Monday, March 17, 2008

NCAA Tournament: Matchup Mayhem

While the selection committee may not have picked the very best 65 teams for the tournament, they did come up with a number of intriguing first-round contests.

Here are some must-see games which will resonate through the college hoops universe all the way to San Antonio:

East Region
(8) Indiana vs. (9) Arkansas - The talented Indiana backcourt of freshman Eric Gordon and sophomore Armon Bassett should have their way with Arkansas' Gary Ervin and Patrick Beverley. The Hoosiers will also have JaMarcus Ellis and Jordan Crawford for extended periods, putting further pressure on the Arkansas guards.

Up front, however, it's a different story, where D.J. White, an experienced 6'9" post presence, will be hounded by the likes of Darian Townes, Vincent Hunter, and the ever-dangerous Sonny Weems, all seniors.

While Indiana may still be reeling from the departure of coach Kelvin Sampson, the Razorbacks have no such concerns, as coach John Pelphrey looks like he's going to be around a while. Both he and Hoosiers interim coach Dan Dakich are seeking their first tournament wins, and this one could go down to the wire.

It will be interesting to see if Gordon takes over the game from the backcourt or the Hogs run wild in the lane. The winner earns the right to play North Carolina in the next round. No picnic and little time to prepare.

Midwest Region
(6) USC vs. (11) Kansas State This may not be that great of a game, or it might, considering K-State's late-season meltdown and USC's arrival as a premiere West coast team loaded with studs. The big marquee players are here: Wildcats freshman Michael Beasley may be the #1 pick in the upcoming NBA draft, so this is his chance to showcase his talents to a national audience.

Likewise, USC's O.J. Mayo may not last into his sophomore year. The Trojans have the better team overall, though they start all sophs and freshmen. Forwards Taj Gibson and Davon Jefferson should be the difference-makers for USC, which should advance and could be a final four team if everything falls into place.

Look for USC to win this one going away, though holding Beasley under 40 may not be possible. A Kansas St. win would be a pretty remarkable upset, but future NBA stars will be on parade for both teams.

South Region
(7) Miami vs. (10) St. Mary's - If anyone picked either of these teams to be in the tournament preseason, they should get a full scholarship to Bracketville U.

The surprising Gaels of St. Mary's performed admirably through the rugged West Coast Conference schedule, and have what amounts to an international lineup with four Australians on the squad. Guard Todd Golden hits at 45% from 3-point range and 6'11" center Omar Samhan can be dominant in the post. The supporting cast is very athletic and long and can play with anyone.

For the Hurricanes, it was a season in which they exceeded expectations. They're an undersized group that can leap and run with any team in the country, so they are prime for upsets should they survive the opening round. Watch for Dwayne Collins and Jack McClinton to do most of the scoring and everyone else to crash the boards. These guys upset Duke earlier in the season and are one of only four ACC to make the tourney.

This could be the wildest game of the first round and it's a shame one of these exciting teams has to lose.

West Region
(5) Drake vs. (12) Western Kentucky - Surprising nearly everyone except themselves, the Drake Bulldogs - the only entrant out of the Missouri Valley Conference - may have the best team concept in the country, whipping the ball around the perimeter until Adam Emmenecker, a 6;1" senior dashes into the lane with the ball and either scores on a layup or dishes out to a teammate for an open three. These guys are also very adept passers who employ lots of back-door plays.

The Bulldogs can play stingy defense and will throttle down any hot shooters with a stifling zone or rough man-to-man.

The 27-6 Hilltoppers, winners of the Sun Belt tourney, have a slew of shooters who can light it up from anywhere on the floor, though they prefer to do their damage from behind the three-point line. Led by senior Courtney Lee, Western Kentucky may have trouble stopping Drake, but they won't have any problem finding shots.

The flow of the game will be intense and all-important. If the Hilltoppers get off early, they may make it hard for Drake to come back, though the Bulldogs have the kind of grit and heart to overcome early setbacks. This one ought to be a barn-raising good time with the winner set on upsetting another team in the second round.

Tomorrow: Locks, Bracket Busters and Definite Maybes

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