Wrapping up our exclusive look at the 2007 edition of the NCAA Tournament, we now step to the West Regional, where two superpowers eclipse the rest of the lot and could produce an epic showdown.
Kansas is one of them. The Jayhawks might be playing better than any team in America, a rare combination of offensive firepower and defensive heat. Darren Collison, Brandon Rush, Julian Wright, Russell Robinson -- any one of them can take over a game. Plus, KU is hungry after two first-round flameouts in 2005 and '06. Anything short of Atlanta, and Bill Self will start hearing about how he can't win the Big One.
Niagara is good enough, and hot enough, to make the Jayhawks sweat a bit in Chicago, but no more. Following that, the Wildcats await -- but which ones?
Kentucky is not a pleasant place right now. The venom of the Big Blue Nation, aimed toward Tubby Smith, is downright scary, and might prove overwhelming if UK can't get past this hurdle. For all its perceived and actual faults, Kentucky can still play defense, with Randolph Morris at the core, and the lack of consistent shooting might force UK to get defensive from the opening tip.
Villanova is quite capable of causing Tubby's pink slip. A year later, 'Nova fans still wonder what might have been if Curtis Sumpter played. He's there now, and with freshman Scottie Reynolds emerging as a scoring machine, 'Nova would be an even bigger sleeper - if Kansas were not in the same bracket.
Virginia Tech ended an 11-year NCAA drought that spanned three conferences (Atlantic 10, Big East, ACC) with strong guard play and a sweep of North Carolina. Yet the Hokies also had bad losses to the likes of Marshall, and struggle with free throws.
All this should perk up the collective ears of Illinois, who draw VT in Columbus. Like conference mate Purdue, the Illini must justify its selection. A positive -- it gets to play in Big Ten country. Even better from the PR standpoint, Illinois got rid of that dancing chief caricature.