Sweet 16 overview
Pac-10 vs. Big XII Challenge
A few weeks ago there was a running discussion on the Arizona board about how nice it would be to do something similar to the ACC-Big Ten Challenge during every regular season. While most Wildcat fans voiced their opinions about wanting to play the SEC or ACC, I argued that it would be much better (and more efficient because of the relative proximity) to have the Pac-10 square off against the Big XII.
Well, I now have what I wanted. However, at this point, I'm wondering if the old saying, "be careful what you wish for" will ring true when three Big XII teams meet three Pac-10 teams in this weekend's Sweet 16.
Already we've seen Kansas defeat Stanford by 23 points in the second round, but that was a match-up of the Big XII's best team against the Pac-10's fifth or sixth best. That's not a particularly fair measurement. The three games on Thursday night will be, though.
First comes UCLA and Missouri, two teams thought to be disappointments for much of the season and likely one-and-done candidates in the NCAA Tournament. But something happened to the Bruins and the Tigers during the first weekend of March Madness: they actually played how they should have played all year.
"Both Missouri and UCLA are teams that haven't lived up to expectations all year," ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale said. "And now they're here playing each other for a chance to play in the Elite Eight."
The Oregon Ducks survived an upset scare against ACC power Wake Forest to advance to their first Sweet 16 since Dinosaurs roamed the earth. The Ducks are the nation's best transition and shooting team, when you combine the two aspects. Expect another track meet when the Ducks play Texas Thursday night in Madison, Wisconsin.
Longhorn point guard T.J. Ford, the nation's Freshman of the Year in 2002, will match-up against the most underrated point guard in America, Oregon sophomore Luke Ridnour. Ford and his Longhorns did a great job in getting a win over third seeded Mississippi State and proved to the nation that the SEC was a little bit overrated for the year. Oregon, even as a No. 2 seed, is still not receiving the kind of attention it deserves, but if the Ducks can get by Texas, they will be an Elite Eight team. That should be enough to make some believers east of Pac-10 territory.
The best game of Thursday's trio of Big XII and Pac-10 games is the nightcap in San Jose, California between Arizona and Oklahoma. Both teams won their conference tournament championships and are among the hottest teams in the country. Oklahoma was still overlooked by the selection committee when it was given the No. 2 seed in the West and Cincinnati (a round two exit) the top spot.
The Wildcats survived two close games over UC-Santa Barbara and Wyoming to earn their ninth Sweet 16 berth in the last 14 years. Oklahoma also didn't play as well as it has for most of the year while getting two wins in Dallas, Texas. One would have to think that both teams will bring out the best in each other when the ball is tipped on Thursday night.
So, after Kansas' impressive second round win over Stanford, it's Big XII one, Pac-10 zero. However, there are still (at least) three games to go between the two super conferences.
Other Sweet (16) Match-ups
East Region (Friday night in Syracuse, New York):
- Maryland vs. (4) Kentucky.
- Connecticut vs. (11) Southern Illinois.
*Key Players: Maryland-Juan Dixon, Sr. SG. Dixon broke Lenny Bias's all-time scoring record at Maryland in the Terps' win over Wisconsin in the second round. He can shoot, score, defend and rebound. The first team All-American will be the best player on the floor while he's in New York.
Kentucky-Tayshaun Prince, Sr. PF. Prince scored a Tournament-high 41 points in UK's second round win over Tulsa but has been disappointing for the majority of the year. When he and fellow senior Keith Bogans are on their games, however, Kentucky is a very dangerous team.
Outlook: Maryland's big man combo of Lonny Baxter and Chris Wilcox will give the Terps the advantage they need to get to a second consecutive Elite Eight.
Projection: Maryland 83, Kentucky 72.
*Key Players: Southern Illinois-Roland Roberts, Sr. PF. Roberts is a load on the low blocks for just about any opponent he has faced all year. Keeping him from getting in position for entry passes from the perimeter will be a top priority for UConn head coach Jim Calhoun.
Connecticut-Caron Butler, Soph. SF. Butler was probably the best player of the Tournament's first weekend, especially in UConn's second round win over NC State. The Husky sophomore, who was snubbed on all three All-American teams recently, scored 34 points and grabbed nine rebounds against the Wolfpack.
Outlook: Connecticut's combination of inside players (Butler and freshman center Emeka Okafor), outside scorers (guards Tony Robertson and Ben Gordon) and sophomore playmaker Taliek Brown will be too much for the Salukis.
Projection: UConn 81, Southern Illinois 66.
Midwest Region (Friday night in Madison, Wisconsin):
- Kansas vs. (4) Illinois.
- Oregon vs. (6) Texas.
*Key Players: Kansas-Drew Gooden, Jr. PF. If Gooden isn't the best player in America this year, he's second best. The Jayhawk junior can score from anywhere inside the arc and rebound as well as anyone in the nation. A first team All-American, Gooden will chance nothing on his way to playing in his first Final Four before leaving for the NBA this June.
Illinois-Frank Williams, Jr. PG. Williams was scoreless at halftime in the Illini's second round win over Creighton before he exploded for 20 in the second half. The 6-4 point guard has been like that all year: inconsistent, yet explosive. Expect more of the same against Kansas.
Outlook: Kansas survived its one scare of the early rounds against first round opponent Holy Cross. The Jayhawks destroyed a pretty good Stanford team by 23 points in round two and looked to be well on their way to great things. Simply put, Illinois cannot keep up with the nation's highest scoring team even if the Illini get physical, foul and shoot to the best of their abilities.
Projection: Kansas 88, Illinois 75.
*See above for Key Players and Outlook.
Projection: Oregon 92, Texas 82.
South Region (Thursday night in Lexington, Kentucky):
- Duke vs. (5) Indiana.
- Pitt vs. (10) Kent State.
*Key Players: Duke-Jason Williams, Jr. PG. The favorite to win the prestigious Wooden Award as the nation's best player, Williams is the most explosive scorer in the country. He can shoot from long range, drive the lane for easy baskets and make plays for his teammates. He makes those around him better and that's what makes him so special.
Indiana-Jared Jeffries, Soph. F. Jeffries is not a very good outside shooter and doesn't really score that well from anywhere outside the lane, yet he somehow managed to average 16 points per game this year for the Hoosiers. He's a lanky, 6-10 athlete who hits the boards hard and blocks shots with his long arms. If he resorts to shooting threes, that usually means Indiana is in trouble.
Outlook: Duke is on a mission to defend the national championship that it won last year against Arizona. This is much, much too early for the Blue Devils to exit the Tournament. It's doubtful that this game will be close with 10 minutes to go in the game.
Projection: Duke 95, Indiana 69.
*Key Players: Pitt-Brandin Knight, Jr. PG. Even with a bum knee and a terrible shooting stroke, Knight blossomed into a se