NCAA Outlook - South Regional
pblackwell, Tue, March 17th, 2009
As our glance through the NCAA Tournament bracket continues, we cast our eyes South, to a region where local fans have a bit of a rooting interest and the heavy pre-season national championship favorite holds court.
North Carolina hasn't done too much to temper down those high expectations. True, Tyler Hansbrough has seen his numbers go down, but no top contender can put more points on the board, with enough depth and variety to keep things moving. Ah, but that injured toe of Ty Lawson. With him, the Tar Heels can win it all. Without him going at full speed, Carolina is vulnerable from the Sweet 16 onward.
Lawson or no Lawson, the Tar Heels enjoy a decided advantage by starting out in Greensboro. Radford, the survivors of the Big South, will serve as a glorified scrimmage where Carolina must at least use Lawson, but not too many minutes. The important works lies down the road to Detroit.
Tempo means everything when LSU takes on Butler. The Tigers turned around under Trent Johnson and wants to run. LSU has a pair of great finishers in Marcus Thornton and Tasmin Mitchell, plus a defensive stopper in Garrett Temple, the lone holdover from the '06 Final Four run. Butler, as always, wants to defend and test an opponent's patience, but the Bulldogs' youth (two freshmen start) might prove a hindrance this time around.
If Illinois were at full strength, its no. 5 seed would make sense, since the Illini defend with a fervor. But the absence of injured guard Chester Frazier means Western Kentucky can beat them. The Hilltoppers went to the Sweet 16 in '08 and can be just as tough now, especially if A.J. Slaughter and Orlando Mendez-Valdez forces Illinois to run.
How about the Zags against the Zips? Gonzaga, the no. 4 seed, may have its best entry in its decade-long run, a deep and well-balanced team that can both dominate in the paint and bury 3-pointers with regularity. Akron can defend, for sure, but the Mid-American champs are new to all this and must face a pro-Zags crowd in Portland. Maybe Keith Dambrot can turn to a guy he once coached in high school, named LeBron, for pointers.
Some serious star power will be on display in Miami when Arizona State faces Temple. James Harden, the Pac-10 Player of the Year, has led the Sun Devils back to prominence, and no team coached by Herb Sendek is fun to play against. But it gets easier it you've got Dionte Christmas, Temple's hot-shooting guard that led the Owls to a second straight Atlantic 10 title. A Temple win here, and the Christmas puns will never end.
All right, how much does Syracuse have left after its epic Big East Tournament run? This isn't 2006, when G-Mac was injured and Texas A&M pounded them. The Orange are healthy, deep, explosive and tough, and have a no. 3 seed. Hmmm....just like 2003. Stephen F. Austin won the Southland to gain its first-ever trip to the Dance, but it will need everything to break right against SU, who has all the tools to make a deep tournament run.
Many feel that Clemson is too low as a no. 7 seed, but the Tigers were rather ordinary after a 16-0 start and have the same consistency problems that led to an early exit in '08 as a no. 5 seed. No team might have been happier to gain entry than Michigan, gone from the tournament for 11 years. John Beilein and his winning ways are settling into Ann Arbor, but are the Wolverines content just to be here?
Oklahoma's chances hinge entirely on Blake Griffin, the certain National Player of the Year. Great as he's been, Griffin has also taken a physical beating from a season full of opponents bent on stopping him. Willie Warren, Taylor Griffin and Austin Johnson need to be big if the no. 2 seed Sooners want to win it all. Todd Bozeman's coaching redemption at MEAC champion Morgan State is a wonderful story, but don't expect OU to be sentimental when the Sooners and Bears meet in Kansas City.
Four teams will make it out of this weekend and get to Memphis, and here the chalk should reign. North Carolina never loses in its home state, while Gonzaga will gain fuel from Northwest partisans to join them. Griffin will lead Oklahoma to the shadow of Graceland, and Syracuse is on too much of a roll to get stopped - at least this week...