With apologies to anyone who is not a college basketball fan, for several reasons. One, they have probably been pretty bored with the content on BSB, and, two, they are missing out on the greatest annual sporting event in the world.
Anyway, we have now arrived to the Sweet Sixteen, where we really get to separate the Cinderellas from their glass slippers and see who is still standing. The following are my own personal takes on the four games tonight.
Thursday 7:10: #3 Xavier vs #7 West Virginia
Though a 7-seed, this West Virginia team is very confident and very well-equipped to make this unlikely run even more unlikely. Their superstar, Joe Alexander, was not impressed by this region’s #2 seed, Duke, saying that they “definitely wouldn’t dominate the Big East” and that “the top six or seven teams [in the Big East] are right on par with Duke.” In another fantastic quote for all the Duke-haters out there, reserve WVU guard Cam Thoroughman asked if Greg Paulus was one of the eight McDonald’s All-Americans on the Duke roster and, when finding out that he was, responded with “Oh my god. Are you kidding?”
All told, though, this Mountaineer team is really talented and really well-coached to go along with their arrogance. Other than superstar Joe Alexander and everyone’s darling, Joe Mazzula (the backup point guard who almost had a triple-double against the Dukies), West Virginia also gets good offensive production from sharp-shooting guards Alex Ruoff and Darris Nichols and the do-everything sophomore forward Da’Sean Butler. With Bobby Huggins at the helm, this team gets after it on the defensive end as well.
The other side of this game is a team that is not getting much press–and that’s just the way they have done it all year long. The Xavier Musketeers have been one of the country’s best teams from day one and still people have difficulty naming one player on the Xavier roster. This team stops and starts with their diminutive point guard, Drew Lavender. Lavender, a transfer from Oklahoma, looks like he may finally be fully recovered from an ankle injury suffered earlier in the year. Other key players on a team that has six guys in double-figure scorers include a defensive-stopper and underrated offensive scorer in Stanley Burrell (BSB’s choice for A-10 player of the year) and an inside-outside threat in forward Josh Duncan. This team wins in the ultimate “team” fashion, which is easy to root for.
THE PICK: I am slightly biased because of my shameless support for the Atlantic 10, as a conference, but I do like Xavier to win this game and move on to the Elite Eight. I would not be surprised to see West Virginia win tonight and then even again on Saturday, but in this one, I like the team style of Xavier to prevail.
Thursday 7:27: #1 North Carolina vs #4 Washington State
This game is one that I think may surprise some people. I do not think Washington State is going to win the game, but I also do not think they are going to get blown out. Either way, you can be sure that UNC’s run of consecutive 100-point games is going to end.
Washington State plays some of the best defense in the country. In fact, given the quality of their conference this year, I might say that their defensive numbers (57 PPG against, 42% FG against, 33% 3-pt against, 13 forced turnovers/game) are the most impressive in the country. On the offensive end, they have a full team approach, but can struggle at times. They do have two incredible talents, in Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver–both of whom played on the Pan-Am under 21-team (UNC only had one player selected for that team)–and decent complements in Taylor Rochestie and Aron Baines. The Cougars finished 4th in the nation’s best conference and went undefeated in a non-conference schedule that was highlighted by wins at Gonzaga and at Baylor. This is a battle-tested, tough, senior-laden team with a great coach. They are not to be taken lightly.
On the other side, however, is arguably the “best team in the country,” and inarguably the “most impressive team in the tournament thus far.” Since they are on ESPN twice a week, most everyone knows this team inside and out, but let us just say that they are VERY good. I think that the injury to Ty Lawson has made UNC much better now than they would be if he had played the whole season. He is fresh and ready to go, while Quentin Thomas’s biggest problem–confidence–has been greatly improved by starting nine ACC games this year.
THE PICK: North Carolina moves on, but not without a struggle. I think they get to 70 points–which should be enough–but it may take them most of the game. I don’t think Washington State is going to win this game, but I definitely don’t think it will be a blowout.
Thursday 9:40: #1 UCLA vs #12 Western Kentucky
The darlings of the first round were the Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky. That shot by Ty Rogers to beat Drake at the buzzer may be the opening clip of this year’s One Shining Moment montage, and now Cinderella had five days to figure out a way to beat the Bruins.
Though Rogers hit the game-winner against Drake, and Tyrone Brazelton has poured in 48 points in the first two tournament games, this team is really centered on the production of senior Courtney Lee–as shown by his 29 points against San Diego in a dominating performance. Many people project Lee to be a first-round pick in the upcoming NBA draft, which combined with their experience on the perimeter and confidence in abundance, means that despite their seed, this team should not be taken lightly and is not all that much of fluke to still be playing. Their meddle will be tested tonight, though.
UCLA, my pick from day one to cut down the nets, has “benefited” from some generous officiating as of late, but I am still not concerned. Most Final Four teams that I can remember have had to avoid a close loss in an early round before moving on. This team has everything you would want in a championship team–they play defense; they have at least one go-to guy (Love); they have a super-talented wing player (Westbrook); they have an incredibly steady, solid and fearless point guard (Collison); and they have a plethora of physical, defensively-talented role players to check other teams’ better players and get big-time rebounds when needed (M’bah a Moute, Mata-Real, etc.). They have it all, and I still think that they will be the champions of this tournament when it is all said and done.
THE PICK: UCLA in a close game, but the score, but in a game that will never really be in doubt. It might be an 8-point win, but at no point will you really think that they might actually lose.
Thursday 9:57: #2 Tennessee vs #3 Louisville
Maybe the best matchup of the tournament to date. These two teams are immensely talented, well-coached and intense. Before the brackets came out, if you had told me that these two teams would meet in the tournament, I would have told you that it was a probably a Final Four game. But, the bracket gods (or devils) gave us this game in the Sweet Sixteen round.
Louisville, before a 3-point loss at Georgetown and an OT loss to Big East champion, Pitt, had been one of the hottest teams in the country, winning 15 out of 17, through the Big East. Then, after the two losses to end the season, wound up (deservedly) as a #3 seed. Other than UNC, the Cardinals may have been the most impressive team in the tournament’s first weekend. In the first round, they beat Boise St. by 18 in a game that was never close, and then, in the second round, they simply hammered a good Oklahoma team by 30–78-48. This team, like a more glorified Xavier team, is extremely balanced on offense. They have eight guys that average between 6 and 12 points per game, led by David Padgett (11.7). Padgett, along with Earl Clark, Derrick Caracter (a blue-chip recruit, who many thought would be a one-and-done guy, but cannot even crack the starting lineup in this his sophomore season) and Juan Palacios, control the middle. They also shoot a lot of threes, with four players having made at least 45 three-pointers this year–Jerry Smith, Edgar Sosa, Andre McGee, and Terrence Williams. Williams, who, in my opinion, is clearly the Cardinals’ best player does a little (or sometimes a lot) of everything. The 6’6″ junior is second on the team in scoring (11.2 ppg), rebounding (7.3 rpg), steals (43), and 3-pointers made (46). He also has 21 blocks on the year and, oh by the way, is far and away the team’s leader in assists at almost 3.5 per game. His one weakness is at the foul line, where he only shoots 56%.
The other side is a team in orange that is one of only a few teams in America that can match the depth of talent that Louisville trots out there. Chris Lofton may be my favorite player in America because of his mental toughness and flair for the dramatic. But despite being the Vols leading scorer and only senior starter, Tennessee gets their leadership and intensity from The Smiths. Incredibly athletic and tenacious, the unrelated Smiths (JaJuan, Ramar, and Tyler) have been leading Tennessee for most of the season. In fact, the newest member of this team, Tyler Smith (a transfer from Iowa), has probably been their best player and emotional leader. And, even past The Smiths and Lofton, Tennessee has some immensely talented players. In particular, the blue-collar forward Wayne Chism and the emerging star, sophomore transfer J.P. Prince. Prince was actually awarded the starting point guard spot for the NCAA tournament. Prince had to sit out the first semester because of academic issues, but burst on to the scene when he became eligible. He scored in double-figures in four of his first six games, including 23 in a win at Xavier. He then spent the rest of the season establishing a better fit within the already successful Tennessee system, until he now is starting in their biggest games of the year. He may be the most important player on the floor tonight because Louisville throws a lot of pressure at opposing offenses.
THE PICK: I am going to, grudgingly, go with Louisville to win this game. I worry about Prince against the pressure (9 turnovers in his two starts in the tournament), and I just think Louisville is slightly more talented. Terrence Williams will be the best player on the floor tonight and should get a lot of help in the likes of Padgett, Caracter, Smith, Sosa, Clark, and McGee, among others. Either way, I expect an absolutely phenomenal nightcap to a great night of basketball. What a tournament!