1 Syracuse (30-4) vs. 5 Butler (30-4), 7:07 pm EDT - Two items worth noting: Butler comes into the game with the nation's longest winning streak, 22 games; Syracuse will be without the services of center Arinze Onuaku for the third straight game.
Obviously, the level of competition in the Horizon League wasn't strong this season, as the Bulldogs ripped through the regular season and the conference tournament unscathed and unfazed, tearing up Wright St. in the final, 70-45. Butler easily won their opening round game over UTEP, 77-59, but survived a scare against Murray State, winning 54-52. The win over Murray State put Butler's determination and game-ending abilities on display against a very capable team. The Bulldogs trailed much of the game, but stepped up as time wound down, making key buckets and finally stopping the Racers - with a chance to tie or win - from getting off a final shot. Besides their obvious talent on offense, Butler can defend as well.
Syracuse seems to not miss Onuaku at all, winning their tourney opener against Vermont by 23 points and pounding Gonzaga by 22. The Orange 2-3 zone defense seems to be all its cracked up to be, allowing 56 and 65 points respectively in the first two rounds.
Even without their center, Syracuse appears likely to advance due to their explosive offense. They will have four or five players on the floor at any time who can single-handedly run up the score. Wes Johnson is coming off his best game of the season and has seemingly unlimited upside. Andy Rautins is one of the best pure shooters left in the tourney, and Brandon Triche, Scoop Jardine, Kris Joseph and Rick Jackson can all fill it up. Butler will be racing to keep up with the expected Orange scoring onslaught. Butler beat Xavier by a point and topped Ohio State earlier in the season, though the Buckeyes were without Evan Turner at that time, a difference-maker. Losses to Georgetown, Minnesota and Clemson might be more indicative of their true quality.
11 Washington (26-9) vs. 2 West Virginia (29-6), 7:27 pm EDT - Both teams won their conference tournaments and received automatic bids. The Mountaineers have won 8 straight, the Huskies 9 in a row. Washington relies heavily on Quincy Pondexter and Isaiah Thomas, their only players who average in double figures, though Elston Turner has stepped up in their first two tourney games and is their best 3-point shooter.
The Mountaineers sport more balance on offense, though their key player, Da'Sean Butler is a big-play guy with ice in his veins. If any game comes down to the wire, Butler is sure to have the ball in his hands, and he usually produces a winning play. Tourney play usually produces a number of stars, and Butler looks like one. He only scored 9 points in the opening round win over Morgan State, but wasn't really needed as West Virginia won by 27 points. Against Missouri, he was unstoppable, scoring 28 points and helping out on the boards with 8 rebounds.
West Virginia has a distinct size advantage over the Huskies. Pondexter, Washington's best inside player, is only 6'6", but plays bigger. Butler, who lines up as a guard, goes 6'7". Kevin Jones is 6'8", Devin Ebanks, 6'9" and Wellington Smith stands 6'7". If the size doesn't get to Washington, the Mountaineers can bring on their outside gunners, John Flowers and Jonnie West, son of West Virginia and NBA legend Jerry West.
This could turn into a coaching clinic as well. Washington's Lorenzo Romar is arguably the best coach in the PAC-10 and a brilliant tactician. Bob Huggins is coaching at his alma mater. This is his dream team.
6 Xavier (26-8) vs. 2 Kansas St. (28-7), 9:37 pm EDT The Xavier Musketeers have flown somewhat under the radar all season even though they've been ranked in the top 15 or 20 most of the season. They've won 9 of their last 10, the only loss coming to Richmond in the A-10 tourney final, which put three teams from that conference into the tourney. Xavier is the last one standing as Richmond and Temple were wiped out in the opening round.
Jordan Crawford is Xavier's go-to guy, scoring at over 20 points per game on average and coming up big in the tourney with 28 against Minnesota and 27 in the second round win over Pitt.
While Crawford is a one-man highlight reel, K-State offers an abundance of talent, especially in their back court, where Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente have ruled all season. The front line of Curtis Kelly, Dominique Sutton and Jamar Samuels can get after as well. Their combined 30 points per game, with Pullen and Clemente's combined 35, gives the Wildcats unusual scoring balance and plenty of options.
K-State's record down the stretch may be a little misleading. After winning 7 straight in the Big 12, they ended the regular season with losses to Kansas and Iowa State, and then lost to Kansas again in the conference tourney final, but they remained motivated, easily handling North Texas and BYU in the first two rounds. They will be further energized by the departure of Kansas from the tourney field, knowing that they were the second-best team in the Big 12 all year and now have a shot at the Final Four. A meeting with #1 seed in the West region, Syracuse, seems inevitable.
1 Kentucky (32-2) vs. 12 Cornell (29-4), 9:57 pm EDT - This game could be a shocker or a Kentucky rout. It depends on whether the upstarts from upstate - the Cornell Big Red - can continue their torrid shooting pace against the tallest - and possibly the best - team in the nation.
Cornell bombed Temple, 78-65, and blistered Wisconsin, 87-69, shooting 56% against the Owls and an incredible 61% against the Badgers. The Big Red has shocked higher seeds - Temple was 5, Washington a 4 - but Kentucky poses other problems. Still, any team that shoots over 50% is going to be in any game, and the Cornell offense, predicated on ball screens, three-pointers and back-door cuts is extremely disciplined and they carry a nine-game win streak into the fray.
Kentucky comes into the game with about as much swagger and confidence a young, 34-2 team can offer. Guard John Wall has been touted as the NBA's next big thing, forward DeMarcus Cousins is a true powerhouse inside and the balance of the team is absolutely loaded with talent. The Wildcats can, and have, done damage inside or out, in transition or in their half-court sets.
The only knock on them - if there is a legitimate one - is their youth. They will put four freshman on the floor at any given time. Along with Wall and Cousins, guard Eric Bledose and forward Daniel Orton are also freshmen, but they will be aided by junior Patrick Patterson, a blue chip player in his own regard, who could prove to be the wild card for the Wildcats. Cornell simply doesn't have a player who can match up to his size and speed.
Cornell counters with plenty of experience, the biggest man on the floor, center Jeff Foote, Ivy league player of the year, Ryan Wittman and a bevy of 3-point bombers. The Big Red owns the top percentage from beyond the arc in the nation, and, if they're on the mark, will make this game much closer than many expect.