Sweet 16 Preview - South and Midwest
pblackwell, Wed, March 25th, 2009
We continue to work our way through the NCAA Tournament by focusing in on the other two regional brackets as the quest to reach the Motor City continues...
South - It's fair to say that if Ty Lawson hadn't come back from that bad toe, North Carolina might not have made it past LSU. Lawson had 21 second-half points against the Tigers and did not commit a single turnover. He might be the most important player left in the Dance, for he creates match-up problems even Tyler Hansbrough doesn't do and allows the Tar Heels to be as fast-paced and fun as it wants.
Gonzaga got saved when Demetri Goodson, a freshman, drove coast-to-coast to beat Western Kentucky in the final seconds. Otherwise, the disappearance of a nine-point lead in the last three minutes might have haunted the Zags the way the loss to UCLA in 2006 did. Freed from the pressure of getting out of the early rounds, Gonzaga takes house money to Memphis, also steeled by the tough competition they faced early this season, so Carolina won't scare them.
Syracuse was as impressive as anyone in the first two rounds. The Orange toyed with Stephen F. Austin without making anything outside, then used timely 3-pointers to thwart Arizona State's comeback. Really, SU has played well for a month, and is more diverse on the offensive side than the 2003 title team. Oh yeah, the 2-3 zone is working, too, which might prove handy for the next opponent.
That would be Oklahoma, which means Blake Griffin. Lots of Blake Griffin. Too many opponents have learned that it's not wise to make Griffin mad, as Michigan found out through 33 points and 17 rebounds. Despite all the abuse he's taken this year, Griffin is still unstoppable. If the Sooner guards step up, OU could win it all.
Trying to pick this star-studded regional is tough. SU just might have more weapons than OU, but asking the Orange to beat North Carolina might be too much. Lawson's presence again might make the difference as the Heels aim for a second straight Final Four trip.
Midwest - Yes, Morehead State hung around for too long, and yes, Siena provided too much of a scare. But it doesn't matter - Louisville is here, having proven that it can handle a quality opponent's best shot and still move on. Do not expect the Cardinals to be as generous from here on out, or at least that's the lesson Rick Pitino is surely hammering into his players' brains prior to Indianapolis.
Okay, we get it, Arizona deserved to be in the Dance after all. It didn't hurt that the Wildcats' path got cleared up when Wake Forest didn't show up for Cleveland State. Give Arizona credit for realizing its good fortune and playing quite well so far, but it will be curious to see how the Cats, with an interim coach (Russ Pennell) at the helm, handle someone with more talent on the court.
Keep underestimating Kansas at your own peril. The Jayhawks shook off North Dakota State's brave challenge and unleashed Cole Aldrich (triple double in points, rebounds and blocks) while shutting down Dayton. Even with its relative youth, KU seems to have maintained those great vibes from 2008, and it would not be any kind of a surprise if Bill Self had this bunch playing on the first weekend in April.
Of course, Michigan State may have more motivation than anyone, since the Final Four is right down the road from East Lansing. Having survived a fierce challenge from USC, the Spartans go to Indy with some confidence, knowing it ripped Kansas back in January. Have the Jayhawks improved enough to make the difference in this high-octane rematch?
The hunch here is that the gap has closed, but that Michigan State will get a shot at Louisville on Sunday with that precious trip to Detroit on the line. And here, the Cardinals cannot afford any kind of lapse, or the Final Four will look quite green.