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Five things we learned

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Five things we learned while trying to figure out why Tyler Smith disappeared in the second half against Louisville:

Louisville and North Carolina are playing better than any other teams in the tournament right now. And they're meeting in the East Regional Final, not the national title game. In a throwback to the 2000 regional final between Michigan State and Iowa State, Saturday's showdown between UNC and Louisville will match the two teams playing at a higher level than anyone else. I didn't think Washington State could be blown out, but Carolina found a way, blasting through the Cougars' lockdown defense and preventing WSU from making shots on the other end. Meanwhile, the Cardinals' defensive crackdown on Tennessee slowly broke the Volunteers, forcing Chris Lofton into a miserable 3-for-15 shooting night. We thought we'd get to see Louisville-Carolina in Las Vegas back in November, but BYU's upset of the Cards in the four-team tournament kept it from happening. That's OK. The way these teams are playing, we'll take it in March with a Final Four berth on the line.

UCLA keeps winning, but winning ugly.Kevin Love continues Carmelo-izing the Bruins (29 points and 14 boards vs. Western Kentucky!), but the Bruins need to put out a consistent 40 minutes of effort against Xavier if they want to show the country that they're serious contenders to win this tournament. Giving up 58 points in the second half to the Hilltoppers is a truly shocking statistic -- and something you never would have seen happen on UCLA's last two Final Four teams. If James Keefe hadn't come up with a surprise 18 points in 26 minutes, UCLA might not have survived against WKU.

The NCAA rewarded referee Curtis Shaw. You may remember our harangue last week of Curtis (Inspector Javert) Shaw, the out-of-control ref who tossed Stanford coach Trent Johnson against Marquette for the coaching equivalent of stealing a loaf of bread. There was no way in our mind that Shaw should have been rewarded for his performance by getting to work another tournament game, but that's exactly what happened. Shaw is working in Phoenix this week, and it sends a bad message that look-at-me refereeing is not only tolerated but encouraged.

The Magic Eight is looking pretty good (with one big concern). Loyal readers will know that in early January we came out with our annual Magic Eight, the eight teams from which we guaranteed the national champion would emerge. This is the eighth year we've put out the M8, and in all but one season (Syracuse in 2003) it's come through. We'll add the usual disclaimer: we like to go out on a limb with the Magic Eight, which is why we wanted to eliminate one of the Big Four (Kansas, UCLA, Memphis, North Carolina) in January. Long story short: We nixed UNC because it didn't defend as well as the other three.

How does the Magic Eight look with 12 teams left in the field? Not bad at all. Three teams are out: Tennessee, Georgetown and Indiana. But the remaining five are still alive: UCLA, Memphis, Kansas, Louisville and Xavier. We're not sure how many people would have included Louisville and Xavier back in January, so we'll take some dap for that. Then again, if the Tar Heels continue on their rampage and win it all, Roy Williams can go ahead and name our "guarantee payback."

The SI Vault rocks. 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, Kelli Anderson, 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 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 brothersKareem (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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