As it always seems as we get closer towards the end of the year, the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference is up for grabs and will be given to a team that, in all reality, does not deserve to be there. This year’s lucky contestants include the Detroit Pistons, Chicago Bulls, Charlotte Bobcats, and Milwaukee Bucks and Indiana Pacers. For the sake of argument, I am throwing the Bucks and Pacers out of the argument as they are both three and a half games out with seven games to play in the season. As for the other three teams, the Pistons currently stand at 36-38, a game up on the Bulls and two games ahead of the Bobcats. Let’s go ahead and break down all three teams and see who will come out on top in the East standings, and get those coveted first round matchups against the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Orlando Magic.
Detroit Pistons, 36-38, 7th in East
My oh my, what a season it has been for the Detroit Pistons. Expected by many to compete for the Eastern Conference crown, Michael Curry has had this team under-achieving all year and are fighting just to stay alive in the playoff hunt. The big news came when they traded for Allen Iverson on November 3rd, a move made to give the Pistons that “star” player that could carry them in the playoffs. What they lost in the deal has turned out to be a much bigger deal in Chauncey Billups. The Nuggets have Billups running the show in Denver and currently stand at 48-26, good for 3rd place in the Western Conference. Iverson has not meshed well with the team all year and have survived on Rip Hamilton’s outstanding season and Rodney Stuckey’s breakout year. The Pistons have eight games left on their schedule with just two games against teams with a winning percentage over .500, along with crucial games against the Bulls and Bobcats. Five of their games are on the road, where the Pistons are just 17-19, but when this team is on they play the best basketball of the three teams in discussion. Here is a breakdown of how I see the rest of their games playing out:
@ New Jersey- W
@ Philadelphia- L
@ New York- W
New Jersey- W
@ Indiana- L
@ Miami- L
Final Record (projected): 41-41
Chicago Bulls, 36-40, 8th Place in East
The Bulls have been an interesting team all year that have been led by the presence of rookie Derrick Rose and the great play of Ben Gordon and the emergence of Tyrus Thomas. Trade deadline transactions of John Salmons and Brad Miller have also helped the team in March. Chicago won seven of eight starting on March 14th but have dropped two straight to Toronto and Indiana and now find themselves in a tight race to end the year. To finish their year, five of their last six games are at home and they play just one team with a winning record. On paper, it seems as though the Bulls will take the final playoff spot, but I’m not so sure that it’s a given this team will find its stride going into the playoffs. Key games include at home versus Charlotte and at Detroit that could decide if they play in the second season. Their great home record of 24-12 should help secure a spot, but it will be close and the game against Charlotte will be important.
New Jersey- W
NY Knicks- W
@ Detroit- L
Final Record (projected): 39-43
Charlotte Bobcats, 34-40, 9th in East
The Bobcats are a very interesting team that also have really had two different seasons. In early December, Jason Richardson was traded in return for Raja Bell and Boris Diaw. Bell has been alright, but the story has been Diaw, who has been outstanding and brought the Bobcats back into the playoff race. The Bobcats have gone 27-23 since the arrival of Bell and Diaw but probably have the hardest road to the playoffs of the three teams mentioned. They play six road games to just two home games and play four teams with a winning record. Still, winning three in a row including wins over Philadelphia and the Lakers has this team rolling at the right time and will stay in the hunt until the finals game.
@ Boston- L
@ Detroit- L
@ Oklahoma City- W
@ Chicago- W
@ New Jersey- W
@ Orlando- L
Final Record (projected): 39-43
Looking at the standings, it will take an excellent performance from the Charlotte Bobcats to sneak in the playoffs but it isn’t out of the question. They are playing very well right now and the Bulls are in a bit of a lull. Winning on the road is never easy but it is something they will need to do if they want to get into the playoffs. Detroit should be in and it makes sense as they are the best team out of these three. Time will tell.
Jerel McNeal, 19.8 points, 3.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists
It was going to be almost impossible for Jerel McNeal to live up to expectations when the season started, but like has done for the last four years, he surprised us once again. In a year with many ups and downs, the constant remained McNeal with his scoring presence, tenacity on defense, and overall team leadership.
He started the year very slow during non-conference play, and it almost seemed like he played to his competition. Wesley Matthews rushed out of the gate in Buzz Williams’ new system, but even though Jerel averaged just 17 points per game, no one panicked. While his game was not really struggling in the early portion of the season, it just wasn’t the take over mentality that the Golden Eagles had expected from the senior. All that changed once he took the court in conference play. He had 24 points in a huge win over Villanova on New Year’s Day and had that magical performance from long distance in the Cincinnati win, connecting on all seven three-pointers he took. After a 16 point performance against Rutgers (that Matthews really dominated), he would go on to score 20+ points in nine straight contests on his way to breaking George Thompson’s scoring record at Marquette University. McNeal also had a career high in assists with 4.5 and really improved his all around game, using his driving ability to open up perimeter jump shots.
As it was for every player on the Marquette team, the injury to Dominic James drastically changed McNeal’s play. When the senior point guard went down, McNeal knew it was going to be on him to keep the team focused off the court, as well as keeping them in games on the court. McNeal’s play really struggled to end the year after James went down, albeit against very good defenses in Connecticut, Louisville, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse. Still, his shot towards the end of regulation against the Orange on senior day was the McNeal that Golden Eagles fans remembered and will definitely go down as one of his many memorable clutch shots.
In the NCAA Tournament, McNeal struggled against Utah State for much of the game, looking sluggish and tired. However, when Marquette went down six late in the game, a light must have went off in his head that this was do-or-die and it was on his shoulders to make sure his team would survive. He ended the game with just 14 points, but down six he connected on his next two shots and, along with Wesley Matthews’ bucket, put Marquette up for good in the game. In the second round, he was unstoppable and was the reason the game was close all the way up until the final buzzer. He went off for a career-high 30 points while making clutch free throws and deep three pointers all game. As he did all year, his three pointer at the end of the half was huge for Marquette, bringing them within 11 and giving them some momentum that they clearly used to open the second half.
There were times where McNeal looked very average in the year, mostly after the injury to James. Whether it was trying to do too much or try to compensate for what the team had lost, he looked out of sync to end the year, rightfully so. He was asked to basically take over the point guard role (in the sense of running the offense) while still being asked to put up 20 points every night and play lockdown defense. He will go down as Marquette’s leading scorer and one of the best to ever don the Marquette uniform, and this whole year was the MVP’s One Shining Moment. GRADE: A
Wesley Matthews, 18.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.5 assists
If there was ever an unsung hero of a team, Wesley Matthews described it perfectly. So much of what he did over the course of the year went semi-unnoticed because of the play of McNeal, James, and even Hayward. Still, it always seemed like the last thing Matthews wanted was praise and that flying under the radar suited him perfectly.
Matthews came out of the gates firing to start the year, averaging 26 points in the first three games and gave a preview of what was to come from the 6’4” senior in Buzz’s new offense. He was no longer just a bystander in the offense, going through the motions and taking set jump shots. Rather, he had the freedom to run the fast break and draw fouls, something he did better than anyone on the team.
He definitely played second fiddle to McNeal, but that did not mean that he underperformed in any sense of the word. If it weren’t for Dante Cunningham from Villanova, you can bet that Matthews would have taken home Most Improved Player in the Big East. While he did struggle after the James injury, he still continued to carry on and do his best to make sure the Golden Eagles didn’t break. He was the ultimate competitor, and at the same time was just another kid having fun playing basketball. He never tried to be bigger than the game and always let the flow of the game come to him. To show this, look no further than the Georgetown game in the Bradley Center. McNeal had been constant the whole game and Hayward had 14 points in the first half. With the game knotted up at 42 coming out of halftime, Matthews found his rythym and exploded for 23 points in the second half in a huge win for the Golden Eagles. He didn’t force shots or try to find attempts that weren’t there, but instead he waited for good shots and made them when he had them.
Matthews will be such a memorable face to Marquette’s legacy and his breakout season this year proved why. He was a force on the glass and played great defense against competition usually bigger than him. What he did with his opponent was take him off the dribble and draw fouls, which ended up giving him the all-time lead for free throws made in a Marquette jersey. It was a fitting end for him against Missouri, scoring 24 points and throwing down dunks that showed that he wasn’t going to give up until the final buzzer had gone off. GRADE: A-
Jimmy Butler, 5.6 points, 3.7 rebounds, 0.9 assists
Butler was a junior college transfer from the same school Joe Fulce was from and not many people knew what to expect from the 6’6” sophomore. Early on, they thought they were getting a player not ready for the Big East and one that surely would not crack the rotation when the Golden Eagles got into the dog days of the season. Butler struggled mightily to start the year, looking lost on offense and slow on defense. The peak of his struggles came in the Villanova game late in the season when he fouled out playing very lazy defense, as well as missing his only shot from the field.
His performance against the now-Final Four bound Wildcats also prompted me to write “The Case for Jimmy Butler”, where I compared his performance this year against other players on the bench, as well as his month-by-month progression. Well he sure made me look good by exploding over the next two months to become one of Marquette’s key rotation players and first man off the bench.
He played extremely scrappy basketball, cleaning up the boards and being on the receiving end McNeal and Matthews drives to the hoop. His defense improved and he seemed to get faster as he got more comfortable while in the game. Every game, he would do something to show his improvement and got better as time went on. A 19 point performance against Villanova in the Big East Tournament capped off a great season in which he went 13-16 from the free throw line. On the year, he shot 76% from the stripe and 51% from the field.
Next year, he will be a key ingredient to a very young Marquette team. While he might not start, expect him to log 25 minutes a game and come in during key stretches in the game. If he can improve his jump shot he will be able to contribute at three positions (2, 3, and the 4). GRADE: B-
Joe Fulce, 1.4 points, 1.1 rebounds, 0.3 assists
Fulce showed a lot of promise early in the year before an injury sidelined in for quite some time. Despite big minutes in the Providence win, he did not get enough experience early in the year to crack the rotation. Next year, he will get more of a chance if he is able to stay healthy and should be in the rotation as Buzz Williams goes deep into his lineup. GRADE: D-
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
In my actual bracket, I picked 11 of 16 teams correct to advance past the first weekend. In my predictions, however, I was spot on going 16 for 16. With eight games on the table over the next two days, I’ll try to give some insight on what I see going down from here on out. First up are the Thursday games followed by Friday’s action, broken down tomorrow.
1. Connecticut vs. 5. Purdue
Just as it would be for any team playing Connecticut, Purdue has had a much harder path to get to the Sweet 16. Close wins over Northern Iowa and Washington puts the Boilermakers in a potition to take on the Huskies of Conecticut, who defeated Chatanooga and Texas A&M by an average of 41 points, and have looked the best out of any team in the nation thus far. I like Connecticut in this game (and every game) because of the pace the Huskies will play at. They are much faster than Purdue but have the presence inside with Thabeet and Adrien to slow it down if they have to. Defensively, I like for another stifling performance from the Huskies that will shut down Purdue’s star in the making, JuJuan Johnson. A.J. Price should have a good game offensively as he has done in the tournament up to this point and I think UConn rolls in this one. Connecticut 77, Purdue 67
1. Pittsburgh vs. 4. Xavier
A battle of the bigs awaits us in the East semi-finals, with DeJuan Blair and B.J. Raymond. While Raymond is just 6 feet 6 inches, he plays much bigger and will cause problems for the Pitt defense who has struggled all tournament on the defensive end. Key to the Panthers success will be Sam Young, who carried the team in the first two rounds, averaging 23 points. Look for Levance Fields to have a great game against a bigger but slower back court in Xavier. This one will go down to the wire, but in the end Pitt’s experience and talent will get it done as the Big East gets their second team into the Elite Eight. Pittsburgh 82, Xavier 78
2. Memphis vs. 3. Missouri
Memphis probably got rid of their overrated label when they defeated Maryland 89-70 in the second round, and you can bet they will get rid of it if they can knock off Missouri tonight. Tyreke Evans is establishing himself as an early candidate for Most Outstanding Player of the tournament and Roburt Sallie, who averaged 5.7 points per game in the regular season, has 48 points in two tournament games to spark the Tigers of Memphis. The other Tigers, from Missouri, will look to get Demarre Carroll and Leo Lyons involved and hope that the Mizzou guards can do just enough to get by against a very tough Memphis team. In the end, Memphis takes this one by a hair. Memphis 72, Missouri 70
2. Duke vs. 3. Villanova
In what looks to be the most exciting game of the day, the red-hot Wildcats will look to shoot their way past the defensive-minded Blue Devils. Villanova looked terrible in their first round win over American but more than made up for it in their crushing win over UCLA. Everyone got involved with six players in double figures, and when that happens they are tough to beat. Duke will counter with a poised attack of Jon Scheyer, Gerald Henderson, and Kyle Singler. The difference will come down to whether or not Villanova can find their three-point shot, something they have yet to do in the tournament. I have them in the Final Four so I have to stick with them: Villanova takes this one. Villanova 85, Duke 79
The 2008-2009 Marquette Golden Eagles are a thing of the past, losing to the Missouri Tigers in the second round of the NCAA Tournament this past Sunday.
In a three part segment, I will break down each position and hand out grades based on last year’s performance for each individual player. Because Marquette really plays a 3-guard, 2-forward lineup, the three positions will be broken down as such: Guards, Wings and Forwards/Post Players.
First up is the guard position and the players being graded will be Dominic James, Maurice Acker, David Cubillan and Rob Frozena.
Dominic James, PG, 11.0 points, 3.4 rebounds, 5.0 assists
James was enjoying his best defensive season and most efficient offensive season when his season abruptly ended against Connecticut with a broken foot…or so we thought. James made an incredible return for the second round of the NCAA Tournament and, while his box score line was not fantastic, the fact that he played revealed perfectly the determination that he showed this year and has always had.
Offensively, James started the year off with a completely different mindset than he had ever taken at Marquette, becoming a pass first point guard that Buzz Williams needed in his run n’ gun offense.
James wound up averaging 9.9 shots per game on the year, well below his 3-year average of 12.5 shots per game. Instead, he realized that he had three fantastic scoring threats in Wesley Matthews, Jerel McNeal, and Lazar Hayward and he found them early and often, leading to his average of five assists per game.
He also took care of the ball much better, averaging 1.9 turnovers on the year, compared to his 3-year average of 2.5. That says a lot about a guy who wound up taking less shots and became a pass first point guard, yet had the fewest turnovers of his career.
Because of these two factors, his assist-to-turnover ratio was 2.67, good for third in the Big East and 13th in the country. But James’ new style of play did not mean he wasn’t able to hit the big shot, as seen by his 3-pointer against NC State with 0.4 seconds left.
On the other side of the ball, James was an absolute monster on defense. Not only did he lead the team in steals at 2.1 per game, but he also brought his fouls per game down as well. His ability to create turnovers in games was key for Marquette’s style and led to many fast break opportunities in transition.
He recorded a steal in all but three of the games he played in and had games of six and seven steals. Two plays that stick out in my mind about James’ play on defense was against West Virginia when the Mountaineers had just come out of a timeout to stop a Marquette run, and James pick pocketed Darryl Bryant (I believe it was him) as soon as he took his first dribble and took it in for an easy layup.
The second was against Seton Hall early in the second half. James was staring a three-on-one break right in the face, but he timed it beautifully and blocked an attempted layup, secured the rebound, took it the length of the court before dishing to an open Wesley Matthews for a layup. It’s plays like those that make him so unforgettable and so fun to watch.
James gave you a little bit of everything from frustration to elated joy, and from crushing moments like his injury to UConn to mass hysteria like his return in the tournament. The numbers next to his name in the box score might have been down, but the final score at the top of it was usually in big part to due James and was the reason he was arguably the most valuable player to Marquette’s success this year. GRADE: B+
Maurice Acker, PG, 2.8 points, 1.4 rebounds, 1.8 assists
I am sure that if you asked Maurice Acker how his year was going before the Connecticut game, he would have told you that he was enjoying coming off the bench, spotting Dominic James and coming in for his defense.
Well, five minutes into the game, his role and importance went from 12 minutes a game to give James a breather to 30 minutes a game to finish off what his senior point guard never got to do.
For the majority of the year offensively (pre-James injury), Acker was not asked to do much as he never took more than six shots in a game. Outside of the Presbyterian game in which he recorded ten assists, he never had more than four in a game and was more just a passer in the offense that looked for Matthews and McNeal to drive.
However, after the injury to James his status on the team, especially on offense, changed. His shots per game went from 2.28 to 4.45 after the injury and his assists per game went from 1.5 to 2.9.
Acker was clearly a downgrade from the injured James, but without him Marquette’s back court would have been a mess. He came in to make six of seven free throws against a Wisconsin team where every point mattered and hit three 3-pointers in the furious rally against Villanova to highlight his offensive plays of the year.
While his offensive numbers went down and for a few games he looked too bad to put in even for defense, Acker straightened things out and ended the year nicely on offense. Even more than his numbers, his importance on offense was huge and he gets a passing grade for that.
Acker made his money on defense, the reason he came into most games at certain situations. The one game that no one will forget Acker for was against Notre Dame’s Kyle McAlarney, when the junior shut down one of the nation’s best 3-point shooters throughout the whole second half. McAlarney finished the game with nine points on 3-12 shooting and 1-6 from downtown, and it was Acker’s denial defense that really threw off the flow of the game for the Fighting Irish.
While his job of running the offense was important in James’ absence, almost just as important was replacing the defense that James brought every game. Acker struggled somewhat on defense against the much bigger competition but was always pesky and made it tough on opponents, forcing them to take jumpers by not being able to drive by him.
Overall, Acker’s presence in the lineup was as important as anyone else’s and, like James, the box score might not have shown it but he stepped into a role that no one expected him to succeed in, and he did just fine. GRADE: B-
David Cubillan, SG, 1.6 points, 0.5 rebounds, 0.7 assists
For whatever reason, David Cubillan was not part of Marquette’s success this year and did not fit into the rotation much.
This in turn led to the Venezuelan being off rhythm in any spot duty that he did get. Much like Acker, however, his role did change somewhat when Dominic James went down with a broken left foot and he filled in nicely.
Offensively, “Cubi” had always been known for having a decent outside jump shot, but that was about it. That could have been one of the reasons why he failed to see the court this year. Post-James injury, his role changed from spot duty to Acker’s former role of 11-12 minute stints per game, playing lock-down defense and taking care of the ball on offense.
Hopefully next year he will come back healthy and ready to contribute to the team, although with a lot of talented guards coming in, playing time may be scarce again. GRADE: C-
Rob Frozena, SG, 0.4 points, 0.6 rebounds, 0.0 assists
Frozena had a much improved year, picking up his first field goal of the year and pulling down seven boards on the year. His free throw percentage took a dip but he still entertained the crowd with his late-game sub-ins and will look to do more of the same next year. GRADE: D+
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.
Free Agent Signings
Player: Anthony Smith, FS/SS, 6’1″, 200 lbs.
Why? Smith has already been signed by the Pack and he will bring some depth to a safety position that really lacks it. Charles Woodson was forced to see some time there last year and it really threw things off. I don’t expect him to start but depth is never bad in this league.
Player: Jarett Bush, CB/ST, 6’0″, 200 lbs.
Why? Tennessee originally signed an offer sheet for the special teamer, but the Packers matched it and, although I don’t agree with it, I have learned never to doubt Ted Thompson. Bush will bring depth to the defensive back position and is a solid special teamer.
Player: Michael Montgomery, DE, 6’5″, 275 lbs.
Why? With the Packers switching to a 3-4 scheme next year, Montgomery has a chance to find a spot at the defensive end position (despite being a little undersized). He has contributed solidly since he has been here and hopefully can find a spot in the new defense.
Player: Mark Tauscher, RT, 6’3″, 316 lbs.
Why? I have heard a lot of people saying that we should not bring Tauscher back, but when you look at the options, he is the safest bet going into next year. It’s a crapshoot to say that we will be able to bring someone in via draft and I don’t think Thompson is going to find one in free agency. Coming off the knee surgery, he should come cheap and will be a stopgap for the next year or two.
#9. Player: B.J. Raji, NT, Boston College, 6’2″, 337 lbs.
Why? I believe the draft will see Stafford, J. Smith, Curry, Crabtree, Brown, Orakpo, Maclin, and A. Smith go before we pick, leaving us with NT B.J. Raji. Raji is exactly what the Packers are looking for as they start to build on the 3-4 defense and will come in right away to start, while rotating with Ryan Pickett. After a strong senior bowl week, Raji’s stock has gone down a little, but Ted Thompson can’t pass on the future foundation of this defense.
#41. Player: Clint Sintim, OLB, Virginia, 6’3″, 255 lbs.
Why? The Packers continue their overhaul of the new 3-4 defense by bringing in a player that has experience in it. Sintim played in a 3-4 and will have the chance to start right away opposite Aaron Kampman. He seems a likely fit for the Packers as he won’t have to make the position switch like the top-of-the-line tweeners in this draft.
#73. Player: Xavier Fulton, OT, Illinois, 6’5″, 300 lbs.
Why? Remember Mark Tauscher being the stopgap for the next year or two? Well here is his replacement. Fulton is similar to Jason Smith in that he came into college as a defensive end (different position), but his athleticism moved him to the tackle position. He played left tackle in college but with his solid speed, I think he can make the transition to right tackle for the Packers. He is perfect for the Packers zone blocking scheme.
#83. (from NY Jets) Player: James Casy, TE, Rice, 6’4″, 235 lbs.
Why? Donald Lee is not the answer at tight end and I have my doubts about Jermichael Finley. Casey is an intriguing prospect, getting drafted by the White Sox to play baseball before coming back to football. Because of it, he is 25 years old but is a solid hybrid player that can line up anywhere on offense. Thompson has selected at least 2 receivers in every draft and I’ll consider this one of them.
#109. Player: Kevin Barnes, CB, Maryland, 6’0″, 184 lbs.
Why? The Packers have some very young talent in the secondary (Tramon Williams, Nick Collins, Pat Lee) but it doesn’t hurt to have one more with the aging Al Harris and Charles Woodson starting. Barnes is a speedy corner that will succeed in man-t0-man coverage for the Pack.
#145. Player: Aaron Kelly, WR, Clemson, 6’5″, 204 lbs.
Why? Teddy loves his wide receivers and Kelly could become a great red zone threat with great size and pretty good speed (4.49). He will have to fight to make the team but if Ruvell Martin is not brought back it will make it much easier for him.
#182. Player: Ryan Stanchek, OG/OT, West Virginia, 6’4″, 298 lbs.
Why? Thompson will really like Stanchek’s versatility and smarts in the zone blocking scheme. You can never have enough offensive linemen and he could be a sleeper in this situation.
#187. Player: Andrew Gardner, LT, Georgia, 6’7″, 304 lbs.
Why? Chad Clifton is not far behind Mark Tauscher at the exit door, so the Packers bring in a project that will provide depth for the aging tackle. With great size, Gardner should make the team and, once again, add another body to practice and be able to come in if injury were to occur.
#218. Traded for a 2010 6th round draft pick…
NOTE**Ted Thompson loves to trade back and I would almost guarentee that we trade our second round pick unless there is someone that Thompson loves. This would give us 3 third round draft picks and I am sure Ted would love to have that. As for the 9th pick, it’s time for the Packers to get a difference maker instead of depth.
The clock read 0:00, and as much as Buzz Williams yelled, kicked, screamed, and fought it, Maurice Acker wasn’t going to get four free throws. In a two minute span that seemed more like 20 minutes, Marquette went from being up four to down four as they fell to the Missouri Tigers 83-79 in Boise.
The game brought an end to much more than a second round game in the NCAA Tournament, but rather an era at Marquette University and the Golden Eagles program that will not be forgotten for some time.
I’ve only had the privilege of being a Marquette Golden Eagles fan for about a calendar year, but the joy and fantastic memories they have brought to me as a sports fan is insurmountable.
The Golden Eagles’ season started in a conference room in Bloomington, Ind. on April 3 where Tom Crean had just accepted the job as Indiana’s next head basketball coach. Say what you will—that the move was warranted or that he left his seniors out to dry—no matter how you look at it, his leaving hit the Marquette community where it hurt.
Fast forward one week to Apr. 8 and Buzz Williams had taken over the reigns and agreed to become Marquette’s sixteenth head coach in the school’s history.
Fast forward another week and recruit Nick Williams opts out of his commitment to Marquette, and a week after that Tyshawn Taylor had committed to Kansas after originally planning to go to Marquette. In between all this, Scott Cristopherson transferred to Iowa State, leaving the Golden Eagles another man down. All before May!
Buzz Williams and his staff had the opportunity to let this season slip away and start fresh in a year, but with a perfect attitude for winning, Buzz buckled down and assured the team that this year was their year and to make the most of it, literally day-by-day.
Highlighted by three seniors in Wesley Matthews, Jerel McNeal, and Dominic James, the season kicked off with a 95-64 clobbering of Houston Baptist. Marquette struggled to find its identity in losses to Dayton and Tennessee, and entering Big East play, the team was unsure if their undersized roster could get the job done. What they showed over the next two months was that heart is truly measured in intangibles, not inches.
All it took was a pre-game pep talk from Buzz Williams to get his seniors fired up. He let them know they had never started 2-0 in Big East play, and wins over Villanova and Cincinnati followed.
Seven games later, I wonder if Buzz let them know they had never started 9-0 either.
The doubters were there all year, especially after wins versus Georgetown and Notre Dame that don’t look as big anymore. The losses to South Florida and Villanova brought critics in packs, saying that the Golden Eagles just weren’t in that elite “Big Four” in the Big East. As the end of the year rolled around and “the gauntlet” approached, Marquette fans were feeling good that they could take at least the bookends of the five game stretch, Georgetown and Syracuse, and maybe steal one in between.
Well, one broken fifth metatarsal later, the Golden Eagles were looking at a team without its star point guard and without any direction. The gauntlet came and went and, as expected, they struggled mightily without their team leader.
Anyone who doubted the importance of James on the court was suddenly silent, and everyone wondered what was next on the roller coaster.
In the Big East Tournament, a dominating win over St. John’s showed the Big East what this team was capable of, especially on defense, and despite the heart-breaking loss to Villanova, there was a sense of togetherness back on the court that had not been seen since the injury to James.
The roller coaster of a season continued as Marquette drew a No. 6 seed in the tournament versus a little known, 30-win team from Utah State. Lazar Hayward provided us with a little preview of next year as he went off for 26 points and 8 rebounds, while the team’s poise and patience really showed in the last four minutes of the game. Down six, Marquette furiously rallied back with McNeal and Matthews and took the game from the free throw line, connecting on their last 10 from the stripe. A second round match up against Missouri ensued, and while the outcome wasn’t what Marquette fans had hoped for, the ending brought good enough closure for most of us.
The unfortunate loss closed the book on a Marquette team that faced more ups-and-downs than any other team in the nation, and a team that handled it better than any other team in the nation would have.
McNeal went out the way we all wanted him to, matching a career high in points and carrying the team on his shoulders the whole game. Matthews put in 24 points, highlighted by two emphatic dunks that all too well described his nature on the court: ferocity and never-ending competitiveness. James, in an unbelievable return, sparked the team and gave every Marquette fan watching the game chills all over as he subbed in.
I don’t care how many touches he had in the game CBS. I care about the way he carried himself, healed his injury four times faster than expected, and the way he ended his career: bald-headed, wearing No. 1 on the court with his senior brothers. Burke quietly pulled down 10 boards in his last game as a Golden Eagle, seemingly fitting for a guy that has never received the praise he deserved. Just remember who this guy had to go up against over the last four years as the “big man” on the team. We might remember Burke for the times we yelled at him for not holding on to the gosh darn ball, but as a whole he always did what was asked of him.
As I said, I didn’t get to watch these seniors for more than a year, but the mark they left in my heart will be there forever. We will remember these seniors as graduates who kept Marquette’s spot on the map and who didn’t back down in the face of any adversity that came their way. The man who recruited them and had stood by their side for three years was suddenly gone and some guy who had coached New Orleans to a 13-14 record at one point, was taking over. You can bet the NBA looked pretty sweet at that moment for the Big 3.
But the seniors made a pact, whether they knew it or not, to come back and make the 2008 Marquette season one to remember, and boy did they ever.
It doesn’t matter that they only made it past one round in the NCAA Tournament or that they “under-achieved” in some people’s eyes. No one will remember that. What they will remember is Matthews’ unforgettable smile and breakout senior season, James’ ultimate leadership and shutdown defense, McNeal’s record-breaking performances and clutch shooting, and Burke ’s dirty work.
Their legacy will live on as one of the best senior classes to come out of Marquette, but don’t think that their work on the court is done. McNeal, Matthews, and James all have a chance to wind up playing at the next level, and you can bet you’ll get much of the same talent, tenacity, and will to win out of these guys, no matter where they end up.
As for the rest of the Golden Eagles, they have a very tough act to follow. Hayward will lead the troops into battle next year in his senior season and should do a fine job. He played beyond anyone’s expectations this year, and for anyone upset about the line violation at the end of the Missouri game, remember the reason that we moved on and played in that game. Hayward’s 26 points and 8 rebounds paced us against Utah State, and he also kept us in the game in the first half against Missouri. Like he has been all year, he was also given the difficult task of guarding the combination of Leo Lyons and Demarre Carroll, both with size advantages on him. Just as it had been for Burke, Hayward didn’t get the credit he deserved on a guard-oriented Marquette team, but continued to produce regardless of the lack of accolades.
Jimmy Butler will continue to get better, just as he did the second half of the year and will be able to contribute at three spots if he works on his jump shot. Maurice Acker also gained valuable experience when he replaced James in the starting lineup and will use that next year to mentor recruit Junior Cadougan. Jeronne Maymon is the leader of Marquette’s 2009 recruiting class and is a special talent out of high school that Marquette has not seen in a while. Fresh off a state championship, Mr. Basketball from Wisconsin will come in right away for the Warriors.
Don’t get me wrong. Losing the school’s all-time leading scorer along with three other seniors is going to hurt Marquette next year, but if this year’s up-and-down season has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. For now, the four seniors pass the torch to next year’s team and beyond. They have set the bar high, on and off the court, and have forever changed the Marquette basketball program.
On that note, I close the book on this year’s Marquette team and will begin my focus to the NFL Draft and the start of the 2009 Milwaukee Brewers’ season. But before I do, I just want to say thank you one more time to the Marquette seniors. You made 4th and State rock like crazy 18 times this year, and we won’t soon forget what you have done for this program, school, and city.
Good luck in the future, you will always be Warriors.
He’s back. Without question, the storyline of today’s game is the return of Marquette point guard Dominic James. Just 3 and a half weeks after an apparent season-ending injury to his left foot, the 5’11” guard from Richmond, Indiana will be back on the court when the Golden Eagles face the Missouri Tigers in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Missouri defeated the Cornell Big Red Friday in commanding fashion 78-59, led by the front court attack of Leo Lyons (23 points, 10 rebounds) and DeMarre Carroll (13 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists) while also making 17 of 19 free throws as a team. Marquette, on the other hand, did not have such an easy time getting to the next round. They defeated the Utah State Aggies 58-57, led by junior forward Lazar Hayward who scored 26 points and hauled in 8 rebounds. Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews struggled, shooting a combined 6-26 from the field. Hopefully the return of James will give the wings a boost to their confidence as they have struggled mightily since the loss of their point guard. Buzz Williams has stated that James will not start and will play in 2-3 minute spurts, but having him in uniform could give Marquette that edge they need to take on a great Missouri team.
Offensively, Missouri will continue to run their offense through the front court duo of Lyons and Carroll. Carroll is faster and plays farther out from the post than Lyons does, but they are both very efficient on offense and should present problems for Marquette. In the back court, the Tigers sport three guards listed 6’3″ or taller that will keep the Golden Eagles on their toes, led by junior J.T. Tiller. Point guard Zaire Taylor isn’t going to make anything happen on his own but plays efficiently, turning the ball over just 1.2 times per game. Missouri goes about 3 men deep into the bench, led by three pointer shooter Matt Lawerence Lawrence is the third leading scorer on Missouri and his size (6’7″) makes him a difficult matchup. Missouri likes to keep the game at a fast-paced tempo, especially after creating turnovers on defense where the Tigers make their money. J.T. Tiller is touted as one of the best defenders in the country and will cause problems for Jerel McNeal all day. Carroll and Lyons won’t block a ton of shots, both averaging under 1 a game, but they play great man-to-man defense and use their big bodies to protect the paint. Missouri’s size will be key to forcing turnovers against a Marquette team that had a very sloppy first round win. They love to press at all times and keep the pressure on other teams to take care of the ball and beat them off the dribble. The keys for Missouri will be to get the ball inside to Carroll and Lyons and hope that their guards can force turnovers against a Marquette team that doesn’t cough it up (ranked 10th in the nation) and only get better with James back in the lineup.
The story for Marquette’s success will be how the team responds from the sudden news that Dominic James will play in today’s game. We all know that Wesley Matthews and Jerel McNeal have not been the same without their fellow senior, but hopefully McNeal will now be able to relax more and let the offense work around him to help him find his shot instead of the other way around. He has forced way too many shots and in turn has thrown off the rhythm of the offense as a whole. Having James to penetrate Mizzou’s defense will open up the shots that the wings got earlier in the year and I expect Marquette to hit a ton of threes while James is in the game. Lazar Hayward comes into the game with a ton of confidence after his 26-point performance in round one, and while he will have his hands full against Carroll, it’s the same kind of situation for the junior. Carroll likes to play outside and so Hayward should be able to play off the dribble just like he did against Utah State’s Tai Wesley. Knowing Dominic, he is going to want to play more than those 2-3 minute stints, but either way it makes Marquette’s rotation one man deeper. David Cubillan will see some minutes but you can bet James will take minutes from Cubillan, not Acker. I would assume James sees 20 minutes, Acker sees 17, and Cubillan sees around 6. I hope we see the Acker/James combination, but due to Mizzou’s size it seems doubtful. Marquette might be able to go to a 1-3-1 zone when James is in the game, which could be key for holding down Mizzou’s big men.
Dominic James may not have an impact in the box score, but how he affects McNeal and Matthews will be the difference in whether or not Marquette can stay in the game. McNeal can not have silly turnovers by playing out of control because Missouri will capitalize on them and turn it into points. I have faith Marquette can break Mizzou’s press fine, but they need to find better shots than they did in round one. Look for more Lazar Hayward screens to leave him open on the roll and hope that Dominic is healthy enough to penetrate and wreck havoc on the Missouri defense. In the end, Marquette comes up just short in a shootout. Missouri 81, Marquette 77
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.
Marquette has passed the test, and all I can say is thank God that the first round is over for the Golden Eagles. Marquette looked like a Final Four the first 15 minutes of this game, finding and hitting any shot they wanted and playing the best defense they have played all year long. Unfortunately, the next 25 minutes were the longest that the Golden Eagles have played to date. For some reason, the offense just vanished and they looked lost once Utah State went to the 2-3 zone. They still managed to pull out the win thanks to Lazar Hayward and solid free throw shooting down the stretch. Let’s take a look at Marquette individually and grade their performances.
PG Maurice Acker (1-4 fg, 5 pts, 1 reb, 2 ast, 2-2 ft) I thought Acker played a pretty decent game but never did anything special in the game. He didn’t attempt any 2 point baskets on offense but took care of the ball by not committing any turnovers. I would have liked to see a few more assists, but Marquette wasn’t hitting anything. He hit two free throws down the stretch and played decent defense against the much bigger Jared Quayle (6’1″). GRADE: B-
SG Jerel McNeal (3-10 fg, 14 pts, 3 reb, 2 ast, 7-9 ft) I don’t know what has gotten into Jerel, but he just hasn’t played the same since Dominic went down. He had the open shots today and still could not knock them down. He hit his first three point attempt and then missed his last four, but did an excellent job getting to the foul line late and ended up going 7-9 from the stripe. He turned the ball over 5 times and seemed a little out of control at times, something that we have seen since Dominic James went down. His defense was alright as the strengths of Utah State were down low, but if the Golden Eagles want to get past the second round they will need Jerel to score in the 20’s. GRADE: B
SF Wesley Matthews (3-16 fg, 11 points, 8 reb, 1 ast, 5-6 ft) Matthews has also been struggling from the field as of late and it sure didn’t improve today. He loves the deep three and I’m not so sure that’s the shot he should be looking for. He shoots almost 38% from downtown, which is fine, but he looks a lot more comfortable backing down defenders in the post and finishing with a drive or a turnaround jumper. The 8 rebounds were great and he was great from the free throw line, but overall Wesley’s game needs to get back to where it was in January. That means better shots, more drives to the hoop, and smarter passes. GRADE: C
PF Lazar Hayward (9-16 fg, 26 pts, 8 reb, 0 ast, 5-6 ft) Without question, the MVP of the game goes to Lazar Hayward. He came out of the gates firing, scoring the first 10 points for the Golden Eagles. From there, he played the pick and pop offense better than we have seen him do it all year. He also played great in post and had a few nice drives to the hoop, showing off his potential ability to play the 3 to NBA scouts. He came up with big rebounds and continued his great free throw shooting. If Lazar didn’t have the game he had, Marquette would most likely be packing their suitcases. GRADE: A
C Dwight Burke (0-1 fg, 0 points, 3 reb, 0 ast, 0-0 ft) Not a whole lot in the scorebook for Burke, but he was outstanding in the low post on Wilkinson. Most of Wilkinson’s points came against Hayward or outside 15 feet. Burke was great on the big man, and despite his drive that drew a charge early in the game he didn’t make many mistakes. It didn’t show up in the box score, but Burke had a huge impact on this game. GRADE: B-
6th Jimmy Butler (1-1 fg, 2 pts, 4 reb, 1 ast, 0-0 ft) Butler had his least efficient game since Dominic’s injury but still managed to log some decent minutes for Buzz and the Eagles. He managed 4 rebounds including what is becoming his signature put-pack off a miss and added two nice steals on defense. Defensively he did not play very well, allowing too many offense rebounds and he had a couple cheap fouls that we saw from him earlier in the year. I expect him to come back strong against a faster Missouri team, where he will get into the flow of the game a little easier. GRADE: C+
7th David Cubillan (0-1 fg, 0 pts, 0 reb, 1 ast, 0-0 ft) Not a lot to talk about here as Cubillan came in and played some good defense for Buzz. He took a jump shot off of a screen that probably wasn’t in the game plan and picked up a cheap foul, but overall he played just the way his role suits him to play. Look for him to log the same amount of minutes at the same times in the game against Missouri and beyond. GRADE: B-
Well Marquette fans, it’s finally here. The moment that every student, alumnus, coach, and player have been waiting for is upon us, as the Marquette Golden Eagles get their 2009 NCAA Tournament underway Friday in Boise, Idaho. They will look to win their opening round game for the second year in a row as they square off against the Utah State Aggies (30-4), ranked 11th in the West Regional. The Aggies are led by 26-year-old senior Gary Wilkinson, who is averaging 17 points and 7 rebounds per game for the year. He leads an offense that is ranked 324th in terms of pace and will use over 200 plays on offense. There are so many plays that assistant coaches hold up whiteboards with the specific names of plays on them, meaning Buzz and the rest of the MU staff better have done their scouting this week. Marquette comes in losers in 5 of 6 games, despite the losses coming against 3 #1 seeds and 2 #3 seeds in this year’s tournament. Still, Marquette knows that the losses were unacceptable and that there is no time but now to right the ship and get back on track. The game will feature two very different paces, and whichever team establishes their pace early have the advantage in what looks to be a very close game.
Just as has been the case all year long when playing Marquette, the front court for Utah State will be vital to their success, just as it has been all year long. The aforementioned Wilkinson dominated in the post this year, using his long arms and big frame to create space on defenders. He is undoubtebly their primary option on offense and the Aggies will look to establish him very early in the game. Surrounding Wilkinson in the starting lineup are the next best options in PG Jared Quayle and PF Tai Wesley. In an offense like Utah State’s, Quayle’s job is unbelievably important and the transfer has come in beautifully and ran the show. Wesley could provide big problems inside for Hayward, as his 240 lb. frame makes for a tough matchup when he posts up and pivots inside. On offense, Utah State will look to get the ball in the post and work from there, which could free up outside jump shooters Pooh Williams (38.8% 3pt) and Tyler Newbold (40.1% 3pt) for easy looks. Efficiency is the name of the game for Utah State as they are among the nation’s best in field goal percentage, so look for them to find the best shot possible and knock it down. They do not get a lot of possessions because of their style of play, but when they have them they make the best of it.
The Golden Eagles (or Bald Eagles) come in to the game today directed by Buzz Williams, making his first tournament appearance. Whatever you just read about Utah State, pretty much do the opposite and you have Marquette’s game plan. From the moment the ball is tipped, Marquette will try to keep the pace of the game up-tempo and faster than to what Utah State can react to. This will start with the play of Jerel McNeal and Wes Matthews on the wings as they still try to break out of their terrible shooting slumps. It has been said over and over again, but they need to realize that they are not Dominic James and that he isn’t coming back. Yes, the style of play has changed dramatically and they have been asked to do a whole lot more (despite Acker and Butler helping the cause), but they need to let the game come to them, especially Jerel. Going back to the game today, think back to the Syracuse game to what the Golden Eagles can expect to see out of Utah State. ‘Cuse played a very compact 2-3 zone that worked pretty well and forced Marquette to take outside shots which they failed miserably in (7-30 from 3pt). They will see more of the same and will need to connect on more of those to keep the pace fast and force USU to come out and contest those shots. While I give the Syracuse comparison, the Aggies are not as quick meaning that good passing should leave to holes in the 2-3 zone, leading to drives. They’ll need to attack the rim strong and try to get Wesley or Wilkinson in foul trouble because Utah State does not go very deep on the bench at all. *Note* I’d be shocked to see them stay in a man-to-man defense. Overall, the key component to tomorrow’s game will be keeping the pace up. Not only will that take Utah State out of their game but it is also something that they have not seen from any team this year. If Marquette can get this game into the high 70’s they should have no problem disposing of the Aggies.
It was very hard for me to do when predicting this game, but I can truly say that I took an unbiased approach to breaking down the game. Utah State won 30 games this year. 30! I don’t care what conference you play in because regardless it is an excellent feat. But I’d take 24 in the Big East any day, and Marquette’s level of competition has been far superior this year. Look for Jerel McNeal to go off in this game and break out of his slump versus a very slow Utah State defense. I know I have been calling for a big game out of Jerel (and I don’t count his Nova performance as big), but this has to be the game where he comes out. It’s no longer that you are done playing in Madison Square Garden if you can’t finish at the hoop, but rather being done in a Marquette uniform. Sure, it’s the same for Gary Wilkinson on the other end, but I can’t see a letdown from a team in Marquette that has more talent than their opponent. A lot of the tournament relies on patience and tenacity down the stretch, something that Jerel and Wesley have done throughout their Marquette careers. I look for Lazar to get to the elbow on offense and knock down those shots, while Acker will continue to step up his play. Marquette did an awsome job in transition on offense against Villanova, and Utah State isn’t even close to as fast as them. The Golden Eagles are going to come out firing, play good enough defense against the trickey Aggie offense, and take this game. Marquette 71, Utah State 64
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…..