Burlison on Thursday Night Games

Scout.com's basketball expert, Frank Burlison, reviews the NCAA games from Thursday night, looking at the showdown between North Carolina and Louisville in the East, and the close call in west with UCLA able to pull out a win over Western Kentucky...

If you were in Charlotte Bobcats Arena, or watched the action there via your handy-dandy big-screen television, you saw the two best performances of the four NCAA Sweet 16 semifinals that were played Thursday night.


And the teams that turned in those efforts are going to collide in a tantalizing showdown Saturday evening in the same building.


Oh, yes: Only the winner's players and coaches get air fare to San Antonio for a wonderful weekend of "it doesn't get any better than this", college basketball-style.


The Washington State Cougars, as expected after holding Winthrop and Notre Dame to a total of 81 points and a combined shooting percentage of .275 in Rounds 1 and 2, presented a stiff defensive challenge and were, for the most part, extremely patient on the offensive end over the first 20 minutes against the East Region's, and overall, top seed Thursday night.


And the North Carolina Tar Heels still led by 14 points (35-21) at intermission – even with probable John R. Wooden and Naismith awards winner Tyler Hansbrough being limited to three points!


Coach Roy Williams' team was able to muster just enough transition offense off of WSU turnovers in the first half, and get enough jump shots from Danny Green and Wayne Ellington, all of which was usually orchestrated by sophomore point guard Tywon Lawson's ability to push the ball at breakneck speed before the Cougars could get set in their half-court defense.


The Tar Heels' 68-47 victory was followed by a Louisville decision over Tennessee (79-60) that was nearly as one-sided as the opening game Thursday evening.


Solid play, at both ends of the floor, by Rick Pitino's team over Boise State and Oklahoma in the first two rounds had made the No. 3 seed Cardinals a slight favorite in the game, even with the 31-4 Volunteers as the 2 seed.


It was also due to the fact that Coach Bruce Pearl's team hadn't played well of late, defensively, and that Chris Lofton was struggling with his jump shot.


Both those issues were quite evident again Thursday night.


Lofton was just three of 15 from the field (clanging nine of 11 attempts from behind the arc) and his teammates (13 of 44) weren't significantly better. At least not better enough to make a difference in the outcome since the Cardinals exploited the Tennessee defense (or lack thereof) to the tune of .520 (26 of 50).


Certainly, the Cardinals live for transition offense with every bit the enthusiasm that the Tar Heels have for 94-feet, full speed action.


But, until the unlikelihood that this theory is proven otherwise, no one in college basketball is as effective and dangerous in transition as Roy's Boys.


On Saturday, Louisville is going to have to occupy the basketball for longer stretches that it's normally accustomed, and score a lot more efficiently in the slower pace than the Cougars were Thursday night.


If not, the Tar Heels are going to be watching the Midwest Region final from the comfort of their houses, apartments and dorm room to get a look-see at the team that they're going to face in the Alamodome on the evening of April 5.


Count on it.


Out West – literally (in Phoenix) and figuratively (in the West Region semifinals) – the Xavier-West Virginia contest was as tight as most had anticipated.


Oh, it didn't start looking like that was going to be the case with Sean Miller's Musketeers jumping out to a 28-10 advantage.


But the excellent half-court defense and solid execution on the offensive end that propelled Bob Huggins' Mountaineers past Arizona and Duke in the first rounds of the tournament in Washington, D.C. kicked in and the anticipated game was on.


West Virginia's All-American caliber junior forward Joe Alexander could have put his team into the West final if, after converting a short banker from the left side with 14.2 seconds to go to tie the score, he'd knocked in the ensuing free throw after being fouled on the shot.


Joe is going to remember that miss for a long while.


Yet, the Mountaineers, even after Alexander fouled out in overtime, seemed to have seized control of things with a six-point advantage.


That wasn't to be the case, though, in large because of two 3's that were launched, successfully, by the Musketeers' B.J. Raymond late into the shot clock and late into the game clock.


After a bit of a sloppy start (other than the performance of freshman center Kevin Love, of course; there's never, ever anything "sloppy" about his game), offensively, the Bruins spurted to move in front at halftime in Game 2 in Phoenix, 41-20, over 12 seed Western Kentucky.


So Ben Howland's team cruised to an eased-up, 20-plus-point victory over the scrappy Hilltoppers, right?


Not a chance.


Those gritty, scrappy and tenacious (they were all of that and a lot more) Hilltoppers of Coach Darrin Horn, behind the marvelous play of vastly (and I'll throw another "vastly" in there for point of emphasis) Tyrone Hazelton, actually cut the Bruins' lead to four points (at 61-57) with a little more than seven minutes to play.


Despite the rapid-fire fourth fouls to Darren Collison (who eventually fouled out), Russell Westbrook and Josh Shipp, and in large part, due to the powerful and productive efforts of Love (29 points, 14 rebounds, four assists and four blocked shots) and sophomore forward James Keefe (18, four, two and four in 26 minutes off the bench).


It was a much-too-close-for-Howland's-comfort call because two of the Bruins' most dependable entities, starting guards Collison and Westbrook, were a combined four of 21 from the field with nine turnovers.


Anything remotely approaching that kind of combined performance out of the pair Saturday evening will leave a lot of Cincinnati residents scrambling on the Internet late Saturday night looking for San Antonio-bound flights.


Count on it.


Inducted into the USBWA Hall of Fame in April, 2005, Frank Burlison is Scout.com's national basketball expert and is also a columnist for the Long Beach (Calif.) Press-Telegram. He can be reached at frank.burlison@presstelegram.com. Read more of Burlison's pieces at www.collegehoops.scout.com

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