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

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