Friday March 7th, 2008

The First Five
I never thought I'd be talking up North Carolina in March because of Quentin Thomas, but that's the kind of month it has been for the Tar Heels. The ankle injury that sidelined starting point guard Tywon Lawson for seven games is a classic example of how a team can benefit from a setback. In the games that Lawson missed, Thomas -- who as the third-string point guard was pressed into action because the original backup, Bobby Frasor, tore an ACL in December -- had 48 assists and 26 turnovers. He is still an adequate point guard at best, but he is infinitely better than he would have been had Lawson remained healthy. Freshman forward Will Graves also got more minutes in Lawson's absence, while the remaining players all had to player harder and smarter. Lawson, meanwhile, has two games under his belt and can go into the NCAA tournament with fresh legs. North Carolina will need to play tougher defense than it did during its first meeting with Duke, when the Blue Devils shot 13 for 29 from three-point range and won by 11. But the bottom line is Lawson did not play in that game, and that was the only game the Heels lost in his absence. The team Lawson has returned to is better than the one he left.
North Carolina 80, Duke 76
No. 5 Kansas (27-3) at Texas A&M (22-8)
I don't know that there's a harder team to figure out in the country than Texas A&M. Here's a team that scored 98 points in a win over Texas Tech, then followed that by scoring 37 in a loss at Oklahoma. The Aggies notched an impressive win at Baylor Wednesday night, but the inconsistency, which results mostly from inadequate guard play, is a troubling sign moving forward. Meanwhile, Kansas seems to have escaped the February doldrums. Since losing two out of three (including an embarrassing one at Oklahoma State), the Jayhawks have won three straight by an average of 27.7 points. For a team that is often lacking in leadership, it's a great sign that Sherron Collins, the feisty sophomore point guard from Chicago, appears to have finally put his injuries behind him. He played his best game of the season last Saturday in the win over Kansas State, when he had 18 points on 7 for 12 shooting.
Kansas 77, Texas A&M 65
It is only fitting that the Big East regular season championship should be decided in a game played by its top two teams. After watching the Hoyas win ugly but often the last six weeks, I'm anxious to find out just how good they really are. Is this a team that, to its credit, has made winning a habit? Or is it ready to face its comeuppance when the going gets tough? Georgetown was extremely lucky to win at Marquette in overtime last Saturday; the Eagles, a 71 percent free throw shooting team, inexplicably made just 22 of 36 from the line. Louisville, on the other hand, has been red hot of late, winning nine in a row and 11 of its last 12. Senior center David Padgett is the Cardinals' leading scorer (11.7 ppg), but he has also become one of the best passing big men in the country. And junior swingman Terrence Williams has finally learned how to play consistently. These are two very good teams, but Georgetown doesn't like fullcourt pressure or zone defenses, and Louisville plays both.
Louisville 74, Georgetown 69
No. 7 Stanford (24-5) at USC (19-10)
This is a tough call because it's hard to predict how Stanford will react from Thursday's heartbreaking overtime loss to UCLA. Will the Cardinal suffer an emotional letdown now that the Pac-10 title has eluded them? Or will they show enough pride to avoid back-to-back losses? If it's the former, Stanford will lose this one, because this team is ultimately dependent on how it defends. In its 52-46 win over USC on Jan. 5, Stanford's Fred Washington did an excellent job shutting down O.J. Mayo, who needed 19 shots to score 14 points. Mayo, however, is much-improved since then, and the Trojans will have a significant athletic advantage over the Cardinal in this game. In the end, I'll go with Stanford because it has been the better team throughout the season, but this game will tell us a lot about whether the Cardinal has Final Four mettle.
Stanford 71, USC 68
The road team has locked up an NCAA bid, but since it can't win the conference title it has nothing of value on the line. The home team's at-large hopes will probably be extinguished with a loss. Throw in the fact that it's Senior Day in Columbus, and this pick is a no-brainer. Ohio State literally saved its season Tuesday night by beating Purdue in overtime to snap a four-game losing streak. Buckeyes senior point guard Jamar Butler was brilliant in the win, scoring 23 of his 25 points after halftime, and he'll need to provide some more of that kind of clutch shooting against the Spartans. Meanwhile, Michigan State got some pop while thrashing Indiana last Sunday, but this is still a low-wattage offensive team. Ohio State needs more juice out of its bench than it has been getting (wherefore art thou, Jon Diebler?), but given what's at stake, I think it'll have enough grit to pull out a win and put ifself back in the tournament.
Ohio State 69, Michigan State 66
The Second Five
UAB (22-8) at No. 2 Memphis (29-1)
Given how close they came to losing at UAB a few weeks back, the Tigers would do well to avoid looking past this one. A loss would knock them down to a No. 2 seed.
Memphis 79, UAB 68
No. 21 Marquette (22-7) at Syracuse (18-12)
Not only does Syracuse fit into my desperate-home-team category, but it's playing a team that has had fits against zone defenses all season.
Syracuse 74, Marquette 73
Arizona (18-12) at Oregon (17-12)
Arizona pretty much sewed up an NCAA bid by winning at Oregon State Thursday night. The Ducks have almost as much offensive firepower and they should be amped up at home.
Oregon 77, Arizona 71
Maryland (18-12) at Virginia (14-14)
A loss here would pretty much doom Maryland's fate. I think they're too good for that - barely.
Maryland 74, Virginia 71
Florida (21-9) at Kentucky (17-11)
The Gators are facing a must-win here, but Kentucky has shown it knows how to compete even without Patrick Patterson.
Kentucky 72, Florida 69

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