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
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