Mar 25, 2008 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
Inside the giant space of Houston’s Reliant Stadium this weekend, the NCAA Tournament’s South Regional will determine which team will get the chance to stay in the Lone Star State next weekend for the biggest show of all.
True, Memphis is the top seed, but no one is pretending that the Tigers will enjoy a friendly crowd here — not when thousands in burnt orange will turn up with their index and pinky fingers in the air, ready to hook ’em.
The last time Texas reached the Final Four, in 2003, it did so winning a regional in San Antonio, where the Alamodome got turned into a miniature version of Austin. Here in Houston, how can it be any different?
Then again, Rick Barnes and the Longhorns earned the right to such an adventure through its fine regular season and share of the Big 12 regular-season title, plus a solid run in Little Rock through the tournament’s opening weekend.
After handling Austin Peay last Friday, Texas was doing much the same damage to Miami in the second round before a furious Hurricanes rally made it nervous in the end.
By winning, though, the Longhorns went further this time than it did with Kevin Durant in 2007. Any team with D.J. Augustin and A.J. Abrams in the backcourt, plus Connor Atchley causing havoc in the paint, will be difficult to stop.
Still, Stanford will try, and even though it’s a no. 3 seed and expected to get this far, the Cardinal was quite fortunate to escape Anaheim — with head coach Trent Johnson the most relieved soul of all.
Once Cornell was safely out of the way, Stanford faced Marquette in the second round and quickly fell behind. Angry at a lot of things in the first half, Johnson protested too much, got one technical fall, then persisted in his protest and got a second T, plus a trip to the locker room.
Amid all this, Stanford could have fallen apart. Instead, it rallied, forced Marquette into overtime, withstood Jerel McNeal’s late barrage, and won it when Brook Lopez hit a tough baseline jumper in the final seconds of OT.
Combined, the 7-foot Lopez twins (Brook and Robin) had 46 points between them against Marquette, all but carrying the Cardinal along. To be sure, their towering presence can help Stanford neutralize Atchley and his fellow Texas forwards, but the Longhorns have a clear edge on the perimeter with Augustin and Abrams.
It makes for, arguably, the best of the regional semifinal matchups, and Stanford would have a much greater chance if it wasn’t a virtual home game for the Longhorns. But it is, so Texas has to be favored.
Memphis, denied in the Elite Eight each of the last two years, took a top seed and a heavy burden of proof to Little Rock. And while it prevailed there, the Tigers did little to convince skeptics of its championship worth.
Texas-Arlington, a no. 16 seed, fell, but not easily. Following that, Mississippi State really took the Tigers’ temperature, and mercurial center Joey Dorsey needed to break out (13 points, 12 rebounds, six blocks) to prevent a Memphis flameout at the Bulldogs’ hands.
And rest assured, Mississippi State is good — but Michigan State is much better, and the Spartans are quite capable of beating Memphis on Friday night.
Look at what Tom Izzo’s crew has already done. Michigan State started with a solid drubbing of Temple, then saw super senior Drew Neitzel take over with a steady stream of big 3-pointers to end the run of Big East champion Pittsburgh in the second round in Denver.
Neitzel is still a mile high, pushing along a talented bunch of Spartans that you know will bring the intensity and rebounding. Izzo might be the finest March coach we’ve got right now, as he’s got Michigan State in its seventh Sweet 16 in 11 years.
Memphis is capable of going to the Final Four, of course, but it will need to make the free throws to avoid the kind of close call (like it got against Mississippi State) that could easily turn the other way against a quality opponent.
Michigan State qualifies as a quality opponent, one that should conquer Memphis in Houston. Yet it’s Texas that enjoys the comforts of (close to) home, and it’s got enough talent and grit to fight through Stanford and the Spartans to get to San Antonio. Just one question — if the Longhorns gets a shot at the national championship, can Vince Young suit up?