Most casual observers were probably at least a bit taken aback with St. John's relatively easy win over UConn on Monday afternoon. The direction and standing of the two programs over the past few years was probably the biggest contributor to that assessment, however. While UConn has been battling for league titles and national prominence, the Red Storm has simply been trying to break the .500 mark and get their program back on track.
A closer look, though, reveals several problems with the Huskies that should have had all of us a bit more skeptical of UConn's chances to get an NCAA bid. Jim Calhoun's team clearly had some internal issues, what with star players being benched. And it played like it on Monday, with a lack of effort not seen around the Garden since the last union strike.
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That performance immediately kicked off speculation about Calhoun's status as coach, but I would be very surprised to see him end his career on such a note. I'd also be surprised if the fiercely competitive coach turned down an NIT bid, as some talking heads are suggesting he should. Hey, if you have five guys that still want to play, you go play. If some of your team has quit, they can help hold the bench seats in place. But this idea of not accepting a bid because the team laid an egg in one game is just another knee jerk reaction by some of the trolls in the media, who throw any idea out just to see what might stick.
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Do any of the first round winners set up well against their second round foes today? Well, USF defeated Georgetown in their only meeting this year, so the Bulls might be feeling their oats a bit, but the Hoyas have recovered from the rough patch around Austin Freeman's health issues. It's not that USF can't win again, but Georgetown will probably put forth a great effort today. St. John's win was a good one for the program, but I don't see it being able to knock off Marquette, even though the first meeting went into overtime before the Golden Eagles won.
Seton Hall has a puncher's chance against Notre Dame, and this one might be the most interesting of the day, as both teams are on the bubble for the NCAA tournament. Notre Dame might get in with a loss here, but it could be a narrow thing, while the Pirates almost certainly have to have a win to stay in the Big Dance discussion. But the game that could be an upset is the final one of the night, in which Cincinnati takes on Louisville. The Cardinals are coming off an emotional win over Syracuse in its final regular season game, and they might overlook a Bearcat team that, pardon the expression, scratches and claws on every possession. UC has the ability to turn the game into a street brawl, and it could have the best chance of springing the true surprise of the tournament to date.
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The natural follow-up to the Cincy-UL match-up is, of course, this one: Which team would WVU prefer to play? Both schools offer challenges that hit the Mountaineers in potential weak spots. Louisville, although not as effective in full court defense as it has been in years past, still has the ability to pressure and take teams out of their offense. Cincinnati can put big front lines on the court and pound the ball inside against foes with lesser bulk.
The quick observation would be that WVU would prefer to play the Bearcats, simply because they are the lower-seeded team. However, in tournament play, it's always about match-ups, as Bob Huggins repeats endlessly (and correctly). Might WVU square off better against the Cardinals, even with their ability to press?
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Finally, a point to consider. WVU has one not-so-secret weapon going into the tournament -- Kevin Jones. Last year, after a very successful freshman season, Jones had a tough Big East tournament. He went just 2-17 from the field in WVU's three games, and then followed that up with a nearly invisible performance against Dayton in the NCAAs.
This year, expect that to change. Jones is certainly stronger, and tougher mentally, than he was as a freshman, and the growth of his game has been nothing short of excellent. He hasn't wilted down the stretch, and has been very consistent during WVU's regular season-ending run. It's difficult to predict exactly how any one player will perform in a given situation, but it's a safe bet that Jones will be much better than he was a year ago.