NCAA Outlook - East Regional
pblackwell, Tue, March 17th, 2009
This is the first of four entries over the next two days that take a fun and informative look at the 65 NCAA basketball teams about to Dance in what, to a lot of people, is America's greatest annual sporting event.
We start in the East, where a top seed overdue for a deep tournament run is perfectly positioned to do so.
Pittsburgh got this by beating Connecticut twice in the regular season. In the past, Panther teams relied too much on defense. But with the trio of DeJuan Blair (inside), Levance Fields (outside) and Sam Young (shooting the lights out), Pitt has slightly changed character, becoming a no. 1 seed in the process.
Now the only challenge for Jamie Dixon and company is to get past the bloody Sweet 16, something it's been unable to do in its great eight-season run. Pitt first draws East Tennessee State, a charming Atlantic Sun champion who won't be so pleased after its run-in with the Panthers in Dayton.
Travis Ford has changed the tone at Oklahoma State. No longer do the Cowboys plod - they run, they shoot and they're fun to watch. But the Pokes are also small, with no starter taller than 6-6. Tennessee, with Wayne Chism and Tyler Smith in the middle, should exploit this, but no one, even Bruce Pearl, knows which Volunteer team will show up.
Welcome back Florida State to the Dance after an 11-year absence, with Toney Douglas ready to show why he might be the nation's most underrated player. The Seminoles got a further treat when it drew Wisconsin for its opening test in Boise. Once, the Badgers lost six straight this year. Somewhere, Saint Mary's and Creighton are steaming at Wisconsin's presence in the bracket.
A month ago, Xavier as a no. 4 seed made sense, with the Musketeers rolling. However, the X-Men stumbled down the stretch and could be vulnerable to a shock in the form of Portland State, who won the Big Sky for the second year in a row. All the Musketeers have as an advantage right now is the fact that several of them were around for the 2008 march to the Elite Eight, so the big stage won't cow them.
It's not too bold of a prediction to think that Virginia Commonwealth can beat UCLA on Thursday. These are not the same Bruins that made three straight Final Fours. And even though Darren Collison is a great point guard, VCU's Eric Maynor just might be better. Yes, it's the same Maynor whose shot beat Duke two years ago in the first round, and now he's got inside help from shot blocker Larry Sanders. Hey now, the Rams could stay in this tournament for a while.
A nice gig for no. 3 seed Villanova to be playing in Philadelphia, don't you think? The key to 'Nova's late-season surge was Dante Cunningham providing an inside complement to the deep array of Wildcat guards. American University has played some tough foes, for sure, but asking the Patriot League champion Eagles to beat 'Nova in their backyard is a steep request.
Much like UCLA, Texas fell back a bit this season. It turns out the departure of D.J. Augustin hurt more than the early exit of Kevin Durant, and the Longhorns fight for consistency. Minnesota could catch Texas on a bad night, and it must be sweet for Tubby Smith to be coaching late in March while Kentucky, the school that couldn't wait to shove him out the door, sits out this Dance.
The easy thing to do with no. 2 seed Duke is to say they're too small, or too dependent, or something more sinister. Yet look at how the Blue Devils have played the last month after a roster shift, and Gerald Henderson is just plain fun to watch. Many thought Binghamton cut corners to build an America East champion. The Bearcats don't care and, as a first-time tournament entry, will enjoy the moment in Greensboro before the Dookies take them out.
By the end of this weekend, Pitt will have found their way to Boston, as will Florida State. Duke should handle its business on Tobacco Road, while the real shocker will come when VCU takes out UCLA and Villanova, becoming the biggest story of the early rounds in the process...