63 games have been played in the 2009 NCAA Tournament, leaving just one game left to decide who will be crowned this year’s national champ as the Michigan State Spartans face up against the North Carolina Tar Heels.
The Michigan State Spartans come in to the game as a two seed, winning the Midwest region and defeating the Connecticut Huskies in the Final Four matchup on Saturday. The Spartans came into the tournament as the biggest second seed underdog, thanks to a terrible perception of the Big Ten and most people’s thinking that teams from the Big Ten simply do not score enough to make it far in the tournament.
What head coach Tom Izzo and the rest of the Spartans showed was that solid offense, combined with lockdown defense and unbelievable tenacity, can get a team like this anywhere. They were not supposed to beat Kansas in the Sweet 16 and surely were not given any love against the overall one seed Lousiville Cardinals.
Despite the Big Ten label, the Spartans were fought their way into the Final Four, but also brought the youngest team with young gun sophomores Kalin Lucas, Durrell Summers and Chris Allen to Detroit. Raymar Morgan and Goran Suton are the older Spartans along with Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Travis Walton.
A big advantage for the Spartans going into this game is location. Ford Field in Michigan will have green and white everywhere as thousands of Michigan State fans are expected to make the trip for tonight’s game. As seen in the Connecticut game, the crowd really got behind the Spartans and, despite the 72,000 seat stadium they were playing in, it really felt like a home game for them.
Unfortunately for Michigan State, home court advantage does not automatically give them the trophy. They go up against an unbelievably talented North Carolina team that has been the favorite to win the championship since Day one, and was the one team that was talked about as a contender all year.
Offensively, Michigan State faces a much easier task than they did against Connecticut. The Tar Heels play average defense at best and leave a lot of open shots. While Villanova did not capitalize on them Saturday, a disciplined and highly efficient backcourt should hit these open shots. Not including the six-overtime game against Syracuse, Connecticut had given up 82 points (MSU’s total against them Saturday) three times all year to Marquette, Villanova, and Gonzaga.
Do not think for one second that Michigan State will not be able to keep up with North Carolina’s pace. Lucas has played the point guard position extremely well, averaging 14.4 points and 5.4 assists per game in the tournament. Suton has been a monster all year and will have his hands full with Tyler Hansbrough down low, but his ability to come out on the perimiter should make it a very tough game for the North Carolina senior.
Role players have been the story for the Spartans all year, and guys like Morgan, Summers, Roe, and Allen fit into their roles perfectly on offense, leading to good passes and open looks.
Despite their underrated offensive play, the place that Michigan State can win tonight’s game is going to be on the other end of the court. All year long, the Spartans have preached lockdown defense against every opponent, and it has worked outstandingly.
On the year, Michigan State sported a +9.6 rebounding margin, which led the nation. It sounds like a broken record player, but the Spartans are so discplined on the court that North Carolina’s up-tempo offense will not confuse and take them out of position on defense.
They are not as fast as the Tar Heels and are not pretending to be. What they are trying to be are solid defenders who do not allow second chance points and contest every shot that goes up. Michigan State will be able to slow down the pace of the game with their defense which could cause North Carolina to get out of their rhythm.
Once this occurs, it will come down to which team can play within the game and run a set offense, and that could very well be Michigan State.
In the tournament, the story for the Tar Heels has been absolute dominance. Even in games where they did not look their best, in my opinion the LSU and Villanova game, they still won those games by 14 points both times. What this tells me is that this team is athletic enough to stay in any game and outrun their opponents.
Their offense starts with Ty Lawson and Roy Williams has no problem if it ends with Lawson as well. The junior is averaging just under 21 points and seven assists per game in the four tournament games he has played in. Consider that he is doing this all with a sprained big toe, and it makes him that much more impressive.
He will face a very tough opponent in the aforementioned Travis Walton who, after seeing him against UConn, plays some of the best man-t0-man defense in the nation. Lawson has the speed advantage on Walton and will likely use that to penetrate the Michigan State defense, leading to a lot of open looks for perimter shooters in Danny Green and Wayne Ellington.
North Carolina must get the tempo going against Michigan State, something that Connecticut did not do in their loss to the Spartans. If they can, UNC is much faster on the court and deeper on the bench, and that will wear down the Michigan State defense.
Tyler Hansbrough looks to end his North Carolina career on a good note and will use his strength inside to cause havoc on Suton. Hansbrough should get some very good looks tonight and could control the game inside if he wants to. I have been knocking them all year, but the rest of the North Carolina frontcourt needs to get a lot stronger inside.
Ed Davis and Deon Thompson are very quick for their size and seem to be in the right spot for offensive rebounds, but they do not battle as much as I would like them to (Villanova out-rebounded the Tar Heels Saturday) and against a very strong rebounding team in Michigan State, second chances will be few and far between. As most games have been for the Tar Heels this year, they will win it with offense.
They have some of the best scorers in the nation to go with the best point guard in the nation, and that is about as deadly as a combination as I can think of. Their speed and size allows them to run the break and go hard to the hoop and it will be very tough for Michigan State to slow them down.
Defensively, North Carolina needs to step up their game. They got very lucky against Villanova that the Wildcats were cold from downtown, but tonight they had better not count on getting lucky twice.
Do not let the numbers on North Carolina fool you, giving up 72 points per game. They are lazy at times and get out-physicaled more than they should. Just because they average over 90 points per game does not mean that it will happen tonight against a very good defensive Michigan State team.
Good defense in turn will lead to fast break opportunities off missed shots, and that will be the key to North Carolina taking this game. Lawson will need to slow down Lucas at the point of attack and not let them run the set plays that coach Izzo draws up.
The size advantages of Green and Ellington will be key in not letting the Spartans get into the lane to draw fouls and get high percentage shots. Fortunately, Michigan State does not shoot the three-point ball very well shooting 35 percent on the year, despite 38 percent from downtown in the tournament.
I have faith that North Carolina will step up their game defensively and lock down the open looks that Michigan State will try to get. Like it was said earlier, this UNC team is stacked full of athletes that get after the ball at all times and can make up a lot of ground just on the fact of them being very athletic.
Earlier in the year, North Carolina beat Michigan State 98-63 in the same Ford Field that they will play at tonight. Despite not having Goran Suton, the game was not even close and the up-tempo Tar Heels ran away with the game led by Tyler Hansbrough’s 25 point performance and Ty Lawson’s near-triple double.
This game is sure to be much closer this time around, and while bench play and rotations will be important, this one is going to come down for the stars that will go up against one another tonight. Hansbrough, one of the best college basketball players to ever put on Tar Heel blue, has one game left.
Michigan State is playing in front of a home crowd and has become the team of destiny that has upset two number one seeds in the process.
Both of these teams are red-hot, but in the end I think that North Carolina’s athleticism and strength on offense will be too much for Michigan State in the end, and Psycho-T will finally get that National Championship he has wanted for four years. North Carolina 84, Michigan State 80
The best part about sports is that they are completely debatable, and when you find two passionate people that love the game, the arguments that ensue are awesome and intense (and sometimes can get out of hand). I have found lately that these debates have occurred between me and my good friend Kevin Shanley. Kevin, a sophomore at Marquette University, is a Marquette Golden Eagles fan and would be the president of the Wesley Matthews Fan Club if there was one. But ranked right below the Golden Eagles on Kevin’s college basketball team depth chart are the North Carolina Tar Heels. So I have decided to debate him, 1-on-1, on the Final Four matchups. Kevin has taken the North Carolina Tar Heels and the Michigan State Spartans, while I will debate the soon-to-be national champion UConn Huskies and the Villanova Wildcats.
(Ironically enough, if Connecticut wins it all I win the bracket Kevin and I are in, and if North Carolina wins it all, Kevin wins)
We will debate each matchup based on four factors: guardplay/outside shooting, inside play/inside shooting, defense, and intangibles. There are no winners or losers in the debate, but rather good spirited arguments about which teams will play on Monday to determine the national champion.
Villanova’s Back Court
The first thing I will say is that Villanova’s back court is a lot stronger than North Carolina’s for one simple reason: everyone can play there! When you look at Villanova this season, the leader in the back court is undoubtedly Scottie Reynolds. Despite having a so-so tournament (sans the game-winner against Pitt), he has averaged 33 minutes per game and is crucial to the Wildcats’ success on offense. This kid can hit from anywhere on the court, and I know that you have seen it Kevin, because I watched him torch Marquette with you. As is the case for every player in the back court, this team can and will catch fire at any time and the runs this team gets on because of it are hard to keep up with. But don’t think that the Wildcats stop with Reynolds. Corey Stokes and Corey Fisher are the next two reasons why North Carolina’s back court is going to be sucking air for 40 minutes on Saturday. Both of these players bring everything to the table with great outside shots (33% and 42% from three point range), shutdown defense, and great speed on both ends of the floor.
Next up is personally my favorite player on this Villanova squad and the reason this back court is so multi-dimensional, and that is the play of Dwayne Anderson. Anderson is listed at 6’6”, but the senior can play any position on the court. He is an above average ball handler, great spot shooter, and can also go inside (which is why I am going to cheat and use him for my inside game as well). He has averaged 15 points and 8 rebounds in the tournament, but is also 6 for 11 from downtown. He is able to guard a shooting guard and both forward positions and is just unbelievably versatile. Reggie Redding rounds out the back court, but do not sleep on this guy either, as he averages seven points and five rebounds per game and is one of Villanova’s best defenders.
Look, the name of the game for Villanova is speed and that is exactly what their back court brings. The depth, talent, and speed is why I believe Villanova has the better back court.
North Carolina’s Back Court
Now I understand the strength of Villanova’s backcourt is their personal strength, but in comparison to North Carolina’s, there is no question which team has the better players… the Tar Heels. This is mainly due to ACC player of the year Ty Lawson. Lawson was plagued by a right toe injury towards the end of the season, and was unable to play in the ACC tournament, as well as the UNC routing of Radford in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The loss of Lawson proved to hurt the Tar Heels tremendously as shown in the loss to Florida State in the ACC Tournament, but with a “healthy” Lawson, the Tar Heels are the best team in the nation. Lawson spearheads the North Carolina offense with his speed, passing ability, and as of late- his three-point shot. Averaging just over 16 points a game, as well as six and a half assists, Lawson proves to be too much for opposing defenders. Defensively, Lawson is stellar as well pulling in two steals a game, making Lawson a complete point guard, something necessary to win in the tournament.
The Tar Heels do not stop with Lawson in their guard play. They receive help from Wayne Ellington and Danny Green as well to round out the back court. Ellington averages 15.6 points per game, as well as 4.8 rebounds. He has been a force whenever Lawson is unable to put the ball in the hoop, as seen in his 24, 25, and 23 point games against Florida State, Radford and LSU when Lawson either did not play, or was limited action. Ellington’s ability to be reliable for the Tar Heels when Lawson or Hansbrough are slumping makes him vital to the Tar Heels success.
The final piece to this lethal back court is my favorite Tar Heel, Danny Green. Previously famous for his dancing antics and ability to fire up his team, the senior Green will continue to be overlooked in the potent UNC offense. Green coming in at 6’6”, 210lbs presents a matchup problem for anyone. With his ability to handle the ball, hit the outside shot, and be a presence in the post, I would compare him to a better Lazar Hayward (for a quick MU reference). Green seems to be there day in and day out for the Tar Heels, creating a steady balance of points (at 13.3), and rebounds (4.8), Green is a production machine for UNC.
In the end, the experience factor with two juniors in Lawson and Ellington and a senior leader in Green assist the Tar Heels in possessing the better backcourt. The ability to shoot the ball extremely well from long range, as well as the driving abilities of Lawson will be too much for the Wildcats on Saturday. This trio is one of the best in the nation, and will expose Villanova, proving to everyone that they are the better backcourt.
North Carolina’s Front Court
North Carolina’s Frontcourt is better than Villanova’s for one reason, Tyler Hansbrough. Psycho-T is coming off of an terrible game against Oklahoma and I think that this spells trouble for Villanova. Hansbrough is the type of player who does not have two bad games in a row. His frustration was apparent towards the end of the Oklahoma game where he tried to dunk over a better Blake Griffin. Psycho-T will be a force over Cunningham and expose Villanova’s lack of height. He is coming in averaging almost 21 points a game, matched with 8 boards per game. No one on this Villanova roster will be able to contain him and due to his lack of success in his previous game, I look for Hansbrough to have a huge game and lift UNC to the NCAA Championship game. The second piece to the UNC frontcourt is Deon Thompson, the only starter on this amazing UNC team that does not receive constant national attention. Thompson and his 6’8″ frame will present a size problem for Villanova as well. He’s also averaging a quiet 10.7 points per game along with grabbing down almost six boards per contest. Although I do not think Thompson will have as big as an effect as the other players on this UNC roster, look for him to continue to quietly score against the Wildcats. In the end, it all starts and ends with Tyler Hansbrough for the Tar Heels. The All-American will take out all his frustration from his last game against the Villanova frontcourt, and in the end, ruin the magical run that Villanova has had so far in the tournament.
Villanova’s Front Court
While Villanova’s front court does not have the star power that North Carolina’s does, the Tar Heels will be in for a rude awakening if they forget about power forward Dante Cunningham. Cunningham, the Big East’s Most Improved Player, has been playing outstanding all year and even better in the tournament. His ability to play down-low is great, but even better is his 17-foot jump shot that seems to go in every time. His 18 points and eight rebounds per game in the tournament have Villanova in Detroit and you will not see a letdown from him against North Carolina. Yes, he is going up against your boy Hansbrough but we have already seen that Psycho-T has trouble with forwards that can come out on the perimeter. Dwayne Anderson (here he is again) is another guy that will play bigger than he really is on the inside and use his athleticism to cause havoc down low. Shane Clark is another player like Anderson that can play multiple positions and does a lot of the dirty work inside for the Wildcats. Putting the two of them down low, combined with Cunningham, makes for a very athletic and hard-working front court that will out hustle the Tar Heels. An “x-factor”, if you will, for the Wildcats might be Antonio Pena. He has not played a lot in the tournament but is very physical and if the bigger Tar Heels start to dominate down low, he could play crucial minutes to stop that run.
Alright, I admit that I will probably have to concede this one to you as Villanova is up against last year’s Player of the Year and first team All-American in Hansbrough. But I still think the key to Villanova keeping this game close will be how Cunningham is able to use his jump shot as well his power inside to keep North Carolina on their toes, regardless of where he is on the court. If Anderson and Clark are able to use their speed to beat their defenders off the dribble, it could spell trouble for a defense that, at times, is very shaky.
I guess to fairly debate Villanova’s defense I have to talk about it in regards to North Carolina’s offense. The first thing I will say is I like the matchups that Villanova is going to bring to the table against the Tar Heels. First is Dante Cunningham, who will match up against Tyler Hansbrough. Cunningham has been outstanding on defense all year and being from the Big East, you know he loves a challenge. What was interesting in watching the Oklahoma-UNC game was how Blake Griffin played outstanding defense on Psycho-T, and as I watched more and more I saw a lot of similarities in how Cunningham plays defense. Offensively, Griffin is very different and much better than him, but on the other side of the ball not so much. Griffin played faster than Hansbrough and did not let him get into any rhythm as he only had eight points and six rebounds in the contest. Cunningham also likes to play fast at times, while also having the weapon of being physical in his back pocket.
Scottie Reynolds will have his hands full against Ty Lawson and must shut him down if Villanova wants to have a chance. Danny Green and Wayne Ellington are going to be shut down in every aspect of this game by Dwayne Anderson and Reggie Redding. The best part of the Villanova defense is that North Carolina’s great size is not as much of a factor because, despite being big on defense, they are also quick enough to hang with the Tar Heels. Corey Fisher might have a tough time with Ellington’s size, but Stokes will play a key role in the rotation of keeping fresh defenders on the very talented North Carolina shooters. Down low, Deon Thompson and Ed Davis look a little timid at times, and that is the last thing you want to do when going up against Shane Clark and Antonio Pena. Both of them play extremely physical down low and the North Carolina big men (other than Hansbrough) should not get more than their point averages in this one.
OK, North Carolina is probably the best offensive team in the nation, it’s hard for me to debate that and even harder to admit it. But if there is one team out there that matches the size and the speed of a North Carolina team, I’ll take Villanova over most other teams in the nation.
North Carolina’s Defense
Defensively, I think both these teams match up well. Both offenses like to play the run-and-gun offense, and defense is the X factor for this game. Villanova has great defense from players like Stokes, Anderson, Redding, and obviously Reynolds, but UNC has great defenders as well, and this comes from stars Hansbrough, Green, and Lawson. Yes, the Villanova guards are quick and can score from virtually every place on the court, but the UNC defense is ready to run and contest any shot. The matchup of Lawson and Reynolds will be an interesting one, but in the end I’d take Lawson to have a better game offensively and defensively. Another great UNC defender is Green. He is averaging just fewer than two steals a game and over a block a game, showing that he can stop you in more than just one way. Finally, the defensive presence of Hansbrough will be too much for Cunningham. Although Tyler doesn’t have the stats to prove his defensive abilities, he’s a very physical player that will not be pushed around by anyone. If you get in this kid’s face, you’re in for quite the physical game. This will eliminate the threat of Cunningham, who is key to the Villanova offensive and once again prove why North Carolina is the better team.
North Carolina’s Intangibles
I respect Villanova for the run they have had, and hey, I’m all for the Big East making it far in the tournament. However, I think UNC is playing for something bigger. Coming into the season, this team was thought to go undefeated through the entire season and win the NCAA tournament. But this was proved incorrect with horrid losses against teams like Boston College and Maryland. Coming into the tournament there were questions about Lawson’s health and he has proved to everyone that he can play through the pain, and lead his team like he did all season long. Although Villanova might seem like a team of “destiny”, talent overrules this and UNC’s got plenty of it. Players like Lawson and Hansbrough came back for one reason: to win a championship and settle for nothing less. Villanova, I congratulate you on a great run, but North Carolina is a better team than you. Sorry Mark, but you’re looking at the future NCAA champions in the North Carolina Tar Heels.
If you want to even call them one, Villanova is this year’s cinderalla. As a three seed, they are going up against the best teams from the Big East, ACC, and Big Ten. They definitely deserve to be here, but more than any other team remaining, they have gotten here on heart, determination, and getting hot at the right time. I fully believe they will be able to keep this streak going against North Carolina. As we talked about earlier in the week and on the radio show, it will take a great game from Villanova and a below average game for UNC for the Wildcats to come out on top. However, I don’t see that being too far out of the question. Villanova style of play has worked for them all year, and that is to hang with teams until they find their stroke from outside, and then pull away like the game was never close. Two games that remind me of this are the Marquette game and the Providence game. In both, the game looked as though it could go either way before the back court just started scoring at will and Cunningham knocked down everything from 17 feet on in. Do I think North Carolina is going to win this game? Yes. But this Villanova team is not getting a lot of respect that it has tried to gain all year, and Saturday might mark the end of them putting up with it. I look for Hansbrough and Lawson to play outstanding as they always do, but I also think Ellington and especially Green are going to struggle against a solid Villanova team. Good luck, Kevin.
CONNECTICUT VS. MICHIGAN STATE
Michigan State’s Backcourt
Looking at the teams on the other end of the bracket, I look for a much better matchup than the UNC-Villanova game. Yes Connecticut is the more talented team, but if you are looking for an upset, look no further than the Michigan State Spartans. The Michigan State backcourt lives and dies with their leader Kalin Lucas. This guy can straight up play and provides matchup issues for whoever is guarding him. Averaging 14.6 points per game and 4.6 assists a game, Lucas is one of the league’s premier young players being only a sophomore. Lucas is vital if Michigan State wants any chance of upsetting Connecticut. Lucas runs the Spartan offense very well and is able to run in transition. He passes and scores with relative ease, making him a very dangerous player. His ability to drive as well as make the outside jumper makes him a handful for defenders and is the reason he is the focus of this offense. Joining Lucas in the Michigan State backcourt are Chris Allen and Durrell Summers. Neither of these players have the star mentality that Lucas does, but both players know their role and can score when needed. Allen and Summers are both averaging above 8 points a game, making them important to the Michigan State offense. Yes, Connecticut is very talented all around, but if they want to win this game, they’re going to have to find a way to contain Lucas, otherwise the Huskies could be in for a long game.
The Huskies are led by senior point guard A.J. Price, and have been for the last four years. While the loss of Jerome Dyson has turned them into a different team, the backcourt has managed to keep things steady and will look to do so against a very good defensive team in Michigan State. Price is averaging 14.7 points per game on the year and 4.8 assists and runs the show for a very efficient offense. Even more importantly might be the play of Kemba Walker and Craig Austrie that have taken over for Dyson after the injury. Walker was one of the main reasons that Connecticut is playing in this game, going off for 23 points, five assists, and five rebounds against Missouri. Austrie had 17 points against Purdue and has created senior leadership in any already experienced lineup, as well as good offense. The backcourt is extremely balanced and has done a great job this year running the offense. While the defense is ruled by the frontcourt in Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien, Price and Walker have a tight grasp on how the offense runs every game. Against Michigan State, they will need to get good looks at the basket and make sure they do not turn the ball over because the Spartans will capitalize.
This is where the debate basically ends in the debate of who wins what. I actually really like Goran Suton and think he is unbelievably talented and perfect for Tom Izzo’s system. Unfortunately, Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien stand in the way of Suton accomplishing whatever it is he wants. Thabeet, the co-Big East Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, will control this game completely on offense. He does not get a lot of touches on offense, averaging less than six shots per game, but he makes the most of them shooting 65% from the field. Also, Jeff Adrien has been the unheralded senior that no one talks about because of Thabeet. He averages a double double and is the heart and soul of Connecticut’s team and has the ability to run with the guards as well, making him the perfect kind of player for this offense. The one guy seemingly flying under the radar, more than Adrien (if that’s possible), is Stanley Robinson. Ever since he came back from his injury, he has been a dominating force with a decent mid-range game and thunderous dunks all over the court. Michigan State, despite being a very good team defensively everywhere, will have no answer for these three and whoever isn’t scoring, you can bet the other two will be. Advantage Huskies all night long.
Michigan State’s Frontcourt
The Michigan State frontcourt is where Connecticut has the clear advantage, but if Goran Suton can continue playing like he has in the NCAA tournament, an upset could be in sight. On the season, Suton is averaging around ten points a game, but he has really turned it on in the tournament. Against Kansas, Suton put up 20 points and against a very good Louisville team, he put up 19 points. He has been the key to Michigan State’s success as of late and needs to continue this success if Sparty wants to advance any farther. Joining Suton down low will be Raymar Morgan who has been limited as of late. Morgan has had a successful season, averaging 10.2 points per game and 5.3 boards a game. The Spartans need Morgan to find his shot and be able to play more minutes than the ten he did against Lousiville. Off the bench, Michigan State will be expecting some production from forward Delvon Roe, a freshman who has played a good role off the bench averaging 5.8 points per game and five rebounds per game. The freshman Roe has seen an increase in playing time and will be important off the bench to give Suton or Morgan a breather. In the end, Connecticut has a much better frontcourt, but if MSU is able to get Thabeet and Adrian in foul trouble, Michigan State could utilize their depth at this position to make a run at the Huskies.
Michigan State’s Defense
Playing in the Big Ten, Michigan State is used to playing plenty of defense and running down opponents. The only problem here is the fact they will be playing one of the best offensive teams in the nation. Michigan State must try to contain Thabeet, a problem many teams have had this year. If Thabeet is able to establish an offensive game, this adds another weapon to an already Connecticut team. Coach Izzo will be asking a lot out of the frontcourt in Suton and Morgan in hopes to contain Thabeet and Adrien. If the Spartans can limit the offensive firepower in the paint, they have a shot to win this game. Guard-wise Lucas is quite the defender. Lucas will try to stop A.J. Price, who is on fire lately. Michigan State has had a great run defensively, but never had to encounter a team like Connecticut. I feel like there’s no way to completely stop this Connecticut team, but if Michigan State can alter the shots of Price and Adrian, and limit Thabeet to only being a defensive stopper, then the Spartans could pull off the upset.
Everyone talking about this game mentions Michigan State’s defense and how they did such a nice job shutting down Big Ten teams, but let’s not forget about the fantastic defense of Connecticut. Led by Hasheem Thabeet in the middle, Connecticut is the toughest team in the nation to go against in the paint, which means if teams are going to beat the Huskies, they better have DaJuan Blair or fantastic outside shooters. Since they do not have the former, Michigan State better be on their A-game shooting the ball outside. That’s where the great defense of A.J. Price and Kemba Walker come in, as they have the task of shutting down DaJuan Summers and Kalin Lucas. I believe they will do so and keep Michigan State well under their season average of 71.9 points per game.
Three teams left in the Final Four have a starting lineup that averages more than a junior. The one team that does not is Michigan State and that will be their downfall in the end. Two years from now, I could see Michigan State winning it all, but they are just way too inexperienced going up against a Connecticut team that features three seniors and two juniors. Also, I do not think that Michigan State can score enough with Connecticut to keep up with them in the long run. 77 points per game is usually the minimum for teams that win the tournament. Michigan State does not have that and unfortunately, solid defense will not get it done every game. This isn’t the Big Ten anymore Sparty…
Michigan State’s Intangibles
Michigan State has one big advantage in this game, and that is the fact that it is being played in Detroit, meaning Ford Field will be packed with Spartan fans. This should give Michigan State an added boost and give them the confidence to take down the best that is Connecticut. Home field advantage is huge in college basketball and although this is not a declared home game, there will obviously be more Michigan State fans in Detroit than Connecticut fans. Tom Izzo and his tournament success is something that has played a role in Michigan State’s success. In the past 14 years, any Michigan State player who has stayed four years at Michigan State has seen a final four. This proves that Izzo is an unbelievable coach in the NCAA Tournament. Izzo is not afraid of any team, and will have his team prepared for the Huskies come Saturday night. In the end, I believe this game will be closer than most people think. Michigan State has something to prove playing in the weak Big Ten conference. I do think that Connecticut will end up taking this game, but the Spartans will put up a good fight and give the Huskies a run for their money.
Despite going 16 for 16 on the Second Round games, I went just six for eight on the Sweet 16 games and will look to rebound in the Elite Eight matchups today. The Elite Eight features four Big East teams, all the #1 seeds, as well as a pair of two and three seeds.
1. Connecticut vs. 3. Missouri
This game features two teams that are very different in style as the Missouri Tigers look to out-run the Huskies from UConn. I think Connecticut will be able to run with the fast-paced Tigers and also establish a presence inside on Leo Lyons and Demarre Carroll. As good as Missouri looked in their victory over Memphis, facing Hasheem Thabeet is going to be tougher than anything they have faced all year. J.T. Tiller must have a big game again against A.J. Price, as well as on the defensive end guarding the senior point guard who is averaging 21 points per game in the tournament. In the end, UConn will be too much for a Missouri team that got hot at the right time. UConn 78, Missouri 74
1. Pittsburgh vs. 3. Villanova
A battle of Big East foes awaits the East Regional Final and will put two teams together that are all too familiar with each other. Earlier in the year, Villanova defeated Pittsburgh at home and will look to do the same today. Villanova has used their depth extremely well while Pittsburgh has struggled. If they can not play better defense and slow things down on offense, Villanova will take this game. Villanova 82, Pitt 80
Well I went three out of four last night, not knowing that Missouri was going to absolutely embarass what I called a “great” Memphis defense. The Big East won the last three games of the night and will look to put two more of their own into the Elite Eight tonight. Here are Friday’s games.
1. Louisville vs. 12. Arizona
I have liked Arizona all year and they are truly the only cinderalla left in the Big Dance, but their run comes to an end tonight when they face the overall number one seed Lousville Cardinals. Terrance Williams has been outstanding and the Wildcats will have trouble guarding Earl Clark. This should equal easy buckets for ‘Ville, especially in transition against a much slower Arizona team. Louisville 81, Arizona 66
2. Oklahoma vs. 3. Syracuse
It will be interesting to see how Blake Griffin matches up against the 2-3 zone that Syracuse so often likes to go to. I do not think it will be an issue for him and look for him to have a big game, as well as Austin Johnson. I have liked him all year but he has not really busted out in a game yet. While it may be even tougher to do against Johnny Flynn, I smell a big one from him. In the end, Oklahoma will be too much with the tandem of the Griffins, Warren, and my boy Johnson. Oklahoma 78, Syracuse 77
2. Michigan State vs. 3. Kansas
It’s never a safe bet to go against Tom Izzo in the tournament, but I really like the Jayhawks. Sherron Collins always comes to play and Cole Aldrich is playing the best basketball of any big man in the tournament right now, notching a triple double in his last game. Michigan State won in East Lansing in theis matchup earlier in the year, but I like Kansas to get their revenge and move into the Elite Eight. Kansas 74, Michigan State 70
1. North Carolina vs. 4. Gonzaga
I was watching ESPN today and for some reason Gonzaga is getting a lot of love. Now whether it is based on their inability to stop crying over mid-majors or whether it is Ty Lawsons big toe, ESPN has no basis for this. Tyler Hansbrough is a man on a mission to get to the championship game and win it in his senior year, and a team that beat Western Kentucky on a last second shot will not get in his way. I have liked the Zags all year, but the run ends tonight. North Carolina 88, Gonzaga 80
For the first six categories, 17 of the last 19 national champs have fallen under ALL SIX prerequisites.
1. Play in a power conference
Obviously the Huskies fall under this category, and not only do they play in the Big East, but it’s the same league that brought a record three teams as one seeds to the tournament and has a record five teams in the Sweet 16.
If Notre Dame and Georgetown had met expectations, this league could have been in the argument for best conference of all time.
Still, UConn has faced the best of the best this year and despite two losses to Pittsburgh, the Huskies beat Louisville on the road by 17 and have wins over Syracuse and Marquette and Villanova.
Playing in the Big East has prepped them for any challenges they may face against other teams. This category also takes Gonzaga, Memphis, and Xavier out of the running for winning it all.
2. Make the tournament the prior year
Once again, UConn meets the requirement as they made the tournament as a five seed last year. Yes, they lost to San Diego State in the first round, but they were a much younger and much less mature team then.
I remember watching them at an ESPN Zone last year and they just didn’t seem to have the swagger that they sport this year. It is obvious they are much more comfortable this year, having more experience and all.
3. Have a coach with at least five visits to the NCAA Tournament
Hmm, will 20 visits do? Jim Calhoun, who picked up his 800th win this year, has been to the big dance 20 times and has won the whole thing twice. He has been in just about every big game situation that you can think of.
His record of 801-339 is unbelievable and, heck, he took Northeastern to five dances! Aside from maybe the NFL, I can’t think of another sport where a head coach is as valuable, and Calhoun does such a great job at it.
Not only does he bring in talent, but he uses it to the best of his ability and it turn creates national champions. Definitely book UConn in on this category.
4. Average 77 or more points per game in the regular season
“Defense wins championships” might be the cliche, but when you get down to the Elite Eight and Final Four, everyone can play defense. What wins you the championship is your ability to score and the Huskies can do that.
Known for their tight defense, UConn has scored 103 and 92 points in each of their games and shot 52 percent and 58 percent from the field in their victories.
While the competition was not very deep, they have easily fared the best out of all the 1 seeds and unlike the other top seeds, they haven’t had a close game. They average 78.5 points on the season and while this is barely over the clip, that’s all you need to be.
5. Win your games by a +10 margin in the regular season
This is the part where defense comes into play and the Huskies pass the test again, outscoring their opponents by 13.5 points.
Defensively, the Huskies have arguably the best defender in Hasheem Thabeet and great on the ball defenders in A.J. Price and the unheralded Jeff Adrien.
UConn played a great regular season, only being within ten points 14 times, with four of those being losses. While still having the scoring margin, UConn is great at closing out games when they are close (save the Big East Tournament).
6. Be seeded 1-4 in the NCAA Tournament
Clearly UConn has it here and, unlike last year, the one seed has given them some confidence that all one seeds should have.
Sure, having it is like having a bulls-eye on the front of your team’s uniform as everyone wants to take you down, but it is definitely an intimidation factor and gives the Huskies a little extra swagger in their step.
The next three categories are based off of my own research that I wrote on a few weeks ago. I’ll leave the link after the intro, but basically I went back and looked at the last 10 tournament winners (opposed to the last 19 in categories 1-6) and found individual stats that make winners. Here they are.
7. A point guard that, when his points and assists are combined, total at least 17, and a free throw percentage better than 70 percent. If free throw percentage is under 70 percent, points + assists must equal at least 20.
A.J. Price fits the bill in this category as his points and assists add up to 17.9 and he just gets over the free throw mark. But more importantly than stats, Price is “that point guard” that you want to have in the tournament.
Being a senior is huge (just ask Marquette) for team spirit and having a sense of direction on the court.
Price is putting up Dwyane Wade-like numbers in the tournament thus far, posting 23.5 points, 5.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals. Once again, the competition has been weak but Price has dominated.
He will be the key on offense and has done an excellent job up to this point. Once again, UConn puts in another category.
8. A forward/center that, when his points and rebounds are combined, total at least 17, and has a field goal percentage better than 52 percent.
An easy one here for the Huskies as they actually have two players that fall under this range in Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien. Thabeet quietly puts up 14 points a game while shooting 65 percent from the field.
Not so quiet are his 13 rebounds and 4.4 blocks per game that absolutely anchor the UConn defense and make it what it is. The non-stat that everyone talks about is his ability to alter shots and make the paint a place no one wants to come into when playing the Huskies.
His counterpart in the front court is Jeff Adrien who, if he played on most other teams in the nation, would be appreciated so much more. He averages 14 points and ten rebounds per game and shoots 60 percent from the field and works harder in the paint than anybody I have seen play this year.
The front court will be so important for UConn the rest of the way in the tournament, both on offense drawing defenders, and on defense in not allowing points in the paint.
9. Have a starting lineup with an average of at least a junior, OR have two of the best three players on the team be underclassmen.
The last qualification for a tournament champion is also the last one that UConn falls under. They are tied with North Carolina, Villanova, and Pittsburgh for the oldest starting lineup and this experience is something that will carry them.
They are not relying on young, skilled players (other than Kemba Walker), but rather experience and chemistry that they built up from time playing with each other. Also, the determination that seniors Jeff Adrien and A.J. Price will have with the “win or go home” mentality will push this team to greatness.
Breaking It All Down
When I look at this Connecticut team and how they have progressed all year, even when they lost Dyson, I see a team that can go all the way on skill, hustle, smarts, and coaching. Sure, the top dogs are still out there and this is one of the best Sweet 16’s that the tournament has ever seen.
However, with Price leading the way along with excellent contributions from Craig Austrie and Kemba Walker in Dyson’s absence, this team is starting to click. Adrien and Thabeet will clearly be key in their success, and when it’s all said and done, all these things will equate to a national championship in Connecticut.
The Midwest region has officially been deemed the “Upset Region”. The first round saw seeds 4,5,6,7, and 8 get knocked out and we will see at least a 12 seed in the Sweet 16 from this region. Louisville and Kansas got out to slow starts but pulled away in the end, while Cleveland State, Arizona, USC, and Michigan State rolled in their games. Siena and Dayton played games that pretty much went down to the wire. Round Two features excellent matchups and we will break them down right now.
1. Louisville vs. 9. Siena
Louisville played a dominating second half to crush Morehead St. while Siena played a tough, double overtime, fight til’ the end. I believe Louisville to continue to come out and run the court against the Bulldogs and Terrance Williams will continue to pace the Cardinals. In order for Siena to have a shot, they will have to continue their balanced style of play and try to shut down Williams and Earl Clark.
12. Arizona vs. 13. Cleveland State
It would be easy to say that Arizona should run away with this game, but after what Cleveland State did to Wake Forest, no one is safe against this team. Yes, Arizona played great in their first round game but Cleveland State dismantled the 4 seeded Demon Deacons, and don’t forget the game before that, they knocked off Butler. I think Arizona takes this one due to their better star potential, but it will definitely come down to the wire.
3. Kansas vs. 11. Dayton
If Dayton plays like they did in Round 1, an upset could be brewing here. Still, I like the Kansas backcourt to take over this game and don’t think Dayton will be able to keep up. Dayton’s keys to the game will be to continue to get Chris Wright touches and try to outrun the Jayhawks. If Kansas gets off to another slow start, it could spell doom this time around.
2. Michigan State vs. 10. USC
USC played very well in their first round game, but don’t expect that same kind of defense to be there when Michigan State rolls around. MSU played very solid defense and I believe they match up very well against the Trojans. While they are one of the hottest teams in the nation, I can’t see Michigan State having a letdown in round 2.
1. UConn vs. 9. Texas A&M
UConn looked like the best number one seed in Round 1, and despite A&M’s 58% shooting from the field, the Huskies should be able to shutdown the Aggies and move to Round 2. I expect big things out of UConn’s starting lineup in Round 2. It will be a test for them as forward Bryan Davis leads a tough A&M squad, but UConn is destined for greatness (check my bracket) and it won’t end here.
4. Washington vs. 5. Purdue
This game will be based entirely on how each team comes out and play. Neither team has a complete talent advantage so whoever establishes themselves will most likely come out on top. I believe the hotter team right now is Purdue, stemming from their Big Ten championship and steady defeat of Northern Iowa. JuJuan Johnson will be important in this one, going up against John Brockman in what should be a solid matchup. Purdue takes it in the end.
3. Missouri vs. 6. Marquette
Once again, expect a big write-up on this one tomorrow but to break it down right now, Marquette just isn’t playing very good basketball. Lazar Hayward showed what he is made of with 26 points but Jerel McNeal looked tired and Wesley Matthews couldn’t hit anything. That may have worked against a slow Utah State team, but Missouri loves to press and will run you to death. If things don’t change quickly for Marquette this one won’t even be close.
2. Memphis vs. 10. Maryland
I am still not very high on Maryland despite their impressive win over a very good Cal team, but did Memphis look bad or what? They sure didn’t get rid of the overrated label on Thursday and will need to play much better against their first power conference opponent in a long time. I think they have the talent to beat a team like Maryland, but will need to step it up later in the tournament.
1. Pittsburgh vs. 8. Oklahoma State
Pitt got a big scare in round one from East Tennessee State, but I’ll consider that their wake-up call. They better be on their game offensively as they face a red-hot Oklahoma State team that loves to run and score. OSU’s defense is a little porous so look for Sam Young and Levance Fields to have big games as Pittsburgh moves on to the Sweet 16.
4. Xavier vs. 12. Wisconsin
Bo Ryan finally beat a higher seeded team in the tournament, but don’t look for him to go 2-2 in this bracket. Xavier played much better than I thought they would and they used their size to their advantage very well. Wisconsin looked pretty good in their victory over FSU, but Florida State really lost it for themselves not capitalizing on some easy buckets. Look for Xavier to use their size and speed as they take down an average Wisconsin team.
3. Villanova vs. 6. UCLA
Just as Pitt did, I think Villanova got their wakeup call against a senior-laced American team. They now face off against a UCLA team that looked less than stellar in their win over VCU that ended up coming down to a last second shot. I look for ‘Nova to shoot early and often and really establish the 3 point line. UCLA will need to run their offense well and work the ball inside to have a shot.
2. Duke vs. 7. Texas
Texas has the potential for an upset in this one based on talent alone, but Duke has played well all year and too many people don’t give them credit because of their past failures in the tournament. This is a very solid team that is playing as disciplined as any other team in the tournament. This game could go either way but I think Duke will take care of the basketball better and is better equipped to play shutdown defense than Texas is.
1. UNC vs. 8. LSU
Here’s to hoping Ty Lawson ends up playing in this one because LSU looked very good in their opening round game. He is expected to play and North Carolina will look to continue their fast paced game like they did in round 1, leading to 101 points. LSU is a very athletic team but I just don’t think they can keep up with a team like North Carolina for 40 minutes.
4. Gonzaga vs. 12. Western Kentucky
This is a very interesting matchup because of Western Kentucky’s play in round 1 against Gonzaga’s early struggles. Unlike Akron, W. Kentucky will put a team away if they jump on them early and Gonzaga will need to be careful not to let that happen. I think Gonzaga will take this game on talent alone, but don’t be surprised to see the Hilltoppers in their second straight Sweet 16.
3. Syracuse vs. 6. Arizona State
Well Temple isn’t playing in this game, and I think Syracuse looked like one of the best teams in the tournament in round one. They got any shot they wanted and played excellent defense against a far less superior team in Stephen F. Austin. This will carry over against Arizona State, a team that didn’t look like world beaters against Temple. Syracuse is starting to play some excellent basketball at just the right time and I look for the Orange to roll in this one.
2. Oklahoma vs. 10. Michigan
Oklahoma won their first round game very quietly while Michigan really struggled to put away the Tigers of Clemson. While Michigan is much better than Morgan State, I think Oklahoma is good enough to ride Blake Griffin to at least the Sweet 16, and should have no problem defeating the Wolverines.
The NCAA tournament tips off Thursday with 16 games and another 16 on Friday. Yesterday we looked at the East and Midwest Regionals and today will be the West and South regionals.
1. Connecticut vs. 16. Chattanooga
My pick to win it all, the Connecticut Huskies, start the tournament off versus the tourney underdogs and will have no trouble. Expect the Huskies to run out in this one and get a big lead early. The Mocs were not supposed to be here and their tournament run will be short lived. Connecticut 82, Chattanooga 59
8. BYU vs. 9. Texas A&M
Due to the restrictions of BYU playing on Sunday, the selection committee had no choice but to put them in the 8 spot against the same team they played last year. Texas A&M got the best of the Cougars in round 1 last year as the 8 seed, but I see a veteran group of players in BYU getting their revenge this year, in a tight game no less. BYU 68, Texas A&M 64
5. Purdue vs. 12. Northern Iowa
Despite this matchup being the 5/12 matchup that always seems to provide upsets, Purdue will not falter here in this one. They are starting to hit their jump shots which could they make them dangerous in the tournament, and while their young age might catch up to them later on in the tourney, it won’t here. Purdue 74, Northern Iowa 62
4. Washington vs. 13. Mississippi St.
A very interesting matchup here, as the improbably SEC champions go up against a very little known team in Washington. It’d be nice to see the Bulldogs continue their streak, but I think Washington is very underrated. They play on the West Coast late at night so no one watches them play, but watch out for John Brockman. He could take this regional by storm accompanied by a very talented back court. I think Washington wins big in this one. Washington 78, MSU 66
6. Marquette vs. 11. Utah State
There will be a big write-up on this tomorrow, but biases aside, Marquette wins this game. Utah State is just way too slow of a team to keep up with a proven team of Marquette. Utah State won 30 games this year and defeated Utah at home on a last second shot, but Marquette’s talent level and speed will be better than any team they have faced this year, and they will get outrun from the get-go. Marquette 71, Utah State 64
3. Missouri vs. 14. Cornell
I had the (dis)pleasure of watching Cornell go up against the Lopez twins last year vs. Stanford in Anaheim, and this year will be the same result as they face Demarre Carroll and Leo Lyons. Missouri is a tough team to figure out, as they play outstanding at home but really struggle on the road. But just speaking on this game, it wouldn’t matter if this game was played at Cornell, Mizzou takes it easy. Missouri 68, Cornell 53
7. California vs. 10. Maryland
This was the hardest game of any first round match-up for me to figure out, so pardon me if I don’t have a lot to say on it. Both teams are semi-backing into the tournament and not playing their best basketball, and while Greives Vasquez is outstanding, I think Cal’s best is better than Maryland’s best, and teams tend to bring their best to the tourney. Give me Cal in a close one. California 72, Maryland 70
2. Memphis vs. 15. Cal St. Northridge
I laugh at a lot of analysts and my friends that say how overrated they believe Memphis is…and then have them beating UConn in the West final. I like to believe that this is the same “C-USA” that Memphis played in last year and dominated, only to lose in overtime to Kansas. Different team? Sure. But what it shows is that the talent is there and I expect a big run out of Memphis in the tournament…and in this game. Memphis 67, CSN 54
Who Wins the West Regional and Why? Marquette. Alright fine, just kidding. But this is a very interesting bracket that could go a bunch of ways. On one hand, you have my favorite team the UConn Huskies who struggled after Dyson went down but have that look and feel of a championship squad. Then you have Memphis who are waiting to show the world what they are made of. Missouri fits the bill of a lot of requirements for a national champ in terms of scoring differential and so on. Washington flies under the radar better than any team in the nation and Purdue has a ton of young potential. Marquette has three excellent scorers in Matthews, McNeal, and Hayward and may make a push with a nice draw (Mizzou, Memphis). In the end, I’m taking the Huskies. They are my national champions so I hope that they win the regional and make it to the Final Four. After round one I will do a write-up on why they will cut down the nets in Detroit, but to give you the short version, they have everything. Thabeet is a guy that will carry a team on his shoulders with his inside D. They have A.J. Price, the senior guard that has been through everything and is capable of going nuts on any given night. Stanley Robinson has been excellent as of late and there might not be a better third option in the nation than Jeff Adrien. Add Jim Calhoun to the mix and you have a team that can’t lose. Yes, Thabeet has the occasional off game, but I think he will buckle down and hold his own for 6 games. Just wait for it…
Who is the Biggest Sleeper? They might not be sleepers to win the regional, but Marquette got a fantastic draw in the brackets with potential 2nd round and Sweet 16 matchups against Missouri and Memphis. They lost 5 of thier last 6 games, but let’s not forget those 5 losses were against 3 #1 seeds and 2 #3 seeds. They led in the second half in 4 of those 5 losses, so it will be a matter of closing for the Golden Eagles. If they can keep McNeal and Matthews rested and not sucking air with 6 minutes left in the game, the Elite 8 isn’t out of the question for the Warriors.
1. North Carolina vs. 16. Radford
I’m sure that Radford is thankful that Ty Lawson is doubtful for Thursday’s matchup, but that’s about all they are thankful for getting matched up with the Tar Heels. Psycho T’s last chance for a national championship starts here, and North Carolina always steamrolls their Round 1 opponent, Lawson or not. North Carolina 92, Radford 61
8. LSU vs. 9. Butler
The Butler Bulldogs were probably looking at a 6/7 seed before they got upset by Cleveland State in their conference championship game, so here they are in the 9 spot playing a very quiet LSU team led by Marcus Thornton. This is a tough matchup to guage because Butler can play as well as most teams in the nation but don’t always show it, and LSU relies a lot on athleticism. I’ll take a more proven Butler team in this one. Butler 63, LSU 60
5. Illinois vs. 12. Western Kentucky
This is the best 5/12 matchup that I can find having a chance for an upset due to the injury to Illinois guard Chester Frazier. I haven’t been high on Illinois all year and Western Kentucky loves to spread the court, getting everyone involved and match up very well with Illinois. Western Kentucky 65, Illinois 62
4. Gonzaga vs. 13. Akron
Gonzaga is one of my sleepers in this bracket, especially if Ty Lawson’s big toe keeps acting up and he has to miss any time. I’ve seen Akron a few times on tape and they don’t look like world beaters and I think is Gonzaga is poised for something big this year. Don’t forget they led the nation in scoring margin this year, an important stat come tournament time. Gonzaga 74, Akron 60
6. Arizona St. vs. 11. Temple
Shhh…my official sleeper of 2009 that could very well bust on me in the first round. The Temple Owls are one of my favorite teams in the draft, and when I watched Joe Lunardi pick them to make the Sweet 16, I knew it was meant to be. I love what Dionte Christmas is about and think he is this year’s Stephen Curry. Believe me, he’s got the tools and Arizona St. is very overrated. Take the 5.5 points Temple is getting with ease also. Temple 72, Arizona St. 71
3. Syracuse vs. 14. Stephen F. Austin
It’s time for everyone to stop saying that Johnny Flynn or any of the other Orange are going to get tired because of the 6OT game followed by the OT win vs. West Virginia. All that epic game did was boost their confidence through the roof and make them feel like they could play with anyone (except Dionte Christmas). This team could fall as short as the second round or as far as the Final Four. Flynn has it within himself to do so, but either way they roll in round one. Syracuse 84, Stephen F. Austin 72
7. Clemson vs. 10. Michigan
As much as I hate the Big11Ten, and as good as I think Clemson can be, I have to make Michigan in this game. Big Blue has big wins over Duke and UCLA this year and Clemson has been way too inconsistent for my liking. The Tigers’ best is better than the Wolverines’ best showing, but I think Michigan and John Beilein’s squad come out firing in this one, led by Manny Harris. Michigan 73, Clemson 69
2. Oklahoma vs. 15. Morgan St.
Oklahoma is a very interesting team in this year’s tournament. I love what Blake Griffin is about and do not think the Kansas State comparison are fair at all. Willie Warren is an outstanding freshman and when he wants to be, Austin Johnson is tough to stop. The Griffin brothers will lead the troops into battle over Morgan St., but after that they will need to prove that they are more than just a product of the double-double machine. Oklahoma 78, Morgan St. 60
Who Wins the South Regional and Why? In my opinion, the South has the teams with a) the best talent (UNC), b) the best player (Blake Griffin), c) the hottest team (Syracuse), d) the biggest upset special (W Kentucky) and e) the biggest sleeper (Gonzaga) of the tournament. That being said, it will come down to whether or not Ty Lawson is healthy for the Tar Heels. As the Florida State game showed, they are not outstanding without their star point guard and they need him if they want to advance far. Hansbrough and the rest of the senior-laced squad can carry them to the Sweet 16, but they will need a healthy Lawson from there on out or it could be game over. I don’t think Oklahoma has what it takes to win the regional and Syracuse is bound to fade on their crazy hot streak playing the best basketball in the nation, which leaves one other team: the Gonzaga Bulldogs. They have quietly dominated this year and could come out of nowhere and take this regional by surprise.
Who is the Biggest Sleeper? Obviously I am going with Dionte Christmas and the Temple Owls. I can’t tell you enough how good this guy is. I watched him vs. Tennessee earlier this year when he dropped 35 on the Vols and fell in love with him. Bill Raftery was having way too much fun with the “Christmas” puns during the game, but all I saw was a fierce competitor and a solid supporting cast, especially Ryan Brooks and Lavoy Allen. I think they beat the Sun Devils and after that, Syracuse really does not have an answer for Christmas (Devendorf and Rautins don’t play great defense) and you could see an 11 seed jump into the Sweet 16. From there, we all know it’s about staying hot. I’m just saying…
Who Wins the Final Four and Why? All four of these teams know how to turn it on at the right time which is why I chose them to get to Detroit. If Wake Forest wins it, it will be because all that talent has found their groove at the right time, as well as Jeff Teague lighting it up every game. For UConn, it will start with Hasheem Thabeet and what he is able to do in the tournament. We saw that a big man like Greg Oden can get a team to the National Championship, and that Ohio State team was not as good as this UConn team, despite their record being better. A.J. Price will need to run this team and UConn’s big role players will need to step up, and I believe they will. For UNC, it will be Ty Lawson’s health status and whether or not his big toe his healthy. The talent is there but the offense starts and ends with Lawson. For Villanova, much like Wake Forest, they will need to stay hot and keep shooting well from outside as well as Dante Cunningham pacing them from the inside.
In the end, UConn will take the cake due to their outstanding balance and senior point guard leadership. Yes, they lost to Pittsburgh twice this year, but they crushed Louisville and Marquette on the road and beat Syracuse, Villanova, and Gonzaga this year. The ability to beat anyone is there and I believe Jim Calhoun will have these guys ready. It hasn’t been the pick everyone is talking about (everyone is taking Louisville and North Carolina, it seems) but I just get that gut feeling that they will do it this year. Price and Thabeet get it done, Dyson or not.
It’s the greatest time of the year and I believe the second best day in the sports world (behind only the NFC and AFC Championship games), it’s the NCAA First Round that starts in a couple hours. Good luck on your brackets and enjoy the games!
The NCAA tournament tips off Thursday with 16 games and another 16 on Friday. Today we will take a look at the first round in the East and Midwest regionals, as well as breaking down the winner, followed by the West and South regionals tomorrow.
East Regional, Round One
1. Pittsburgh vs. 16. East Tennessee State
I actually thought that East Tennessee State got snubbed with the 16 seed and that it should have gone to Cal State Northridge. Not that it would have made much difference, as Levance Fields and Dejuan Blair will look to jump out to an early lead to get some rest for round 2 as Pittsburgh will roll in this one. Pittsburgh 84, ETSU 55
8. Oklahoma State vs. 9. Tennessee
This is a fantastic 8-9 matchup because Oklahoma State has been a much more consistent team all year, but when Tennessee is on they are better than Oklahoma State. It will be interesting to see which team comes out stronger here, but I think this Tennessee team will come out strong in such a meaningful game and win in a shootout. Tennessee 84, Oklahoma State 80
5. Florida State vs. 12. Wisconsin
I don’t think that Wisconsin played well enough to earn a tourney spot this year and I don’t think they will upset the Seminoles in the dreaded 5/12 matchup that everyone talks about every year. Florida State has been playing great with Toney Douglas at the helm and as a team, the Seminoles are holding teams to .386% from the field. Florida State 64, Wisconsin 58
4. Xavier vs. 13. Portland State
Portland State loves to run the floor and shoot the 3 ball which could set up a potential upset here, and with a win over Gonzaga this year and a loss to Washington by 1, I smell upset. Yes, size has been an issue all year for Portland St. and Xavier has one of the bigger starting lineups in the tourney, but they have struggled as of late and Portland State is red hot right now. Upset special: Portland State 75, Xavier 74
6. UCLA vs. 11. VCU
I think this matchup will end up being one of the best and one of the closest games in Round 1. On one hand you have a Virginia Commonwealth team that has all the qualities of an 11 seed poised for an upset (72 points per game and a winning margin of more than 6 at 8.6) and then you have one of the most experienced teams in the tournament with UCLA. The few times I have seen them play, the Bruins have not looked all that great and I think guard Eric Maynor and center Larry Sanders will knock off the Bruins. VCU 78, UCLA 75
3. Villanova vs. 14. American
14 seeds averaging under 76.5 points per game are just 2-55 in the tournament and after this game it will be 2-56. Villanova is too strong for a small American team that almost upset Tennessee last year. Scottie Reynolds and his back court counterparts will come out firing and crush the Eagles, especially because this game will be played in Philadelphia. Villanova 76, American 57
7. Texas vs. 10. Minnesota
Texas has been one of the most inconsistent teams all year but I like the talent that they have on this team and think they can put it all together and make a little run in the tournament. Minnesota was lucky to get into the tournament and, although I like their defense, I don’t think they can score with Texas. Texas 72, Minnesota 65
2. Duke vs. 15. Binghamton
If you are looking for a 2/15 upset anywhere in this year’s bracket, this is it. And no, not because I think Duke will have a letdown like they almost did last year vs. Belmont. Rather, Binghamton is playing the best basketball of any of the 15 seeds, winning 11 in a row. Still, this Duke team is loaded this year and much better than last year and will win this one, but not as easily as most think. Duke 72, Binghamton 58
Who Wins the East Regional and Why? The East Regional features a lot of inconsistent but talent-heavy teams such as Oklahoma St., Florida St., Tennessee, Texas, Duke, and UCLA. A lot of these games were tough to pick because of the talent the losing teams had. As is the case in most tournament games, seeing which team comes to play in certain games will make all the difference. As for the winner, it came down to a Big East match up for me between Pittsburgh and Villanova. Pitt will breeze its way to the Regional Final, while Villanova will have its hands full with a veteran VCU team and an always dangerous Texas team (and if not that, Duke). In the end, I think Villanova will take the cake in the final and move to the Final Four. They beat Pittsburgh early in the year and, although it was a much different Pitt team (pre-UConn wins), I think Villanova is a team that is near impossible to beat when they are on their game. The inside-outside of Scottie Reynolds and Dante Cunningham is tough to beat and their young role players have done an excellent job this year.
Who is the Biggest Sleeper? A team that I could see sneaking into the Elite 8 has to be Florida St. They have looked so good this year and are led by Toney Douglas, a senior, which always makes life easier. They beat North Carolina this year after the heart-breaking buzzer beater from Ty Lawson earlier in the year and have looked excellent at times. They are coming into the tourney after a loss to Duke, but they match up well with Pitt if they were to get there and they are capable of playing great basketball.
Midwest Regional, Round One
1. Louisville vs. 16. Alabama St./Morehead St.
For the record, I like Morehead St. to beat Alabama St. for the right to get a butt-kicking from the overall number one seed Louisville Cardinals. Louisville is fresh off a Big East Tournament Championship and should roll against whoever they play with the consistent play of Terrance Williams and Earl Clark. Louisville 86, Morehead St. 63
8. Ohio State vs. 9. Siena
As all the 8/9 matchups seem to be, this game will be very hard to pick. Ohio State was a few missed shots away from the Big Ten Championship and seems to be getting hot at the right time, while Siena has the experience and determination to play with anyone. The Bulldogs had the second toughest non-conference schedule in the nation, playing Tennessee, Pittsburgh, and Kansas this year. Ohio State will not be able to keep up with Siena. Siena 71, Ohio State 66
5. Utah vs. 12. Arizona
A lot of people are overlooking the Utes and thinking about Arizona in terms of knowing the prestige behind the school. But don’t overlook it: this Utah team is good. Combine that with Arizona backing into the tournament, losing 5 of their last 6, and I think Utah has a chance to take this game. Luke Nevill will lead the squad into battle and try to shutdown Arizona’s Jordan Hill on the low post. In order for Arizona to win, their big 3 of Budinger, Hill, and Wise will need to be on their game and try to shut down the 7’2″ Nevill. In the end I think they end up pulling out the victory by a hair. Arizona 72, Utah 70
4. Wake Forest vs. 13. Cleveland St.
I have watched a lot of Wake Forest this year and they are my one sleeper to go very far in the tournament this year, especially getting a Sweet 16 matchup (potentially) against the smallest 1 seed in Louisville. Cleveland St. has been a great story this year and I love the hustle and aggresiveness they play with. However, Wake Forest is just too good and poised to make a run this year. Wake Forest 75, Cleveland St. 67
6. West Virginia vs. 11. Dayton
I have seen Dayton play just one time this year and it was against Xavier in a game where they were outplayed on every level and never really in the game. I loved their resume and never thought they got enough credit, but they got a bad draw playing, in my opinion, the best 6 seed. West Virginia is starting to turn it on and their young players are maturing at a great time ever since their upset win over Villanova. This is a potential Sweet 16 team. West Virginia 70, Dayton 62
3. Kansas vs. 14. North Dakota St.
Bill Self and his young Jayhawk team have had way too much unexpected success this year to have a letdown in the first round. Kansas looks to rebound the ball and get the offense going and that is exactly what they will do against a smaller NDSU team. Still, I could very easily see an upset occurring here if the Jayhawks play sluggish. The Bison put 4 seniors in the starting lineup that average 12, 19, and 23 points per game and are one of the best 3 point shooting teams in the nation, shooting 41% from deep. Expect a close one here. Kansas 79, North Dakota St. 70
7. Boston College vs. 10. USC
Boston College is another team that I am really liking this year and could sneak into the Sweet 16 when it is all said and done. Led by the back court of Tyrese Rice and Rakim Sanders, this team will shoot from the outside until the clock reads 0:00, and they do it well. With wins over North Carolina and Duke this year, this team has played well against solid competition all year long. As for USC, they are on a roll right now, but inconsistency has hurt them and I think their run ends here against a very underrated BC team. Boston College 71, USC 68
2. Michigan State vs. 15. Robert Morris
Tom Izzo in the NCAA Tournament being overlooked. Nuff’ said. Michigan St. 70, Robert Morris 49
BREAKING IT ALL DOWN
Who wins the Midwest Regional and Why? The Midwest Regional features the overall #1 seed, the defending champions, 10 conference tournament winners, and arguably the best head coaches in Rick Pitino, Bill Self, Tom Izzo, and Bob Huggins. The clear favorite in the Midwest Regional has to be the Louisville Cardinals. They just won the Big East Tournament and have not lost since February 15th. But I think that’s where they are in trouble. They are on a tear right now, winning 12 in a row against some pretty good competition, and have looked unstoppable over the last month or so. However, if you think about what Lousiville would need to do, win 6 more games in a row, to win the tournament, it seems unlikely. Teams like Kansas, Wake Forest, and Michigan St. did not win their conference tournaments and that had “bump in the road” already occur. Louisville hasn’t had a bump in the road since their game at Notre Dame and that was over a month ago. I could easily see them in the Final Four with how they are playing right now, but something tells me it isn’t going to happen. Because of that, I like Wake Forest to come out of the Midwest. Led by Jeff Teague, they are an incredibly fast and athletic team that can shoot the jumper but also pound it inside. They have great inside presences with Al-Farouq Aminu and James Johnson and will outrun you to death. Don’t forget, this team started the year off 17-0 with wins over Duke, North Caroloina, Clemson (twice) and Florida State. Not many people remember that this team was #1 overall for quite a while, and they have the kind of team that I for to go deep into March.
Who is the biggest sleeper? If you don’t want to count Wake Forest as a sleeper, look no further than West Virginia. Bob Huggins is an excellent tournament coach and he has his players hitting their stride at a perfect time. The team is very young, but his freshman have matured greatly and with senior leadership in Alex Ruoff, they could go far. They got a favorable matchup with a Dayton team that hasn’t looked sharp as of late, and in the second round a Kansas team that has lost 2 of their last 3 games.
West and South Regionals will follow tomorrow with a Marquette preview on Thursday, as well as reactions from Day 1…..
Every year, painstaking hours go in to countless amounts of brackets, trying to figure out which team will come out on top in the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Do you go with the consistent team of seniors, the fast paced, high scoring team, or the shutdown defensive squad that will be in every game? It’s a tough question to answer year in and year out, because if it was easy Las Vegas would be out of business. But to make the process a little easier (luck still being very much involved), I think I have narrowed down the four most important factors in determining who will win the NCAA Tournament. Now remember, multiple teams may have these four factors, but it is who can act on them the best that will hoist the trophy at the end of each year in April. I have looked at the last 10 NCAA winners, dating back to the 1999 Connecticut Huskies and looked at what made these teams so well round and put together. From there, I found the four factors that are ranked in order of importance.
1. A point guard that, when his points and assists are combined, total at least 17, and a free throw percentage better than 70%. If free throw percentage is under 70%, points + assists must equal at least 20.
2. A forward/center that, when his points and rebounds are combined, total at least 17, and has a field goal percentage better than 52%.
3. Have a starting lineup with an average of at least a junior, OR have 2 of the best three players on the team be underclassmen.
1. A point guard that, when his points and assists are combined, total at least 17, and a free throw percentage better than 70%. If free throw percentage is under 70%, points + assists must equal at least 20.
To me, this is the single most important factor when looking at teams that I believe have a chance at winning the NCAA Tournament each year. It’s the reason that Marquette is struggling so much without Dominic James and the reasons Connecticut and Pittsburgh have enjoyed the success they have had this year. Don’t forget about Davidson last year, either. Yes, Stephen Curry was fantastic but his point guard, Jason Richards, led the nation in assists and was a key component to the Wildcats doing so well in March. It’s true that the point guard position goes a lot deeper than points, assists, and free throw percentage, and that stats like A/TO ratio, field goal percentage, and even intangibles need to be taken into account. However, there is a pretty sharp correlation based on the three stats I chose, and if you think about the point guards on the list below, they had just about everything a national championship was looking for. Going to that chart, the last ten national champions have point guards that have fallen underneath this category. The reason I put the last part into the equation was because Jay Williams and Raymond Felton would not have had the credentials to fall underneath this factor, and they were arguably two of the best three point guards on that list. If you shoot under 75% from the charity stripe (which I consider to be a solid free throw percentage), you had better make up for it in any other way that you can, and clearly Williams and Felton did so, with Williams averaging over 21 points per game and Felton averaging 7 assists per game. Taliek Brown from the 2004 UConn Huskies did not make the cut, but you have to take into consideration who was around him. Ben Gordon dished out 4.5 assists per game and he had Emeka Okafor in the post, who was the best player in basketball that year. If you do not have a point guard that falls under this category, it would be important for that team to have a big man equivalent to Okafor (see Oklahoma later). Looking at this year’s tournament teams ranked 1-5, there were six teams that do not have a player on their roster that would fall underneath this category. They are Xavier, Louisville, Utah, Oklahoma, Gonzaga, Missouri, Washington, and Purdue. If you want to include Terrance Williams in the debate, then Louisville would be off of this list, but still the fact that 8 of the top 20 teams in the tournament lack a point guard worthy of taking his team to national championship is surprising. As I said earlier, there will be multiple teams that have a certain factor accomplished, and of those 12 teams in the top 20 of the tournament, this is how each player ranks: The last thing to remember here is that it really isn’t a huge deal where you rank on this list, but rather just that you are on it. For example, Levance Fields and A.J. Price are ranked 9th and 10th on that list, but when push comes to shove I am taking either of them over the majority of the guys ahead of them on that list. Also, if you refer back to the top, Mateen Cleaves is lower on that list than Kalin Lucas is, and if you were to ask most Michigan State fans, the comparison right now is really not that close. Also on the above table, Mario Chalmers has one of the lowest combined score, yet we all know how important he was in the tournament for the Jayhawks.
2. A forward/center that, when his points and rebounds are combined, total at least 17, and has a field goal percentage better than 54%.
Coming in at a close second place to the most important factor in the tournament is a presence of a big man. Not only does he give you high percentage shots, but can also lure in defenders that leave jump shooters open and can shut down teams in the paint on defense. If a team has a solid big man, it can change the way that the game is played and how the other team prepares for him. You look at this year and Tyler Hansbrough has been a nightmare for defenses, DeJuan Blair comes out of nowhere in his first game vs. UConn to truly show how important a big man can be, and also Hasheem Thabeet, affecting just about every offensive possession teams have against the Huskies. Just as it was for the point guard spot, this factor misses a few elements that some would argue are more important such as blocks, fouls and the always important intangibles. But once again, a player that can do well on the offensive end usually has talent overall, and as you will see every guy on this list has a passion for the game that will take his team deep into the tourney if everything clicks. Going back to the past 10 tournament winners, it amazed me how every team (except the Michigan State Spartans) had an absolute force inside. There wasn’t one player on the list that I didn’t think about and say, “Wow, he really did make the difference for that team in the tournament”. All the way from Emeka Okafor’s dominating performance, down to Darrell Arthur shutting down Joey Dorsey in the championship game before getting him to foul out. It’s debatable that this is even more important than having a stud point guard. The big boys in the front court are more consistent on a game-to-game basis, permitting they do not get into foul trouble and at times can change more parts to a game than a smaller guy could. Another thing to note for teams that do not have a big man but have solid guard play, the Michgan State Spartans did not have much of a force inside but used their guard play of Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson, and Charlie Bell to will their way to a title, so don’t be upset if your team did not make the cut for this year’s tournament. Also, the 52% field goal mark was chosen based on this year’s big men and how they have shot from the field. Clearly from the last 10-year mark, the players that cut down the nets were higher than that for the most part. Moving forward to this year’s top 20 ranked tournament teams, the only teams that do not have a player to fall under this category are Duke, Memphis, Washington, Florida State, and Louisville. Just as it was for the guards, ranking is not that big of a deal, but rather being on that list means that you have the minimum credentials for what we have seen to be national champions come April. Also, one quick note is that there were a few teams that had two player fall under this category and they were Oklahoma (Tyler Griffin), UConn (Jeff Adrien), Gonzaga (Austin Daye), and Syracuse (Paul Harris).
3. Have a starting lineup with an average of at least a junior, OR have 2 of the best three players on the team be underclassmen.
Everyone knows that it is vital to have a team that has been to the tournament or has some big game experience. Young teams that have not been together as long do not have the same chemistry as a Pittsburgh or a Marquette or a North Carolina. They also most likely have not played in as big of games as the NCAA Tournament and definitely not on the same national stage. What I did for this factor was consider the last 10 national champions and how young or old they were when they won it. Simple math says that Freshman = 1, Sophomore = 2, Junior = 3, and Senior = 4. For all but three teams, the starting lineup average was over three. For the three teams that did not fall under the same category, they all had sophomores or freshman that led the team in scoring or could be considered the team’s best players. Those were Duke in 2001, who had four sophomores including Jay Williams, Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy to go with senior leader Shane Battier, then came Syracuse in 2003 that was clearly led by freshman Carmelo Anthony and underclassmen Hakim Warrick and Gerry McNamara. The third team to fall under an average of a junior were the Florida Gators, who had four sophomores. Those sophomores were also the reason the team won the national championship in Al Horford, Corey Brewer, Joakim Noah and point guard Taurean Green. The other seven national champions had an average that was greater than a junior, so what I decided was that, despite the disadvantage a younger team has, if their young players are really that good then they should be taken in as having the experience factor because clearly they are being thrown into the line of fire right away and succeeding at it. Out of this year’s tournament teams, the teams that did not fall under this category were Duke, Florida State, Kansas, Wake Forest, Oklahoma, Syracuse, Washington, Illinois, and Purdue. Out of those teams, the ones that still make the cut (2 of the 3 best players are underclassmen) are Duke, Kansas, Wake Forest, Oklahoma, Syracuse, and Purdue. That leaves the only teams that are inexperienced in the wrong places being Florida State, Washington, and Illinois. The graph below shows each team above a “3 average” and who is the oldest.
If I had to make a fourth factor in who does well in the tournament, it would probably come down to either head coaching, perimeter jump shooting, or free throw shooting. Anyways, these are my big three factors and I will break this down and tell you what it means for this year’s tournament and who is going to succeed, but to end the blog let’s take a look at each team and see how many check marks each team received in the factor department. In regards to the experience factor, if a team fell underneath the sophomore rule but passed the test, I counted it in the tally and there is an asterisk next to their number. And the last thing I want to preach to anyone out there reading is that these are simply numbers based on the last ten years. The numbers may be different from the last 20 and there is a chance that Louisville can win the national title. All this shows is that Lousiville does not the same make-up of a team that won the title 10 years ago. I think that Lousiville could potentially be a Final Four Team, but what these stats show, based on my factors, is that the Cardinals will not be hoisting the trophy come April. Enjoy and leave me comments!