Mar 19, 2008 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
In the days since the NCAA Tournament field was announced, much has been made of the depth and difficulty of the East Regional, and all of that might be true.
But the cold facts remain the same — North Carolina is the top seed and, if all goes as planned, will get to play in Raleigh and Charlotte, not requiring to hop on a plane until San Antonio and the Final Four. Good work, if you can get it.
Now understand, Carolina should lead the pack. At 32-2, the Tar Heels soared once point guard Ty Lawson returned from an ankle injury, winning both the ACC regular-season and tournament titles. In the ferocious Tyler Hansbrough, Carolina likely has the National Player of the Year. Around them, talent and ability abound.
If ever there was a time and place for the Heels to bury the bitter memory of blowing last year’s regional final to Georgetown, this would be it, a warm and friendly Tobacco Road crowd covered in blue over the next two weekends. Mount Saint Mary’s, the Northeast Conference champs who beat Coppin State in the play-in game, will be of no concern at the outset.
Then, Carolina gets Arkansas or Indiana. To say the Hoosiers have gone through a bit of recent turmoil would be understating it a wee bit. Kelvin Sampson’s messy departure, combined with Dan Dakich’s inability to rekindle the fire even with Eric Gordon and D.J. White around, leaves Indiana quite vulnerable from the get-go.
Yes, John Pelphrey wasn’t the first Arkansas choice to replace Stan Heath, as Dana Altman stayed for a day, then hightailed it back to Creighton. But Pelphrey has shown his worth, helping the Razorbacks peak at the end and get to the SEC Tournament finals. Even if Carolina ends the fun, the Hogs are quite capable of escaping the first round.
In contrast to the Carolina glitz, no. 4 seed Washington State is all grit and defense, a trait head coach Tony Bennett (yes, that’s his name) can love without having to sing about it. The Cougars are full of experience, too, which means it won’t take first-round opponent Winthrop lightly when they meet Thursday night in Denver.
After dominating the Big South Conference for a decade and winning in the NCAAs a year ago, Winthrop finally saw Gregg Marshall leave for greener (Wichita State) pastures and endured the death of guard DeAndre Adams in a car crash. Still, the Eagles won the Big South again under Randy Peele, and have enough experience to make Wazzu worry.
Up until it saw the brackets, Notre Dame had to like what it had done this season. The Irish exceeded expectations and saw unheralded sophomore Luke Harangody blossom into the Big East Player of the Year. Then came Selection Sunday, and ND found out it had the no. 5 seed in the East, which was good — until it saw that it had to play George Mason in the first round.
Yes, that George Mason, the same George Mason that stole America’s hearts in 2006 by beating Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut on its way to the most improbable Final Four bid in recent memory. Folarin Campbell and Will Thomas are still around from that team, but asking for another miracle from the Patriots might be too much. Or is it?
Once it got rolling in January, Louisville was as strong as anyone in the Big East, so it was worthy of a no. 3 seed in spite of its early tournament exit at MSG. All season long, David Padgett holds the key for Rick Pitino’s Cardinals, providing the heart for a deep, balanced lineup that can also play various kinds of defense with equal effectiveness.
As it starts in Birmingham, Louisville meets Boise State, best known for football and blue turf before its epic triple-overtime win over New Mexico State for the WAC championship. This is the Broncos’ first NCAA trip in 14 years, but the Cardinals might make it a short one.
It didn’t take long for Jeff Capel to make an impact at Oklahoma. Capel, who was a point guard at Duke in the mid-’90s, has brought lots of discipline and toughness to the Sooners that make them an absolute pain to face. The only problem is that OU is also, at times, an absolute pain to watch because it doesn’t score enough baskets.
This makes the Sooners apt to be knocked off early, maybe by Saint Joseph’s in the first round. The Hawks got here by beating Atlantic 10 giant Xavier twice down the stretch and also has 12 road wins, always an asset in a tournament played on supposedly “neutral” courts.
Tennessee had the resume of a top seed, but ended up no. 2 in Carolina’s bracket. The Volunteers dominated the SEC and gave Memphis its lone defeat with a high-octane offense, anchored by Chris Lofton, who is deadly in the clutch. Yes, Bruce Pearl is a bit nutty, but he can coach, and this is the Vols’ best chance yet to win a national title.
American University, the Patriot League champs in its first-ever Dance (great to see Jeff Jones back), needs to hit every shot imaginable to beat Tennessee. Otherwise, it’s a second-round game in Birmingham between the Vols and a charming mid-major.
Butler has absolutely no business being a no. 7 seed. The Bulldogs were a no. 5 seed a year ago when reaching the Sweet 16, and this year’s 29-3 model under Brad Stevens (a 30-year-old coach that looks 16) is even better. Butler will make shots, never turn the ball over and force you to play at their pace.
So what in the heck is Butler doing playing a virtual road game in the first round against South Alabama in Birmingham? Ronnie Arrow has done wonderful work in his second tenure in Mobile, pushing the Jaguars back to the top of the Sun Belt, and USA will have a friendly crowd.
Still, the sense here is that Butler can get through this and, in the tournament’s biggest upset, knock off Tennessee to return to the Sweet 16. Louisville is also well-equipped to make it to Charlotte, while Washington State will join Carolina to round out the field in a regional where the Tar Heels will own the crowd.