Mar 14, 2007 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
Wrapping up our exclusive look at the 2007 edition of the NCAA Tournament, we now step to the West Regional, where two superpowers eclipse the rest of the lot and could produce an epic showdown.
Kansas is one of them. The Jayhawks might be playing better than any team in America, a rare combination of offensive firepower and defensive heat. Darren Collison, Brandon Rush, Julian Wright, Russell Robinson — any one of them can take over a game. Plus, KU is hungry after two first-round flameouts in 2005 and ’06. Anything short of Atlanta, and Bill Self will start hearing about how he can’t win the Big One.
Niagara is good enough, and hot enough, to make the Jayhawks sweat a bit in Chicago, but no more. Following that, the Wildcats await — but which ones?
Kentucky is not a pleasant place right now. The venom of the Big Blue Nation, aimed toward Tubby Smith, is downright scary, and might prove overwhelming if UK can’t get past this hurdle. For all its perceived and actual faults, Kentucky can still play defense, with Randolph Morris at the core, and the lack of consistent shooting might force UK to get defensive from the opening tip.
Villanova is quite capable of causing Tubby’s pink slip. A year later, ‘Nova fans still wonder what might have been if Curtis Sumpter played. He’s there now, and with freshman Scottie Reynolds emerging as a scoring machine, ‘Nova would be an even bigger sleeper – if Kansas were not in the same bracket.
Virginia Tech ended an 11-year NCAA drought that spanned three conferences (Atlantic 10, Big East, ACC) with strong guard play and a sweep of North Carolina. Yet the Hokies also had bad losses to the likes of Marshall, and struggle with free throws.
All this should perk up the collective ears of Illinois, who draw VT in Columbus. Like conference mate Purdue, the Illini must justify its selection. A positive — it gets to play in Big Ten country. Even better from the PR standpoint, Illinois got rid of that dancing chief caricature.
Southern Illinois richly deserved its no. 4 seed. The Salukis dominated the Missouri Valley with stifling defense, and the only concerns for Chris Lowery’s troops is generating points and the possible loss of momentum due to a 12-day gap between games.
And SIU must beware the power of the Patriot League. Holy Cross represents the smart guys this time around, and the Crusaders have a decent chance of matching Bucknell’s first-round conquests of the last two years.
A lot of people have rejoiced at the “fall” of Duke to a no. 6 seed, and are gleefully forecasting the Blue Devils’ demise against Colonial Athletic Association champion Virginia Commonwealth Thursday night in Buffalo.
By its own impossible standards, the youthful Dookies have faltered a lot this winter, going just .500 in ACC play. But it played a brutal schedule, and March is nothing new, which might be the only advantages Duke has on a terrific VCU team that has the backcourt, and late-game poise, to last a few rounds.
Pittsburgh threatened to smother the Big East early this season, before Georgetown took over in February and beyond. With its usual defense, a big paint presence in Aaron Gray, a streaky shooter in Ronald Ramon, the Panthers are still quite good.
In fact, Pitt might be too much for Wright State, who benefited (a lot) from home-court advantage to beat Butler in the Horizon League final. Brad Brownell has coached before in the tournament. He might have something for the Panthers to worry about.
Just when you thought Gonzaga was done for after Josh Heytvelt’s encounter with psychedelic mushrooms, the Zags pieced together a West Coast Conference title, showing plenty of mental toughness.
No, this team isn’t as good as Adam Morrison’s crew from 2006, but Gonzaga is quite capable of taking out Indiana in the first round. Kelvin Sampson has done a nice first-year job remaking the Hoosiers in his own tough image, and it needs D.J. White to rule the paint if it wants a long stay.
Then you have UCLA. Two weeks ago, the Bruins were thought to be the favorites to win it all. Then came losses to Washington and California, and the red flags went up. In truth, UCLA might be more like their fellow ’06 finalist, Florida, in that it can turn on the full juice whenever it wants to. Combine guards Aaron Affalo and Darren Collison with that ridiculous defense, and the Bruins will be just fine.
And just like a year ago, UCLA doesn’t even have to leave California to make the Final Four. In Sacramento, expect the Bruins to whip Big Sky champion Weber State, then hold off Gonzaga’s attempt at payback for last March’s heartbreak.
In fact, the chalk should hold up everywhere, leaving UCLA, Pitt, Kansas and Southern Illinois bound for San Jose, where the drama will only build.