Mar 19, 2008 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
Only in college basketball could a team that’s 33-1, and situated at or near no. 1 for most of the season, still realize that it has everything to prove.
Such is the existence of the Memphis Tigers, who has taken to flattening Conference USA after stalwarts like Louisville, Marquette and DePaul fled for the Big East.
Under the steady hand of John Calipari, Memphis has climbed to the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight each of the last two seasons, only to get stuck there as UCLA (in 2006) and Ohio State (in 2007) shut the door on the Final Four.
So here are the Tigers again, a no. 1 seed in the South Regional, poised for greatness. It has able freshman Derrick Rose to run the show, Chris Douglas-Roberts to pour on the points in the paint, and Joey Dorsey to defend and rebound like few others in America. It’s also quite battle-tested from a non-conference slate where it stood up quite well.
Yes, the free-throw shooting is horrendous (less than 60 percent), but in tough games that percentage has gone up. In any case, it won’t matter in Little Rock on Friday when the Tigers meet and dismiss first-timer Texas-Arlington, the champions of the Southland Conference. Beyond that, though, it gets rougher.
Mississippi State ruled the SEC West with brute strength thanks to Charles Rhodes and Jarvis Varnado, who averages nearly five blocks a game. To counter that, Oregon will need to shoot well, something it didn’t do with consistency in the Pac-10 despite four starters back from a team that got to the regional finals a season ago. The Ducks miss Aaron Brooks a lot.
Pittsburgh started like a national title contender, floundered in the middle after injuries took their toll, then roared back to life when Levance Fields came back in February from a broken foot. The Panthers won four games in four days to take the Big East tournament championship, just like Syracuse in 2006.
As we know, the Orange wore out and lost in the first round. Will Pitt do the same Thursday in Denver? That’s not likely, even though first-round opponent Oral Roberts, the Summit League champs, is here for the third year in a row and won’t be scared by the stage. One question — if Oral or Richard Roberts says something crazy, does Scott Sutton have to disown him? Oh wait, we only do that to presidential candidates.
Michigan State is here, as usual. And just like always, the Spartans dominate on the glass, the Tom Izzo formula that has produced 24 tournament wins, three trips to the Final Four and a national title in 2000. Add a senior leader like Drew Neitzel, and Sparty can linger for a while in this Dance.
But if the Spartans aren’t careful, Temple just might provide that obligatory 12 vs. 5 surprise. An afterthought until February, the Owls roared down the stretch and won the Atlantic 10 Tournament for its first NCAA appearance since the John Chaney heyday. So it’s Christmas in Philly — really, as Dionte Christmas is the Owls’ top scorer. Somewhere, Bill Cosby is smiling.
Stanford is far removed from its meek first-round showing (Louisville killed them) of a year ago. In 7-foot twin brothers Brook and Robin Lopez, the Cardinal have two redwood trees that won’t easily move, so rebounding isn’t a problem. If they get any perimeter game, Stanford can dream of San Antonio.
Still, wouldn’t it be cool if, in the shadow of Disneyland, Cornell could knock them off? The Big Red were perfect (14-0) in the Ivy League to end its 20-year tournament drought and end the Princeton/Penn stranglehold. Steve Donahue’s team can shoot, can defend, and are smart. All of Ithaca awaits Thursday’s battle of the brainiacs in Anaheim.
After a horrendous start, Kentucky adapted to life under Billy Gillespie, went 12-4 in the SEC and made the tournament for the 17th year in a row. To expect anything from Big Blue without its top scorer, Patrick Patterson (injured late in the regular season), might be too much, and first-round opponent Marquette is quite healthy and, with the guard trio of Wes Matthews, Jerel McNeal and Dominic James, quite explosive as well.
Texas found out that life could go on, and quite well, without Kevin Durant. In fact, the Longhorns got even better, sharing the Big 12 regular-season title with Kansas while facing a tougher schedule than the Jayhawks did.
D.J. Augustin leads the way T.J. Ford did in 2003 when Texas got to the Final Four. Add A.J. Abrams as a backcourt mate, Damion James as a rebounder and Connor Atchley to offer rejections (more than five blocks a game), and the Longhorns are too much for Ohio Valley champion Austin Peay, despite the irresistible chants you’ll hear from Governors fans.
Credit Miami, too, for a fast finish as it earned its first NCAA bid since its move from the Big East to the ACC. We see Frank Haith slowly build a strong program at the U, and the Hurricanes get a winnable first-round game in Little Rock against Saint Mary’s, who may have peaked too soon while earning 25 wins in Gonzaga’s considerable West Coast Conference shadow.
Despite these nice stories, Texas will blaze their way out of Little Rock to what will be a very friendly South regional in Houston. Stanford and Pittsburgh should claw there, too, while Memphis will take its top seed and claim the fourth spot. Even then, for the Tigers, it might seem like a road trip for all the burnt orange and raised index and pinky fingers around.