Mar 19, 2008 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
In college basketball arenas across the country, you’ll see one common thread — a lot of banners, raised to the rafters, celebrating achievements both grand and trivial.
Not so at UCLA, where the only time you get into the rafters at Pauley Pavilion is with a national championship. Since they’ve got 11 to brag about (10 of them in 12 years under John Wooden’s watch), they’ve earned the right to be picky.
As the NCAA West Regional starts, everything seems to point toward UCLA getting that 12th banner after Florida thwarted them in each of the last two Final Fours.
From the inside power of Josh Shipp and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, to the terrific guard play of Darren Collison and Russell Westbrook, the Bruins were great before Kevin Love showed up and snagged Pac-10 Player of the Year honors by averaging a double-double every night. Oh yeah, and they know how to shut teams down and win games in the clutch.
Really, the Bruins should not face any trouble in Anaheim, either from SWAC champion Mississippi Valley State (who does possess a great nickname, the Delta Devils), or either of its second-round foes, Texas A&M or Brigham Young.
Credit the Aggies for moving on without coach Billy Gillespie and Acie Law, but the problem is that A&M gets offensively challenged at times. BYU, nipped by Xavier in the first round a year ago, hasn’t won a tournament game in 15 years but could break that spell with Lee Cummard and Trent Plaisted providing inside-outside balance.
Drake is the best story of the season. The last time the Bulldogs from Des Moines danced was in 1971, before anyone called it a Dance, and Drake was picked to finish ninth in the Missouri Valley Conference in the pre-season. Forgetting all that, the Bulldogs went 29-4, with a one-time walk-on named Adam Emmenecker running the show at point guard. Forget all the others — Keno Davis should be National Coach of the Year.
Western Kentucky, the Sun Belt champs with a first-rate guard in Courtney Lee, has a decent chance to pull that obligatory 12 vs. 5 upset that was routine in NCAA annals until last year, especially if Drake’s 3-point shots don’t fall in Tampa.
Connecticut, after an absence in 2007, roars back to the tournament with every intention to go far. When they’re focused, the Huskies can run and gun and, in 7-3 center Hasheem Thabeet, has a human eraser comparable to Emeka Okafor.
That should be enough for Connecticut to at least get past San Diego, who rode a home-court advantage over fellow tournament teams Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga to win the West Coast Conference title, but now must travel 3,000 miles to the Florida gulf coast to get its tournament shot.
Only one mid-major got their due from the NCAA committee in terms of seeding. Xavier snagged a no. 3, and for good reason. The Musketeers dominated the Atlantic-10 in the regular season and returns just about everybody from that ’07 team that all but beat Ohio State in the second round a year ago. This team can reach the Elite Eight, at least.
So in the nation’s capital just after high noon on Thursday, Xavier draws Georgia — and that wasn’t quite expected. Last in the conference, the Bulldogs’ SEC Tournament run defied belief, with a pair of overtime escapes, a tornado, a venue change, two games played (and won) in the same day, and a domination of Arkansas in the finals. Do the Dawgs have anything left?
Baylor is also a great story. Four years after one player murdered another and it all hit rock bottom, Scott Drew (son of Homer, of Valparaiso fame) has pushed the Bears into its first NCAA appearance in two decades. Sure, it stumbled a lot down the stretch, dropped out of the Big 12 Tournament early and relies too much on guard play — but it’s great to have Baylor back.
Purdue, with a very young roster, overachieved and, with a maddening style of play, beat Wisconsin twice, the only Big Ten team to beat the Badgers in conference play. Defense can carry the Boilermakers through one round in D.C., but lack of explosiveness will hurt them later.
As for Duke, well, you might have heard of them, seen them on TV a time or two. No doubt the Blue Devils are far better than the team bounced out by Virginia Commonwealth in the ’07 first round, with a full slate of 3-point marksmen (CBA’s Greg Paulus included) and the usual defensive intensity.
But did the Dookies peak too soon? It won’t matter against Belmont, winners of the last three Atlantic Sun titles but a bit overmatched at this level, but it could matter anywhere beyond that point, including in the second round against Arizona or West Virginia.
Really, the Wildcats shouldn’t be here, a sub-.500 Pac-10 team propped up by a no. 1 strength of schedule and the fact that several key players that missed time due to injuries are healthy now. Plus, the fact that it has an interim coach (Kevin O’Neill) running the show, instead of the savvy and urbane Lute Olsen, makes a big difference at this time of year.
Bob Huggins, love him or hate him (and many do the latter), found his way back to his alma mater in Morgantown and fared just fine, especially toward the end of the season. Few players in the country are as hot as Joe Alexander. If he keeps it up, West Virginia should handle Arizona and just might run Duke out of the show, too.
However, the guess here is that Duke does make it to the Sweet 16 in Phoenix, along with Xavier. UCLA should breeze here, too, and as tough as Connecticut can be, Drake’s wonderful story will continue all the way to the desert.