Mar 14, 2007 Sports Editor Uncategorized
Our exclusive look at the NCAA Tournament continues, this time with a snapshot of the Midwest Regional, where the defending champions threaten to do it all again.
Until proven otherwise, Florida reigns. No national champion since Arizona (1998) brought back every starter, and the Gators are like a faucet — it can turn on to full volume whenever it pleases.
After mailing in the end of the regular season, Florida destroyed the SEC Tournament field. As long as Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer, Lee Humphrey and Taurean Green remain injury-free and interested, the rest of the field will play catch-up.
In New Orleans, the Gators get Jackson State for a warm-up. After that, it’s Arizona or Purdue. Will the real Wildcats please show up? They sure didn’t in blowout losses to North Carolina, UCLA and (in the Pac-10 Tournament) Oregon. Still, the Cats should figure out the Boilermakers, a team fortunate to be in the Dance after a mediocre Big Ten run. Beyond a great forward in Carl Landry, the Boilermakers don’t have much.
Sure, they knocked out a lot of heavyweights early, but is Butler a legitimate no. 5 seed? These Bulldogs might have peaked too soon, as late-season inconsistency and a loss to Wright State in the Horizon League final might indicate. Any team with A.J. Graves is a threat, though.
Old Dominion awaits Butler in Buffalo. This is a chic upset pick, for two reasons. First, Butler’s struggles raises alarms. Second, the Monarchs made it as an at-large team out of the Colonial Athletic Association. That happened a year ago to another CAA school from Virginia — and we all know how that turned out.
Maryland is back. Two years out of the Dance was too much for Terrapins fans to bear, and the boys from College Park took care of that problem with a hot finish that makes it, arguably, the ACC’s most dangerous team.
But the Terps better not look past Davidson. The Southern Conference champions have lost exactly once in three months, have a superb and underrated coach in Bob McKillop, and a go-to freshman named Stephen Curry (Dell’s son) that can light it up. Outside of Oral Roberts, Davidson offers the best chance for a first-round shocker.
Of the teams that got in, Notre Dame might have received the rawest of deals. You’d have thought a hot finish, a fourth-place Big East mark, a real scare to Georgetown in the tournament semifinals, and the firepower of Colin Falls and company, would have merited better than a no. 6 seed and a first-round date with Winthrop.
Alas, the Irish are stuck with the Eagles in Spokane. If ever Winthrop is going to break through after seven previous tournament misses, it’s now. The perennial Big South champions are deep, disciplined and have put scares into folks like North Carolina. And how long before Greg Marshall is snatched by a bigger program?
The quack is back in Oregon. Paced by all-everything Aaron Brooks, the Ducks held its own in a brutal Pac-10, then claimed the conference tournament, crushing USC in the finals. Brooks has the capability to carry Oregon far, and the team’s run-and-gun style could wear opponents out.
You want a clash of styles? How about the first-round game between Oregon and Miami (Ohio). The RedHawks needed that 3-point bank job (plus a friendly clock, say Akron fans) to pull out the Mid-American title, but more than luck is needed against the Ducks. At least Miami has a defense that can frustrate Oregon — or anyone else.
UNLV also has a reason to gripe. The Runnin’ Rebels played better than a no. 7 seed all season on its way to the Mountain West crown. Lon Kruger has built the best Vegas team since the Tark years, without the NCAA trouble.
And for all that, the Rebels could still go out early. Georgia Tech is the best no. 10 seed you could imagine, a youthful group brimming with talent that found its groove late in the season. Paul Hewitt took an unheralded bunch of Yellow Jackets to the title game three years ago. Tech could go deep again.
Wisconsin is, by universal acclaim, the no. 2 seed in the most trouble. A vital piece of the Badgers’ great regular-season success is not around, thanks to Brian Butch’s dislocated elbow.
Simply put, Alando Tucker needs to be his usual All-American self, and Kammron Taylor needs to score a lot. Great as Wisconsin’s defense is, you still need to score baskets. Even NCAA newcomer Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (say that three times fast) could scare the Badgers in Chicago, but they won’t fall that early.
You could see some surprises on the way to St. Louis. But they’re more likely to come in the early rounds, among the muddled middle of seeds. Florida should cruise, and the path will open for Oregon and Maryland, too. It’s Georgia Tech that will provide the biggest jolt, dropping Wisconsin to go to the Arch (from where it reached the Final Four in 2004) once more.