Sweet 16 Preview - East
pblackwell, Wed, March 25th, 2009
What the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament nearly gave us was a full boat of big-time contenders going down.
Instead, the likes of Pittsburgh, Louisville, North Carolina, Villanova, Duke, Michigan State and Missouri all pulled off various forms of escape. Thus, each of the top three seeds in each region made it to the second week.
Too much chalk? Perhaps, but that leaves us with a Sweet 16 where just about everybody thinks they can win it all in Detroit come April 6.
Here's a glance of who got here in the East and West, and what they might do as the cast gets whittled down to four.
East - Pitt hardly looked the part of a national championship favorite in grinding past East Tennessee State and Oklahoma State, and it's abundantly clear that a hot-shooting team can beat the Panthers, even if the trio of Levance Fields, Sam Young and DeJuan Blair continues to dominate opponents.
Xavier proved it could win two different ways. First, the Musketeers sped things up to beat Portland State, then put up with Wisconsin's stall before getting away in the last 10 minutes. Now Sean Miller - born and raised in the Steel City, and a proud Pitt alum - goes up against his alma mater. Think he might be a bit motivated?
Everyone in Philly gasped when Villanova fell far behind American University in the first round. But the Wildcats rallied, then flattened UCLA. Sure, it's nice to be playing 15 miles or so from home, but it's nicer to have Dante Cunningham in prime form, giving 'Nova an outside force it lacked in years past.
To erase the short NCAA stays of the last two years, Duke had to get tougher - and did. Every bit of that toughness was needed in the second round against Texas, as two starters fouled out down the stretch and Gerald Henderson proved he was more than a high flier. Oh yeah, and Henderson grew up in Philly, so facing Villanova is extra special.
How fitting that they play this regional in Boston, where a pro-Big East crowd should enjoy themselves. Pitt should get away from Xavier late, and even if Duke squeezes by Villanova (and it's a real toss-up), the Panthers are too bent to erase past tournament disappointments to be denied a Final Four trip this time around.
West - Maybe Connecticut doesn't need Kevin Dyson, or even Jim Calhoun. The Huskies absolutely destroyed Chattanooga and Texas A&M, playing as well as they did before Dyson got hurt in February. And let's see how UConn reacts to a story about possible recruiting violations that broke just one day before it takes the court against Purdue.
Glad to be out of the Big Ten meat grinder, Purdue had just enough to get past Northern Iowa and Washington to get this far. No doubt, the Boilermakers' offense has vastly improved in recent weeks, and it needs to be that good again if Purdue wants any chance against Connecticut.
Understand, if a game is close, Missouri has got a great chance to win. Mizzou proved this all season and, in familiar territory, shook off Marquette's emotional jolt from the return of Dominic James to rally and win another tight one. With depth and versatility, Mizzou is sure not to wear out, regardless of the opponent.
Properly alarmed by a shaky first-round showing against Cal State-Northridge, Memphis hammered Maryland in the second round. Few of the remaining teams have the combination of size, speed, skill, depth and defensive prowess Memphis enjoys. Add to that a hunger to prove itself for a wide variety of reasons, and Memphis could win it all.
At the very least, Memphis should hold off Mizzou in a Tiger rag in Glendale, while UConn puts Purdue away. In a regional final everyone has waited for, it's very tempting to go with the hot Huskies - but if anyone in the country has got the template to take UConn down, Memphis possesses it.