Feeling Sweet, Hoopheads? Of course you are. It's our time of year, and this is another week to soak it up. I'm sure devoted readers of this space are not surprised the Sweet 16 includes all the number 1, 2 and 3 seeds for the first time in tournament history. I've been writing for weeks that, for all the tumult at the top of the polls, this was still a very top-heavy season in college basketball. It's too bad there aren't more Cinderellas to spice up the dance, but there's a payoff ahead as we get a weekend full of games played by the most powerful and recognizable brands in college basketball.
Here, then, is my breakdown of the bracket. As usual, any similarities between my predictions and the actual course of events is strictly coincidental.
Looking back: First of all, since I was one of the many voices in the Arizona-shouldn't-have-gotten-a-bid chorus, let me give all due props to Russ Pennell's Wildcats for making the Sweet 16. I'm not a believer that a win or two automatically justifies a bid -- does Wake Forest's first-round loss mean the Deacs should have been left out? -- but Arizona has every right to feel good about what it has accomplished, especially after losing five-of-six down the stretch.
As for my Deacs, who I picked to go to the Final Four (me and my big mouth), their first-round loss to Cleveland State underscores the importance of having experience playing under elimination pressure. Those kids from Cleveland State had already been through multiple Horizon League tournaments knowing that a loss would mean the end of their season. They were used to playing under those circumstances, but the youngsters from Wake Forest were not -- and it showed. Oh, and if Jeff Teague still thinks he's ready for the NBA, he ought to watch tape from the last month of the season.
Looking ahead: I don't take Louisville's close escape against Siena as a sign the Cardinals are flawed. Quite the contrary: they came back to beat a really good team in a really big game. That shows me they are of championship mettle. The problem they will face in their next game is that, unlike Siena, Arizona has a quality big man in Jordan Hill. That means Samardo Samuels is not going to be as effective. (Samuels has had a terrific freshman year, but he tends to disappear against players who are bigger and stronger than he is.) So the question becomes whether Arizona's guards, specifically Nic Wise, can handle Louisville's full-court pressure for 40 minutes. If they can, then they will be right in the ball game.
Meanwhile, Kansas sophomore center Cole Aldrich is coming off one of the best games in NCAA tournament history, a triple-double against Dayton, but as the Spartans showed in shutting down USC's Taj Gibson, they have numerous bigs (most notably Goran Suton) who are excellent in defending the post. And they have a lot of them, whereas Kansas just has one. Advantage, Spartans.
The pick: Wise has been terrific at times, but he's also been careless with the ball -- hence Arizona's inconsistent play late in the season. Louisville has the ability to force Wise into committing mistakes, and the Cards also have the wings to make 'Zona pay in transition. That will be the difference. In the other game, Michigan State's strength up front, plus its veteran toughness in the backcourt, gives them the edge over Kansas. (If anyone can keep Sherron Collins in check, it's MSU's Travis Walton, one of my All-Glue nominees.)
Much like Arizona, Michigan State's Achilles' heel has been turnovers. That's why Louisville is such a bad matchup for them. I've wondered whether a team who is so suspect at the point can win a national championship, but Louisville has proven it has the chops to at least win two more games. The Cardinals will utilize their rapid pace and sprint to Detroit.
Looking back: Only in the NCAA tournament could a player like Memphis' Roburt Sallie, whose previous high was 13 points, come off the bench and score 35 while helping his team escape a wicked first-round upset. Think about it -- if Sallie only scores a career-high 20, Memphis bows out in the first round. Even though the Tigers had to feel good about walloping Maryland in the second round, this team is still much more of an unknown quantity than last year's team was at this time.
Purdue's JaJuan Johnson was the MVP from this region during the first two rounds. He was sensational against Washington in the second round (22 points, 4 blocks). I expected Johnson to have a good sophomore year, but not this good.
For the record, I think the pseudo-controversy about Mike Anderson subbing in Kim English for J.T. Tiller before the game-winning free throws is ridiculous. Tiller is a better free-throw shooter than English, plus he's a junior while English is a freshman. Now comes word Tiller may have broken his right hand but is refusing to have it X-rayed. What else would you expect from my All-Glue captain?
Looking ahead: Johnson did a terrific job against Washington's Jon Brockman. I don't know if you've noticed, but Hasheem Thabeet is no Jon Brockman. UConn is the only team in the Sweet 16 who didn't suffer through any kind of scare last week. That has to be a huge confidence boost. Maybe folks out there (OK, me) should stop wondering when this team is going to falter without Jerome Dyson. He has been out for a month now, but the Huskies continue to play fabulous basketball.
On the other side of the bracket, Missouri is the worst kind of matchup for Memphis because a) the Tigers enjoy playing up-tempo, and b) they enjoy playing defense almost as much as Memphis does. These two teams also have the same weakness: outside shooting. In the end, this game will come down to who takes better care of the basketball and who makes outside jumpers. Getting lucky down the stretch never hurts, either.
The pick: I had Memphis beating UConn in my original bracket. I might as well stick with that pick, but I'm certainly a lot less confident than I was a week ago. It will be a wildly entertaining game if that's the matchup we get. I give Memphis the edge because I think Tyreke Evans is a better player than A.J. Price. It's a lot to ask a freshman to outplay a senior in a regional final, but my sense is Evans is up to the task.
Looking back: I admit I was a little nervous watching Pitt struggle against East Tennessee State. I realize these things mean very little in the grand scheme of things, but as a general rule, I kind of like to see my championship pick make it out of the first round. Given that Pitt lost at Providence and later fell to West Virginia in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament, you have to wonder whether this team has lost the mojo it would need to win a title. That said, the main problem Pitt faced in those first two rounds was bad matchups. Aside from Levance Fields, the Panthers' perimeter players are not very good ball handlers. So it's natural they would struggle against small, quick teams who love to crank up the full-court pressure. And even though the Oklahoma State game was close, Pitt was pretty much in control throughout the second half. A win is a win, folks, especially during a one-and-done tournament.
There were more good games during the first two rounds in this region than any other. Probably the most interesting one was Duke's escape against Texas. This was exactly the kind of game Duke would have lost (and did lose) the last two years. The Blue Devils still have deficiencies at center and point guard, but if there was any question about this team's mental toughness, consider it answered. Also, I'm not normally a big believer your performance in a conference tournament correlates to how you'll play in the NCAAs, but I really think winning the ACC gave the Blue Devils a badly needed jolt of swagger.
Looking ahead: Is there any more exciting matchup than Duke-Villanova? We're talking two up-tempo, guard-oriented teams who play tough man-to-man defense. If they played 10 times, they'd probably split 5-5. In this case, I'm going to go with Duke because I have a feeling Kyle Singler will be the difference. 'Nova's Dante Cunningham has had a terrific year, but Singler is a better player, and in 7-1 junior center Brian Zoubek Duke has a serviceable reserve to play 10-12 minutes and shut off Villanova's drives to the basket.
Otherwise, East Tennessee State and Oklahoma State may have been tough matchups for Pitt because of their full-court pressure, but Xavier is not that kind of team. In fact, the Musketeers have much bigger problems at the point guard position than Pitt does. Since Xavier prefers a half-court, grind-it-out game, their mission now is to out-Pitt Pitt. That is hard to do.
The pick: Duke is a perimeter-oriented team, but while the Blue Devils' half-court defense is terrific, they're not a ball-pressure team like the first two Pitt played. I think the Panthers' guards will play a disciplined game against Duke. And as good as Singler is, Sam Young is that much better. The reality is, if Pitt plays Duke, the Panthers will only have to play the Blue Devils to a draw in the backcourt. That will enable DeJuan Blair to do his thing. Pitt marches on to the Final Four.
Looking back: For just one moment, I thought the Tar Heels' NCAA title hopes were done. Ty Lawson came up hobbling early in their second-round game against LSU, took off his right shoe, winced in great pain and put his towel over his head. A few minutes later, lo and behold, Lawson got back in the game and played great basketball -- again -- in leading North Carolina to the win. I remember sitting in Roy Williams' office back in October and hearing him joke about how Lawson actually got through a practice playing hurt, which he had never done before. Well, Lawson showed his toughness beyond a doubt last week, and that trait, even more than Lawson's blinding speed, will be North Carolina's most important asset moving forward.
Gonzaga's win over Western Kentucky was obviously the most exciting game in this region last week, but for my money the most impressive performance was turned in by Syracuse in its win over Arizona State. The victory wasn't spectacular, it was methodical -- and that's what made it so good. Syracuse is a great example that it's not always about having the most talent this time of year, it's about being the best team. Arizona State's primary weakness was a lack of inside strength next to Jeff Pendergraph. So what do the Orange do? They pound it inside to Arinze Onuaku, get Pendergraph into foul trouble, and call it a night. If they were playing a team that was strong inside, then Jonny Flynn would have scored 25 points. Whatever Syracuse has to do, it's able to do, and the chemistry between those guys on the floor is palpable.
Looking ahead: Gonzaga is dangerous because it always has five players on the floor who can make jump shots. Still, it can be frustrating to watch a team play with a pair of talented 6-11 forwards (Josh Heytvelt and Austin Daye) who play like they're 6-3 shooting guards. Gonzaga will try to outscore and outrun North Carolina, so good luck to them. If that game is a track meet, then Syracuse-Oklahoma has the makings of a wrestling match. Both teams have guards who can push the tempo and shoot, but both have quality big men should things grind to a halt. Given the stakes, he who grinds best will win.
The pick: Onuaku is obviously no Blake Griffin, but his physical presence, plus the help that will come from Rick Jackson and Paul Harris, should at least prevent Griffin from winning this game by himself. If that's the case, then this game will be decided by the guards, and that's where Syracuse will have the advantage. Meanwhile, much like Xavier will not be able to out-Pitt Pitt, I really don't think Gonzaga can out-North Carolina North Carolina. That sets up a Tar Heels-Orange regional final which, assuming Lawson is reasonably healthy, will mark one of the few occasions this season when Jonny Flynn will be going up against a superior point guard. Oh, and has anyone else noticed Wayne Ellington has been playing like an All-America the last six weeks? The Tar Heels are going to the Final Four, which means the quartet in Detroit will be comprised of three 1 seeds and a 2. It's been that kind of year, Hoopheads.