A look at the third-toughest region.

BEST PLAYERS

1. Iowa State F Melvin Ejim: The Big 12 player of the year is a versatile talent who thrives in ISU's fast-paced, quick-shooting system (18.1 points and 8.5 rebounds per game). He's money from the foul line and good enough from behind the arc to force defenses to extend.

2. Michigan State F Adreian Payne: The rugged senior is finally healthy and capable of spitting out 20 points and 10 rebounds against any opponent. And he's deceptively good from 3-point range for a 245-pounder (43 percent).

3. Cincinnati G Sean Kilpatrick: Would be the best player in the American Athletic Conference if not for Louisville's Russ Smith. And speaking of the Cardinals: Kilpatrick scored 28 points against them. Twice.

Just missed the cut: Connecticut G Shabazz Napier.

BEST COACHES

1. Michigan State's Tom Izzo: Few coaches are better in March than the longtime MSU master, who has one national title and six Final Fours to his credit. The Spartans endured one injury after another during the regular season but are finally healthy and playing like you'd expect from the preseason No. 2.

2. Iowa State's Fred Hoiberg: The former Cyclone player nicknamed The Mayor has, in four years, established himself as one of the nation's top coaches. Unranked in the preseason, ISU beat Michigan and Kansas and is more than worthy of the No. 3 seed despite having a low profile nationally.


Advertisement

3. North Carolina's Roy Williams: UNC's inconsistency must drive ol' Roy batty, but there's no denying his team has talent. Nor is there any denying that Williams knows how to coach in March (two NCAA titles and seven Final Fours).

DREAM MATCHUP

No. 3 Iowa State vs. No. 4 Michigan. While hardly sexy, the Cyclones and Spartans would make a terrific Elite Eight matchup: Forget the seeds. These are the best teams in the region.

UPSET SPECIAL

No. 10 St. Joe's over No. 7 Connecticut. The lower-seeded Hawks enter the NCAAs on a roll, with nine wins in their past 11 games and the Atlantic 10 tournament title. UConn has played well lately, with the exception of two wipeouts by Louisville. If the Huskies aren't careful — if they are looking ahead to a potential round-of-32 date with former Big East rival Villanova — they won't survive the round of 64.

SLEEPER PICK

North Carolina. Good luck figuring out the Tar Heels. They can be awful (losses to Belmont and UAB) and brilliant (wins over Duke, Louisville, Kentucky and Michigan State). Sophomore guard Marcus Paige is the prime mover — for better or worse. Much like Kentucky, the Tar Heels have more talent than their seed indicates. But can they put it all together?

LAST TEAM STANDING

Michigan State. With all their pieces in place, the Spartans showed their potential by blowing through the Big Ten tournament. Payne and smooth wing guard Gary Harris form the best inside-outside combination in the region — and maybe in the tournament.

For more on college sports, see Jon Wilner's College Hotline at blogs.mercurynews.com/collegesports. Contact him at jwilner@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5716.