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.
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.
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.