Most Interesting First Round Matchup
Normally you might say the No. 8-9 game would be the best matchup. And certainly the Atlanta Region matches an interesting pair in Seton Hall and Arizona. But the best first round game in this region is the No. 10 Louisville- No. 7 Xavier contest.
The Cardinals and Musketeers are headed in opposite directions. While Louisville, who topped the charts in the RPI rankings earlier this season, has dropped 8 of their past 12 games, Xavier enters the game as perhaps the nation's hottest team. Despite finishing third in the Atlantic-10 West Division with a 10-6 record, the Musketeers have won 13 of their past 14 games entering the NCAA Tournament and reeled off four wins in four days to claim their conference's automatic bid to the Big Dance, including a 20 point blowout of top seeded Saint Joseph's and NCAA participant Dayton on the Flyer's home floor in the championship game.
But don't discount Louisville in this game. Sophomore forward Francisco Garcia has been simply phenomenal of late, averaging 20.8 points in his last five outings, including a career-high 28 point effort against No. 4 Cincinnati in the C-USA Quarterfinals. Taquan Dean and Luke Whitehead, who had 12 points and 8 rebounds against the Bearcats last week, also have shown recent signs of breaking out of their late season slumps due to injury.
And it's not like the Cardinals have played poorly. Sure, they haven't shot as well lately as they did earlier in the season, but most of their losses have come on the road against NCAA Tournament teams, and with the exception of TCU, by the narrowest of margins.
So what are the keys to victory for both Louisville and Xavier? Well, there are several, but these are foremost on the scale of importance. Can Xavier figure out how to slow down Garcia and force the Cardinals to become one dimensional on offense? What will Pitino throw at Xavier to check the Musketeers talented backcourt of Romain Sato and Lionel Chalmers? Can Louisville establish its pressure defense and force Xavier's experienced backcourt into turnovers? Who will win the battle of the boards? Whoever finds the answers to those questions Friday night will likely advance to play this Sunday.
What to watch for? Three things really. One, Louisville's shooting percentage and that of its opponent. When the Cardinals win, they shoot 44 percent and limit their opponents to just 36 percent. When they lose, the Cards make just 38 percent, while their opponents shoot better at 41 percent from the floor. Two, turnover margin. In victories, Louisville forces nearly 6 more turnovers than they commit. In defeat, the Cardinals have committed one more miscue than have their opponents. Lastly, can Louisville win or hold its own on the boards? This is perhaps the most important ingredient to U of L's success. When they win, they've outrebounded their foes by 4 per game, but in nine losses they've been taken to the woodshed on the glass by more than 7 per contest. If Louisville shoots better than Xavier, commits fewer turnovers and at least breaks even on the boards, they'll advance past the first round for the second consecutive season.
|Opponent||Margin of Defeat|
|@ Memphis (NCAA)||4|
|@ Charlotte (NCAA)||6|
|@ Cincinnati (NCAA)||5 in OT|
|DePaul (NCAA)||2 in OT|
|@ Cincinnati (NCAA)||2|
*Chart shows that 5 of Louisville's 8 late season losses came against NCAA
teams all by 6 points or fewer. All but one loss came on the road.
Usually you'll find several first round upsets, but I just can't find a huge one in this region. With Adam Chiles and Kelvin Brown's recent legal problems and Brown's suspension for the NCAA, it's hard to justify picking Murray State over Big Ten regular season champion Illinois. Sure No. 13 East Tennessee won 25 games and have four starters who average double figures, but Cincinnati is playing perhaps its best ball of the season and you know Bob Huggins isn't going to allow his Bearcats lose in the first round in consecutive seasons. (Cincinnati lost to Gonzaga in the opening round last season.). No. 11 Air Force over North Carolina? No way. The Falcons should thank their lucky stars they even got into the dance, especially considering the patsy schedule they used to get here. Roy Williams simply has too much talent and experience in this tournament to drop one right out of the gate. Ditto for Princeton's chances against Texas. Isn't happening. Texas has too much experience returning from last season's Final Four squad to fall to John Thompson's deliberate Tigers in the opening round. If you're looking for first round upsets, better find a different region as the biggest first round upset in the Atlanta Bracket might be No. 10 Louisville over No. 7 Xavier, even though Las Vegas odds-makers have made the Cardinals the early line favorite.
This region is loaded with great individual talent. Duke has seven McDonald's All-America's on its roster highlighted by ACC Player of the Year Chris Duhon, the nation's top freshman Loul Deng, and potential lottery pick Sheldon Williams. The region is also loaded with excellent point guards. Besides Duhon, UNC's Raymond Felton, Seton Hall's Andre Barrett, Xavier's Lionel Chalmers, Arizona's Mustafa Shakur, and Louisville's Taqaun Dean provide no shortage of quality point guards to go around.
Other top talents include: Louisville's Francisco Garcia (First Team C-USA), North Carolina's Rashad McCants (First Team All-ACC) and Sean May, Xavier's Romain Sato (All Atlantic-10 First Team), Texas' James Thomas, Cincinnati's Jason Maxiell (First Team C-USA), Arizona's Andre Iguodala and Hassan Adams, and Mississippi State's Lawrence Roberts (SEC Player of the Year).
Best player you've never heard of? Try East Tennessee State guard Tim Smith. Smith averaged 17 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists on the season and scored 25 points against Chattanooga in the Southern Conference Tournament Championship game.