most memorable non-Duke game, I’m going to have to go with the 2008 national championship game: Kansas 75, Memphis 68 in OT. That’s definitely one of the most underrated tournament games of the past decade, and Mario Chalmers’ 3-pointer to send the game into overtime is definitely one of the most underrated clutch shots ever hit. Derrick Rose showed glimpses of the brilliance we would watch in the NBA for years to come, but good triumphed over evil as John Calipari’s Memphis Tigers choked the game away with poor free throw shooting and ineligible SAT scores.

Thanks to everyone for submitting some great questions. Hope you enjoyed the mailbag, and enjoy the basketball this weekend. This is the best weekend in sports.

March Madness: Breaking Down The East Region

With the NCAA Tournament just over 24 hours away, we continue our breakdown of the entire field. After looking at the South and West regions in the last two days, it’s time to examine the East region, where top-ranked Syracuse was not given an easy road to New Orleans.

The East region.

Best First Round Matchup: #5 Vanderbilt vs. #12 Harvard

Come on…how could we not pick this game? This should present a classic 5-12 matchup between a Vanderbilt team fresh off a victory over Kentucky in the SEC Tournament and Tommy Amaker’s squad from Harvard. Vanderbilt’s had the epitome of an up and down season this year. After being ranked in the preseason top-10 and falling completely off the radar, they turned it on again late in the season and are now being considered one of the contenders in the East regional. Their run to an SEC Tournament championship boosted their seeding up to a #5, despite having not been ranked higher than 25th in the AP poll since November. While some believe that Vanderbilt may be overseeded, just as many believe Harvard was victimized by the selection committee. Despite being nationally ranked for five weeks throughout the season, the Crimson could only muster a 12-seed while many believed they were deserving of a 10 or 11. All in all, this should be a great basketball game. Vanderbilt has proved throughout the season that they are capable of beating any team in the country, but they are also capable of losing to any team in the country. Harvard has played consistently throughout the season and are an extremely well coached team, but other than matchups against Florida State and Connecticut early in the season they haven’t faced an opponent this good in a long time. Expect for this game to be close into the game’s final five minutes, but ultimately Vanderbilt’s athleticism will prove too much for Harvard.

Player To Watch: John Jenkins, #5 Vanderbilt

Jenkins, a 6-foot-4 guard from Hendersonville, Tennessee, is the key to the Commodores’ offense. They have a great opportunity to advanced deep into the East region, but if they are going to do so Jenkins will need to be on his game. He averaged 19.9 points per game for Vanderbilt on the season, shooting a 44.8% clip from 3-point range. Not only has he proven that he’s able to knock down crucial shots from deep, he will be especially important for the Commodores late in games, shooting 84.3% from the free throw line on the year. With a tough first round matchup against a defensively-minded Harvard team and a potential second round tilt with Wisconsin, Jenkins is a huge piece to how this region will play out.

Player To Not Watch: Fab Melo, #1 Syracuse

It was announced yesterday that Syracuse’s pursuit of a trip to New Orleans would be one that did not include its starting center, Fab Melo. The Orange released on their website Tuesday afternoon that Melo would be ineligible to play due to what they considered an “eligibility issue”. Although they were nondescript in the reason for his absence, this is a huge blow to Syracuse and a major shake-up in the East region. Syracuse is a different team without Melo, especially on the defensive end of the floor, where Melo averaged 2.9 blocks per game. Although 7.8 points and 5.8 rebounds per game is not that much offensive production to lose, you have to think that the Orange might have been shaken mentally by losing one of their team’s key members just two days before the tournament begins.

Dark Horse: #4 Wisconsin

Although Vanderbilt has been getting most of the attention in this region after knocking off top-ranked Kentucky, we see Wisconsin as a team poised for a run. They play a great brand of postseason basketball- they are big, physical, experienced, and play lockdown defense for 40 minutes. Their road through the East regional just got a lot easier when Syracuse announced they would be playing without Fab Melo. They’ll have a tough second round test against Vanderbilt, but if they can get through there they should be able to overpower a depleted Syracuse team and make a run to the Elite 8.

Our Picks: Ohio State to the Final Four

Remember that Ohio State team that absolutely trounced Duke back in November? They haven’t gone anywhere. With Syracuse appearing weakened, the East region just completely opened up for Ohio State. They could have a tough Sweet 16 matchup with Florida State, but should they survive it looks like they’ll be going to New Orleans. Jared Sullinger is one of the top talents in the country, but what makes the Buckeyes particularly dangerous is their physicality and their guard play. Aaron Craft is a floor general that can pick apart an opponent from the inside out, while I think Duke fans remember the fits that William Buford gave us from beyond the arc. They are a very experienced team and that should serve them well in a deep tournament run. There just isn’t a team in this region well-equipped enough to stop them, and if Sullinger somehow is able to elevate his game further for tournament time, the top teams in other regions will start to take notice as well.

Below are our complete picks. Let us know what you think in the comment box!

Our picks for the East region. Looks like Ohio State will be dancing down to Bourbon Street.

March Madness: Breaking Down The South Region

It’s that time of year! The NCAA Tournament is upon us, which means it’s time to make our picks for the three most exciting weeks of the basketball season. In the next few days, we’ll be breaking the tournament region by region in our efforts to turn the Average Joe into a regular Joey Brackets. Let’s start with the South region.

The South region

Best First Round Matchup: #5 Wichita St. vs. #12 VCU

It won't be another run to the Final Four for VCU, but should be a great second round game.

This is a matchup between two mid-majors that are both very, very hot right now. Wichita State has lost twice since January 4 while Virginia Commonwealth has lost just once since January 8. They are set to collide Thursday in Portland in a matchup between two teams that could both easily make a run to the Sweet 16. Wichita St. sports a balanced offensive attack, with three players averaging more than 12 points per game. While they love to run and gun on offense, they also crash the boards relentlessly, pulling down 38 rebounds per game. Senior Garrett Stutz paces the Shockers’ offense. The 7-foot center records 13.5 points and 8.0 rebounds per game, shooting 82.1% from the free throw line. Meanwhile, VCU operates at a significantly slower pace. This is not the same team you saw make a run to the Final Four last year- the only starter remaining from last year’s team is senior Bradford Burgess, who leads the Rams with 13.3 points per game. But the Rams prefer to earn their stripes on the defensive end of the floor. Although they lost many key pieces from their tournament run last season, they haven’t lost the “havoc” defense that got them there. They’ll be all over the floor trying to slow Wichita State down and force as many turnovers as possible. Expect this game to be a chess match between two great coaches, VCU’s Shaka Smart and Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall will be struggling throughout the game to control the pace. Marshall previously led Winthrop to seven NCAA Tournament appearances in nine seasons before being hired by Wichita State in 2007. Ultimately, the Shockers should prove too strong for the Rams, but this should be a great basketball game.

Dark Horse: #6 UNLV
Look out for the Runnin’ Rebels. UNLV’s successes this season didn’t end when they knocked off previously top-ranked North Carolina in November. They went on to defeat then-ranked Illinois and split matchups with a talented San Diego State team. This is a team that is fully loaded with offensive firepower, and other teams might not be able to keep up. Sophomore Mike Moser is a force inside, averaging a double-double at 14.1 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. Chace Stanback is the type of player that can take a stake and absolutely drive it into another team’s heart. Shooting a 46.4% clip from beyond the arc, Stanback is the sixth-ranked long-range shooter in the nation. When he gets going- watch out. Chace led the way with 28 points and 10 rebounds in UNLV’s victory over North Carolina and shot 8-for-9 from beyond the arc en route to 29 points in a win over Louisiana-Monroe. This is the type of team that is very capable of catching fire and making a run to the Elite 8, but could face a very tough third round matchup with an equally athletic Baylor team. These teams will make for a great matchup, and if UNLV can survive they could be big trouble for Duke in the Sweet 16.

Our Picks:

Don’t expect too many surprises in this region. The first round will be dominated by the higher seeds, as the two most dangerous lower seeded teams–Wichita State and VCU–have been matched up with one another. Iowa State and Connecticut will be close, but expect UConn’s talent should prevail. Xavier is far and away the best 10-seed in the tournament, and will be a tough test for Duke in the next round. Duke fans, be warned: Lehigh will also be a tough opponent for the Blue Devils. Lehigh hasn’t lost a game by double digits all season, and is the highest Pomeroy-rated 15 seed in the field. That said, here’s how our bracket shaped up:

Crazie Talk's picks for the South region. Yes, we hope to have a rematch of the greatest game ever played. But chances are that UK will come out on top.

The Final Four Pick: Kentucky. There’s a reason why they are the top overall seed in this year’s tournament: Kentucky is far and away the most talented team in the country. They ran away with the SEC this season, finishing with a perfect 16-0 record. Anthony Davis is the odds on favorite to win both National Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year in the NCAA. They are simply too deep, too athletic, too talented for anyone in arguably this tournament’s toughest region to contend with. Whether or not they’ll be able to win a national championship with a bunch of one-and-dones and questionable team chemistry remains to be seen, but they should be able to make a run to New Orleans without more than a slight scare.

We’ll be back to preview the West region tomorrow. Let us know what you think about our analysis and picks in the comments below.