Here's a look at Friday's semifinals in Austin:
Frank Erwin Center
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 many 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 email@example.com.
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