Mar 21, 2007 Sports Editor Uncategorized
Wrapping up our look at the NCAA Tournament at the Sweet 16 stage, we look at the Midwest Regional, a place where three upstarts seek to slay the team with the crown.
To be sure, there were times last week where Florida looked downright bored. Trying to become the first team to defend its national championship since Duke in 1991-92 (and just the second since the John Wooden-UCLA dynasty), the Gators took the scenic route in New Orleans, showing up when it had to.
This meant pulling far away in the second half against Jackson State. And against a Purdue team that showed its tournament worth by dismissing Arizona, Florida trailed deep in the second half before the inside presence of Al Horford and Joakim Noah assured a trip to St. Louis.
Going into the Dance, many figured that Maryland could give the Gators a real fight. But the Terrapins only got halfway there, fighting through a first-round scare with Davidson in Buffalo before confronting a battle-tested group from Butler that used 3-pointers to ward off Old Dominion.
Dictating the tempo, and getting the big shots (again) from A.J. Graves, the Bulldogs pulled well out in front of Maryland, then held on at the end. Terp fans will long quibble about the “offensive foul” called on D.J. Strawberry in the final minute, but how often has that kind of call gone against a power team?
Having beaten so many heavyweights already, Butler will not be afraid of Florida, and will keep things nice and slow on Friday night. But the Gator Nation need not worry — at some point, the switch will get flipped again, and Florida will get through this not-so-insignificant test.
In a tournament where chalk has ruled, UNLV is the lowest seed left. It was criminal in the first place to make the Mountain West champions a no. 7 seed — that’s what lack of big-time TV exposure will do. Or did NCAA committee members bring their decades-old grudge against Tark the Shark into the room?
Either way, the boys from Vegas have shoved it to all in its path. The Runnin’ Rebels outlasted Georgia Tech in Chicago, then paid close attention as no. 2 seed Wisconsin needed a big rally just to get rid of Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
Perhaps the Badgers are allergic to teams with a lot of initials, for in the second round, UNLV led early, squandered that lead, then regrouped to make all the big plays down the stretch. Wisconsin, no. 1 in the polls just a month ago, was done.
Oregon, on the other hand, is far from finished. The Ducks nearly saw the momentum of its Pac-10 Tournament title squandered in the first round in Spokane, but held off Miami (Ohio). Then it heard a lot of talk about how Winthrop was going to beat them — this following the Eagles’ breakthrough first-round win over Notre Dame.
In response, Oregon led from the start and easily prevailed. Aaron Brooks and company have saved its best basketball for the homestretch, a fact that could be dispelled in the shadow of the Arch by a team of UNLV’s caliber.
However, the hunch here is that Quack Power will reign for at least one more round. Oregon, when it last got this far in 2002, took its show to the Elite Eight before Kansas proved to be too powerful. Here, the Ducks might meet that same fate, fighting off UNLV before running into a powerhouse with a lot of teeth.
Either Florida is taking it too lightly, or its playing the best possible game of possum. The Gators have to know that peaking in the first two rounds is pointless if you want to win it all — just take care of things early, then show more cards as it moves along.
Such will be the case in St. Louis. With the proper motivation — namely, the chance to play the Final Four right in the heart of SEC country in Atlanta — Florida will assert its will and still be dancing when the show hits the Georgia Dome next weekend.