Sunday, March 29, 2009

FINAL FOUR: Huskies, Wildcats, Spartans and Tar Heels Head to Motor City

How they got there: Recaps of the Regional Finals

West: (1) Connecticut 82, (3) Missouri 75 - The Huskies were undaunted by Missouri's pressure and built a 13-point lead only to have the Tigers whittle it down and eventually take the lead back, by a point, with less than 6 minutes left. From that point onward, Connecticut stepped up the defense and made shots and freebies when they had to. Missouri continued to try to cut into the advantage, but Kemba Walker and A.J. Price controlled the backcourt tempo for the prevailing Huskies. Walker had the game of his life, outscoring everybody with 23 points while dishing 5 assists and snatching 5 rebounds. Price scored 18 points for UConn, which hit only 2 of 12 3-pointers, turned the ball over 17 times to Missouri's 6, but controlled the paint, outrebounding the Tigers, 47-32.

Midwest: (2) Michigan St. 64, (1) Louisville 52 - Tom Izzo's defensive-minded Spartans limited Louisville to their second-lowest point total of the season ending the Cardinals' 13-game win streak while rewarding themselves with a virtual home game in Detroit at the Final Four. Michigan State's fearless defenders took Louisville out of their game and outhustled them at every opportunity. Louisville shot just 38% (18-47), including a respectable 6-16 from beyond the arc, but the Spartans shot 45% and outdueled Louisville in the paint, grabbing 37 boards to Louisville's 28.

Michigan State's big man, Goran Suton, positioning himself 15 to 18 feet from the basket on offense, kept getting open looks and hitting them, sharing game-high honors with Louisville's Earl Clark at 19 points. Suton also managed to corral 10 rebounds and fed his teammates with 4 assists.

East: (3) Villanova 78, (1) Pittsburgh 76 - This one figured to be close all the way and it was, ending finally on Scottie Reynolds' four-footer in the lane with 1/2 second left. Both teams played their hearts out, but Villanova ended up with the last possession at 8 seconds from the final buzzer and they made their play. There was nothing more Pitt could do to win this game; they were simply one-upped by another team from Pennsylvania. For the Panthers, Sam Young had 28 points to lead all scorers, and deJuan Blair recorded his usual double-double, with 20 points and 10 rebounds.

Villanova's scoring was led by Dwayne Anderson with 17, followed by Reynolds with 15 and Dante Cunningham's 15. The Wildcats did everything right, as did Pitt, in the tournament's best-played game. Villanova was actually outshot by the Panthers, 48% to 45%, but the Wildcats won it at the line, hitting 22 of 23 free throws.

South: (1) North Carolina 72, (2) Oklahoma 60 - The much-anticipated mano-a-mano between Tyler Hansbrough and Blake Griffin never really materialized as Hansbrough was saddled with fouls early and had to sit out much of the first half. By the numbers, Griffin outplayed North Carolina's Psycho-T, scoring 23 points with 16 rebounds. Hansbrough had 8 and 6, though Carolina's lead expanded and Griffin's scoring was limited with Hansbrough on the floor.

Otherwise, the game went almost completely north Carolina's way thanks to Ty Lawson and Danny Green. Lawson, virtually unchecked at the point, scored 19 points and had 5 rebounds and 5 assists. Green scored 18 on 6 of 9 shooting. Both players hit 2 of 4 3-pointers.

Once the Tar Heels had established a first half lead of 11 points, they maintained a similar edge throughout most of the remainder of the game. The Sooners were pathetic from outside, missing their first 15 3-point attempts until 5:14 left in the second half when Willie Warren finally splashed one in the middle of a 9-0 late Sooner run. Oklahoma got to within 12 points after the tar Heels had led by as many as 19, but failed to get any closer, going xxx from beyond the arc.

In the semifinal games to be played Saturday, April 4 at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan, the Connecticut Huskies face Michigan State and the Tar Heels meet Villanova.

The Final will be played Monday night, April 6.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Regional Finals, Elite Eight Picks

West Regional Finals, Saturday, March 28
University of Phoenix Stadium (Glendale, AZ)

(1) Connecticut (30-4) (-6, 150) (3) Missouri (31-6) 4:40 pm EDT - Don't believe that Missouri's win over Memphis was a kind of fluke or that Memphis wasn't a high quality team. Nobody wins 27 straight without doing something right, but the Memphis Tigers ran into a bengal of another stripe in Missouri, one which pressed and contested every pass and dribble, throwing Memphis off their game. Even then, Memphis hung in, finally succumbing, 102-91, the highest-scoring game of the tournament, which says plenty about the quality of both teams.

Missouri can click on offense when it gets contributions outside of Leo Lyons and DeMarre Carroll, which it did Thursday as J.T. Tiller whipped and whizzed through the Memphis defense like a gyroscopic genie out of its bottle. Tiller led Missouri with 23 points on 10-16 shooting and his slashing style will be paramount in getting to the tin against UConn's shot-swatting Hasheem Thabeet.

Missouri must push the ball into the lane in order to be successful against Connecticut, hoping to get Thabeet into foul trouble. That seems to be just about the only way to slow down the 7'3" center - limit his playing time to under 25 minutes - and Missouri, with Tiller, Lyons (who will be on Thabeet's hip through most of the proceedings), and Carroll, all of whom love to mix it up underneath, possesses the right kind of offense.

The Tigers should create havoc for the Huskies on defense as well, their pressure style making it difficult for UConn to get into their offense early. The Huskies are basically inept from beyond the arc, so Missouri may find some opportunity to mix up the half-court defense with box-and-one, man to man and maybe even a 2-3 zone look. That will clog the lane, and the Tigers will be a force on the boards against the statuesque Connecticut big men.

UConn's win over Purdue was an ugly thing, despite the statistical edge in most categories. While the Huskies shot a respectable 45% from the field, A.J. Price and Jeff Adrien, the two players who took the most shots, were a combined 8-for-28 and only Craig Austrie was able to hit a three-pointer, canning all three of his attempts. He's not likely to repeat that against Missouri. The Tigers will likely allow Adrien to shoot form anywhere beyond 10 feet, as he has all of the touch of a sledge-hammer on a railway line.

Long story short, Connecticut simply doesn't have enough quality pure shooters to remain competitive for long at this level. Consider their pair of losses to Pittsburgh an early warning sign that they may not be the best fit for a Final Four jumpsuit. Missouri is on a mission, and the Huskies will find their timing thrown completely off and their shooting to be wanting.

PREDICTION: Missouri 85 Connecticut 82

East Regional Finals, Saturday, March 28
TD Banknorth Garden (Boston, MA)

(1) Pittsburgh (31-4) (-2, 142) (3) Villanova (29-7) 7:05 pm EDT - Every game for Villanova seems to provide matchup difficulties and tough-to-call scenarios, but the Wildcats keep winning, increasing their margin of victory with each successive foray into the tournament - 13 over American, 20 over UCLA and 23 over Duke, possibly their most dominant performance of the season. Jay Wright's Wildcats are peaking at the right time and are ready for a real cat fight with the Panthers.

The Panthers and Wildcats met once during the Big East regular season, in the last game played at Philadelphia's Spectrum, and besides home court, the Widlcats also had the luxury of keeping Pitt insider DeJuan Blair on the bench with foul trouble for most of the game, coming away with a 67-57 win. The Wildcats won't likely find the same fortune on Saturday. Blair has been amping up his inside game and will be a rock in the lane.

Pitt has not been impressive in their first three wins, beating East Tennessee State by 10, then Oklahoma State by 8 and finally getting past Xavier by 5, thanks almost exclusively to point guard Levance Fields' heroic 3-pointer and steal and layup in the final minute. That kind of storybook ending is also not probable against the Wildcats and their steady stream of upperclassmen. All of their starters are juniors or seniors.

The Panthers will try to get offense from Sam Young, but the Villanova players have seen Sam's deft ball fakes and he'll not likely have the same measure of accommodation he's had against less-experienced foes. Fields will match up with Scottie Reynolds, who may have an edge over the shorter point guard. The Wildcats role players, Dwayne Anderson, Shane Clark, Reggie Redding and Corey Stokes also appear to be more in their team's flow and better able to contribute than Pitt's Tyrone Biggs, Jermaine Dixon and Gilbert Brown.

Not that it's going to be easy (though it might be), Villanova simply is playing better than just about any other team right now and should move on to the Final Four.

PREDICTION: Villanova 75 Pitt 71

Midwest Regional Finals, Sunday, March 29
Lucas Oil Stadium (Indianapolis, IN)

(1) Louisville (31-5) (-7, 138) (2) Michigan St. (29-6) 2:20 pm EDT - In what could be either the biggest mismatch or the biggest upset of this round, The Louisville Cardinals, champions of the Big East, tangle with the Big Ten's regular season champion, Michigan State. The Trojans have been underestimated before, but they ranked in the top 10 nationally almost all season, and did what they had to against Kansas on Friday night. Point guard Kalin Lucas stepped up in the second half and outplayed the jayhawks' Sherrod Collins, and he may have the upper hand again against Louisville's Andre McGee and Edgar Sosa, though that is where Michigan's advantages may end.

Louisville is playing at an emotionally high level, matching their outstanding talent and in Earl Clark, Terrence Williams and Samardo Samuels, probably have the best front court in the nation. If Sosa or McGee can get them the ball, they will likely be too much for the Spartans' Goran Suton, Raymar Morgan and Delvon Roe to handle.

Michigan State is also very young. Only one regular, Travis Walton, is a senior, while only one of Louisville's starters - Samuls, a freshman - is not an upperclassman. Both teams get after it well on defense, but Louisville is less appreciated for it than are the Spartans. Just in terms of size alone, the Cardinals should control the lane and establish a rebounding edge. If they are able to shoot anything close to 50% from the floor against Michigan State, they'll be on their way to Detroit and into the Final Four. Louisville's 103-64 dismantling of a hopelessly overmatched Arizona team in the regional semifinals sent a clear message to the remaining teams that Louisville is serious.

PREDICTION: Louisville 74 Michigan St. 59

South Regional Finals, Sunday, March 29
FedExForum (Memphis, TN)

(1) North Carolina (31-4) (-7, 164) (2) Oklahoma (30-5) 5:05 pm EDT - In one of the most highly anticipated matchups of this or any tournament, Tyler Hansbrough and Blake Griffin will go toe-to-toe in the low post. Hansbrough was last season's college player of the year, and Griffin is the leading choice for the same honor this season. Whoever survives that encounter may find themselves on the way to more glory in the Final Four.

Carolina is a perennial contender at this level, and it's no surprise that they're seven point favorites. Oklahoma doesn't get to this point often, but they have a dynamic offensive team beyond their superstar, Griffin, and they match up very well with the Tar Heels in every aspect, except possibly at point guard, where Ty Lawson is in a league of his own.

The Tar Heels have an edge in terms of margin of victory, a combined 78-51, and nobody's come closer than 14 points (LSU in the second round). That's important, because it demonstrates just how explosive North Carolina is. Oklahoma is a solid team, but if Hansbrough can keep Griffin somewhat in check, it's hard to see how the Sooners can match up for an entire 40 minutes against the Tar Heels. Besides Hansbrough and Lawson, they also have players like Wayne Ellington, Danny Green and Deon Thompson, who can create their own shots. There's also legendary Roy Williams coaching this squad, which gives North Carolina one more huge advantage.

PREDICTION: North Carolina 91 Oklahoma 78

Friday, March 27, 2009

South, Midwest Regional Semis: Friday Games

Midwest Region
Lucas Oil Stadium (Indianapolis, IN)

(1) Louisville 103, (12) Arizona 64 - The Cardinals took control early and led 49-28 by the half and the contest was essentially over. Louisville completely dominated the less-experienced Wildcats throughout and cruised to the round of 8. Their lead widened in the second half. Look out Final Four, Rick Pitino's Louisville Cardinals are more than ready. Louisville's final tally tied Connecticut for the highest of the tournament. Twelve different players scored for the Cardinals, led by Earl Clark's 19.

(2) Michigan St. 67, (3) Kansas 62 - The Jayhawks took a 36-29 lead into the half after leading by as many as 13 earlier on the strength of 22 combined from Cole Aldrich ad Sherron Collins.

Michigan State rallied in the second half, with the game eventually taken over by Kalin Lucas who hit a clutch three and numerous free throws down the stretch.

Lucas and the Spartan faithful will have their hands full with Louisville on Sunday.

South Region
FedExForum (Memphis, TN)

(2) Oklahoma 84, (3) Syracuse 71 - The Orangemen could not buy a bucket from outside, missing all 10 of their 3-point attempts in the first half. The Sooners took advantage with 16 first half points from Blake Griffin and 14 on 3 3-pointers by Tony Crocker for a 39-26 lead.

With an injured Jonny Flynn on the floor for the Orangemen in the second half, the Sooners quickly upped the lead to 22 points and were never seriously challenged. Crocker finished with a career-high 28 points, hitting 6 of 11 from three-point range, Blake Griffin had 30 points and 12 boards.

(1) North Carolina 98, (4) Gonzaga 77 - Two of the highest scoring teams in the nation played at a breakneck pace in the first half, but Carolina made fewer miscues and was the swifter and more adroit, taking a 53-42 lead into intermission. The Tar Heels expanded their lead and cruised to the Elite Eight.

North Carolina will play Oklahoma in the regional final. That will be one hot game. Get ready.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

NCAA Regionals: Thursday Results

West Region
University of Phoenix Stadium (Glendale, AZ)

(1) Connecticut 72, (5) Purdue 60 - This game should have been over after the first ten minutes, but Robbie Hummel's 15 first half points and Connecticut turnovers, missed free throws, poor shot selection and an overall lack of emotion kept this game closer than it should have been.

The confident Connecticut players, leading the entire game, never seemed concerned about Purdue, even when the Boilermakers pulled to within 3 points on three different occasions. Each time, the Huskies upped the defensive intensity and worked harder for shots, instead of playing it like a shoot-around game, which they did for the most part.

Foul shooting was a troublesome area for both teams. UConn hit just 19-30; Purdue was 6-11 from the stripe. Hasheem Thabeet dominated the interior, scoring 15 points with 15 boards and 4 blocked shots. The Huskies advance, but will have to play much better, especially in terms of taking care of the rock, if they expect to win their next game.

(3) Missouri 102, (2) Memphis 91 - In the battle of Tigers, Missouri took it to Memphis in a big way. It wasn't bad enough that Missouri was going to go into the half up 10 points, but Marcus Denmon beat the buzzer from beyond half court to really put Memphis in a hole, down 49-36 at the break. J.T. Tiller led the Mizzou assault with 17 first half points.

It didn't get much better for Memphis, even though they closed to within 6 points with under a minute left, Missouri was just too aggressive on both ends of the floor. Memphis frosh Tyreke Evans scored 31 points, countered by Tiller's 25, DeMarre Carroll's 17 and Leo Lyons' 15.

Missouri will face Connecticut for a trip to the Final Four on Saturday.

East Region
TD Banknorth Garden (Boston, MA)

(1) Pittsburgh 60, (4) Xavier 55 - The Panthers got more than they bargained for from Xavier, trailing at the half, 37-29, but rallied to score the first 9 points after intermission to lead by a point. The teams exchanged leads through the half, with Xavier coming from five down to grab a 54-52 lead with 1:50 left.

Levance Fields' three-pointer with 51 seconds left, and subsequent steal and layup gave Pitt a 57-54 lead with 25 seconds to go. Xavier's Terrell Halloway made one of two free throws, but Sam Young buried a pair of foul shots to give Pitt a 4-point lead with 13 seconds left to seal the win. Young had 19 points to lead the Panthers, followed by Fields with 14 and 6 assists. DeJuan Blair scored 10 and hauled down 17 rebounds.

(3) Villanova 77, (2) Duke 54 - For a game that on paper appeared too close to call, this one turned out to be a very one-sided affair as the Wildcats put it on Duke to advance to the regional final. Villanova beat the Blue Devils in just about every imaginable way, driving repeatedly to the tin, playing intense individual and team defense which took Duke out of their normal routine and hitting the boards at both ends.

All nine player to get playing time for Villanova scored, led by Scottie Reynolds with 16 points and Dante Cunningham's 14. The Wildcats had the advantage over Duke in shooting percentage, three-pointers, free throws, assists, steals and rebounds. It was the most dominant team performance of the evening. Duke shot 28% from the field and 20% from beyond the arc (5-25).

Villanova moves on to meet fellow Big East entrant, Pitt, in the regional final on Saturday.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Midwest, South Regional Breakdowns: Friday Games

Midwest Region
Lucas Oil Stadium (Indianapolis, IN)

(1) Louisville (30-5) (-9, 139 1/2) (12) Arizona (21-13) 7:07 pm EDT- On paper, this looks like the easiest game to pick, with the #1 seed in the tournament facing a rank #12 in the Wildcats of Arizona. However, Arizona, a bubble team which wasn't expected to make the tourney by some expert analysts, has turned in a pleasantly surprising performance over its first two games, winning with relative ease over Utah (84-71) in the first round and then knocking off a Cinderella squad from Cleveland State, 71-57. In fact, the Wildcats combined margin of victory (27 points), is exactly the same as Louisville's.

Making the comparison even more interesting is the seeds beaten. Louisville only had to top a 16 and a 9 (Siena), while Arizona battled a 5 (Utah) and a 13. Add the seeds up, compare, and Arizona becomes even more likable.

Arizona has been led by the trio of Nic Wise, Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill, who provide the bulk of the scoring. Wise led the Wildcats in scoring in both games, and can create his own space and scoring opportunities, while Budinger is evolving into an excellent mid-to-long range player and Hill takes up space in the post, where he will have to contend with Louisville's enormously-talented Earl Clark. Terrence Williams and Samardo Samuels will also fill the lane with points and boards.

Louisville was tested by tiny Siena, and one has to question just how far the Cardinals are capable of going. They may be playing possum, but the Saints also had no quit in them, thus the close, 79-72 final score. Arizona is capable of staying in this one until the end and maybe scoring the biggest upset of the tournament.

PREDICTION: Arizona 77 Louisville 73

(2) Michigan St. (28-6) (-1 1/2, 139) (3) Kansas (27-7) 9:37 pm EDT - Kansas has a speedy, experienced point guard in Sherron Collins, but he will have to match up with the Spartan's Kalin Lucas, possessive of blow-by quickness and expert ball-handling. Collins, for the first time in the tournament, may not have the upper hand at the point. In the post, another matchup, of the Jayhawks Cole Aldrich and Michigan State's Goran Suton figures to be a wash, so it comes down to the rest of the cast, and that's where Kansas may actually have an edge with freshmen Marcus and Markieff Morris and Tyshawn Taylor, plus sophomore Tyrel Reed, who can provide instant offense with bombs from anywhere on the court.

Michigan State's game is predicated on defense first, but the Spartans will have their hands full with Kansas, which can go 8 or 9 deep. Michigan State isn't very deep at all, with a big drop-off after their 6th man in terms of playing time. The Spartans will be gassed by Kansas' relentless running and will once more prove to the world that the Big Ten isn't that great a conference.

PREDICTION: Kansas 73 Michigan St. 65

South Region
FedExForum (Memphis, TN)

(2) Oklahoma (29-5) (-1, 153) (3) Syracuse (28-9) 7:27 pm EDT - An intriguing matchup, especially considering that Syracuse will try to stop Blake Griffin with their patented 2-3 zone. The Orangemen certainly have the bodies to keep him in check, but the question is for how long? Syracuse point guard Jonny Flynn is a future NBA player, but he's still only a sophomore, so the experience will not be easy for him. Another question the "Cuse has to answer is whether Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins can continue to produce from beyond the arc. If they cannot, this one will be all Oklahoma.

While Syracuse has an impressive resume against out-of-conference teams with wins over Florida, Kansas and Memphis, those were all in November and December. Meanwhile, the Sooners lost two games in which Griffin was unavailable, and may have come into the tournament with a better record (and seeding) had it not been for his late-season injury. Oklahoma is as good as any team remaining, while the Orangemen (my alma mater, BTW) seem to be still developing and maybe will win it all in a year or two.

PREDICTION: Oklahoma 82 Syracuse 70

(1) North Carolina (30-4) (-8 1/2, 162 1/2) (4) Gonzaga (28-5) - 9:57 pm EDT - The Zags are a solid team, but the Tar Heels are poised to go to the Final Four. A win by Gonzaga would be a shock to the entire college hoops world, as many have the Tar Heels penned in their bracket projections to win it all. Gonzaga performed grandly to advance this far, but this is where it ends.

PREDICTION: North Carolina 91 Gonzaga 75

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

East, West Regional Breakdowns: Thursday Games

West Region
University of Phoenix Stadium (Glendale, AZ)

(1) Connecticut (29-4) (-7, 134 1/2) (5) Purdue (27-9) - 7:07 pm EDT: Connecticut should handle the Boilermakers with relative ease. As tournament teams go, the Huskies have the widest margin of victory of any remaining team, an average of 41 points per game. Purdue has one of the smallest - 3 1/2 per game - though Purdue played a 12 (Northern Iowa) and a 4 (Washington), the latter of which they survived by just two points. UConn had the luxury of playing a 16 (Chattanooga) and a 9 (Texas A&M), but the perceived quality of the opponent shouldn't matter at this point. Making the Sweet 16 is a goal in itself for some teams and the feeling is that Purdue has reached as far as they can.

Connecticut comes from the powerhouse Big East conference, which has been regarded as the best in the nation top to bottom, and by getting five of seven entrants to this point the critics (if there were any) have been silenced. The Huskies stand a very good chance of making the Final Four, as do all the #1s, which are all represented this round.

The matchup problems for Purdue will be all over the court, beginning with Hasheem Thabeet in the middle. Only DeJuan Blair of Pitt has been able to slow Thabeet down at all, and if he stays out of foul trouble, the big man will make life in the lane a scary experience, especially for his counterpart, 6'10" JaJuan Johnson, who happens to be Purdue's leading scorer in the tournament. With Thabeet on him, getting 20 points seems like a mightly uphill task. On the other side, UConn doesn't rely on Thebeet for scoring. For that they have Jeff Adrian, A. J. Price and Stanley Robinson. Those three should get 60-70% of the scoring for their team, enough to put Purdue at a distinct disadvantage.

PREDICTION: Connecticut 84 Purdue 70

(2) Memphis (33-3) (-4 1/2, 141) (3) Missouri (30-6) - 9:37 pm EDT:
This is a crucial game for both teams, but particularly for the Memphis Tigers, who have been accused of playing too weak a schedule, in too weak a conference. Memphis is the only team from Conference-USA to receive an invitation to the tournament - a ridiculous notion. The Tigers sport the nation's longest winning streak - 27 games - and have the best overall record in the nation, but the three losses were against arguably the best teams they faced all season - Georgetown, Xavier and Syracuse - two of which are still in the remaining field.

However, the most recent loss was last year - December 20 - and winning is like a contagion, the Memphis players step on the court thinking they can win, and they usually do. The Tigers' first tournament game, an 81-70 win over Cal State Northridge, can be excused for first round jitters. By the end of the game, Memphis was doing what they do best, shutting the other team down defensively and getting out on the break. In their easy win over Maryland, 89-70, the Tigers were more at ease with the crowds and expectations and they looked solid. The Memphis game revolves around point guard Antonio Anderson and power forward-center Robert Dozier, with a healthy dose of Tyreke Evans. This Tiger trokia is the key to their success.

Missouri poses an intriguing problem, as they like to pressure and run, but they run into problems if one of their two big guns - Leo Lyons and DeMarre Carroll - either encounters foul problems or a lock-down defender, and that's what both of them may face in Evans and Anderson. After their two big stars, Missouri just doesn't have enough depth to stay with Memphis for an entire 40 minutes. Unless Memphis turns the ball over more than expected, all indications are that Memphis moves on.

PREDICTION: Memphis 78 Missouri 65

East Region
TD Banknorth Garden (Boston, MA)

(1) Pittsburgh (30-4) (-7, 138 1/2) (4) Xavier (27-7) - 7:27 pm EDT: Ideally suited for tournament play, Xavier doesn't rely on any one or two players in order to win games. Rather, they are the consummate team and because of that have a good chance of reaching the Final Four and an outside shot at winning it all. While the Panthers have only lost to teams from the Big East, their wins outside the conference (Texas Tech, Florida State, Duquesne) aren't that impressive. The Musketeers have wins over Memphis and Missouri, two teams still in the hunt, suggesting that they will give Pitt all they can handle. Xavier can go nine deep, and all of them will get on the glass, pass well and play with poise.

Xavier won't be giving up much size, especially at the point, where Pitt's 5'10" Levance Fields may have problems getting the ball in the post to Blair. That was an issue for Pitt against Oklahoma State, but the immensely talented Sam Young picked up the slack, scoring 32 in one of this tournament's finest performances.

Xavier seems ready for anyone, and the extra practice time gives them an advantage. Pitt has won their two games by an average of just 9 points, the lowest of any #1, while the Musketeers won their games by 19 and 11. Xavier's speed, defense and coolness in any situation may prove to be the factors that get them to the next round.

PREDICTION: Xavier 71 Pitt 69

(2) Duke (30-6) (-2 1/2, 148) (3) Villanova (28-7) - 9:57 pm EDT: By any standard, this matchup is nearly impossible to predict a winner. Both teams play a fast, free-flowing style of offense, have players capable of hitting threes or scoring in the lane, neither has a huge inside presence and both are well coached and go seven to eight deep. Of all the players on the court, two stand out as potential game-changers. Jon Scheyer for Duke can get hot and hit bombs from just about anywhere, while Villanova's Dante Cunningham can be somewhat unstoppable in the post, but that only makes matters even more difficult to predict.

This is such an even call, the only prudent thing to do is take the points and hope the Wildcats have the ball for the final possession. It's easy to see this one going overtime and either team could go to the Final Four and beyond.

PREDICTION: Villanova 84 Duke 81

Tomorrow: Midwest, South Regional Breakdowns, Friday Games

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Second Round Results, Sunday's Games

(3) Syracuse 78, (6) Arizona St. 67 - Syracuse, one of six Big East entrants still alive in the tourney, took control early and quickly expanded their lead over the Sun Devils to double digits, completely frustrating the PAC-10 player of the year, James Harden, who was held to just 10 points on 2 for 10 shooting. Syracuse, meanwhile, was firing at will, hitting 55% from the field and 81% from the foul line for the game, but got a little sloppy with about 7 minutes remaining, allowing the Sun Devils to close to within 4 points. Andy Rautins hit a three and Eric Devendorf nailed two straight 3-balls to quickly expand the lead back to 11 points under 4 minutes. Arizona State never got closer than 9 after that. Five different Orangemen scored in double figures, led by Devendorf who hit 5 of 11 three-pointers for 21 points.

Syracuse will face #2 seed Oklahoma Friday night in one of the South Regional semifinal games. The other is already set with #1 North Carolina facing #4 Gonzaga. Syracuse coach Jim Boehiem will be in search of his 800th career win in their tilt with the Sooners.

(4) Xavier 60, (12) Wisconsin 49 - In the defensive special of the day, Xavier playing man-to-man, Wisconsin zoning, points were hard-earned. At the first TV timeout, nearly 5 minutes in, Wisconsin led 5-2. At the half it was 27-25 Wisconsin. Neither team could shake loose, with 5 points the biggest leads.

The Badgers took a 32-26 lead to open the second half, but the Musketeers responded with a 9-0 run to wrest a 3-point lead. Later, B.J. Raymond hit a three-pointer to make it 49-41 at 4:24 and held off the Badgers the rest of the way and into the Sweet 16 to play Pitt in a regional semifinal. Xavier went 8 deep and all 8 players scored, led by B.J. Raymond's 15 points.

(3) Kansas 60, (11) Dayton 43 - Dayton scored the first basket of the game, but went 1-13 in the early going, allowing Kansas to open up an 11-2 lead. The Flyers improved on their shooting and cut the lead to two, and finished the half down just 6, 29-23. Cole Aldrich nearly had a first half double-double with 9 points and 11 rebounds as he had little competition in the post.

Dayton's poor shooting continued in the second half. With less than 10 minutes left, the Flyers were shooting just 20% (11-55) and Kansas opened up a 42-30 lead, expanding it to as many as 22. Sherron Collins led the scoring with 25 points. Cole Aldrich scored 15 and dominated the glass with 20 rebounds. Kansas heads to the Midwest regional.

(12) Arizona 71, (13) Cleveland St. 57 - Cleveland State shot just 30% in the first half while the Wildcats established a 35-25 lead at the half, shooting 57%. The Vikings fought back to within 4 points in the second half, but could not catch the Wildcats. Nic Wise led the Wildcats with 21 points and 8 assists. The Wildcats face Kansas in the the Midwest regionals.

(1) Pittsburgh 84, (8) Oklahoma St. 76 - The Cowboys rode out to an early 8-point lead, hitting 6 of their first 8 3-pointers, but Pitt went on an 11-0 run to grab a 29-26 lead. That's about when the shoot-around commenced with both teams firing away - and hitting - from everywhere on the court. The two teams went into the break tied at 49. Pitt hit 8 of 16 threes, outdone by Oklahoma State's blazing 10-15 from outside the arc. DeJuan Blair, expected to dominate inside, never got enough touches, scoring just one point in the half on 0-2 shooting. Running mate Sam Young picked up the slack with a sensational 9 of 11 performance for 23 points at half time.

Both teams cooled off in the second half, but tied at 53, Pitt reeled off 11 straight points to briefly take control of the game at the midpoint, but the Cowboys would not ride off into the sunset, grabbing a 72-71 lead with 3:48 left. Sam Young's three at 3:12 made it 74-72, Pitt. The teams traded baskets, and Levance Fields' three with 1:29 left gave the Panthers a 79-74 lead. The Cowboys could only get as close as 3 down the stretch, sending Pitt to the East regionals to face Xavier Thursday night. Sam Young finished with 32 points. DeJuan Blair got involved late, finishing with 10 points and 11 rebounds.

(3) Missouri 83, (6) Marquette 79 - It wasn't the usual Leo Lyons and DeMarre Carrol show as Kim English scored 15 points right away for Missouri, hitting 3 of 4 3-pointers and 6 of 8 overall, staking the Tigers to a healthy lead, expanding it to 46-35 at the break. Dominic James started for Marquette and saw plenty of court time, but production from him and Maurice Acker at the point was minimal.

The Golden Eagles would not go away, though, inching back to within 2, at 58-56, nearing the 10 minute mark, finally taking the lead at 71-70, on wesley Matthews' three-point play. With the scored tied at 79, J.T. Tiller drove to the tin and was fouled and injured with 5 seconds left. English was called in to shoot the free throws and calmly made both. Lazar Hayward then stepped on the end line on the ensuing inbounds play, sealing the win and a trip to the Sweet 16 for Missouri.

Michigan St. 74, (10) USC 69 (2) - The Spartans weren't intimidated by USC's size advantage and took it right at the Trojans in a game that was tight through the first half, with Michigan State leading 40-37 at the half. Surprisingly, Michigan St. held a 17-9 rebounding edge as well at intermission.

The Trojans opened the second half on a 10-2 run, taking a 47-42 lead, but the spartans responded with a 10-0 run of their own, surging to a 52-47 advantage. USC quickly retied the game and the two squads traded baskets and free throws for most of the half. Taj Gibson fouled out at 5:28. Goran Suton's free throws at 1:18 gave Michigan State a 73-69 lead and the Trojans were unable to score again, sending Michigan State to a meeting with Kansas in the Midwest regional.

(1) Louisville 79, (9) Siena 72 - The Saints said their prayers and hung with the powerful Louisville Cardinals, trailing at the half by only 7, 42-35.

Things started slipping away in the second half, however, with Louisville stretching the lead to 12 points just 3 minutes in, though the Saints never had a single thought of quitting, grinding back to take the lead at 61-59 on Clarence Jackson's layup at 9:18. The Saints forged a 63-59 lead, but Louisville ran off 9 straight to reclaim the edge, 68-63 and Earl Clark dominated in the final minutes for the #1 seed in the tournament. Louisville held off the pesky Saints, hitting free throws in the final minute to seal the win.

James Returns for Marquette, Offers Hope

Dominic James last saw court action on February 25th, when he broke a bone in his left foot after just 4 minutes into what became a 93-82 loss to Connecticut. The break was so severe that Marquette coach Buzz Williams announced after the game that James' college hoops days were over. He was expected to be out for the rest of the season, plus the post-season tournaments. James was the team's point guard, 4th high scorer and assist leader.

Including that loss, Marquette finished their regular season with four straight losses, though they were all to power teams in the Big East: UConn, Louisville, Pitt and Syracuse. In the Big East tournament, the Golden Eagles easily dumped pushover St. John's before losing to Villanova, 76-75, in the next round. Marquette won its opening game of the NCAAs, slipping past Utah State by a mere point, 58-57, and headed to a second round tilt with Missouri. Players and coaches alike were concerned, as Missouri's up-tempo, pressuring style requires deft ball-handling and sound decision-making.

Since James' departure, his place at the point had been taken by junior Maurice Acker, though with limited success. But late Saturday night, team doctors cleared James to play on Sunday, raising hopes that he could provide the kind of on-court senior leadership necessary to keep pace with the Mizzou.

James will likely start, though how much playing time he'll get is an open question. If, as reports indicate, he's stayed in shape and rehabbed properly, he could be good to go for up to 30 minutes.

The situation is similar to Saturday's return of Ty Lawson, point guard for North Carolina, who was suffering from a swollen big toe. Lawson missed the opener against creampuff Radford, a team the Tar Heels figured they could overwhelm without any number of starters and they did, romping to a 101-58 win. But yesterday against LSU, coach Roy Williams decided that Lawson was needed and 15 minutes prior to the opening tip, told his point guard that he was starting.

Lawson responded with an outstanding performance: 23 points and 7 assists, and he was instrumental in a second half rally that lifted Carolina to an 84-70 win.

If lightning strikes twice, James' return could spell doom for Missouri. Before his injury, Marquette was 23-4 and ranked in the Top 10 nationally. No matter how much playing time James receives, his return will surely boost the Golden Eagles emotionally.

Game time for the West region second round game is 4:50 pm EDT. It could be one of the best games of the day.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Second Round Results, Saturday's Games

(3) Villanova 89, (6) UCLA 69 - The Bruins were completely overwhelmed by Villanova's quickness as the Wildcats led all the way and put six different players in double figures. They also outrebounded UCLA 41-28. Dante Cunningham had 18 points and 10 boards. Next round for Villanova will be against Duke on Thursday.

(2) Memphis 89, (10) Maryland 70 - Unlike their opener, the Memphis Tigers left no doubt this time, leading from start to finish with a dominating performance over the Terrapins. Memphis shot 59%, including 53% from beyond the arc (10-19), while also canning 17-22 free throws. Five different players had double figures in scoring, and point guard Antonio Anderson had 10 dishes. The Tigers await the winner of Sunday's Missouri-Marquette game for their next opponent, to be played Thursday.

(1) Connecticut 92, (9) Texas A&M 66 - Third straight blowout of the day had the Huskies absolutely clicking in every aspect of the game. A.J. Price had 27 points and 8 rebounds to lead the Huskies, who hit 58% from the field and 78% from the foul line. UConn is winning by huge margins, a sign of a team headed to the final four. They face Purdue in the next round, Thursday night.

(5) Purdue 76, (4) Washington 74 - The Boilermakers nearly blew a double-digit lead but held on late to advance. JaJuan Johnson had 25 to lead the scoring. Robbie Hummel had a nice game with 9 points and 9 boards.

(1) North Carolina 84 (8) LSU 70 - LSU actually had a lead with under eight minutes left, but the Tar Heels, especially Ty Lawson, playing with a sore right big toe, built their biggest lead as the clock fell under 3 minutes. Lawson and Wayne Ellison each scored 23 points, sending Carolina to the regionals against Gonzaga.

(2) Oklahoma 73, (10) Michigan 63 - The Sooners have to be the most overlooked high seed in the tournament as they took out a gritty Michigan squad and move on to the next round. Blake Griffin was completely off the charts with the game of the tournament thus far, scoring 33 points with 17 rebounds. Michigan's big scorer, Manny Harris, was held in check, totaling only 11 points on 3-9 shooting. The Sooners get the winner of Sunday's Syracuse-Arizona State hook-up in the next round, to be played Friday night.

(2) Duke 74, (7) Texas 69 - The Blue Devils had a 10-point lead with under 7 minutes left in the game, but Texas battled back, continuing to drive the lane and dominate the boards to tie the game late. Duke was cool at the end, with Gerald Henderson hitting a pair of free throws with 7 seconds left to give the Blue Devils their margin of victory. Duke advances to play Villanova in the next round.

(4) Gonzaga 83, (12) Western Kentucky 81 - This one was a barn-burner from the opening tip to the final buzzer with each team shooting at better than 50% for most of the game. The Hilltoppers really hurt themselves by going just 5-13 from the foul line. With 6:13 left, Gonzaga's Matt Bouldin made a three-pointer which gave the Bulldogs a 72-66 lead. Jeremy Pargo's short jumper made it an 8-point edge with under 5 minutes left. Western kentucky battled back to tie the game at 81-all with 7 seconds left. Then Demetri Goodson hit a short banker with under a second left for the win, in one of the best games of the tournament thus far. The Zags next meet North Carolina in the regional semifinal.

Second Round PIcks for Sunday, March 22

(3) Syracuse (27-9) -1 1/2 (6) Arizona St. (25-9) 12:10 pm - Tough call here, but the Orangemen should prevail over the Sun Devils, if only because Jonny Flynn is so explosive at point guard. Syracuse also benefits from being on the East coast and will likely have forward Kristof Ongenaet back after he missed the opener against Stephen F. Austin. Syracuse will have to limit the scoring by James Harden, Derek Glasser and Jeff Pendergraph, and their 2-3 matchup zone is just the tonic for that. Harden especially likes to drive and distribute or finish, but he'll have lots of Orangemen with him in the lane. Syracuse will advance to the Sweet Sixteen.

(4) Xavier (26-7) -4 (12) Wisconsin (20-12) 2:20 pm - The Badgers needed overtime to knock out Florida State after trailing by a dozen or more. It was a very impressive performance but now Wisconsin faces a Xavier team that seems to be tailor-made for tournament play. The Musketeers, like Wisconsin, don't boast any one superstar, they play more like a team. In many respects, these two teams will go at it hard for 40 minutes. The line had interesting movement on Saturday, going from 2 1/2 to 4, and if you can get 3 or more, you have to take the Badgers and the points, as every indication is pointing to a close game. Xavier advances on a buzzer-beater and doesn't cover.

(3) Kansas (26-7) -7 1/2 (11) Dayton (27-7) 2:30 pm - Dayton is a heck of a lot better team than anyone thought. They can hang with just about anyone in this tournament, except maybe the top 4 to 6 teams. Kansas is not one of those, though they are very good. The Flyers already beat a 6, West Virginia, so they should hold their own against a 3. Are they Regional material? In this region, Midwest, if you were seeded 13 or lower, you have a shot. Dayton wins, covers and moves on, sending the reigning champs home early.

(12) Arizona (20-13) -3 (13) Cleveland St. (26-10) 2:40 pm - Another small conference (Horizon League) team that absolutely shocked everyone by not only beating Wake Forest, but dominating them. The Vikings are going to end up in the final Top 25 almost for sure, especially if they win this game. They beat Syracuse earlier in the year, and just beat Butler and Wake Forest in succession. The Wildcats got by the Utes pretty easily, but remember, Arizona is a team that lost four of their last five regular season games and then were bounced in the first round of the PAC-10 tourney. Like raw fish on a hot day, they can go bad quickly. The Vikings plunder and set sail for the regionals.

(1) Pittsburgh (29-4) -8 (8) Oklahoma St. (23-11) 2:50 pm - Simply put, Oklahoma State doesn't have the bodies to stop DeJuan Blair down low. Pitt also can defend very well. Could be the biggest killing of the day. Pitt wins easily and moves along.

(3) Missouri (29-6) -3 1/2 (6) Marquette (25-9) 4:50 pm - Marquette's journey into tourney-land without Dominic James has a history already, as they were turned out after one game in the Big East and it looks like this may go the same way. The Golden Eagles just barely got past Utah State, and Missouri is a much better team than that. Leo Lyons went for 23 in the opener against Cornell. He may get 30 against Marquette. Missouri looks like one of the better plays of the day. They win by 8 and head to the next round.

(2) Michigan St. (27-6) -4 (10) USC (22-12) 5:00 pm - Just in case nobody noticed, it should be mentioned that USC has won 6 straight, and dominated Boston College in the second half. The Spartans are no slouches themselves, winners of 7 of their last 8, after a ho-hum, 77-62 win over Robert Morris. USC is a much quicker and more athletic team than the Spartans and #2's have to go sometime, so this one looks ripe for a major statement by the Trojans. USC wins by 12. Take them with the points and straight up.

(1) Louisville (29-5) -11 (9) Siena (27-7) 5:20 pm - Too bad a team with as much heart and desire as Siena has to face a monster like Louisville, the #1 seed in the tournament. More than half the people watching this will be rooting for the little team that could, but the Cardinals simply have too much size, depth and a great coach - Rick Pitino - to get beat here. Maybe next year, the Saints could get a higher seed and actually have a chance to win a second game. Siena will be in this for most of the first half, but Louisville will get too many easy buckets and run away late. Take the Cardinals, lay the points. They are a prohibitive favorite on the money line, so don't touch it because strange things always seem to happen when the case is so clear. Kudos to Siena, though, as an 11-point dog, they've gotten respect.

Second Round Matchups: Saturday, March 21

Wow! Three ACC teams dumped in the first two days is unprecedented. while Thursday was pretty quiet in terms of bracket busting, Friday produced a flurry of upsets, not the least of which were Cleveland State over Wake Forest and Wisconsin knocking off Florida State in overtime. Little Siena had to go double OT to dispatch Ohio State late Friday night, but the Midwest region should now be called the Busted West Region, because, in addition to #13 Cleveland State bumping the #4 Dekes, #10 USC trampled #7 BC, #12 Arizona demolished #5 Utah (a mis-seed if ever there was one), and #11 Dayton stunned #6 West Virginia. That leaves a big hole in the bracket. The 4-8 teams have been eliminated.

With that news as a backdrop, here are Saturday's games, with picks straight up and against the spread (ATS):

(3) Villanova (27-7) -2 (6) UCLA (26-8) 1:05 pm - The Bruins pose some matchup problems for the Wildcats in terms of size. UCLA is a much larger team that should be able to keep Dante Cunningham in check. Scottie Reynolds didn't play very well in the opener against American. The Bruins had their hands full with VCU, a senior-led team with a great deal of pride. This is somewhat of a home game for the Wildcats, being played in Philly, so why are they just 2-point favorites? Because UCLA has won 6 of their last 7, the only loss coming to USC in the PAC-10 tourney, and we saw what USC did to BC last night. Take the Bruins SU and ATS, to advance to the regionals.

(2) Memphis (32-3) -9 (10) Maryland (21-13) 3:20 pm - Of Maryland's 13 losses, nearly half - six - came by more than 9 points, sometimes much more like their 44-85 loss to Duke or the 64-93 shattering at Clemson. Some of their games have been outright ugly and the Terps were lucky to get an invite. Memphis keeps rolling along, despite their trouble against Cal St. Northridge, which can probably be chalked up to a serious case of jitters. Maryland will have trouble penetrating the defense, as the Tigers will clamp down on Greivis Vasquez. If Memphis can hold him to a pedestrian level, say 25, the Terps will be searching for scorers and they also don't defend well. Maryland's win over Cal wasn't anything special. Take Memphis, give the points. Memphis moves on.

(1) Connecticut (28-4) -10 (9) Texas A&M (24-9)3:35 pm - The Huskies absolutely rolled past Chattanooga and looked awesome. Meanwhile, the Aggies actually had to play a team that mattered, handily downing the higher seed, BYU, in the first round. Big 12 teams are 5-0 through two days, while the highly-touted Big East suffered their first loss Friday night when West Virginia fell to Dayton. They stand at 6-1. While I don't believe A&M will beat UConn, they just might. This no-name group does include one notable: Chinemelu Elonu, who will have to contend with 7'3" Hasheem Thabeet in the post. Elpnu's size and experience will help there and the rest of the unit has balanced scoring and no size issues. Look for the Huskies to win, but by only 5-7 points.

(4) Washington (26-8) -1 1/2 (5) Purdue (26-9) 5:40 pm - The Washington Huskies are a great sleeper pick at the #4 seed. PAC-10 teams are 4-1, the loss by Cal due to them not really belonging in the field of 65. Purdue, maybe the second-best team in the Big Ten, doesn't have the speed to stay with Washington, which gets much of their scoring from senior leaders Jon Brockman and Justin Dentmon, though frosh Isaiah Thomas leads the team in scoring and assists. Purdue may have to rely on three-pointers more than they'd like here. Washington should win this by 8 to 12 points, easily advancing.

(1) North Carolina (29-4) -12 1/2 (8) LSU (27-7) 5:45 pm - The big question is whether or not Ty Lawson will be starting for the Tar Heels, or whether he will play at all. He's still suffering from a swelled-up big toe which kept him out of Friday's game and coach Roy Williams hasn't said whether the point guard will go or no. Keep in mind that Carolina is still really, really good without Lawson, and figure that even if he plays, he certainly won't be 100%. LSU is the lone standard-bearer remaining from the three teams that the SEC sent to the tourney, but they were the best during the season and have the kind of players that can match up with the Tar Heels, except in the middle, where Tyler Hansbrough is likely to dominate. The Tigers could spring the upset, and their chances of keeping this in single digits is good. Lots of money will go down on Carolina, which should advance, but not cover. Take the Tar Heels SU, take the points and LSU ATS.

(2) Oklahoma (28-5) -6 1/2 (10) Michigan (21-13) 5:50 pm - Michigan's win over Clemson was a surprise to some, but should they really be just 6 1/2-point dogs to the Sooners? I make them 12-13 point losers here. They are very one-dimensional, in that Manny Harris IS their offense. And while some may say the same about Oklahoma's Blake Griffin, he has experience and age over Harris, and well, size. Michigan will find him very difficult to control inside. Take the Sooners, lay the points. Oklahoma moves on, Michigan goes home.

(4) Gonzaga (27-5) -11 (12) West. Kentucky (25-8) 8:10 pm - This looks like the easiest pick of the day. The Zags struggled a little in their opening night win over Akron, and the Hilltoppers handled a pretty good Illinois squad, plus they've won 8 straight and 12 of their last 13. The Zags have won 10 straight themselves, but, remember, both teams are from non-power conferences, so the game should be closer than double digits. The Zags always attract a load of dumb loot, and this is no exception. The Hilltoppers could win this one outright, and they almost certainly will cover. Tkae Western Ketucky straight up and with the points.

(2) Duke (29-6) -7 1/2 (7) Texas (23-11) 8:15 pm - Take the points. Take the points. Take the points and take Texas to upset Duke. The Longhorns can play with anybody, and they have a very talented backcourt. If Texas can hit their threes and stay out of foul trouble they can go toe-to-toe with the Blue Devils. Really, I don't know which one of these teams will advance, but the money line on Texas (+280) is worth a shot as is the play with the points.

Coming later today: Picks for Sunday's games, plus Saturday results. Stay Mad!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Late Friday First Round Results

East Region:
(4) Xavier 77, (13) Portland St. 59 - The Muskateers handled Portland State fairly easily, getting scoring from 9 different players, 4 in double figures. Xavier is a tournament staple and they look to be a tough out on Sunday.

(12) Wisconsin 61, (5) Florida St. 59, OT - The Badgers got the Seminoles into their kind of grind-it-out, low-scoring affair and forced the extra session. Trevan Hughes won it with his bucket and free throw with 2 seconds left in OT. The Badgers were down 12 at the half and trailed much of the game, but had the last say, knocking off the second ACC team of the tournament.

(1) Louisville 74, (16) Morehead St. 54 - A total breeze for the Cardinals, winning without breaking a sweat.

(10) USC 72, (7) Boston College 55 - Taj Gibson only missed one free throw, hitting all ten of his shots from the floor for 24 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 blocks. BC made a game of this until about 8 minutes into the second half. The Trojans have the most athletic team in the tournament, and maybe the most dangerous. In their upcoming tilt with Michigan State, they will create many matchup problems for the Spartans.

(12) Arizona 84, (5) Utah 71 - a dramatic case of mis-seeding. Arizona was probably better than a 10 and Utah should not have been a 5. This doesn't look like much of an upset and in reality, isn't. The 10s and 12s are as good as the 3s and 4s in this region, the toughest in the tournament. Nic Wise had 29 for the Wildcats, who sizzled at 55% from the field.

(9) Siena 74, (8) Ohio St. 72, 2 OT- Probably the most exciting game of the tournament fittingly took 2 OTs to decide. Point guard Ronald Moore (why haven't we heard more about this guy?) hit a three to force overtime and another with 3.9 left in the second OT to win it. All five starters for the Saints scored in double figures, led by Edwin Ubiles with 20. Louisville next up for this talented, gutsy group.

(13) Cleveland St. 84, (4) Wake Forest 69 - Easily the biggest upset of the tournament and the highest seed out so far. (Really kills my bracket, too). Cleveland State jumped on the Dekes early and just kept rolling. Sets up a nice matchup in a busted bracket with #12 Arizona on Sunday.

(2) Michigan St. 77, (15) Robert Morris 52 - The Spartans had five players in double figures as they coasted to an opening-round win.

Early Friday First Round Results

This was an afternoon for upsets, as opposed to yesterday's action, which went pretty much by the books.

In the East region, in what figured to be a close call, Oklahoma State (8) got by Tennessee (9) by just two points, 77-75, as Tyler Smith missed a potential game-winning three at the buzzer. #1 seed Pitt escaped a scare from East Tennessee State, the 16 seed. The Bucs pulled to within 2 points in the waning moments, and the Panthers were sweating, but managed to step up the defense, hit a number of key shots and move on, 72-62, in the closest call yet for a #1 or #2 seed. DeJuan Blair was his usual unstoppable self, with 27 points and 15 rebounds.

Pitt squares off with Oklahoma State in the next round, and by all appearances, the Panthers will not be exactly waltzing into the regionals. With Kansas' win today, the Big 12 is 5-0, the best record of any conference.

There were just two afternoon games in the Midwest region, but one was the upset of the day.

Dayton led West Virginia (5) almost the entire game, eventually winning 68-60. The Flyers' Chris Wright led the way for the #12 seed with 27 points and 9 boards. The Flyers are a solid team with upset potential against anyone. They meet Kansas on Sunday, and that game has the potential to be a real treat. The Jayhawks are sound, but unspectacular. Dayton is gunning for more as the first small conference winner.

#14 North Dakota State hung with the Jayhawks most of the way, but eventually fell, 82-72. Kansas' big two, Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich led the Jayhawks. Collins had 32 points and 8 assists; Aldrich finished with 23 points and 15 boards.

In the South, Syracuse dominated Stephen F. Austin, 59-44 and #6 Arizona State slipped past Temple, 66-57, without breaking much of a sweat. The Sun Devils and Orangemen have a showdown set for Sunday.

6 seed Marquette's survival in the West was put to the test against the 11 seed, Utah State, as the Golden Eagles won by just a point, 58-57. Marquette's shelf life is down to minute by minute status, as they have to face up to Missouri in the next round, Sunday.

The Mizzou bumped off the Big Red of Cornell, 78-59. Leo Lyons scored 23 points and hauled in 11 rebounds.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Thursday First Round Late Games

EAST Region

If A.J. Abrams scores 26 points, you can almost bet that Texas is going to win and that's what happened when the Longhorns eliminated Minnesota, 76-62. Minny never really belonged and making them a 10 seed was an insult to about 15 other teams. Texas has a nice blend of players who should give Duke a struggle in the next round.

Dwayne Anderson and Dante Cunningham each scored 25 points to lead a come-from-behind win by the #3 Villanova Wildcats over a scrappy squad from American University. The Wildcats were down 41-31 at the half, but wore down the Eagles for the 80-67 win.

VCU has a pretty good hoops team. News Flash: UCLA is better. By a point, 65-64. Quite a few people liked VCU to pull off the upset and they almost did. Eric Maynor missed a shot at the buzzer that would have won it. If you stuck with the 11-time tournament champion Bruins, you're bracket looks a lot better than other people's.

#2 seed Duke outclassed tiny Binghamton (15), 86-62.

SOUTH Region

First mild upset of the tournament went to the 10th seed Wolverines of Michigan, after a lengthy absence of ten years, over Clemson, a seven, the first ACC team down, 62-59. Michigan's Manny Harris had his usual solid game, with 23 points, 7 boards and 6 assists. Michigan has a tougher task Saturday against the 2 seed Sooners.

#4 Gonzaga knocked out #13 Akron, 77-64. The Zips gave the Zags a good game for about 3/4 - a recurring theme this year - until Gonzaga asserted themselves late and pulled away. The game was essentially over with about 7 minutes left. Somebody please tell the Zips that its over.

#2 Oklahoma crushed #15 Morgan St., 82-54. Blake Griffin survived being flipped over the back of another player to score 28 points, while corralling 13 rebounds. Big 12 is 3-0.

Illinois became the second Big Ten school out, in the upset of the day, losing to Western Kentucky, the 12 seed, 76-72. The Illini trailed almost the entire game. The Hilltoppers

Early Tourney Returns: No Bracket Busters Yet

SOUTH Region

In the first game on the first day of the current edition of "Last Man Standing," LSU struck a blow for the SEC, knocking off a pesky Butler squad that didn't really go away until the final seconds, winning 75-71, to move on to the next round and a meeting with North Carolina in the South Region. Marcus Thornton scored 30 points for the Tigers, adding 6 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 steals in one of the best opening day performances.

The Tar Heels easily handled Radford, even without point guard Ty Lawson, 101-58. Wayne Ellison paced the Heels with 25 points and 9 boards. Tyler Hansbrough had 22, hitting a 12 of his free throw attempts.

WEST Region

Memphis survived a scare, down by 6 midway through the second half to Cal State Northridge, but nondescript Robert Sallie turned into super-sub, coming off the bench to hit 10 of 15 three-pointers and score 35 points. The Tigers pulled away late, outlasting the Matadors, 81-70. Also in the West region, #5 Purdue put down #12 Northern Iowa, 61-56. Texas A&M, a #9 seed, easily dispatched with #8 BYU, leading all the way for a 79-66 breeze.

#10 Maryland embarrassed #7 Cal (why were they seeded so high, when USC, winners of the PAC-10 tourney, is a 10?), blowing away their West Coast hosts, 84-71. The Terps look ready to give Memphis a tussle, though it's hard to determine whether Maryland is really good or the Bears were that bad. Looks like the latter.

The Connecticut Huskies, the region's #1 seed, made quick work of #16 Chattanooga, 103-47, more than doubling the Mocs' scoring in each half. So much for 1's losing to 16's this season, unless Louisville's starters oversleep tomorrow. The Huskies looked about as good as a #1 can without actually causing physical harm to their opponent.

More tonight, with late game coverage.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Getting to the Final Four: A Perspective

This is the day college hoops freaks like me - and hpefully, you - must finally make that leap of faith and make your picks in whatever pool or challenge or bracket breakdown you've chosen.

The 32 first round games are a mix of easy and "forget it" choices, with the 1-16 matchups nearly automatic choices, but where everything from 3-14 on up can turn into nightmares.

I've broken down the first rounds in previous posts, so all that's left is to figure out who's going to beat who to make it to the round of 16, then 8 then the Final Four. At the end, as always, there will be a champion, and some of us will have bragging rights for a few months. OK, I've dithered long enough, so, here goes...

Midwest: I'm taking the #4 seed, Wake Forest, to knock off the #1 overall seed, Louisville, in the Regional Semifinals on Friday, March 27. Both the Cardinals and Demon Deacons have superior credentials in comparison to the other teams in the top part of this bracket. The bottom side could produce anything from #2 Michigan State to #10 USC or #11 Dayton. The mid-range seeds - #3 Kansas, #6 West Virginia and #7 Boston College - could catch a break or get hot and reach the Regional Final on Sunday, March 29.

No matter which team emerges from the bottom of the bracket, they won't have a chance against Wake Forest. The Dekes have the talent, coaching and pedigree to go all the way to Detroit.

West: There are two teams which are obvious to many in this region: Memphis and Connecticut. The Tigers and Huskies have enough leadership, coaching and history to go deep into the tournament, but when comparing the two, Memphis - with their 25-game winning streak, incredible defense and John Calipari looking for a national crown to silence Conference-USA critics - is clearly Final Four material.

The Tigers did everything but win it all last season, when Kansas produced a miracle rally in the final two minutes of the last game and Mario Chalmers hit the game-winner with no chance for Memphis to get off a retaliatory shot. Calapari is a world-class coach and author of books about basketball. The only thing missing from his resume is a national championship, and this could be his year. Everything is coming together for the Tigers at the right time and their draw at the bottom of the braket doesn't look very tough.

Their toughest games will come in the second and third round. Either Cal or Maryland could pose problems if they get hot, but Memphis will probably pummel either of them in the second half. In the regionals, Missouri looks like the most likely foe, but they don't have enough scoring to worry the Tigers much. Sure, DeMarre Carroll and Leo Lyons are solid, but the rest of the team won't match up well. If not Missouri, either Utah State or Marquette could slip in, with the Aggies the more dangerous. Marquette is headed for an early out, and may even lose their opener to Utah St.

Once the Tigers dispatch with the their regional opponent, they're probably not going to face Connecticut. The Huskies are vulnerable to teams with strong guard play and almost anyone in their side of the bracket - BYU, Washington, Texas A&M, Miss. St., Purdue, Northern Iowa - could pull the upset. UConn won't last past the third round. Memphis will go to the Final Four to face the Midwest winner.

East: This region offers one of the easiest advances at the bottom for #2 seed Duke, which will have to get through either #3 Villanova, #7 Texas or #11 VCU, and they should reach the regional finals on Saturday, March 28. Their foe is more than likely to be the #1 seed in the region, Pitt, though #5 Florida State could hand Pitt their walking papers in the first regional game. If Florida State does that, they would give the Blue Devils one heck of a time, but, Duke has already beaten them 3 times this season, and that is an awesome advantage. If Pitt gets to the Regional Final, it could go either way. A lot of people like Pitt to win it all, but if DeJuan Blair gets into foul trouble, they are a different team. If he doesn't, they could just roll people.

I'll be hedging this bracket in my various bracket picks, but I'm really leaning toward the Blue Devils. They're easily as solid as any other team in the region, and who can doubt coach K's ability to make the Final Four. He's only been there about a gazillion times.

South: There's little doubt that North Carolina is one of the top three or four teams in the nation and they are the #1 seed. They should cruise to the Regional Final on Sunday, March 29, and probably match up with either #2 Oklahoma or #3 Syracuse, though #6 Arizona St. looms as a distinct possibility. Carolina's games will be interesting after the first round. Either LSU or Butler will play them petty hard, and they may have a real struggle if Gonzaga advances to the regionals.

Overall, however, the Tar Heels just look too talented and deep to not make it to the Final Four. If my selections are right, they could be the only #1 to make it, though Pitt could easily get there.

In the semifinals, Midwest plays West and East plays South. I like Memphis to beat Wake Forest in what could turn out to be a real pressure-cooker, and North Carolina to beat Duke, but Pitt to win it if they reach from the East. That sets up a final of either North Carolina or Pitt against Memphis, and I like the Tigers to beat either of them by 8 to 12 points.

Come Monday, April 6, the Tigers will be crowned national champions. (I hope)

Good luck to everyone with your selections. Let the games begin!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

West Region Bracket Breakdown

1 Connecticut vs. 16 Chattanooga - If ever there was a game ripe for upset it is this one. UConn was #1 most of the season, but lost twice to Pitt late and were ousted from the Big East tournament by Syracuse. That 6 OT game may have had long-lasting fatigue and Chattanooga may be able to hang around just long enough and get a break to keep this close. Huskies are 20-point favorites, but the Mocs start 5 seniors and may come here very loose. I'm not saying that it will happen, but it could. The points seem a sure way to make a quick buck.

8 BYU vs. 9 Texas A&M - The Aggies were a marginal Big 12 team and a late at-large selection. BYU has the credentials - winning the Mountain West with a 12-4 record - to win, cover the 2-point line and move on.

5 Purdue vs. 12 Northern Iowa - Northern Iowa is pretty efficient and played well in the always-tough Missouri Valley. This is actually a good matchup for them beacuse Purdue doesn't exactly overpower people, but they are talented enough to win a couple of tournament games. The Boilermakers may be the best team from the Big Ten, but they'll have to prove it to cover the 8-point line. Northern Iowa is solid and hot, and the Boilermakers may have to step it up to win this.

4 Washington vs. 13 Mississippi St. - The Bulldogs probably should have been a 7 or 8, but they draw a 4 in the Huskies, and that's tough. I'd expect a close game, as Miss. St. is only a 5 1/2-point underdog and they play good defense. Washington won the PAC-10 outright and should not be taken lightly, but this will be a real test for them and help them in the next round.

6 Marquette vs. 11 Utah St. Utah State's record in the tournament isn't very encouraging and they have a tough draw against Marquette, but they are well-coached, won the WAC and could have been seeded higher. The Golden Eagles can get sloppy at times and they will certainly miss Dominic James. Marquette is favored by 4 1/2, but it actually seems like they should be getting the points. The Aggies will stun them and advance.

3 Missouri vs. 14 Cornell - Cornell is a good team, but they're not going to be beat Missouri. DeMarre Carroll and Leo Lyons are just too much to handle up front. The Mizzou should cover the 13-points by half time.

7 California vs. 10 Maryland - This one could go either way, but Greivis Vasquez has carried maryland all season and will probably get them through this game. Cal is favored by 1, but didn't distinguish themselves down the stretch in the PAC-10 or in the conference tourney. Terrapins advance.

2 Memphis vs. 15 Cal State Northridge - Memphis is so good, I'm taking them as far as they go, giving points all the way. 19 1/2 here should not pose a problem.

Midwest Region Breakdown

1 Louisville 16 vs. Alabama St./Morehead St. - As usual, this will be a blowout by the top seed in the tourney. Anything less will be seen as a weakness. Pitino's guys are a pretty mature bunch

8 Ohio St. vs. 9 Siena - Ohio State just beat Michigan State three days ago, but lost to the Spartans twice during the regular season, along with double losses to Illinois and 2-1 against Purdue. The Buckeyes suffer from size disadvantages often and this will be no different. Siena went 16-2, won their conference and the tournament, winning their last three games by 25, 15 and 7 and have a bunch of double-digit wins. Losses to Tennessee by 14, Pitt by 13 and Kansas by 5 were quality outings. The Saints, getting 3 to 4 is a good deal because they could easily win this. In additon to their height advantage, their starters average one year more than the Buckeyes'.

5 Utah vs. 12 Arizona - This is a very tough draw for both teams in the opening round. This game is even. Arizona has been through the PAC-10 meat grinder and only won three games against ranked foes (Gonzaga, UCLA and Washington), but two of those games were among their highest-scoring outings. Utah has developed into a pretty good defensive team and have a solid big man in Luke Nevill and should prevail.

4 Wake Forest vs. 13 Cleveland St. - Cleveland State won the Horizon league tournament to get in, but get a very tough draw in the Demon Deacons, one of the elite teams from the ACC. Wake was #1 for a week this season, and were no lower than 15 all year nationally. They have all the elements to get to the Final Four and have wins over North Carolina, Duke, Florida St. and Clemson, twice. The Dekes should advance, but the Vikings, a talented team, may not fall by as many as the spread, which is 7 1/2.

6 West Virginia vs. 11 Dayton Somewhat of a surprise, West Virginia is an 8 1/2-point favorite. That owes to their run in the Big East tournament, finally falling to Syracuse in OT in the semis. Dayton lost to a solid Duquesne team that should have gotten a bid as well, in the semifinals of the A-10 tourney, but had beaten them reg. season. Also has wins over Marquette and Xavier. The Mountaineers were 1-6 against ranked teams in the Big East, the only win coming against Villanova. Dayton's defense could make this close and they could pull a big upset here.

3 Kansas vs. 14 North Dakota St. - It would be a huge upset for the Bison to upset Bill Self's reigning champion Jayhawks, and the 10-point spread probably isn't a difficulty for this high-quality group with championship experience in Cole Aldrich and Sherron Collins.

7 Boston College vs. 10 USC - As hot as USC is, they're only 2-point favs, but, as inconsistent both of these teams have been, a BC win is not out of the question. There's a good probability that both of these teams were mis-seeded, BC too high and USC too low. The Trojans did, after all, win the PAC-10 tourney to get in. Winning a major conference tournament should be worth at least a 5.

2 Michigan St. vs. 15 Robert Morris - The Spartans are likely to make an early exit in the tournament, but probably not here, though it's not out of the question as long as Michigan State keeps shooting at low percentages. The team concentrates so much on defense, they sometimes cannot find a consistent scorer, which cost them only occasionally. Usually, teams have to come up with a huge effort to beat them. Winning a game by 16 1/2, when you're only projected to score in the high 60s, even against a warm-up team like Robert Morris, is a pretty neat trick. Whether the Spartans are up to it will likely be determined by the play of Kalin Lucas, their best player and point guard. Michigan St. has a significant size advantage here as well, which could prove critical.

Down To Business: Play-In: Morehead St. Eagles vs. Alabama St. Hornets

Alabama St. went 16-2 in the Southwestern Athletic Association won the conference tourney, has won 13 of its last 14 games and is a 2 1/2-point underdog to Morehead St., 4th in the Ohio Valley (12-6), lost its last 4 regular season games but won the conference tourney to get here.

The Alabama St. Hornets look capable of stinging the Eagles. Some early-season games with major conference teams should prove beneficial at this point.

Bracket Breakdown: South Region

1 North Carolina vs. 16 Radford - Ty Lawson, Tyler Hansbrough, 28-4, ACC vs. Big South. Carolina favored by 26 1/2 points. Any questions? The Tar Heels will cruise past Radford and get ready for the 8 vs. 9 winner.

8 LSU vs. 9 Butler - As befits an 8 vs. 9 game, this is one tough call. LSU is currently favored by 2 1/2 over the Bulldogs, but what happened to those national rankings? Butler was ranked 20 or higher almost all season, while the Tigers only got into the Top 25 in late February. LSU is one of only three SEC teams, so they're going to have to represent for the entire conference here, despite the tough draw.

Tasmin Mitchell and Marcus Thornton are the main scoring threats for the Tigers, though 6'11" senior center Chris Johnson could be a big contributor if he can handle Butler's power forwards, Matt Howard and rapidly improving freshman, Gordon Hayward. While Butler may eventually control the boards in this game and usually offers pretty stiff defense, the long, lean Tigers seem to be too much to handle for the returning Horizon League champs. LSU has lots of experience with three senior starters and their top two men coming off the bench, so look for LSU to advance, as these fellows don't want their first NCAA game of '09 to be their last. Butler's players will be back in 2010. They start three freshman and their elder statesman, Willie Veasley, is a junior.

5 Illinois vs. 12 Western Kentucky - The Hilltoppers are more athletic than the Illini squad, but Illinois is one of the better disciplined teams from the Big Ten, plus, Western Kentucky will find out that they really don't have an answer for 7'1" sophomore center Mike Tisdale, who has a nice touch from anywhere inside of 12 feet. Tisdale and his frontcourt mate, (another soph.) Mike Davis are likely to terrorize the smaller Hilltoppers. If that occurs, Illinois' backcourt is probably also an overmatch, so this could turn into a Big Ten blowout. Illinois is only favored by 4 1/2. Should be more like 12 1/2. Take note of the talent on Illinois. These guys could go deep.

4 Gonzaga vs. 13 Akron - Possibly the worst seeding of the entire tournament was making Gonzaga a 4, when they should have been a 2 in the West or at worst a 3. The 26-5 Zags blew through the West Coast conference and won the tourney easily. Since losing three straight to quality opponents (UConn, Portland St. and Utah) at the end of '08, they've won 17 of their last 18 and enter the tournament on a 9-game win streak. The Zips won't put up much of a fight - they are 12 1/2-point underdogs - as they duffer from a height disadvantage at every position and are especially overmatched inside. This should set up an interesting matchup in the next round vs. Illinois.

6 Arizona St. vs. 11 Temple - Most people know little about the Sun Devils and even less about Temple, but the skinny is that the Sun Devils are a high-quality team that can do harm to opponents from beyond the arc or in the lane, have plenty of experience and lost by just 3 points in the PAC-10 tourney final to USC, one of the hottest teams coming into the tournament. The Owls come back to the NCAAs for their second straight year and are looking to get past the first round, but it's a tough task. Their leader is Dionte Christmas, who may get into a "my best is better" situation with Arizona State's James Harden. Those two are the players to watch here, along with the Sun Devils' Jeff Pendergraph, who will have to deal with 7-footer Sergio Olmos inside. These are two great battles in the back and frontcourts which should be excitng to watch. This one could turn into one of the best games of the opening round.

Arizona State is a 4 1/2-point favorite, but this really could go either way.

3 Syracuse vs. 14 Stephen F. Austin - The way Syracuse has been playing of late - reaching the Big East tournament finals - one would expect them to be more than ready for the start of a nice run in the NCAAs, and the oddsmakers are thinking the same way, installing the Orangemen as 12-point favorites to knock off the Lunberjacks. An interesting matchup at point guard has smooth Jonny Flynn (who usually stays out of foul trouble) for the Orange against diminutive Eric Bell, who is only 5'3". Beyond that, SFA is not a great perimeter shooting team nor do they match up well inside, meaning that Syracuse can settle into their 3-2 zone, create turnovers and get out and run. This one shouldn't be very close.

7 Clemson vs. 10 Michigan - On paper, this 7-10 tilt looks like it should be a tight one - Clemson is favored by 5 - but, in reality, the Tigers are a far more talented bunch than the Wolverines, who probably are really a year away from being competitive in the NCAAs. The fact that they actually received an invitation is a tribute to coach John Beilein's reputation and early wins over UCLA and Duke. Michigan was just 9-9 in the sub-par Big Ten, while Clemson went 23-8 and 9-7 in the tough -as-nails ACC. The Tigers don't own any huge wins besides a 74-47 pummeling of Duke, but they do have three players who can really light it up: K.C. Rivers, Trevor Booker and Terrence Oglesby. If they get going, it will be a long day for Michigan, which relies on the 3-point shot heavily.

2 Oklahoma vs. 15 Morgan State - Nobody's saying much about Oklahoma except that Blake Griffin is one of the top big men in the nation and the Sooners are geared to go deep in the tournament. Morgan State is not going to pose much of a problem unless they stroke threes early and collapse their defense around Griffin. After all, the Sooners are 16-point favorites and appear capable of at least reaching the regionals. No sweat here.

Next: Midwest Region Breakdown

Monday, March 16, 2009

NCAA Tournament: East Bracket Breakdown

1 Pittsburgh vs. 16 East Tennessee State - No contest here. The Buccaneers are 20 point underdogs to the Panthers, one of the teams favored to win it all (current odds anywhere from 7-1 to 9-2), so the appropriate question is whether or not Pitt can cover the spread. To get an idea how unfair this matchup is, consider that the Bucs are 23-10, haven't played a top 25 team all season, have an RPI rating of 116, and gained entry to the tournament by winning the Atlantic Sun conference tourney. Right. Atlantic Sun. Meanwhile, Pitt went 28-4 in arguably the best conference in the country, the Big East, finishing second by a game to Louisville. Pitt's RPI is 2. They should win by 20, maybe 30. Look for Pitt sub Brad Wanamaker to get plenty of court time and DeJuan Blair to have a double-double before exiting with more than 10 minutes left in the game. With a week off after an early Big East tourney exit, Pitt will be ready to rumble.

8 Oklahoma State vs. 9 Tennessee - Probably the toughest call of all the 8-9 games in this field. Neither team has any reason to be here except that they need 64 teams to fill out the brackets. Tennessee can get up on the boards when they want to, but they're mighty inconsistent in almost all other aspects of the game. The Vols are athletic and have tourney experience, which should help, but they're one player away from a Sweet 16 style team. Unfortunately, that player is Chris Lofton, who graduated last year. His replacements in the backcourt - Scotty Hopson and Bobby Maze - aren't the answer though J.P. Prince should provide a lift. Wayne Chism has NBA talent and he'll be virtually unopposed in the low post against the undersized Cowboys. For more beef, the Vols can bring in 6'10" sophomore Brian Williams, who is a developing load.

Oklahoma State will go up-tempo from the opening tip to the final buzzer, especially at the guard spots. Their goal on defense will be to deny entry passes into the post, because they're vulnerable inside, but they'll even it out with 3-pointers from Keiton Page and heady play at point from Byron Eaton and all-around excellence in James Anderson, who can slash and burn on the wings. If any game is too close to call, this is it. Currnetly, Tennessee is a 2-point favorite. If OK. St. is cold from the perimeter, the Vols will win it inside. Somebody's making an early exit here. Personally, I'll take Tennessee in a luke-warm way due to the experience of Chism.

5 Florida St. vs. 12 Wisconsin - This game will prove two things: 1. Wisconsin should be playing in the NIT, and, 2. Toney Douglas should be in the NBA next season. FSU's Douglas is one of the most unstoppable forces in college hoops and his supporting cast is solid, if not special. The Seminoles made their way through the ACC with Douglas and defense as one of the best in the ACC in field-goal percentage and scoring defense, which should come in handy against lumbering Wisconisn.

The Badgers are very disciplined, but not very talented. Their points will come mostly from the wings, with Joe Krabbenhoft and Jason Bohannon responsible for most of the scoring. Together, they might match Douglas, but in the end, the Seminoles have too much talent and desire to do anything other than win and move on.

4 Xavier vs. 13 Portland St. - If you're looking for an upset or just a little extra loot, this game may provide one or both. The Musketeers are favored by 11 1/2, but Portland State is a very cohesive unit which can stroke it with deadly accuracy from the perimeter. Should the Vikings get hot early, this could turn into a real challenge for Xavier, a team which was probably a little overseeded at a 4. Still, Xavier has a huge height advantage at just about every position, so the undersized Vikings will have to be on their game.

Most people expect Xavier to move on easily here, but this could be a lot closer than expected. An upset special? Well, that's for the tournament gods to decide.

6 UCLA vs. 11 VCU - Is anyone not calling for an upset of UCLA here? There's reason for optimism at Virginia Commonwealth, and it comes in the form of one Eric Maynor, one of the top college talents in the nation, at point guard. Maynor can dribble-drive, dish or shoot the three, plus he's a more than adequate defender. His play against UCLA's Darren Collison, another proven commodity will be key if VCU is to live up to their promise.

Additionally, VCU has 6;10" Larry Sanders inside, who is developing into a force underneath. The Bruins haven't had an answer for an inside presence all season, and Sanders could be a huge factor. UCLA is not as deep as teams from the last two years, both of which went deep in the tournament. Plus, the Bruins have to travel East, while VCU makes the short trip to Philly. UCLA's out of conference losses to Michigan and Texas don't look good, but is VCU good enough to beat them? The oddsmakers say no, installing the Bruins as 7-point favorites, but with no inside force and a possible overmatch at point, a VCU win would not be a surprise.

3 Villanova vs. 14 American - Congrats to American for winning the Patriot League, but getting a game against Villanova - in Philadelphia - isn't exactly a gift-wrapped present. The Wildcats are deep, talented and have tournament experience. They're also 17-point favorites to win this game. American's backcourt of Garrison Carr and Derrick Mercer are undersized at 5'11" and 5'9", respectively, and that's not going to help against 6'2" Scottie Reynolds and 6'5" Reggie Redding. Matching up with Dante Cunningham underneath will also be a difficult task for American. Too much to do. Mark Villanova into the second round.

7 Texas vs. 10 Minnesota - The Golden Gophers and Texas Longhorns are two teams going in opposite directions. Minnesota lost 6 of their last 9 games in a very soft Big Ten, then lost in the second round of the conference tourney to Michigan State. Texas won 5 of their last 8 and won two tournament games before being ousted by a very motivated Baylor squad in the Big 12 tournament. Despite the divergence down the stretch, these two do have one thing very much in common: neither can generate offense consistently. A.J. Abrams is the most dangerous shooter for the Longhorns, but he has little supporting cast. Minnesota can dominate inside but their bigs - Ralph Sampson III and Coulton Iverson - are both freshmen and very raw. Texas is favored by four, but this one could end up a 47-46 driller (a combination of dull and thriller) in which the last basket is scored with 3 minutes left in the game. Really, the shooting percentages are that poor.

2 Duke vs. 15 Binghamton - Uh, sorry to say, but winning the America East conference doesn't even get you into the conversation with any team in the ACC, let alone the Blue Devils. This half of the bracket seems destined for a Duke-Villanova regional matchup, and the Bearcaats aren't going to stand in Coach K's way. Besides, this Blue Devil team has a special player: Gerald Henderson, who does everything but mop the floor after the game. He's the ultimate team player and leader. Look for him to be at or near the top of the scoring charts in this region.

Next: South Region Breakdown

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Big East Snags 3 Top Seeds in NCAA Tourney

Here are some initial thoughts on the selection process. Bracket breakdowns will be provided Monday and Tuesday, with a Final Four prediction Wednesday.

Link to bracket diagram

I'm not sure if this has ever happened before in the history of the tournament: Three teams from the same conference - the Big East's Connecticut, Pittsburgh and Louisville - getting #1 seeds. It's fairly unprecedented, but in a year in which only four teams from non-power conferences received at-large bids, not surprising that the tournament committee would leave Memphis out of the #1 seed mix, including North Carolina instead.

This judgement call by the committee seems completely suspect. Connecticut was beaten twice by Pitt, which should have disqualified them. Pitt was knocked out of the Big East tournament in the first round, by West Virginia, which puts some doubt on their prospects of playing on a neutral court. I have no argument with Louisville, since they won the Big East regular season title and the tournament. I'm just not very impressed by them, though I'm not able to put my finger on exactly why. It could be their lack of star power. No individual player stands out, but, then again, isn't that the idea? Team play?

History provides many examples to the contrary, with big name players rising to the occasion and carrying their teams. That's usually how these things are sorted out. One player performs above and beyond to capture the flag. If that's the case, Oklahoma exists as a true sleeper with Blake Griffith arguably one of the best players in the nation.

Overall, Memphis looks like the best team out there, but the best team doesn't always win the tournament. The Tigers play an aggressive defense that not many teams can withstand for 40 minutes.

Getting into the #2s - Duke, Memphis, and Oklahoma look safe through to the regionals, but Michigan State could be toast, especially if USC beats Boston College. The 10-7 matchup is known for upset potential and with USC as the 10, this one looks ripe. Michigan State doesn't have the same athleticism that the kids from the West Coast possess and the Trojans could roll the Spartans on Sunday.

The PAC-10 teams - as per usual - have been given short shrift by fans and the committee alike. The weak links are Cal and UCLA. Washington, USC, are solid, but Arizona St. faces Akron and Arizona has Utah in the opening round. The likelihood of both Arizona schools get past the first round is about 50-50. The Zips and Utes have quality teams.

The SEC sent only 3 teams - LSU, Mississippi State and Tennessee - which is difficult to argue against. The entire conference had a down year. The Big Ten sent 7, which is really a reach. Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan could all be gone in the blink of an eye. Don't be surprised if only three or four Big Ten teams make it to the first weekend.

More thoughts tomorrow, plus a breakdown of the East and South regions. Tuesday, the Midwest and West. Wednesday, Final Four projections.

Boilermakers are Big Ten Champs

Purdue 65, Ohio State 61

After a 40-40 second half tie, Purdue used a 12-3 run to establish a solid lead and went on to capture the Big Ten tournament championship, besting a game Ohio State squad in the final.

The Buckeyes had knocked off two of the best in the conference - Wisconsin and Michigan State - to reach the final, but found Purdue too much to handle down the stretch. At 22-11, the Buckeyes look like a good bet to reach the field of 65.

E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson led the Boilermakers with 17 and 16 points, respectively. Purdue gets the automatic bid from the selection committee and should fall into a 4-5 seed.

With conference tournaments wrapped up, the field will be announced at 6:00 pm, live on CBS.

Mississippi St. Plays Its way In; Duke Takes ACC

Mississippi St. 64, Tennessee 61

Phil Turner hit a 3-pointer to put Mississippi State ahead late and then made two free throws with 8 seconds left to lift the Bulldogs over the Tennessee Volunteers in the SEC Championship game. Turner finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds in the biggest game of his career.

The Bulldogs are 23-12 and went 9-7 in the SEC regular season, and were considered by many to be a bubble team that would not make it into the NCAA tourney without winning the championship. Mississippi St. beat the best the conference could offer, knocking off Georgia, South Carolina, LSU and the Vols over the four-day span and should have been considered already in, whatever the outcome of today's game.

That said, the Bulldogs get the automatic bid and will likely become a 7 or 8 seed.

Duke 79, Florida State 69

Gerald Henderson's three pointer seven minutes into the game gave Duke the lead and the Blue Devils ran away and hid from the upset-minded Seminoles to capture the ACC tournament title. Duke took a 35-21 lead into the break and were never challenged after that.

Henderson finished with 27 points, second on the Duke scoring ladder behind Jon Scheyer's 29. Toney Douglas scored 28 for the Seminoles.

Both Florida State and Duke were already assured of making the NCAA field, though now Duke seems almost certain to be a #2 seed. Florida State is projected as a 3 or 4.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Louisville Wins Big East Tournament

Louisville 76, Syracuse 66

Louisville used a 21-5 run coming out of half time to erase an 8-point Syracuse lead and went on to win the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden Saturday night.

The Orangemen led 38-30 at the half, but just 6 minutes into the second half, found themselves down 51-43. After a 6 overtime game on Friday night and a single OT in their win over West Virginia on Saturday, the Syracuse starters appeared fatigued and were not executing with the same sharpness as they displayed in the first half.

Take nothing away from the Cardinals, however, who used a swarming defense to take Syracuse out of their game. Louisville also turned up their shooting, hitting 48% for the game, including 10-27 from beyond the arc.

Louisville became the only #1 seed from the nation's Big Six conferences to win their tournament. Washington, North Carolina, LSU, Michigan State and Kansas all were booted from their respective conference tourneys without any of them reaching the finals.