Thursday March 27th, 2008

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- For my money, the first week is always the best week of the NCAA tournament, not least because there are so many games being played all the time. And while that's not the case in week two (which is why we're giving you some good reading links below to pass the time between games), I'm still psyched to be in Charlotte, the most stacked regional I've covered in years.

Think about it: East No. 1 seed North Carolina is the tournament's top-overall seed and (after last week's beatdowns of Arkansas and Mount St. Mary's) the most feared team in the land.

No. 2 seed Tennessee is the tournament's best two-seed and probably had a better résumé for a No. 1 seed than Kansas did. (Note that I didn't say the Vols were the the more dangerous team.)

No. 3 seed Louisville has been the most underrated team in the country for the past two months -- and a defensive nightmare for opposing teams. (The Cardinals were my surprise pick to reach the Final Four before the tournament, and they still are.)

And No. 4 seed Washington State merely decimated a Notre Dame team that several pundits picked to reach San Antonio.

Taken together, it's the highest-quality regional I've covered since the 2003 Anaheim Regional featured Arizona, Duke, Kansas and Notre Dame. Any four of the teams here in Charlotte could win the region (including Washington State, if they turn it into a Bennett-family redux of Wisconsin's 2000 Final Four run).

Me, I'm just tickled that my four pre-tournament Final Four picks are still alive in week two for the first time in years. Here's why I think these four teams will survive to San Antonio:

UCLA. The Bruins had the easiest draw when the brackets were released (Duke was a weak No. 2 seed from the start, and Xavier doesn't quite stack up to a fellow three-seed like, say, Wisconsin). But things got even easier for UCLA when Duke and UConn lost in the first week. UCLA has hardly been the nation's most impressive team in recent weeks, except in one important area: making clutch, game-winning plays down the stretch (with or without the help of the zebras). Keep a close eye on Kevin Love this week. If he continues his heroics from week one, he might just be Carmelo-izing the Bruins.

KANSAS. To me the only team in the Midwest Regional that can really give the Jayhawks a test is Wisconsin in the regional final. The Jayhawks just have too much firepower for Villanova or Davidson, but the Badgers should be able to stay close with their remarkable defense. Still, I think this is Bill Self's week to finally break through to the Final Four. Look out for Sherron Collins, who is really hitting his stride these days.

LOUISVILLE. A lot of people undervalued Rick Pitino's outfit because it came into the tournament on a two-game losing streak. But that didn't disguise the fact that the Cardinals' ridiculous defense (half-court and full-court), David Padgett's resurgence and Pitino's tournament experience were a good combination for a deep run. The 'Ville will have to earn it, though, by beating a quick-as-hell Tennessee team (which has some serious point-guard issues) and a North Carolina squad that's doing everything right these days. Don't make too much out of UNC's home crowd in Charlotte, however -- both Tar Heels losses this season came on their home court in Chapel Hill.

TEXAS. Like the East Regional, the South Regional has four teams that I could envision in San Antonio if things break the right way for them this week. No matter what happens to Memphis, I want to take a moment and congratulate the Tigers on a fabulous season. I've heard so much negativity this week about the Tigers, and I think people are forgetting they've only lost once all year -- in the last minute to a really good Tennessee team. All three of the South games are going to be close, but I envision Texas squeaking by Stanford (thanks to some Brook Lopez foul trouble) and winning a shootout with Memphis when D.J. Augustin and A.J. Abrams outduel Chris Douglas-Roberts and Derrick Rose in a game for the ages.

(Or something like that.)

Got some links for you to read during the day while you're waiting for the regional games to begin. First off, I got a good laugh from reading this spoof by John Frank Weaver in McSweeney's of Ernest Hemingway blogging the NCAA tournament. (I'm sure Bruce Pearl would take it as a compliment that he "should manage a cabaret dressing room."

Also, if you haven't had a chance to check out the SI Vault -- the new free database of Sports Illustrated going back to 1954 -- then what are you waiting for? When I started working at SI back in the mid-1990s, I'd find myself at the end of the workday opening the old bound-volumes of the magazine and reading classic stories by Frank Deford, Mark Kram, Dan Jenkins, Curry Kirkpatrick and a host of other amazing writers. (Often I'd check my watch and it would be two in the morning.)

And while I can't replicate the aged, musty smell of those red-covered SI bound-volumes, you can now enjoy the same reading experience on your computer.

From an SI writer's perspective the Vault is a godsend, giving new life to stories that you couldn't have read unless you took the time to go to your local library.

If you're looking for dynamite college hoops stories from this season and previous years, it's easy to search the archives of writers such as Alexander Wolff, Kirkpatrick, Deford, Jack McCallum, Phil Taylor, Kelli Anderson, Hank Hersch, Seth Davis, Luke Winn, Tim Crothers and several others.

I'll let those folks pick out which ones they'd like to link to in the future, but at the risk of self-indulgence I thought I'd pass along a few links (with commentary) over the next week to some of the favorite stories I've written over the years that are suddenly seeing the light of day again thanks to the Vault.

For now, here are some that have a connection to the games taking place this week:

• I had a blast working on this story I did earlier this season on the spread of the Dribble-Drive Motion offense developed by Vance Walberg and adopted by successful teams at every level of the game, including Memphis. I've had some readers write in recently to say Memphis' attack looks more like freelance ball than anything else, but there's a method to the madness. DDM creates lanes for drives, which are inherently free-form, and you'd be amazed how much instruction and drilling goes on in practice to hone the skillset needed for it.

• Gotta say I felt bad about interrupting Bruce Pearl's Labor Day with his four kids and their friends as they went out on the tricked-out family speedboat, but it gave me a fun lede for my feature last fall on Pearl. The customized Momo sound system on the Pearl boat has to be heard to be believed. I still don't think my eardrums have recovered.

• It's easy to forget how messed-up North Carolina basketball was when Roy Williams took over in 2003. It wasn't just that the team was struggling, but that the entire "Carolina family" was on the rocks. As Kenny Smith put it, "If you go to Thanksgiving dinner with your mom and dad every year and one year the turkey doesn't taste right, that's one thing, but we almost stopped having dinners." Now when you go to Chapel Hill in the summer you can still see the Carolina alums playing pick-up together. Williams has been the orchestrator of that revival.

• I haven't written any stories of length yet on Kansas' Brandon Rush, but in 2002 I put together a lengthy piece on his brothers Kareem (who was starring at Missouri) and JaRon (the former UCLA phenom who was struggling in the NBDL). Brandon makes a late cameo appearance in the story, and I can still recall (almost) meeting Brandon at his mother's house in Kansas City. I was there for two hours in the early evening, and Brandon spent the entire time ... asleep in his room. Guess he needed the Z's.

Enjoy the games!

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