NCAA Tournament Preview
The NCAA tournament field begins with 65 teams, and in the span of four days, is whittled down to 16. Transpiring more like a continuous strike of lightning than 48 separate basketball games, the first two rounds of the Big Dance make it impossible to do anything else for the better part of 80 hours. Once the first ball goes up on Thursday at noon, you won’t see a blink throughout college basketball until Sunday evening.
By then, the real picture will have started to come into focus.
A few teams whose lower seeds indicate they should have fallen but remain standing will be given the Cinderella treatment, but chances are they won’t fit into the slipper. In reality, only a handful of schools each year have a viable shot at the whole shebang, and no champion has ever been called Cinderella. To win six consecutive elimination games requires lots of talent, a considerable amount of depth, and outstanding coaching.
Plus, of course, more than a little luck.
Following is a region by region breakdown of key games, possible sleepers, and the schools that will find their way to San Antonio.
Game to watch (5) Notre Dame vs. (12) George Mason– It was two years ago that George Mason turned the college hoops universe inside out, winning a regional final against a UConn team stacked with future NBA players. The Patriots instantly became the most improbable Final Four team (an 11th seed) in tournament history. After missing the Dance last year, Mason is back, and so is the mystique associated with the name. Notre Dame, on the other hand, is looking to settle some unfinished business after getting upset by Winthrop in last year’s tournament. The Irish have the inside/outside combo with Luke Harangody and Kyle McAlarney, but the Patriots won’t back down.
Possible sleeper (7) Butler– The Bulldogs have the resume of a top-five seed: 28 wins–Texas Tech, Virginia Tech, Ohio State and Florida State among them–and only three losses (by an average of four points). They are led by a great point guard (Mike Green) and a cold-blooded shooter (A.J. Graves). Graves was the catalyst of their run to the Sweet 16 last year. And like it did against Florida last March, Butler has the ability to slow down a high-flying offense like Tennessee, the team it will be facing in the second round.
Advances to San Antonio (1) North Carolina– The Tobacco Road to the Alamo is paved for the Tar Heels. The number one overall seed in the tournament is always rewarded with the most favorable travel schedule. Two games in Raleigh followed by a regional in Charlotte (where the Heels just won the ACC tournament championship) should make up for what could be a few roadblocks (Notre Dame/Louisville/Tennessee). Tar Heel faithful are about as faithful as they come, and with UNC primed to make another run at the title, it’s just not possible to envision them getting bumped in their home state. And don’t forget about that Tyler Hansbrough character…
Game to watch (6) USC vs. (11) Kansas State– Is there really any debate? Is it really a coincidence that the two most iconic freshmen in the country (O.J. Mayo and Michael Beasley) find themselves matched up against one another on college basketball’s grandest stage? I think not. While Beasley is pretty much the consensus number one pick in next years draft, as Kevin Durant was at this time last season, can Beasley pen a different conclusion to his brief collegiate career? Many thought Durant was going to replicate Carmelo Anthony’s performance of a few years before but that journey never even began as Texas was manhandled in the second round by…you guessed it, USC! Once again, in this matchup I don’t see a coincidence. I do see a heck of a basketball game though.
Possible sleeper (6) USC– The Trojans are toeing that line between sleeper and under-the-radar favorite. Most teams would prefer the former. Let’s put it this way: if USC can get past Kansas State, with Mayo and Taj Gibson representing a formidable and confident inside/outside presence, I see them running through Wisconsin and Georgetown en route to the Midwest Regional Final. They’re that scary.
Advances to San Antonio (1) Kansas– I won’t mince words. The Jayhawks, while maintaining a consistently elite recruiting class since the departure of Roy Williams, have drastically underperformed in March since Bill Self took over. That said, this is undoubtedly the most versatile Kansas team since the likes of Kirk Hinrich and Drew Gooden had them in three out of four regional finals. Brandon Rush, Mario Chalmers and Sherron Collins are probably the best guard-trio in the country, and as anyone who follows the madness knows, guard play wins in March. This is the year Kansas gets back to the Final Four.
Game to watch (6) Marquette vs. (11) Kentucky– Big programs with experienced leaders traditionally make for entertaining tournament games. You’ll be hard-pressed to find an opening round matchup boasting two bigger powerhouses. As for tenured-leaders, look no further than Dominic James of Marquette and Kentucky’s Joe Crawford. With a combined seven years between them, both have played in a lot of important games. Add to that the rivalry that began when the Golden Eagles, carried by a phenom (one Dwyane Wade), stunned the top-seeded Wildcats in a 2003 regional final, and you have a recipe for a first round heart-pounder.
Possible sleeper (12) Temple– Under legendary coach Jon Chaney, no one really took note of how Temple got into the tournament when it did. All that mattered to opposing coaches and teams was the fact that the Owls were always a dark horse to make a deep run. Since Chaney’s departure, Temple has taken a few steps back, but the parallels between the 2008 Owls and past Temple teams are quickly becoming apparent: slow start, strong finish, unlikely Atlantic 10 tournament champion. The blueprint is there.
Advances to San Antonio (2) Texas– I think Memphis is the meanest, toughest and best overall team in the country. The problem is, they can’t shoot free throws! It doesn’t matter how good you are, because any team that has plans of winning it all will have to finish multiple games at the free throw line. The Tigers barely shoot 60% as a team, and their best free throw shooter, Derrick Rose, is a shade under 70%. That’s not going to cut it against a team like Texas. D.J. Augustin and A.J. Abrams are arguably the top guard-tandem in the country, and both are better than 79% shooters at the charity stripe. The Longhorns will advance because their guards can close out games.
Game to watch (7) West Virginia vs. (10) Arizona– There is always one team that has something to prove after gaining what many believe to be a bogus tourney bid. Last year it was Stanford. This year it’s Arizona. The Wildcats lost twice to Arizona State and finished with a worse conference record than their in-state rival, which had much of the college basketball world up in arms about ASU’s snub. The only way to justify its 24th straight tournament berth (the nation’s longest active streak) would be for the Wildcats to beat a traditionally solid tournament team in the Mountaineers.
Possible sleeper (5) Drake– It’s tough to deem a fifth seed a “sleeper” but Drake is certainly not a household name. They just finished annihilating the Missouri Valley Conference–which has shed the “mid-major” label with its quality and depth the last few years–and sport a 28-4 record overall. It looks like they’ll be meeting a suddenly-stumbling Connecticut team in the second round. A Sweet 16 appearance looks increasingly likely for the Bulldogs.
Advances to San Antonio (1) UCLA– Of all the top seeds, the Bruins have the fewest obstacles standing between them and another Final Four, as the West is the only region without multiple title contenders. The nucleus of this team–Darren Collison, Josh Shipp, Alfred Aboya, Lorenzo Mata–has been sniffing a national title the last two years, only to be thwarted by Florida both times (first in the National Championship, and last year in a National Semifinal). The Gator dynasty has been dismantled and Kevin Love is on the scene, which bode well for UCLA. This should be their easiest passage to the Final Four. The real question is will they be able to finish the job they began in 2006?