The Pit (Albuquerque, N.M.)
Look who will play basketball in the Pit Thursday night:
Sure, as expected, the Albuquerque (formerly known as the "West") region is playing host to its No. 1 (Washington) and No. 4 (Louisville) seeds, who hook up in the first Sweet 16 semifinal played at the site Thursday.
But, lo and behold, guess who we have after the Huskies and Cardinals finish scorching the shine off the Pit floor Thursday:
Texas Tech and West Virginia!
That's right, a couple of teams that were surprises to most outside of Lubbock and Morgantown by winning enough games within their respective conferences (the Big 12 and Big East) to merit at-large bids.
Texas Tech (knocking off Gonzaga Saturday afternoon in Tucson) and West Virginia (stunning Wake Forest in Cleveland Saturday night) eliminated the No.'s 3 and 2 seeds to earn trips to New Mexico this week.
In Washington and Louisville, we'll see a couple of teams whose players might have the most subtle of chips on their shoulders. The Huskies hear many people saying and writing that they shouldn't have gotten the No. 1 seed. And the Cardinals might agree with those who believe that they should have gotten the top nod.
A look at the Thursday games in the Pit:
SCANNING THE REGION:
THE SURPRISE: West Virginia (which upset the region's No. 2 seed, Wake Forest, in double overtime in Round II) and, to a lesser extent, Texas Tech (which toppled No. 3 seed Gonzaga by two points Saturday in Tucson).
HALL OF FAME PRESENCE: A fellow named Bob Knight (Texas Tech), inducted 1991, is taking a team to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1994. In case you weren't aware of it, three of his Indiana clubs (1976, 1981 and 1987) won national titles. Louisville's Rick Pitino took Providence and Kentucky teams to Final Fours and, either this season or sometime soon, will take a third program to the final weekend of the season, too. If they take bets on such a thing, it's a safe wager that he is Springfield, Mass.-bound.
SENIOR MOMENTS: Ronald Ross and Devonne Giles (Texas Tech); Tyrone Sally and D'or Fischer (West Virginia); Will Conroy and Tre Simmons (Washington); and Larry O'Bannon and Ellis Myles (Louisville). No one in any of the regionals did more for his team in Rounds I&II than did Ross. Sally had the game-winning dunk in Round I vs. Creighton.
BEST PLAYMAKER/FLOOR LEADER: He's not a "point guard", per se, but 6-7 junior Francisco Garcia is where all of the Louisville offense is initiated.
BEST REBOUNDER: Ellis Myles. His career could have ended with a broken patella/torn knee ligament during a game with Marquette two years ago. He's now the most underrated element of this Louisville team's success.
BEST JUMP SHOOTER: Tre Simmons (Washington). He was almost as feared from deep range in the Pac 10 as was Salim Stoudamire.
BEST DEFENDER: Bobby Jones (Washington). He is the most versatile defender in the Pac-10 and has guarded – and well – every position. He can be susceptible to foul problems, though.
THE BEST PLAYER/RIGHT NOW: Nate Robinson (Washington) and Ronald Ross (Texas Tech) are close but we're giving the nod to Francisco Garcia (Louisville).
THE TOP FRESHMAN: Martin Zeno (Texas Tech) but just barely over Juan Diego Palacios (Louisville).
THE BEST PLAYER/FIVE YEARS HENCE: This is a toughie but we'll go with the 6-9, multiple-skilled Juan Diego Palacios. We wouldn't be surprised if it's Nate Robinson, though, even with his 5-8ish stature. Athletically, he's on a different level than most residents of Earth.
CHECKING OUT THE GAMES:
(local starting times)
No. 1 Washington (29-5) vs. No. 4 Louisville (31-4), 5:10 p.m.
IT'S COMPELLING VIEWING BECAUSE: The Huskies are the most entertaining open-court team in the tournament (although North Carolina is nipping at their heels). Louisville isn't quite vintage "Doctors of Dunk" but the Cardinals, led by one of the most versatile players in the country in Francisco Garcia, turned in the most impressive single-game performance of the tourney so far in beating Georgia Tech by 22 points Sunday in Nashville.
WHAT'S LIABLE TO TAKE PLACE: How many times has Rick Pitino (Louisville) coached a team that wasn't the most transition-oriented club on a floor? That's the case Thursday night. The last time the Huskies were beaten in an all-out, 94-foot sprint was in the first round of the 2004 tournament, when Alabama-Birmingham prevailed in overtime, 102-100. Look for the Cardinals to not back off from any transition opportunities but, if there aren't good "numbers", to try to make Washington play half-court defense for 25 to 30 seconds and isolate Ellis Myles, Francisco Garcia and Juan Diego Palacios inside. Defensively, the Huskies will pressure all Louisville ball-handlers – and hard – for 40 minutes.
WHO WILL BE PLAYING SATURDAY? Louisville.
No. 6 Texas Tech (22-10) vs. No. 7 West Virginia (23-10), approximately 7:40 p.m.
IT'S COMPELLING VIEWING BECAUSE: Bob Knight is coaching Texas Tech and because West Virginia had the most thrilling pair of victories (Creighton and Wake Forest) of any team still standing. This is a game in which players who finally became relative household names last week in college hoops, Ronald Ross (Texas Tech) and Mike Gansey (West Virginia), will have at least another couple of hours of national TV exposure to demonstrate their skills.
WHAT'S LIABLE TO TAKE PLACE: Only novices to college basketball are not aware of what Bob Knight's motion offense is capable of doing to man-to-man defenses. But look for West Virginia to use the 1-3-1 half-court zone that was a major part of the Mountaineers' surprising Big East – and NCAA tournament – success this season. On offense, West Virginia will attempt to stretch the Red Raiders' man to man with Coach John Beilein's modified version of a "Princeton-style" offense. His offensive attack, with big men who shoot well from the perimeter and strong driving/jump-shooting perimeter players, should provide a tougher test than Texas Tech faced against UCLA or Gonzaga in Tucson.
WHO WILL BE PLAYING SATURDAY? West Virginia.
Allstate Arena (Rosemont, Ill.)
We already know which team is going to have the off-the-charts support of the bulk of those who will pack the Allstate Arena Thursday and (assuming Wisconsin-Milwaukee doesn't pull off the mother of all tournament stunners) Saturday during Chicago, aka, "Midwest," regional play.
But is the figurative road to St. Louis and the Final Four as easy to navigate as the literal one would be for the No. 1 team in the country?
Stay tuned, as the University of Illinois Illini, which overwhelmingly demonstrated that they were 2004-05's best team in the regular season, has just two remaining speed bumps to tread before they can prove they are No. 1 – once and for all of the season – on the first weekend of April in the Edward Jones Dome.
Here's a look at the region, and its Thursday matchups. And notice that we've deviated from our original thoughts on an Arizona-Oklahoma State showdown:
SCANNING THE REGION:
THE SURPRISE: Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Unless, of course, you can produce a notarized tournament pool bracket sheet that shows you had the Panthers advancing to the Sweet 16.
HALL OF FAME PRESENCE: Lute Olson (Arizona; inducted in 2002). Maybe it's just me, but doesn't he look 71-going-on-about-55? And we've got to believe that Oklahoma State's Eddie Sutton will eventually get his Springfield, Mass., induction papers, too.
SENIOR MOMENTS: Channing Frye and Salim Stoudamire (Arizona); Joey Graham, Ivan McFarlin and John Lucas, III (Oklahoma State); Roger Powell (Illinois); and Ed McCants (Wisconsin-Milwaukee). Ironically enough, Graham and Lucas (both Final Four starters a year ago), weren't outstanding in Rounds I&II. You can't figure that's going to last for long. Stoudamire and Graham are second- and third-team, respectively, Associated Press All-Americans.
BEST PLAYMAKER/FLOOR LEADER: Deron Williams (Illinois). He outplayed Chris Paul (Wake Forest) on Dec. 1. Maybe he'll get an opportunity to do the same thing against Raymond Felton (North Carolina) on April 4.
BEST REBOUNDER: His scoring productivity (31 points) helped his team overcome Southern Illinois in Round 2. But snatching missed shots is what Ivan McFarlin (Ohio State) does better, pound for pound, inch for inch, etc., than anyone in this region.
BEST JUMP SHOOTER: Salim Stoudamire (Arizona). No discussion necessary.
BEST DEFENDER: Dee Brown (Illinois) is the proverbial gnat while darting at dribblers and bouncing into passing lanes.
THE BEST PLAYER/RIGHT NOW: We'll go with the most versatile and dependable player on the best team in the country – 6-3 Luther Head (Illinois).
THE TOP FRESHMAN: JamesOn Curry (Oklahoma State). There were extended periods in Rounds I&II when he looked like Eddie Sutton's best player.
THE BEST PLAYER/FIVE YEARS HENCE: Channing Frye (Arizona). Remember where you read it first when he's a lottery selection and, probably, the second college "big man" chosen in the June NBA draft after Andrew Bogut (Utah).
CHECKING OUT THE GAMES:
(local starting times)
No. 1 Illinois (34-1) vs. No. 12 Wisconsin-Milwaukee (26-5), 6:27 p.m.
IT'S COMPELLING VIEWING BECAUSE: It's the season-long best team in the country against a Horizon Conference team that has stunned a couple of "power" conference squads (Alabama of the SEC and Boston College of the Big East). And the Panthers play a pressing style on defense and have an up-tempo approach to offense that, conventional wisdom holds, should play right into the backcourt-rich Illini power ally.
WHAT'S LIABLE TO TAKE PLACE: Panthers' Coach Bruce Pearl isn't going to alter his team's style for the best team in the country. So will the full-court pressure force a lot of Illinois turnovers? Not likely but if Illini plays at a more break-neck tempo than it was accustomed to against Big Ten foes and isn't knocking in its jump shots, there is a chance – albeit a small one – that UWM could pull off the stunner. Of course, that would also entail the Panthers shooting as well from the perimeter against a very good man to man defensive team as they did in Rounds I&II (when they hit a total of 23 3-pointers).
WHO WILL BE PLAYING SATURDAY? Illinois.
No. 2 Oklahoma State (26-6) vs. No. 3 Arizona (29-6), approximately 8:57 p.m.
IT'S COMPELLING VIEWING BECAUSE: Two of the most respected coaches – ever – are leading their teams in what could be the best regional semifinal. Lute Olson has won a national title (1997). Can Eddie Sutton bag one before he retires? This may be his last "best" chance to do so.
WHAT'S LIABLE TO TAKE PLACE: Sutton's teams are known for their solid half-court man-to-man defense and it will be tested against an Arizona lineup that includes two of the elite players in the country in center Channing Frye and shooting guard Salim Stoudamire. The Wildcats use a lot of 1-3-1 zone, defensively, which, in theory, should make it more difficult for the Cowboys' best inside scoring threats, Joey Graham and Ivan McFarlin, to get the ball into their comfort zones. If fouls or injuries become issues, the Wildcats have superior depth, with Chris Rodgers, Jawann McClellan and Kirk Walters all playing very well of late. The "X" factor? JamesOn Curry of OSU. The guy seems to be knocking down all open looks of late.
WHO WILL BE PLAYING SATURDAY? Arizona.
Carrier Dome (Syracuse, N.Y.)
On March 13, when the NCAA tournament pairings were revealed, the Syracuse region's portion of the bracketing looked positively gut-crunching.
North Carolina, Connecticut, Kansas and Florida made up, in many minds, the toughest of the top four seeds in any of the regions.
At least it appeared so for a while.
The Jayhawks (courtesy Bucknell) were shown the tournament back door in Round I, while the Huskies (by way of the efforts of North Carolina State) and Gators (Villanova doing the bouncing) were escorted off the premises two days later.
What we're left with today is, in reality, what we only had for sure when the field of 65 was unveiled – a region led by North Carolina, which has more high quality players than any team in the tournament.
So it's still the Tar Heels "and everyone else" – and the latter group has been pared to Villanova (UNC's opponent Friday), along with another Atlantic Coast Conference club in North Carolina State, and the Big Ten Conference tourney runner-up in Wisconsin.
Here's a look at the teams and players in the Syracuse region, which holds its semifinals Friday and championship game Sunday:
SCANNING THE REGION:
THE SURPRISE: North Carolina State, a 10th seed, is still playing because it rallied from 14 points down in the first half to beat No. 7 Charlotte and then edged No. 2 Connecticut. Wisconsin, a 6 seed, didn't have to deal with No. 3 Kansas in the second round because the Jayhawks were tripped up by Bucknell in Round 1.
HALL OF FAME PRESENCE: None of his teams has won a national title – although we might not be able to say that after April 4 – but who doesn't assume UNC's Roy Williams will be a Hall of Fame coach some day?
SENIOR MOMENTS: Jawad Williams and Jackie Manuel (North Carolina); Julius Hodge (North Carolina State); and Mike Wilkinson, Sharif Chambliss, Clayton Hansen and Zach Morley (Wisconsin).
BEST PLAYMAKER/FLOOR LEADER: Julius Hodge (North Carolina State). Is he a "point guard" in the mold of, say, Raymond Felton (North Carolina)? Of course he isn't. But there is no one in this region who is a better on-court leader, or more important to his team's well being at both ends of the floor, than Hodge.
BEST REBOUNDER: Sean May (North Carolina). He's a prime example of why, to be a tremendous rebounder, it's not how high you jump but how quickly you jump – and better yet, how quickly you get to the basketball.
BEST JUMP SHOOTER: Rashad McCants (North Carolina). Off the dribble, off the pass and under duress, he's as good as it gets in this region.
BEST DEFENDER: Jackie Manuel (North Carolina). Remember when Michael Cooper was harassing the likes of Larry Bird with his quick hands, quick feet and shut ‘em down attitude? That's whom Manuel is most reminiscent of.
THE BEST PLAYER/RIGHT NOW: We could go with either Sean May or Julius Hodge but the NCSU senior gets the ever-so-slight nod because of his versatility.
THE TOP FRESHMAN: Marvin Williams (North Carolina). If he's still wearing a Tar Heels' uniform next season, he could wind up being the 2006 John R. Wooden Award winner.
THE BEST PLAYER/FIVE YEARS HENCE: OK. If you can't fill in the blank yourself on this one, here's a little hint – his first and last initials are "M" and "W". Got it?
CHECKING OUT THE GAMES:
(local starting times)
No. 6 Wisconsin (24-8) vs. No. 10 North Carolina State (21-13), 7:27 p.m.
IT'S COMPELLING VIEWING BECAUSE: This was supposed to be Kansas vs. Connecticut. OK, so this one doesn't have the sexiness that would have. This game won't have the same allure but this isn't going to be the 40-minute, walk-it-up-the-floor-at-all-costs affair that some would imagine. And Julius Hodge and Mike Wilkinson (Wisconsin) are two of best players not to make any of the Associated Press 1-3 All-America teams this week.
WHAT'S LIABLE TO TAKE PLACE: Julius Hodge was allowed to drive or post-up to either score or create offense for teammates any time it was needed against Connecticut. Don't count on Wisconsin Coach Bo Ryan allowing that to happen to his Badgers. And the Wolfpack can't allow Wilkinson, Zach Morley and Alando Tucker to dominate the NCSU frontcourt like the Badgers have done to pretty everyone of late (other than Illinois in the Big Ten Conference tourney final).
WHO WILL BE PLAYING SUNDAY? A North Carolina-North Carolina State regional final would have ‘em fired up on Tobacco Road – and a lot of other places, too. But the Badgers' superior front-court play, led by Wilkinson, will prove the difference.
No. 1 North Carolina (29-4) vs. No. 5 Villanova (24-7), approximately 9:57 p.m.
IT'S COMPELLING VIEWING BECAUSE: The Wildcats aren't anyone's cute and fuzzy "sleeper". They demonstrated they were a Sweet 16-caliber club while smacking then-unbeaten Kansas in a non-conference game in January, then winning 11 Big East games to finish in a tie for second place. And they pounded the SEC tourney champion (Florida) in the second round of the tournament. North Carolina? Well, the Tar Heels have looked been absolutely overwhelming in Rounds I and II.
WHAT'S LIABLE TO TAKE PLACE: Villanova, even minus its best frontcourt player (Curtis Sumpter, who suffered a torn ACL vs. Florida) isn't going to be timid or back off what it does best. So look for the Wildcats to pressure the Tar Heels with their press and half-court defense, and to drive on the UNC defenders and kick it to open jump shooters. But if Villanova can't at least hinder the Tar Heels' transition/early offensive attack, well ... then the issue becomes how wide the final margin will be.
WHO WILL BE PLAYING SUNDAY? North Carolina, for sure, will at least keep up its end of an "All-ACC regional final" bargain.
Frank Erwin Center
With three programs that have won national championships in the past seven seasons, as well as a team that is led by Andrew Bogut, a possible No. 1 overall selection in the next NBA Draft, on hand, there is little question which of the four NCAA tournament regions has the most "glamour" attached to it this season.
And a final Sunday between the Austin (or what would have been know two years ago as the "South") regional's No.'s 1 and 2 teams, Duke and Kentucky, would be a rematch – of sorts – of two of the most thrill-packed NCAA regional finals ever.
Or don't you recall the Christian Laettner-buzzer beater that gave eventual national champion Duke a 104-103 overtime victory over the Wildcats in Philadelphia 13 years ago or Kentucky's 86-84 decision over the Blue Devils in St. Peterburg in 1998 on the way to its national crown?
But major obstacles, going by the names of the Michigan State Spartans and the University of Utah Utes, must be dealt with – successfully – before the Kentucky and Duke faithful can start thinking about a repeat performance . . . one way, or another.
Here's a look at Friday's semifinals in Austin:
SCANNING THE REGION:
THE SURPRISE: Utah and Michigan State could be considered "surprises", but of the mild variety since they came into the tournament as No.'s 6 and 5 seeds. The Spartans avoided the 4 seed when Syracuse was beaten by Vermont in the first round.
HALL OF FAME PRESENCE: Mike Krzyzewski of Duke is a member of the Class of 2001.
SENIOR MOMENTS: Daniel Ewing (Duke); Chris Hill, Alan Anderson and Kelvin Torbert (Michigan State); Marc Jackson (Utah) and Chuck Hayes (Kentucky).
BEST PLAYMAKER/FLOOR LEADER: Daniel Ewing (Duke), in a close call over Marc Jackson (Utah). Ewing's conversion from a strictly-off-the-ball guard all of his life (he was a high school teammate of NBA guard T.J. Ford) to playmaker has been a real unsung element in the Blue Devils' success this season.
BEST REBOUNDER: Shelden Williams (Duke), barely, over Chuck Hayes (Kentucky) and Andrew Bogut (Utah). Come to think of it, there probably isn't a fiercer rebounder in the country than Williams.
BEST JUMP SHOOTER: Who else but J.J. Redick (Duke) could be picked here? But Marc Jackson (Utah), Chris Hill (Michigan State) and Patrick Sparks (Kentucky) all flick their right wrist and drop in jumpers with the best of them, too.
BEST DEFENDER: Chuck Hayes (Kentucky). At 6-5 or whatever he stands, he's guarded so man 6-8 and above post players and done a heck of job each time out. So, Chuck, you're the man here.
THE BEST PLAYER/RIGHT NOW: Andrew Bogut (Utah) rates a razor's edge of an advantage over Shelden Williams (Duke).
THE TOP FRESHMAN: Rajon Rondo (Kentucky). If his jump shot (and free-throw touch) ever comes around and he doesn't make the mistake of entering the NBA Draft well before it would be wise to do so, he can be an All-America selection by his junior season.
THE BEST PLAYER/FIVE YEARS HENCE: Andrew Bogut (Utah). It would be surprising if he isn't a career 16-to 18-points, 10-rebounds and five-assists per game, 12-year NBA player.
CHECKING OUT THE GAMES:
(local starting times)
No. 1 Duke (27-5) vs. No. 5 Michigan State (24-6), 6:10 p.m.
IT'S COMPELLING VIEWING BECAUSE: It's a rematch of a stirring Nov. 30 meeting, won by the Blue Devils 81-74, in Cameron Indoor Stadium. The teams are led by two of the most respected members in their profession in Mike Krzyzewski and Tom Izzo, and both bring veteran clubs that are sprinkled with gifted freshmen and sophomores. They have played in three Final Fours apiece over the past six years, winning national titles in 2000 (MSU) and 2001 (Duke).
WHAT'S LIABLE TO TAKE PLACE: J.J. Redick and Daniel Ewing combined for 55 points for the Blue Devils the first time around but center Shelden Williams has become a more focal point of the team's offense and junior Lee Melchionni and freshman DeMarcus Nelson have also become much more viable scoring threats. Tom Izzo has as much scoring balance, among starters and reserves, as any team left in the tournament. Since freshman guard Drew Neitzel was moved into the starting lineup on Feb. 5, the Spartans have dropped just two games. The Spartans appear to be a much more efficient offensive team than they were when the teams last met and they also seem to have enough size and strength inside (led by Paul Davis) to keep Shelden Williams from being the overwhelming presence down low that he has been in nearly every game this season.
WHO WILL BE PLAYING SUNDAY? Krzyzewski may have gotten as much out of his team as any coach whose club is still playing. If he were to get this team to the Final Four, how could it not be his greatest coaching job at Duke? But the Spartans, especially with the assertive play of late by Paul Davis, seem primed to edge the Blue Devils this time around.
No. 2 Kentucky (27-5) vs. No. 6 Utah (29-5), approximately 8:40 p.m.
IT'S COMPELLING VIEWING BECAUSE: Kentucky, as high a profile program as exists in the country right now (well, along with Duke and North Carolina, that is), takes on a team led by the best big man in the country in Andrew Bogut, the leading candidate to win the John R. Wooden Award. And, unlike every other team that has faced Utah this season, the Wildcats, with starter Randolph Morris (6-10, 266) and reserves Lukasz Obrzut (7-0, 270) and Shagari Alleyne (7-3, 271), have plenty of ammunition to fire at Bogut in the paint or on the perimeter.
WHAT'S LIABLE TO TAKE PLACE: The Utes took a couple of Sweet 16 teams (Washington and Arizona) down to the wire before losing in non-conference games this season, so there is every reason to believe, especially with Bogut on the floor, that they are capable of not only winning this game but getting to St. Louis. But look for Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith, unlike so many other coaches who've faced the challenge presented by Bogut this season, to not overload his defense against him. There will always be a defender in a "help" position to support Bogut's primary defender. But Smith might be willing to take a chance on Bogut having to score 30 or 35 points to keep the Utes close instead of leaving his teammates un-guarded for wide open jumpers or easy cuts to the basket after feeds from Bogut.
WHO WILL BE PLAYING SUNDAY? Kentucky. Bogut is a marvelous player but he'll have to turn in one of the very best performances – anywhere – of the season to get his team past a very balanced and solid Kentucky club.
Recently elected to the USBWA Hall of Fame, Frank Burlison is Scout.com's National Basketball Expert and also covers college basketball for the Long Beach (Calif.) Press-Telegram. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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