(5) WVU vs. (12) UAB/Clemson
(5)West Virginia Mountaineers
Coming off a run to the 2010 NCAA Final Four, West Virginia heads into the 2011 NCAA Tournament as the losers of five of its last ten games. While the Mountaineers recent play would usually land a team on the outside looking in at the Big Dance, an impressive resume which includes wins over eight RPI Top 50 teams was enough to get Coach Bob Huggins’ team into the Field of 68. WVU closed the Big East regular season with wins over Connecticut and Louisville before losing to Marquette in the Big East Tournament. With eight upper-classmen on the roster, this is an experienced team with an experienced coach. The Mountaineers are battle-tested after playing a grueling conference schedule which included 14 games against NCAA Tournament teams and that experience will serve this team well in post-season play.
(12)Alabama Birmingham Blazers
After winning the Conference USA regular season crown, UAB lost to East Carolina in the C-USA Tournament but still earned an at-large berth into the 2011 NCAA Tournament. Led by seniors Jamarr Sanders and Aaron Johnson, the Blazers are a solid defensive team, giving up just over 62 points per game, which crowds the three-point line, allowing opposing offenses to shoot just 31 percent from distance. Moore has racked up 13 double-doubles this season, averaging 14.3 points and 9.4 rebounds while chipping in 1.4 blocked shots per game. Johnson, meanwhile, leads the nation in assists at 7.7 per game.
For the fourth consecutive season, Clemson has earned at at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament. Senior guard Demontez Stitt leads the team in both scoring (14.7 points per game) and assists (3.4) and becomes the first player in Clemson history to start for four different NCAA Tournament teams. He and Jerai Grant, a 6-8 forward, provide the Tigers with senior leadership heading into the 2011 NCAA Tournament. Grant, who was named to the ACC all-Defensive team, ranks first on the team in rebounds (6.7 per game) and blocked shots (2.4) and is second on the team in scoring (12.1). Clemson boasts one of the stingiest defenses in the country, holding opposing offenses to just 60.4 points per game (15th nationally) while allowing them to shoot just 39.8 percent from the field.
HOOPSWORLD’s Pick: West Virginia. UAB vs. Clemson is sure to be a defensive struggle, but the length and athleticism of Clemson will prove to be too much for the Blazers. The experience that West Virginia gained during their run to the Final Four a year ago and in a deep Big East this year will carry them on to the Round of 32.