Saturday, March 31, 2007

NCAA Semi-Finals Game Picks

6:07 pm EDT Georgetown (-1) vs. Ohio State - As has been noted almost everywhere, the looming confrontation between the big men in the middle, Ohio State's Greg Oden and Georgetown's Roy Hibbert, is supposed to be the main focus of this game.

While what the 7-footers accomplish in the lane will certainly have an impact on the game, there are going to be 8 other players on the floor at all times and none of them are more important than Georgetown's Jeff Green and the Buckeyes' Mike Conley Jr.

Conley has been an exemplar of consistency and cool throughout the tournament. Even as a freshman, he's displayed the kind of floor leadership that has propelled Ohio State to the pinnacle of college basketball. Often overlooked because of the plaudits going to Oden or the 3-point exploits of Jamar Butler or Ron Lewis, when there's a big play to be made it's Conley who's the trigger man. Whenever there's a critical play, Conley's usually in the middle of it.

While there's no way to accurately measure things like off-the-ball movement, intensity and hoops instincts, Conley gets high marks on all of those. His penetration and distribution of the ball will be key to Ohio State's success.

For the Hoyas, beyond Hibbert, they have the incomparable Jeff Green, the Big East Player of the Year. Green exploded in last year's post-season and has been vital to the Hoyas' success this season. He's already hit two big shots in tournaments this year - game winners against Notre Dame in the Big East tourney and last weekend's tough banker for the win over Vanderbilt.

Green's game is complete. He's got the size to compete in the lane and a shooting touch that is deadly from 3-point range. Defenders have a difficult choice when guarding him. Get in his face and he's likely to blow by you for an easy layup or dunk. Lay off him and he'll knock down long and mid-range jumpers.

Defensively, Green is a ferocious rebounder with incredible leaping ability. He's the most athletic player on the floor most nights and his all-around play will lead Georgetown to a win here.

One other player to keep a close eye on is Georgetown's Jonathan Wallace. The purest shooter in the game, if he gets hot, the Hoyas could romp.

Bottom Line: Hibbert gets a slight edge over Oden, Green has 20 or more, Ohio State goes cold from beyond the arc and Georgetown wins 82-71.

8:47 pm EDT Florida (-3) vs. UCLA - Call this one "The Rematch." Most of the characters from last year's championship game are back in similar roles.Sports Training Products

The Florida Gators, while they haven't shown much of the emotion that got them the rings last season, are nevertheless on a mission, this time to prove that they are once again, the top team in the land. They're just doing it with a little more control and confidence this time around.

It's difficult to say which players will be key for the Gators, but since Arron Afflalo is the key to UCLA, Corey Brewer, who will likely be guarding him, is the main focus for Florida. Brewer is long and lean and difficult to defend himself, which creates matchup problems for the Bruins.

Afflalo, however, is regarded as the Bruins' best defender and top scorer and should be able to front Brewer effectively. When he has the ball, he's going to have to create offense on his own, and that's going to prove difficult. In last year's finals, Afflalo was invisible for large parts of the game, mostly due to Brewer's defense.

This time around, however, it's a little different. Ben Howland has a different offense, with explosive Darren Collison at point instead of the more careful, sometimes plodding, Jordan Farmar. If Collison is handling the ball, Afflalo and Josh Shipp should be able to work off screens for open looks and keep UCLA from going though extended scoring droughts.

Beyond the matchups, the real impact here is going to be UCLA's team defense. They're better than they were a year ago, and they know what's coming. While they won't exactly frustrate the Gators, the Bruins will be able to create enough havoc and turnovers to keep the game close and maybe put together some scoring runs of their own.

Bottom Line: UCLA turns up the defense, Joakim Noah spends much of the 2nd half on the bench and Collison emerges as star of the game in a 74-69 Bruins win.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Saturday Semi-Finals: Georgetown vs. Ohio State

6:07 pm EDT (#2 East) Georgetown (30-6) vs. (#1 South) Ohio St. (34-3) - This is the game many have been anticipating all season. The matchup between the two best big men in the country, Ohio State's Greg Oden and Georgetown's Roy Hibbert.

Both 7-footers dominate the middle, can block shots, rebound well, distribute the rock and are serious scoring threats. Putting them on the same floor at the same time recalls famous bouts between Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain or Lew Alcindor and Elvin Hayes. The confrontation, on the biggest stage in college basketball, has the potential to be a classic.

Like many of these confrontations often turn out, this one may end up somewhat of a stalemate. Both centers are power players and thus, each will have their moments. Hibbert and Oden are so evenly matched that the only possible derailment of this encounter would be the refs calling the game too close. The last thing basketball fans want to see is one or the other cooling out on the bench because of foul trouble, but, as both players have shown, they are not very careful about picking up nickel-dimers (as Bill Raftery might say) and hurting their team's chances.

If there's any advantage at all, it would be Hibbert's maturity. As a junior, he's got a couple of years playing time over Oden, which means his footwork and game understanding is likely to be a little more advanced than that of the Ohio State star.Sports Training Products

Statistically, Hibbert has the edge on paper, though not by much. His shooting percentage is 67%, as compared to Oden's 62%. Both are capable free throw shooters; Hibbert hits at 70%, Oden, 64%. Defensively, Oden has the edge with 9.5 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per game, compared to Hibbert at 6.9 and 2.5. Hibbert averages 12.7 points per game, Oden, 15.4. Obviously, there's little separating the two.

That gets us to the rest of the starters, the bench and the coaches. The other star for Georgetown is Big East Player of the Year, Jeff Green, who can score from anywhere on the court, but it most dangerous on slashing moves to the hoop. His Buckeye counterpart would be Ron Lewis, an all-around performer who's leading Ohio State (and all remaining players) in scoring at 21.8 ppg. He's a proven commodity as a clutch player, having hit the game-tying 3-pointer against Xavier. When the Buckeyes stared elimination in the eye, Lewis didn't blink.

The Buckeyes may be known more for their 3-point shooting than the Hoyas, as, in addition to Lewis, Jamar Butler can also throw down from well beyond the arc and Mike Conley Jr. hasn't shown any shyness in hoisting from 3-point land. The Hoyas, however, have two players with high percentages from behind the line: Patrick Ewing Jr. and Jonathan Wallace, who hit at 46% and 49%, respectively.

Wallace is especially dangerous whenever he has an open look. A bona fide pure shooter, Wallace is the X-factor for Georgetown. If he gets hot, forget the Oden-Hibbert games and everything else; Ohio State will have to trade baskets with the Hoyas - no easy feat.

Jessie Sapp and DaJuan Summers of the Hoyas are both slashers, not necessarily outside threats similar to Ohio State's Conley Jr. The Buckeyes' Ivan Harris is more a jump shooter than a driver and he'll opt for 3's rather than drive.

Both teams can go 9 deep, with the key subs being Daequan Cook and David Lighty for Ohio State. Cook is the Buckeye's most consistent 3-point shooter at 42% efficiency, while Lighty is a good ball-handler, slasher and rebounder with excellent instincts. The Hoyas will have Jeremiah Rivers off the bench early on. He's an excellent point guard who can control the offense. Ewing Jr. will also see plenty of floor time when the Hoyas want to go big.

Emotionally, the Hoyas seem to have an advantage. They were a #2 seed, Ohio State a #1, so they may take on the relished role of underdog, thinking they have something to prove, while the Buckeyes, who came into the tournament ranked #1 in the nation, have bullseyes on their backs.

Both coaches, Georgetown's John Thompson Jr. and Ohio State's Thad Motta have serious top-notch credentials and are masters of discipline and game-situation understanding. Both will be into the game from the start and neither will hamper their teams chances of winning.

The other advantage in this contest is the Hoyas' overall height differential. Here's an odd stat, that you'll see nowhere else. Ohio State's combined starters' height is 32'2". The Hoyas starting five measure up at 32'11". That's 9 inches difference or nearly 2 inches per starter. Not that the Buckeyes' players are small, but there's a height advantage for the Hoyas just about everywhere. Hibbert is actually 2 inches taller than Oden. Whether the overall height makes a difference will be hard to tell, but there's definitely an effect.

Tomorrow, I'll present my final picks for both semi-final games.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Saturday Semi-Finals: Florida vs. UCLA

8:47 pm EDT (#2 West) UCLA (30-5) vs. (#1 Midwest) Florida (33-5) - a rematch of last year's championship game and both teams have earned the right to be here, though Florida's route looks to have been considerably easier than that of the Bruins.Sports Training Products

The Gators are on an 8-game win streak which includes winning the SEC tourney. Even in their own conference tournament, though, the Gators didn't face the best teams in the SEC, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Kentucky.

Florida skated through the conference tournament with wins over Georgia, Mississippi and Arkansas. Only the Razorbacks made it to the Big Dance, and they were summarily dispatched in the opening round.

The teams Florida has played since then won't really have them properly prepped for UCLA, either. Jackson State was a walkover (112-69); they struggled with a very suspect Purdue team (74-67); struggled even more against the Butler Bulldogs (65-57), before beating up on Oregon, 85-77, a team which lost its shooting touch at precisely the wrong time.

Florida was not impressive in any of their wins, but they did what they had to do to advance. Against Oregon, specifically, they rode the red hot shooting of Lee Humphrey (7 of 13 3-pointers) and Taurean Green (4-8) to commandeer a healthy lead over the Ducks until the closing minutes of the game. Despite their substantial size advantage and Oregon's foul problems - 2 Ducks fouled out and 2 others finished with 4 fouls - the game got close late.

The considerable edge Florida had at the free throw line (28-43 to Oregon's 15-16) was also more than the margin of victory, so in retrospect, the Ducks (who also hit only 8-22 3-pointers) did more to lose that game than Florida did to win it.

The Gators also don't seem to have the same emotion as last year, which is understandable. Like sex, the first time is always the most thrilling, with each subsequent foray an opportunity to make mistakes. There are a lot of distractions which seem to have invaded Florida's game. The Gators are not as intense as last season's squad, despite having the same starting five. It's going to be a problem because the Bruins will be fired up.

Nothing prepares a team better than a loss. And last year's loss in the NCAA finals still stings the Bruins, especially their star, Arron Afflalo, who was basically invisible for much of the game.

Afflalo has raised his game, especially in the Bruins' last outing against Kansas. in which he led UCLA with 24 points in a 68-55 win. While Afflalo was doing the bulk of the scoring and hitting key shots at critical points, his running mate, Darren Collison was aiding the cause with tight defense, 5 steals and 14 points, including 2 of 3 3-pointers.

If anyone thinks defense doesn't matter, they'd better take a closer look at that game. The Bruins turned the ball over 24 times themselves! Most of the time, that would result in a big, fat L. Instead, the UCLA players contested every Kansas shot, forced 21 Jayhawk turnovers and barely won the battle of the boards. They also played with tremendous commitment and tempo on offense and ended up outshooting Kansas, 53-41%.

When it was all over, the Bruins had held the Jayhawks to their lowest point total of the season. They earned the win, and they did it the hard way.

When the Bruins take the court against Florida, Lorenzo Mata and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute are going to give Al Horford and Joakim Noah a pair of steel-eyed looks that speak revenge. Collison and Afflalo match up very well with Humphrey and Green, though Afflalo may have to defend the taller, and more dangerous, Corey Brewer.

That matchup is the real key to the game. If Afflalo can limit Brewer's penetration, or Brewer can keep Afflalo off-balance on offense, their respective team will win the game. Brewer and his mates have already done it. Afflalo and the Bruins are hungry for a championship and they come in healthy and well-prepared.

On Friday, I'll give you the final take on who's going to advance, but right now, I'm leaning heavily towards UCLA.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Conference Scoreboard and Peak Performers

Peak Performers of remaining teams:

Player, game 1, 2, 3, 4, Total, Average

Ron Lewis, OHST, 13, 27, 25, 22, 87, 21.8
Arron Afflalo, UCLA, 22, 10, 17, 24, 73, 18.3
Corey Brewer, FL, 21, 17, 11, 14, 63, 15.8
Jeff Green, GTWN, 15, 11, 15, 22, 63, 15.8
Mike Conley Jr., OHST, 4, 21, 17, 19, 61, 15.3
Greg Oden, OHST, 19, 14, 9, 17, 59, 14.8
Darren Collison, UCLA, 14, 15, 12, 14, 55, 13.8
Joakim Noah, FL, 17, 9, 13, 14, 53, 13.3
Al Horford, FL, 15, 17, 16, 6, 52, 13.0
Roy Hibbert, GTWN, 10, 17, 12, 13, 52, 13.0

Player, game 1, 2, 3, 4, Total, Average

Roy Hibbert, GTWN, 13, 12, 10, 11, 46, 11.5
Joakim Noah, FL, 12, 9, 9, 14, 44, 11.0
Al Horford, FL, 16, 9, 7, 7, 39, 9.8
Greg Oden, OHST, 10, 12, 3, 9, 34, 8.5
Jeff Green, GTWN, 3, 12, 4, 9, 28, 7.0
Lorenzo Mata, UCLA, 7, 8, 9, 3, 27, 6.8

Player, game 1, 2, 3, 4, Total, Average

Taurean Green, FL, , 12, 2, 1, 3, 18, 4.5
Mike Conley Jr., OHST, 5, 4, 6, 2, 17, 4.3
Darren Collison, UCLA, 8, 2, 4, 1, 16, 4.0
Jessie Sapp, GTWN, 1, 3, 3, 8, 15, 3.8

Conference Scoreboard

Conference, Region:East, West, Midwest, South, Total

ACC: 4-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1-1, 7-7

Big East: 4-1, 2-2, 0-1, 1-1, 7-5

Big 10: 1-1, 1-2, 2-2, 4-0, 8-5

Big 12: 1-2, 3-1, 0-0, 2-1, 6-4

PAC-10: 3-2, 4-0, 3-2, 0-1, 10-5

SEC: 2-2, 1-1, 4-0, 2-1, 9-4

Press Relaease:

College Basketball Daily, a leading blog following the world of NCAA hoops, heads to the Final Four in full stride, with complete coverage, analysis and free picks for the two semi-final games and the championship game on Monday, April 2.

Rick Gagliano, publisher of the blog, says, "I've been putting in lots of hours analyzing the four teams remaining and despite only having Georgetown and Ohio State left in my original brackets, I'm pretty sure the Hoyas can win another national title."Sports Training Products

"The game against Ohio State is one I've personally been anticipating for a long time. I can't wait to see the Roy Hibbert - Greg Oden matchup. It's going to be a war out there."

In the other semi-final game, Gagliano isn't about to tip his hand.

"I originally had Kansas facing Oregon, but now it's Florida vs. UCLA, a rematch of last year's championship. Last season, I had a shot at actually winning a pool with a partner, but when UCLA lost, we were knocked out of the first three spots, and wound up with nothing. I've got nothing invested this year except time and my reputation, and I'll put that up against the Vegas oddsmakers any day," said Gagliano.

"I've been covering college sports in one form or another for nearly 25 years and I still haven't figured it out, but I'm trying," joked the publisher.

Scheduled entries on the blog are the Conference Scoreboard (Tuesday), analysis of the Florida-UCLA game (Wednesday), analysis of the Geogetown-Ohio State game (Thursday), exclusive ATS picks on Friday. After that, Gagliano plans on analyzing the two semi-final games and providing a final pick on Sunday. After the championship, College Basketball Daily will do a season recap, name an All-American team and Player of the Year, before focusing on off-season recruitment and coaching changes.

As the name suggests, College Basketball Daily provides news, insight and analysis of college hoops every day.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Gators, Hoyas, Bruins, Buckeyes Head to Atlanta

Give the tournament selection committee a round of applause.

Two teams seeded #1 in their respective regions, the Florida Gators and Ohio State Buckeyes, head into the Final Four the favorites over a pair of #2 seeds which arguably could have been 1s.

Georgetown, the #2 seed in the East, know the second fiddle role well. For much of the regular season, they weren't even ranked in the Top 25, trailing the Pitt Panthers in the standings through the midway point of the Big East campaign.

On January 13, following consecutive losses to conference foes Villanova and Pittsburgh, the Hoyas were just 11-5. But, just as people were beginning to write Georgetown - and their twin towers of Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert - off, they reeled off 11 straight wins, culminating with a 61-53 revenge win against Pitt.

Two days later, the Hoyas lost a road game at Syracuse, but finished with a win over UConn to capture the Big East title at 13-3.

But the Hoyas weren't done. Not even close. They swept through the Big East tournament, knocking off Villanova and Notre Dame before hammering Pitt, this time by a shocking 65-42 score. While North Carolina was winning the ACC tournament and locking up the #1 seed, the Hoyas came in as a hungry #2, knocked off Belmont, Boston College and Vanderbilt to set up the match with the Tar Heels.

For most of the game, it looked as though they would go home losers to the top seed, until they rallied late in the game, tying the score on Jonathan Wallace's 3-pointer to force overtime at 81-all.

The Hoyas left no doubt in the OT, outscoring Carolina 15-3 in a convincing performance. Georgetown will face Ohio State in one of the two semi-final games on Saturday, March 31.Sports Training Products

The Buckeyes, 92-76 winners over South #2 seed Memphis on Saturday, ended the Tigers' 25-game winning streak by extending their own to 20 straight, now the longest in the nation.

The UCLA Bruins took an entirely different path to their #2 seeding in the West region. After being ranked in the Top 10 most of the season and wrapping up the PAC-10 title with a win over Washington State, the Bruins came up flat in their regular season finale at Washington, losing 61-51 and looking lethargic the whole time. Then, in the opening round of the PAC-10 tournament, the Bruins unexpectedly fell to lightly-regarded Cal, 76-69.

That was likely the game that cost the Bruins a #1 seeding, which went to Kansas instead. The Bruins, however, got the last laugh on both the Jayhawks and the selection committee, thumping Kansas in the regional final on Saturday, 68-55.

The Bruins head to Atlanta with a renewed confidence to face Florida, the top seed from the Midwest region. The defending national champion Gators beat Oregon, 85-77, to reach the Final Four for the second consecutive year. The game is a rematch of last year's championship.

The Georgetown-Ohio State game will be the first semi-final, with tip-off scheduled for 6:07 pm EDT. Florida and UCLA will take the floor roughly 30 minutes after the conclusion of that game.

Tomorrow: Conference scoreboard and peak performers.
Wednesday: Breakdown of Ohio State - Georgetown
Thursday: Breakdown of Florida - UCLA
Friday: Final analysis and picks

Sunday, March 25, 2007

NCAA Matchups & Picks for Sunday, March 25

2:40 pm EDT Florida (-6.5) Oregon - Tajuan Porter has silenced a lot of critics over the short course of his Oregon career. On Sunday, he'll get the opportunity to do it again.

Porter, easily the smallest player in the tournament at 5'6", put on a giant of a performance Friday night in Oregon's 76-72 win over UNLV, hitting 8 3-pointers and totaling 33 points, tying him with Tyler Hansbrough for the high single-game mark of the tournament.

Once again, Porter and the Ducks find themselves underdogs as they match up with the reigning national champions. Florida dispatched a pesky Butler squad on Thursday, 65-57, coming from behind as they have in all three of their tournament games thus far. They will try to get off to a faster start against the quicker Ducks.

The Gators have a huge size advantage inside with Joakim Noah and Al Horford anchoring the middle. The Ducks have no real center and actually start four guards along with forward Maarty Leunen, who stands 6'8" and specializes in outside shooting. While Leunen may draw one of Florida's big men outside when the Ducks are on offense, he's going to get backed down inside against Horford along with Malik Hairston, who will likely be matched up with Noah. Stopping those two inside is Oregon's biggest problem, one which they'll likely handle by denying them the ball on defense.Sports Training Products

It wouldn't surprise anyone to see the Ducks press off made baskets to at least slow Florida's offense. Pressure and hitting 3-pointers will be the key to Oregon's success and they will get it done as their trio of sharpshooting guards, Porter, Aaron Brooks and Bryce Taylor make a shambles of Florida's backcourt. The Gators' dream of back-to-back championships dies here.

5:05 pm EDT North Carolina (-3.5) Georgetown - The Tar Heels struggled mightily against an upset minded USC squad on Thursday before blowing the game open late and advancing. USC ran out of gas as Carolina coach Roy Williams used his deep bench to maximum advantage, outscoring the Trojans 41-22 in the second half.

Georgetown stared elimination in the face and, as time wore down, came up with a huge shot by forward Jeff Green to oust the upset-minded Vanderbilt Commodores 66-65. Green's bank shot with 2.5 seconds remaining left Vandy without enough time to get off a quality shot at the buzzer.

The Hoyas are hoping that this round will be a little less dramatic, though putting away the Tar Heels isn't going to be easy. Along with Green, the other key inside player, Roy Hibbert, will have to be on top of his game to stop the aggressive inside play of Tyler Hansbrough and Brandan Wright. It's likely that Wright and Green will match up against each other, which would be one of the best pairings of the season. Both forwards are athletic, strong and can get up on the boards. It's doubtful either will have much of an edge, and may actually end up canceling each other out.

Hibbert and Hansbrough will battle inside, and the edge goes to Hansbrough, who, though smaller, at 6'9", is more agile and mobile than the seven-foot Hibbert. If Hansbrough is able to operate on the low post, the Tar Heels could cruise to the Final Four.

In the backcourt, once again Jonathan Wallace and Patrick Ewing Jr. of the Hoyas become the wild cards. If they can provide some offense with 3-pointers and penetration, Georgetown can hang around against the much deeper Tar Heels.

North Carolina will look to get out and run, while the Hoyas will try to turn the game into a half-court mosh. If Hibbert stays out of foul trouble, Georgetown's overall length should offset Carolina's depth and book the Hoyas a trip to Atlanta.

Friday, March 23, 2007

NCAA Matchups & Picks for Saturday, March 24

4:40 pm EDT Ohio State (-1) Memphis - Apparently, people are paying attention and they've come to the realization that Memphis is a pretty darn good team and also that Ohio State has been living on the edge over the past two games.Sports Training Products

The Buckeyes' win over over Tennessee was not one that the Ohio State faithful are going to remember, having to rally from 20 points down to get the narrow win. The Tigers, on the other hand, should have plenty of confidence after their 1-point win over a very solid Texas A&M team. With that win, we now know how Memphis will react in tight games - with poise and determination.

The Tigers have now stretched their winning streak to 25 games not many have been close calls. They should be physically and emotionally ready for anything that Ohio State throws at them.

The biggest matchup in this game is going to be in the middle, where Greg Oden squares up with Joey Dorsey. Oden may have a height advantage, but nobody in this tournament has a wider, more physically imposing stature than Dorsey. Oden is listed at 7'0", 280, and Dorsey at 6'8", 260, but Dorsey is all muscle and is not going to allow Oden to settle in on the blocks. Nothing inside is going to come easy for Ohio State, and, if Oden gets in foul trouble again, it could be lights out for the Buckeyes.

Memphis also matches up well with the rest of the Ohio State squad, and again, they are going to look like the quicker players on the floor. Key players are going to be Mike Conley Jr. for the Buckeyes in his battle with Memphis point guard Andre Allen, who is a bulldog and lightning fast.

Allen will split time with the taller (6'6") Antonio Anderson, so depending on what coach Calipari wants to do with the ball - and Conley - he's got options.

Memphis also has excellent depth, something the Buckeyes do not enjoy. They are only 7 or 8 deep, whereas the Tigers usually go 9 deep and more.

Memphis has edges in experience, coaching and that 25-game win streak gives them enormous confidence. They will not be beaten. Ohio State will be heading home a week early.

7:05 pm EDT Kansas (-2) UCLA - If you like contrasting styles, look no further than this. Kansas has the hottest and one of the highest-scoring offenses in the nation, but UCLA plays the stingiest and nastiest defense. If either team manages to get things going their way early, this could turn into a rout.

However, it has to be understood that Kansas has superior talent at all positions. The Jayhawks can run up and down the floor all night and all of their starters can score.

By contrast, UCLA lives and dies off limiting opponent opportunities, contesting passes and shots and solid rebounding. Their scoring almost always has to come from Arron Afflalo and Darren Collison, who also is the point guard, handling distribution. If Kansas can shut down Afflalo, they'll win this easily, it's as simple as that.

Their wing players, Brandon Rush, Mario Chalmers and Julian Wright should be able to light up the Bruins from outside and in. The inside game between Loenzo Mata and Darrell Arthur may turn out to be a standoff, but the Jayhawks have a serious edge at most of the other positions.

It's doubtful that the Bruins will hold Kansas under 65 points, which is what they'll need to do to win. Even then, as Southern Illinois found out on Thursday, holding the score down to a favorable level is no guarantee of victory as Kansas won, 61-58, with their 2nd lowest output of the season. The Jayhawks can play defense as well and they will mow down the Bruins and head to the Final Four. This one could easily turn into a double-digit rout for Kansas.

NCAA Game Picks for Friday, March 23

7:10 pm EDT Florida (-10.5) Butler - It would be difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Gators did not win this game, but the Butler Bulldogs surely have other ideas. Butler will have to find a way to negate the inside game of Joakim Noah and Al Horford, which isn't going to be easy. Along with that, they'll have to find a solution for slashing forward Corey Brewer, who always seems to be the X-factor in big games.

After yesterday's close calls, I certainly wouldn't argue with anyone who thinks that Butler can keep the Gators within single digits. Players are very emotional at this point in the tournament and none of the remaining teams are going to be easy outs.

However, the Gators are likely to be at the very pinnacle of their game here and will look to blow this one open early. whether they'll be able to do that depends more on their guards - Green and Humphrey - who don't actually match up well against Butler's, than the inside game. Florida's guards have to get the ball inside. Look for the Butler to deny, zone and use back doors and slip screens on offense to hang in.

Florida will advance, but the Bulldogs will not fold and should keep this one under the line.

7:30 pm EDT Georgetown (-7.5) Vanderbilt - There's an important key in this game which a lot of people may not notice, and it's not how many rebounds Roy Hibbert is going to get (should be many). The key here is Vanderbilt's Shan Foster, who sometimes disappears offensively. When he doesn't score in double digits, the Commodores almost always lose.

Foster, a 6'6" junior will be paired against either Jeff Green or Jonathan Wallace, both of whom are good defenders and longer than the Vandy forward and that spells trouble.

Georgetown and Vanderbilt squared off way back on November 15, with the Hoyas grabbing an 86-70 road win. In that game, Foster scored just 2 points, while Hibbert and Green had huge games for the Hoyas. In Vandy's 11 losses, Foster scored 15 or less 10 times. His season average is 15.6, so this game becomes very simple for the Hoyas. Hold Foster under his average and get the win.

Besides the Foster angle, the Hoyas will have to handle the ball with care. Vandy is quicker, but Georgetown holds a huge size advantage and that should get them easily into the next round. The Hoyas should win this one handily.

9:40 pm EDT Oregon (-3) UNLV - The Ducks have incredible quickness and that's going to cause problems for the Runnin' Rebels on both offense and defense. As anyone who watches the Ducks knows, if they hit their 3-pointers, they are nearly unbeatable and they're likely to throw up at least 25 attempts from beyond the arc here.

If the Ducks hit at 40% from 3-point land, it's lights out for the Rebels unless they hit at better percentages than their season average. UNLV may opt to play a 2-3 zone, with pressure on the ball, to keep the score down, but Oregon can either shoot over it, drive through it or pass into it. No matter which way you slice this game up, it looks like the Ducks are going on to face Florida in the next round.

If you look at the tournament teams UNLV has beaten in the course of the season, you'll notice that none of them are still around. The Ducks, on the other hand, show regular season wins over three teams still in the hunt - Georgetown, UCLA and USC. Oregon should win this game by at least 8 points.

10:00 pm EDT North Carolina (-8.5) USC - The Tar Heels are one of the deepest teams in the tournament and coach Roy Williams will likely use a 10-man rotation here. The one constant will be Tyler Hansbrough, Carolina's top-scoring center/forward, who will probably see at least 32-35 minutes of action, especially if it's close, which this one should be.Sports Training Products

Judging by the odds, Tar Heel nation is alive and well, with the Vegas line looking very generous in what is likely to be a close game, matching contrasting styles. While Carolina will want to get out and run, speed up the game and slash to the hoop, the USC defense is among the best in the nation. Stopping the penetration of Ty Lawson will be key for the Trojans, as he is very quick and a solid ball handler. Keeping him on the perimeter means keeping the ball out of the hands of finishers Hansbrough and Brandan Wright.

The Trojans should have success in stopping the Tar Heels and they should be capable of scoring on the other end. North Carolina is not among the best defensive teams, so if USC gets a lead or stays close, defensive close-outs late in the game should lead to a major upset and a #1 seed heading home.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

NCAA Game Picks for Thursday, March 22

West Region

7:10 pm EDT Kansas (-9) Southern Illinois - The outcome of this game will likely be decided by the pace of play. If Kansas gets off early and scores easy baskets on run-outs, the Salukis will be up against it. Additionally, Southern Illinois' forward Randal Falker is going to find the going inside very tough. Between Sasha Kaun and Julian Wright, he's not going to have much room to operate.

The solid Saluki defense will have some effect, though Kansas is not a team that goes long between baskets. If there are point-scoring runs in this game, expect them to come from Kansas, as Brandon Rush and Mario Chalmers can light it up from outside in a hurry.

As for the generous point spread, Southern Illinois has only lost 6 games and only once, at Indiana, did they lose by more than 9. They lost that game by 10, and also lost at home to Arkansas by 8. Kansas is heads and shoulders better than either of those teams, they've won their two tournament games by 40 and 12. The Jayhawks should establish a double-digit lead about halfway through the 2nd half and hold off the Salukis from there.

9:40 pm EDT UCLA (-3) Pittsburgh - This is likely the weakest matchup of the week, though UCLA actually looks less likely to advance than the Panthers. Sure, Pitt blew a big lead against VCU, but they rallied to win that game. UCLA nearly coughed it up against Indiana, an inferior opponent, so they're not exactly world-beaters either.

There are two big difference makers in this game and they both belong to Pittsburgh. The first is Aaron Gray, Pitts' All-American center, who should benefit from being matched up with Lorenzo Mata and/or Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. He can dominate either player. The other Pitt advantage is in perimeter shooting, where the Panthers hold a distinct edge in accuracy. UCLA's Shipp and Afflalo are sub-par from beyond the arc; besides, they will be guarded closely by the Panthers quick guards.

One other potential problem for the Bruins is their dependence on Arron Afflalo for the bulk of their scoring. Last year in the Final Four, Afflalo was nearly invisible, especially in the championship game vs. Florida. The pressure of this game may get to him and cause another poor shooting game from the Bruins' all-star guard. If Pitt plays to their potential they should win this one going away.

Sports Training ProductsSouth Region

7:27 pm EDT Texas A&M (-3) Memphis - This one is going to look more like a war than a basketball game. If the refs allow physical play, Joey Dorsey will be banging hard inside and tough to stop. The other wild card in this game is the health of Memphis' leading scorer Chris Douglas-Roberts, who worked out in a private practice yesterday, wants to play, but the best coach John Calipari could offer was that if he's ready, he'll play. So, his status is uncertain.

The Tigers have looked awesome in their wins over North Texas and Nevada, but the Aggies have a lot more going for them than those teams. Acie Law is a prime time player who will step up here, but the Tigers aren't going to be blown out. In a close call, look for the Aggies to survive a bump and grind kind of game and move on to the Elite 8.

9:57 pm EDT Ohio State (-5) Tennessee - The Vols have done well to get this far in the tournament and they are up against the top seed in the region, though it has to be noted that Ohio State nearly didn't make it here either. Only a missed free throw and a perfect 3-pointer by Ron Lewis got them to overtime against Xavier.

That said, nearly every championship team has a close call, and Tennessee just barely scraped by Virginia. After missing a slew of free throws earlier in the game, the Vols were fortunate to have Chris Lofton at the line for the final six attempts, all of which he converted.

The Buckeyes have proven to be less than invulnerable, but Tennessee just doesn't have the horses to stay with them here. Ohio State should move on, winning this one by a comfortable margin of 8-12.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Sweet 16 Regional Analysis: Midwest and East

Midwest Region

7:10 pm EDT #1 Florida (31-5) v. #5 Butler (29-6) -

The Florida Gators are probably the best-known starting five in college basketball. Since winning the tournament in 2006, all five returned to defend their championship. Emotional leader Joakim Noah teams with Al Horford in the frontcourt, while swingman Corey Brewer's slashing style complements the outside shooting of Taurean Green and Lee Humphrey. Their scoring is extremely balanced. While Horford leads the team in both scoring (13.3 ppg) and rebounding (9.3), Brewer averages 13.1, Green, 13.0, Noah, 12.1 and Humphrey, 9.9.

Humphrey is the top gun from outside, hitting 45% from beyond the arc. Sub Walter Hodge can provide instant offense with his 51% 3-point shooting. Green clicks at 39%. Besides Hodge, the Gators can also bring in a pair of talented and tall substitutes, Chris Richard and Marreese Speights, both of whom have solid interior games. While the Florida rotation is only 7 or at best, 8 deep, it's all it has to be as the Gators play excellent individual and team defense and all of the starters can score.

The Gators' opening round, 112-69 win over Jackson State resembled a Florida shoot-around, though the Purdue Boilermakers made them sweat a little in a 74-67 win. If Florida has an enemy it may be their own complacency. In their two games, they're rarely displayed the kind of passion and enthusiasm that sent them to the national championship last year.

Florida has a 9-3 record against tourney teams, with wins coming against Jackson State, Purdue, Kentucky (2), Arkansas (2), Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Ohio State. Their losses were to Kansas, Vanderbilt and Tennessee.

The Butler Bulldogs play the ultimate underdog in their matchup with the Gators. Butler tied for the regular season title with Wright State in the Horizon League and lost to that same team in the conference tourney championship game. In their two NCAA tourney games, Butler ousted Old Dominion, 57-46, before dispatching Maryland in the second round, 62-59.

The Bulldogs rely on defense (allowing only 57 ppg) and deft 3-point shooting from guard A.J. Graves (36%) and forward Pete Campbell (51%), who usually comes in off the bench. Graves is the team's top scorer at 17.1 ppg, followed by point guard Mike Green (13.9) and forward Brandon Cole (11.4). Rebounding is a team affair, with Green getting the most, at 6 per game.

Butler has to play a tight, low-turnover game in order to win. Since they are height-challenged, they also need to take good shots and hit a high percentage. That has been the formula for their success.

Against tournament teams, the Bulldogs are an impressive 8-3. Wins came against Notre Dame, Indiana, Tennessee, Gonzaga, Old Dominion, Maryland, Wright State and Purdue. The losses were to Wright St. (2) and Southern Illinois.

9:40 pm EDT #7 UNLV (30-6) v. #3 Oregon (28-7) - This is one of the more intriguing matchups of this round. Oregon escaped a slow down game with Miami (OH), 58-56, and then romped past Winthrop, 75-61. The Ducks finished third in the PAC-10, but then stomped to the conference tourney title in three lopsided games decided by an average margin of 20 points. Sports Training Products

Oregon relies on quickness and high-percentage shooting. They are one of the smaller teams in remaining in the tournament, but they are likely the best ball-handling squad in the Sweet 16. Four of their five starters have positive assist-turnover ratios and three average more than a steal per game. All five starters score in double figures, led by Aaron Brooks at 17.8 ppg. Bryce Taylor and Tajuan Porter, both guards, average 14.6 and 14.2, respectively. Maarty Leunen and Malik Hairston, also the two leading rebounders, check in at 10.9.

The Ducks are deadly from beyond the arc. All five starters average 40% or better from 3-point range. If the Ducks are hitting their threes, they are almost impossible to beat. They've won their last 8 games.

Oregon was 10-5 against tournament teams, defeating Georgetown, UCLA, Arizona (2), USC, Stanford, Washington St. (2), Miami (OH) and Winthrop. Their losses were to UCLA, USC, (2) Arizona and Stanford.

UNLV flew under the radar most of the season, but came on late to grab second place in the Mountain West and then win the conference tourney for the automatic bid. They're on a 9-game win streak, including their two wins in the tournament, besting Georgia Tech, 67-63 in the opening round, and then pulling off the upset of #2-seed Wisconsin, 74-68.

The Runnin' Rebels are peaking at the right time and should prove to be a tough out. The bulk of their offense comes from their three starting guards, Wendell White (14.6), Wink Adams (14.1) and point guard Kevin Kruger (13.4). White is more of a swingman, doing almost all of his scoring inside. He rarely attempts 3-pointers. Michael Umeh averages just 7.7 per game, but he's been more effective in the tournament. The rebounding falls mostly to White and forward Gaston Essengue, at 6.2 and 5.0 per game, respectively.

The Rebels don't shoot well from beyond the arc. Kruger, Adams and Umeh all hit just about 36%. They are deep, however, with a 9-man rotation.

Against tournament teams, UNLV was 6-2. They recorded wins over Nevada, Texas Tech, BYU (2), Georgia Tech and Wisconsin, with losses to BYU and Arizona.

East Region

7:27 pm EDT #2 Georgetown (28-6) v. #6 Vanderbilt (22-11) - The Hoyas are on an impressive roll, having won 17 of their last 18 games, capturing both the Big East regular season and tournament titles in the process, not to mention a pair of big time wins, 80-55 over Belmont and 62-55 over Boston College in the first two rounds of the Big Dance.

Georgetown's success revolves around their two big men, 7'2" Roy Hibbert and 6'9" Jeff Green. They are 1-2 in scoring and rebounding on the team. Green 14.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and Hibbert (12.7, 6.7) are possibly the best inside tandem in the country. The other three starters, Jonathon Wallace, Jesse Sapp and Dajuan Summers put up 11, 9 and 9 points per game, respectively and are backed up by the deepest bench in the tournament. The Hoyas can go 10 deep with players averaging at least 8 minutes.

If Hibbert and Green don't do enough damage inside, Georgetown can also bomb away from 3-point range. Wallace shoots it at 48% and 6'8" super sub Patrick Ewing, Jr. nails 3's at 47%. The Hoyas are easily the tallest team remaining and when they control the paint, they are virtually unbeatable.

The Hoyas are 12-5 against tourney teams, with wins over Belmont, Boston College, Oral Roberts, Pitt (2), Marquette, Notre Dame (2), Villanova (2), Louisville and Vanderbilt. Their losses were to Oregon, Old Dominion, Duke, Villanova and Pitt.

Vanderbilt is one of the lower-seeded teams, at #6, to get this far. Only UNLV (7) exceeds them. The Commodores were the surprise of the SEC, mostly due to the play of Derrick Byars and Shan Foster, their two leading scorers at 17.0 and 15.6. Complementing them is guard Dan Cage, who shoots 3's at 44%. Inside, forward Ross Neltner leads the team in rebounding at 5.7/game, but hitting the boards is more of a team effort. 7 different players average at least 2.5 boards per game.

Vanderbilt handily won their first round game against George Washington, 77-44. By contrast, their 78-74 second round win over Washington State took two overtimes.

Vandy is a good ball-handling team. Each of their starters has a positive assist-turnover ratio, with point guard Alex Gordon the best at better than 2-1. The Commodores rely on quickness, crisp passing, solid defense, a high free throw percentage and team rebounding. Of all the teams remaining in the tourney, the Commodores best exemplify the team play concept.

The Commodores went 7-5 against tourney teams. The wins came against George Washington, Washington State, Georgia Tech, Tennessee, Kentucky (2) and Florida. Their losses were to Arkansas (2), Tennessee, Florida and Georgetown.

9:57 pm EDT #1 North Carolina (30-6) v. #5 USC (25-11) - Despite USC being a #5 vs. #1 North Carolina, this shapes up as a doozy of a matchup.

North Carolina is one of the deeper teams in the tourney. Coach Roy Williams wastes no time sending in subs, using 10 players and sometimes more in his rotation. the top 10 players for North Carolina average at least 10 minutes or more, and of the starters, only Tyler Hansbrough averages 30.

The Tar Heels cruised though the first two rounds of the tourney, whipping Eastern Kentucky, 86-65, before blasting Michigan State, 81-67 in the second round.

Hansbrough is a madman inside, with deft moves and a great shooting touch. He leads the team in scoring at 18.6 ppg, followed closely by fellow forward Brandan Wright (14.6). Point guard Ty Lawson averaged nearly a 3-1 assist-turnover ratio throughout the season. The rest of the team is full of role players who can all score and defend well in Williams' versatile motion offense.

North Carolina tied with Virginia in the ACC regular season, and won the ACC tourney. They weren't perfect down the stretch, but after consecutive road losses to Maryland and Georgia Tech, they've won 6 straight.

The Tar Heels are 14-5 against tournament teams. Their wins came over Eastern Kentucky, Michigan State, Duke (2), Boston College (2), Arizona, Georgia Tech, Virginia, Penn, Kentucky, Ohio State, Tennessee and Winthrop. They lost games to Gonzaga, Maryland, Virginia Tech (2) and Georgia Tech.

USC finished 2nd in the PAC-10 and lost in the championship game of the conference tourney to Oregon. In the NCAA, they've cruised past two quality opponents, whipping Arkansas, 77-60, and then dominating Texas, 87-68 in a game that was ostensibly decided by halftime.

The Trojans rely on timely shooting, ball movement and stellar defense. If they can shut down an opponent early, they have enough offense to keep just about any team at bay. Swingman Nick Young is their leading scorer at 17.8 ppg, and the next three scoring leaders, guards Lodrick Stewart, Gabe Pruitt and forward Taj Gibson, each average between 12 and 14 points per game.

Gibson is also a ferocious rebounder, leading the team with nearly nine a game, while Young and Stewart are capable from behind the arc, averaging 45 and 44%, respectively.

Against tournament teams, the Trojans were 11-7, with wins over Long Beach St., George Washington, Arkansas, Texas, Oregon (2), Arizona (2), Stanford (2) and Washington State. The losses were to UCLA (2), Oregon, Stanford, Washington State (2) and Kansas.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Sweet 16 Regional Breakdown: West and South

West Region:

7:10 pm EDT #1 Kansas (32-4) v. #4 Southern Illinois (29-6) - The Salukis didn't get any help as Kansas cruised through the first two rounds of the tournament, sailing past Niagara, 107-67 in the opening round before booting Kentucky on Sunday 88-76.Sports Training Products

Southern Illinois has had arguably their best season ever, setting a school record for victories, and one more win would give them 30, a high-water mark for any program. But that one extra win will come against the high-flying Jayhawks, who have looked unstoppable in the first two game. The Salukis have won 15 of their last 16 games. This is their 6th straight NCAA tournament appearance and a win would put them in the elite 8 for the first time.

The Salukis, which entered the NCAA tournament as the third-best scoring defense in the nation with 56.5 points per game allowed, held both 1st and 2nd round opponents below that mark. In the opening round, they stymied Holy Cross in a 61-51 win, but their 2nd round win over Virginia Tech, 63-48, was even better, as they held the Hokies 8 points below their previous season-low.

The two wins were all the more remarkable in that they were achieved without starting forward Matt Shaw, the Salukis' 3rd leading scorer at 11.4 ppg and 2nd best rebounder (5.7/game). Shaw injured an ankle nearing the end of the first half of the Holy Cross game and hasn't played since. He scored 11 points and had 5 rebounds against the Crusaders.

Tony Boyle took Shaw's place in the lineup and responded with 14 points and 5 rebounds in the second half of the Holy Cross game. In the Virginia Tech game, Boyle only played 20 minutes, had 3 rebounds and did not score. It's not certain whether Shaw will be available for the Kansas game.
Southern Illinois' offense revolves around junior forward Randal Falker. A tough inside defender and rebounder, he's also the 2nd-leading scorer on the team. Senior guard Jamaal Tatum is the team's leader at 15.1 ppg. His, and backcourt mate Tony Young's ability to hit 3's are key. Young hits 3-pointers at a 38% clip; Tatum fires them up at 42%.

The Salukis will have to play great defense to slow down Kansas, which comes in scoring at nearly 80 points per game. Led offensively by Brandon Rush and Mario Chalmers, both can wreak havoc from beyond the arc. Chalmers hits 41% of his 3's, Rush, nearly 43%. Right behind them in the scoring stats is forward Julian Wright, averaging 12.2 ppg, mostly inside.

The Jayhawks may be the best balanced team in the nation except possibly for North Carolina. Kansas' top 5 scorers are separated by only 4 points on average. Sub Sherron Collins scores 9.8 ppg, right behind Darrell Arthur's 10.0. Point guard Russell Robinson scores just 7.1/game, but dishes an average of 4.5 assists. Center Sasha Kaun and forward Darnell Jackson round out the 8-man rotation, all of them averaging at least 15 minutes per contest.

Kansas won the Big 12 regular season and conference tournament and are riding a 13-game win streak.

Kansas has a 7-3 record against tournament teams with wins over Florida, Texas (2), USC, Boston College, Kentucky and Niagara and losses to Texas Tech, Texas A&M and Oral Roberts.

Southern Illinois is 6-3 against tourney teams. Their wins were over Virginia Tech (2), Creighton (2), Holy Cross and Butler, with losses to Arkansas, Indiana and Creighton.

9:40 pm EDT #3 Pittsburgh (29-7) v. #2 UCLA (28-5) - Both Pitt and the Bruins seem to be stumbling through the tournament. Pittsburgh easily handled Wright State, 79-58, in the opening round but blew a 19-point lead in their 2nd-round, 84-79 overtime win against VCU.

UCLA lost in the first round of the PAC-10 tournament and probably lost a #1 seed by doing so. The Bruins shook off any doubt and rust by pounding Weber State, 70-42 in their first tournament game, but allowed Indiana to come back from 13 points down to tie their 2nd round game with under a minute to play. The Bruins had to step up the defense and didn't allow another Indiana score after that, winning 54-49 on free throws. Still, UCLA didn't score from the field in the final 5:25 of that game, raising eyebrows.

The Panthers are led by All-American center Aaron Gray, who tops the team in both scoring and rebounding at 14.0 and 9.6 per game. He is the offense and the defense for this team which only runs 7-deep. Besides Gray in the middle, Pitt starts essentially four guards, each of whom can light it up from 3-point land. Second-leading scorer Mike Cook shoots 3's at 48% though he does most of his scoring inside. The most persistent outside threat is Ronald Ramon, a 43% shooter from outside the arc. Antonio Graves hits 40% and point guard Levance Fields, 35% on 3's.

The Panthers were second in the Big East behind Georgetown and also lost in the conference tournament finals to the Hoyas. Their late-season struggles were primary considerations in their sub-par #3 seeding. Pitt's offense can struggle at times, especially if Gray is being defended and the others aren't hitting their shots. The Panthers have had long stretches in games in which they didn't score and their defense is also suspect, allowing 63 points per game. They are likely one of the most vulnerable teams remaining.

UCLA won the PAC-10 regular season, winning all of their home games. Their offense flows from point guard Darren Collison to shooting guard Arron Afflalo and forward Josh Shipp, who are 1-2 on the team at 16.7 and 13.2 ppg. Neither can hit 3-pointers consistently. Afflalo is a 38% shooter outside the arc, while Shipp is a dreadful 31%.

After Collison, who is third at 12.8 and hits 48% of his 3's, are five players who contribute an average of 3.5 to 8.5 points per game. Most of these starters and reserves are inside-type players and that is the strength of the Bruins, both offensively, but more importantly, on defense. Lorenzo Mata is an anchor inside and Alfred Aboya and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (leading rebounder) are long and lean. The Bruins have one of the best defenses in the country, holding opponents to just a shade under 60 points per outing.

Against tournament teams the Bruins are 12-2. Their wins came against Indiana, Weber St., Washington St. (2), Kentucky, Georgia Tech, Texas A&M, Oregon, USC (2), Stanford and Arizona (2). The losses were to Stanford and Oregon.

Pittsburgh holds a 6-6 record against tournament teams. Wins came over Wright State, VCU, Georgetown, Villanova, Marquette and Louisville. Their losses were to Georgetown (2), Marquette (2), Louisville and Wisconsin.

South Region

7:27 pm EDT #2 Memphis (32-3) v. #3 Texas A&M (27-6) - If there's any team that looked like an unstoppable force over the first weekend of play, it was the Memphis Tigers. Both the 73-58 win over North Texas and the 78-62 drilling of Nevada turned into one-sided affairs late in the second halves. The interior play of Joey Dorsey (a true widebody monster at 6'9", 260 lbs.) and Robert Dozier was the perfect complement to the slick perimeter play of Chris Douglas-Roberts, Andre Anderson, and Jeremy Hunt.

The Tigers toiled through the regular season in the relative obscurity of Conference USA, which they totally overwhelmed, winning all 16 conference games plus 3 more to capture the conference tournament. Their two wins in the Big Dance stretched their winning streak to a nation's best 24 games. Coach John Calipari has put together a team that is capable of beating anyone, at any time, in any venue.

The only drawback for the Tigers might be the loss of leading scorer Douglas-Roberts, who suffered an ankle injury in the latter stages of the Nevada game and didn't practice Tuesday. His loss would be a major blow to Memphis, though he says he's going to play.

As the only entrant from Conference-USA, the Tigers didn't play too many tourney teams, but their record stands at 4-3, with wins over Gonzaga, Nevada, North Texas and Kentucky and losses to Tennessee, Arizona and Georgia Tech.

The Texas A&M Aggies had a spectacular season, even though they finished 2nd to Kansas in the Big 12. Led by prototype shooting guard Acie Law, who can create off the dribble or score from the outside, the Aggies have a nice blend of inside-outside game. Coach Billy Gilispie has a high-quality product that was as close to perfection as any team this season. Of their six losses, only one - a 64-52 loss at LSU - was by a wide margin. The other five were by a total of 10 points.

The offense revolves around Law, who leads the team with 18.2 ppg. Three other players average double figures. Joseph Jones, 13.4; Josh Carter, 12.1; Antanas Kavaliauskas, 11.8. Kavaliauskas and Jones handle most of the rebounding duties, while point guard Dominique Kirk has a nearly 3-1 assist to turnover ratio, though it is Law who leads the team in assists.

The one knock on the Aggies is that they aren't very deep. After the five starters they only have two players who average more than 15 minutes per game.

The Aggies are 4-5 against tournament teams. Their wins came over Texas, Kansas, Louisville and Penn. They lost to Texas Tech (2), Texas, LSU and UCLA.

9:57 pm EDT #1 Ohio St. (32-3) v. #5 Tennessee (24-10)

Ohio State has looked solid in their two tournament games, but had a scare against Xavier in the second round when they forced overtime on a Ron Lewis 3-pointer and won, 78-71, without center Greg Oden in the extra period. In their opening round 78-57 win over Central Connecticut State, Oden dominated with 19 points and 10 boards in 30 minutes.

While freshman sensation Oden gets most of the press, the Buckeyes have a solid supporting cast of four guards, though Dequan Cook (10.4 ppg, 4.7 rpg) usually plays a forward position. Point guard Mike Conley, Jr. averages 6.2 assists per game and has a nearly 3-1 assist to turnover ratio. Ron Lewis and Jamar Butler can rain down 3's, though their percentages are not outstanding. Lewis clicks at 36%, Butler at 39%.

The key to Ohio State success is the play of Oden in the middle. He's a dominating force and often plays a one-man zone in the defensive middle. Any shot taken in the lane is likely to be challenged by Oden, who is one of the nation's top shot blockers, averaging 3.4 per game.

Ohio State isn't a particularly explosive team, though once they get a lead they're prone to going on one-sided scoring runs and putting games away early in 3nd halves. Their strength is also their Achilles heel. If Oden gets into early foul trouble, they may struggle, though the big man has improved at keeping out of foul trouble as the season has progressed.

The Buckeyes have a gaudy 13-3 record against tournament teams with wins over Central Conn. St., Xavier, Eastern Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan St. (2), Purdue (3), Wisconsin (2). Their losses were to North Carolina, Florida and Wisconsin.

The Tennessee Volunteers were sometimes shaky during the regular season, but whenever Chris Lofton is on the floor, the Vols have a good chance of winning. Their tournament opener - a 121-86 romp over Long Beach State - tied a first round scoring record. In the second round, they outlasted a gritty Virginia team, 77-74, with Lofton hitting 6 straight free throws to seal the win.

Tennessee is one of the smaller teams still in the tourney. They generally start three guards and two forwards, with no true center. Lofton leads the team in scoring at 20.7 ppg, followed by JaJuan Smith at 15.3 and reserve guard Ramar Smith at 10.6. Lofton, JaJuan Smith and forward Wayne Chism are the main outside threats. Lofton hits at 41% from 3-point range; Smith and Chism click at respectable 36 and 35%.

The main area of concern for the Vols is first and foremost ball control. they have a very poor team assist-turnover ratio, though point guard Dane Bradshaw is the one deft ball handler, at 4.7-1.7. On the other hand, the Vols are one of the better ball-hawking teams. Four different players average more than 1 steal per game, with the two primary defenders being Bradshaw and Lofton. If the Vols win the turnover battle, they generally are close enough to win games, as they are routinely outrebounded.

Tennessee has a 8-6 record vs. tournament teams. They had wins over Memphis, Texas, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Florida, Arkansas, Long Beach St. and Virginia. Losses came against Vanderbilt, Florida, Kentucky, Ohio State, Butler and North Carolina.

Tomorrow: East and Midwest Region analysis.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Oh-so-Sweet Sixteen

After a weekend of basketball bliss and bracket binges, we approach the epitome of college hoops - the Sweet 16 - likely to be the best 12 games in any 4 days of the season. The survivors will, of course, end up in the Final Four, but the Sweet 16 poses an equally difficult task. All of the teams in this year's regionals are top-shelf. A quick look at last week's AP Top 25 reveals that only Vanderbilt (the #6 seed in the East region) didn't make that list.

There were ostensibly no big upsets in the opening weekend of play. The lowest seeds remaining are #7 UNLV and #6 Vanderbilt Three #5s made the grade: Butler, Tennessee and USC. Southern Illinois is the lone #4 in the regionals; after that all of the 1-3 seeds made it to the third round except Washington State (#3 East) and Wisconsin (#2 Midwest).

The big losers in the conference breakdown were the Big Ten and Big East. Big 10 basketball didn't make the grade over the first weekend when Purdue, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan State and Wisconsin were all summarily booted. Add to that Ohio State needing a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to get into overtime and eventually defeat Xavier, and the #1 ranked team in the country all of a sudden doesn't look very imposing. They alone now carry the Big 10 banner.

The Big East lost 4 of the 6 they sent to the tourney. Notre Dame, Villanova and Marquette didn't even make it past the first round. Louisville lost a tough one to Texas A&M. Only Pitt (another team that needed overtime in the 2nd round) and Georgetown remain from the nation's largest (16 teams) conference. Maybe West Virginia or Syracuse might have fared better. Maybe not. It was a crowded, competitive field beyond the #1-3 seedings.

The Thursday and Friday matchups, which I'll break down on Tuesday and Wednesday, are intriguing, but none moreso than the Florida - Butler tilt in the Midwest. The Gators were tested briefly by Purdue, but they'll face one of the best defensive teams in the country in the Bulldogs, and one which has a 7-1 record against tournament teams with wins over Notre Dame, Tennessee, Indiana and Gonzaga back in November, Purdue in December, plus tourney wins over Old Dominion and Maryland. Their only loss was a 68-64 road loss to Southern Illinois in February. Butler is, right now, the ultimate Cinderella team with aims at the defending champion.

Before getting ahead of myself and doing game analysis, here's some of the prime time performers still remaining in the field of 16.

Scoring (1st game, 2nd game, total, average):
Tyler Hansbrough, NC: 21, 33, 54, 27.0
Acie Law, Texas A&M: 20, 26, 46, 23.0
Chris Lofton, Tenn.: 25, 20, 45, 22.5
Nick Young, USC: 20, 22, 42, 21.0
Derrick Byars, Vanderbilt: 12, 27, 39, 19.5
Shan Foster, Vanderbilt: 18, 20, 38, 19.0
Aaron Brooks, Oregon: 18, 22, 40, 20.0
JaJuan Smith, Tenn.: 24, 16, 40, 20.0
Ron Lewis, Ohio St.: 13, 27, 40, 20.0
Wendell White, UNLV: 19, 22, 41, 20.5
Corey Brewer, Florida: 21, 17, 38, 19.0
A. J. Graves, Butler: 18, 19, 37, 17.5
Mario Chalmers, Kansas: 19, 16, 35, 17.0

Rebounds (1st game, 2nd game, total, average):
Roy Hibbert, Georgetown: 13, 12, 25, 12.5
Al Horford, Florida: 16, 9, 25, 12.5
Joey Dorsey, Memphis: 15, 9, 24, 12.0
Greg Oden, Ohio St.: 10, 12, 22, 11.0
Taj Gibson, USC: 8, 14, 22, 11.0
Randal Falker, 8, 12, 20, 10.0
Joseph Jones, Texas A&M: 11, 8, 19, 9.5
Mike Green, Butler: 10, 8, 18, 9.0
Julian Wright, Kansas: 10, 8, 18, 9.0

Assists (1st game, 2nd game, total, average):Sports Training Products
Kevin Kruger, UNLV: 8, 7, 15, 7.5
Taurean Green, Florida: 12, 2, 14, 7.0
Levance Fields, Pitt.: 9, 4, 13, 6.5
Gabe Pruitt, USC: 4, 8, 12, 6.0

Here's the Thursday-Friday lineup (all times Eastern):

Thursday, March 22:

West Region (San Jose, CA)
7:10 pm #4 Southern Ill. (29-6) v. #1 Kansas (32-4)
9:40 pm #3 Pittsburgh (29-7) v. #2 UCLA (28-5)

South Region (San Antonio, TX)
7:27 pm #3 Texas A&M (27-6) v. #2 Memphis (32-3)
9:57 pm #5 Tennessee (24-10) v. #1 Ohio St. (32-3)

Friday, March 23:

Midwest Region (St. Louis, MO)
7:10 pm #5 Butler (29-6) v. #1 Florida (31-5)
9:40 pm #7 UNLV (30-6) v. #3 Oregon (28-7)

East Region (East Rutherford, NJ)
7:27 pm #6 Vanderbilt (22-11) v. #2 Georgetown (28-6)
9:57 pm #5 USC (25-11) v. #1 North Carolina (30-6)

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Sunday Sends 8 to Sweet 16

Tennessee 77 Virginia 74 - Chris Lofton was only 4-16 from the field, but he led the Vols with 20 points, hitting 6 straight free throws in the final minute to deny Virginia an opportunity to play Ohio in the Sweet 16. J. R. Reynolds scored 26 for Virginia, but he was not a factor in the latter stages of the game, apparently suffering an injury nearing halftime. Tennessee hit 11-26 3-pointers, but free throw shooting kept the game close. There were 51 total fouls, and 68 free throw attempts.Virginia hit 31-36 while Tennessee went 22-32.

UNLV 74 Wisconsin 68 - The Runnin' Rebels pulled off the biggest upset of the tournament, sending the Midwest's #2 seed home early. Wisconsin got off to a slow start again and trailed by 12 at the half. But the Badger's scoring duo of Alando Tucker and Kammron Taylor brought the Badgers back with a 21-7 run to open the 2nd half and take a lead at 48-46. The Rebels battled back, however, and took a 61-54 lead on a pair of 3-pointers by Kevin Kruger and two free throws by Michael Umeh. As time wore down, the Badgers could get no closer than three as UNLV advanced to the regionals to face Oregon.

Florida 74 Purdue 67 - Purdue took an early lead and maintained their advantage five minutes into the 2nd half as Florida was ice cold and made numerous mistakes on offense. But then, a dunk and a tip-in by Joakim Noah gave Florida a lead at 34-33. Moments later, Taurean Green hit a pair of 3-pointers to put Florida up by 5.

Oregon 75 Winthrop 61 - Aaron Brooks scored 14 first half points to help the Ducks build a 4-point lead to intermission, stretching it to double-digits as the game wore on. Fueled by the 3-point shooting of Brooks and Tajuan Porter, the Ducks pressed their advantage to produce a convincing second round conquest. Brooks, who led the scoring parade with 22 points, hit 5 of 9 threes. Porter was 4 for 7 behind the line and scored 14.

Memphis 78 Nevada 62 - Memphis maintained a single-digit lead most of the game, but could never quite shake loose from Nevada. The turning point could have come with about 8 minutes remaining in the game when the Tigers' leading scorer, Chris Douglas-Roberts left the game with an ankle injury. The Wolf Pack closed to within two points with under 6 minutes remaining, but could get no closer as Memphis was too physical and quick down the stretch. Memphis heads for a date with Texas A&M in the East regional. Douglas-Roberts and Jeremy Hunt led the Tigers in scoring with 16 apiece. Nevada's Nick Fazekas had 20 and Marcelus Kemp, 18.Sports Training Products

Southern Illinois 63 Virginia Tech 48 - Jamaal Tatum hit 6-9 3-pointers for 21 points and Tony Young was 4-8 from beyond the arc for 17, as the Salukis romped past Virginia Tech and into the regionals. While the Hokies were missing badly from long range (2-13), Randal Falker was putting together a double-double with 10 points and 12 rebounds. The #4 seed in the West, Southern Illinois has Kansas next on the schedule.

Kansas 88 Kentucky 76 - The Jayhawks shot the lights out on Kentucky in a game that was never in doubt after halftime. Brandon Rush nailed 6 of 7 3-pointers and Julian Wright poured in 21 to lead Kansas into the next round with 19 points and . The Wildcats' Bobby Perry and Randolph Morris tried to keep pace, but their 21 and 22 points alone were not enough to offset Kansas' 57% shooting.

USC 87 Texas 68 - The more-experienced Trojans came out firing against Texas and swamped the Longhorns, swelling a 7-point halftime lead to 17 after the break. Nick Young provided the bulk of the offense with XX points. Kevin Durant had a game high 30, but fellow freshmen Damian James and D.J. Augustin were held to just 8 points on 2 of 11 shooting. USC, one of the nation's best defensive teams, held the high-powered Texas offense to 38% shooting, including 7-28 from beyond the arc. Daniel Hackett had 20 points for the Trojans; Taj Gibson tallied 17 with 13 rebounds. USC will face North Carolina in the East regional.