Mar 20, 2007 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
In the first of four pieces scanning the NCAA Tournament at Sweet 16 time, we cast our eyes on the West Regional, where two pieces of college basketball royalty may collide in San Jose with a ticket to Atlanta on the line.
Of the four no. 1 seeds in the opening round, Kansas impressed the most. After it ran Niagara out of the building in Chicago, the Jayhawks wore down Kentucky, reminding everyone just how far the Wildcats had fallen. Even 16 consecutive escapes from the first round (over Villanova this time) isn’t enough for UK’s faithful.
If Tubby Smith were wise, he’d see that open coaching job at Michigan and run to it. Sure, there would be pressure, but anything would be better than that cauldron in the land of the bluegrass.
Now Kansas gets a look at Southern Illinois. If anyone questioned the Salukis’ no. 4 seed, they’re silent now. Chris Lowery’s troops took some time putting Holy Cross away in Columbus, but it had even less trouble exploiting Virginia Tech’s inconsistency. In fact, the Hokies were lucky to get past Illinois, a point the Salukis reinforced.
On talent alone, Kansas would whip SIU. Brandon Rush, Mario Chalmers, Russell Robinson and company know that, if they can run and play defense with the intensity Bill Self prefers, the Jayhawks might go all the way. At the very least, they’ll withstand a stubborn Saluki effort and get through Thursday night.
Pittsburgh, the no. 3 seed, survived some wild times in Buffalo. The Panthers saw Duke fall to Virginia Commonwealth (the Blue Devils’ first opening-round exit in 11 years) on Eric Maynor’s last-second jumper, then blasted Wright State and expected the same kind of cruise against the Rams.
But VCU didn’t cooperate, rallying from a 19-point deficit and getting new life when Levance Fields missed two free throws at the end of regulation. Pitt showed plenty of mental fortitude overcoming that to prevail in overtime and get to its fourth Sweet 16 in five years. But will the Panthers finally go further?
UCLA hopes otherwise. Starting up what it hoped to be a two-week run in central California, the Bruins took care of Weber State in Sacramento, then found Indiana in the second round following the Hoosiers’ dismissal of Gonzaga.
Strong defense on both sides threatened to set the game of basketball back 50 years. And like Pitt 2,500 miles away, UCLA blew a big second-half lead thanks to some Indiana 3-pointers, but got through it with late free throws from Aaron Afflalo and Darren Collison.
Now Ben Howland matches up with the Pitt team he coached before running to Westwood in 2004. Like Xavier with Ohio State, Jamie Dixon and his Panthers have a mountain of motivation to beat their one-time boss, plus a paint presence in Aaron Gray that might dominate.
However, this game is in California, and UCLA knows the path after its run to the title game a year ago. That confidence should carry the Bruins past Pitt, setting up an epochal regional final.
A Kansas-UCLA game is good enough for a national championship, and it wouldn’t be a big surprise if the winner is the last team left on the floor April 2 in the Georgia Dome.
The hunch here is that Kansas, great as it is and hot as it’s been for two months, still has to learn how to win a game like this. And UCLA, playing in its home state, is capable of applying the lesson and returning to the Final Four.