You really couldn't ask for a juicier regional, not if you're a Memphis Tiger fan. For the U of M to reach its first Final Four in 23 years, the Tigers will have to emerge from a 16-team bracket quadrant riddled with upset possibilities and potential drama. Here are four angles to consider:
1) Bullish Second Round John Calipari has to beat the SEC. He would never admit actual distaste for this region's "power conference." But he has to beat the likes of Arkansas, Tennessee (oops), and Mississippi State to command this corner of the college basketball universe. Should the MSU Bulldogs get by Oregon in the first round (hardly a given), Little Rock will have its share of maroon to counterbalance all the blue and gray sweatshirts. And the Bulldogs are pissed. Champions of the SEC's Western Division, their seeding took a nose-dive when they lost to a beatable Georgia team in the SEC tournament. The Tigers would be heavy favorites against State, but this would be as titillating a second-round game as the Tigers have played in years.
2) No Friends Like Old Friends Calipari was an assistant coach at Pittsburgh from 1985-88, before getting the top job at Massachusetts. There are few teams hotter than the Panthers entering the Big Dance, Pitt having won four games in four days to win the Big East tournament. A team peaking at the right time can beat anyone, regardless of seed (think Syracuse in 2003 or George Mason two years ago). The guess here is that Calipari would much prefer facing his old Atlantic 10 rival, Temple, in the regional semifinals than the fourth-seeded Panthers. Not very likely.
3) That Opponent in the Mirror Calipari has said all season that his team's biggest opponent is themselves. Particularly once Conference USA play opened in January, the challenge was for stars like Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts to play to the peak of their abilities, even when East Carolina or Marshall occupied the other bench. Based on their three walk-throughs at last week's C-USA tournament, the Tigers are indeed ignoring the opposition. Southern Miss put the clamps on defensively, made their free throws, and squeezed the clock, only to lose by 16 in the semifinals. Calipari will be reminding his club that they faced two of the number-two seeds in the NCAAs (Georgetown and Tennessee) and made easy work of a seven-seed (Gonzaga). If the Tigers reach the level their coach insists they can -- are you listening, Joey? -- the "bracketology" will be all but academic.
4) UT? Again?? There could be some (burnt) orange flashbacks if Memphis ends up facing the University of Texas in the regional finals. The fates would be especially cruel if the Tigers only two losses this magical season came to teams wearing orange and going by "UT." Much will be made of Memphis -- again -- facing a lower seed in that seed's home state deep in the NCAA tournament. But that kind of advantage is reduced by the size of an arena, and Reliant Stadium in Houston is enormous. So pack your bags, Tiger Nation, and out scream those football fans on holiday.