March 20, 2007

Looking vulnerable: UCLAPerhaps if UCLA hadn't stumbled down the stretch, losing its last two games, including in the first round to Cal in the Pac-10 tournament, I might not be so concerned about the way the Bruins blew a late lead against Indiana. The truth is, even while UCLA was rolling up wins this season, there were plenty of occasions it looked vulnerable and spotted opponents double-digit leads. The Bruins still have that big hole in the middle that used to be filled by Ryan Hollins, so they don't have as big a margin for error as they had last year. They can't afford any more mental lapses in this tournament.

X-factor: Aaron Gray, PittsburghWhat in the world is wrong with Gray? He had a bad ankle injury in late February, seemed to recover, laid an egg in the Big East tournament final against Georgetown and then had some kind of stomach bug last weekend and played only 26 minutes against VCU. As I referenced above, the Bruins' biggest weakness is at the five position, but Pitt can only take advantage of that weakness if they get a big game from Gray. If he's healthy, focused and assertive, Pitt can win. If he's not, it can't.

Clutch player: Arron Afflalo, UCLAAfflalo had a terrible game against Indiana (10 points on 2-for-11 shooting), but in crunch time, there was no question who would get the ball. Afflalo responded as you'd expect during those last 90 seconds: He got to the foul line twice, and he made all four free throws. There's nothing that blows a game more quickly than missed free throws, but you could tell Afflalo wanted to be at the line. Even though I put Darren Collison ahead of Afflalo on my All-America team, when the Bruins need a clutch play, they'll have the best clutch player on the floor.

Home cooking: KansasWhat's that, you say? Isn't this regional being held in San Jose? Yes, but I would caution you never to underestimate the passion of the Kansas fans and their willingness to travel. I was in Las Vegas last November for the Jayhawks' big game against Florida, and though that was supposed to be a neutral-site game, the KU fans outnumbered Gators fans by about 4 to 1. Clearly, UCLA will have a strong contingent, but I don't expect the Bruins to have nearly the homecourt advantage the location would lead you to believe.

Best matchup: Southern Illinois-KansasSIU's Jamaal Tatum and Kansas' Mario Chalmers will be the best two pure shooters in the game. The difference is, the Salukis don't have nearly the complementary players Kansas does, so while the Jayhawks can survive an off-night from Chalmers, SIU will need Tatum to be plenty hot from the perimeter. It's also critical Tatum and his backcourtmates, Tony Young and Bryan Mullins, take good care of the ball, because KU has really become deadly at converting in transition.

The pick: KansasThe Jayhawks were the best team in the tournament last weekend. We knew they were talented, but now they are demonstrating just how mature and focused they really are. Every coach tries to communicate a sense of urgency to his team, but it's a lot easier to convey that message to a locker room full of guys who know what it's like to lose in the first round. While UCLA went into a funk and allowed Indiana to come back, Kansas got way ahead of Kentucky and never looked back. All these factors should allow Kansas to get to Atlanta.

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