Looking vulnerable: North Carolina
There are reasons to be optimistic about the Tar Heels, such as the fact that once Tyler Hansbrough de-Plexiglassed his face, he turned into an offensive beast, scoring 33 points against Michigan State. There are reasons to doubt UNC as well, such as the fact that it let a rather average Spartans team hang around for 30-plus minutes in Winston-Salem. I'm throwing Roy Williams' boys into the vulnerable category, though, mainly because they're running into an opponent, USC, that was quietly the most impressive team in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. The Tar Heels have the nation's most efficient offense, but the Trojans' D suffocated a Texas attack that was ranked fifth nationally, and the film of Gabe Pruitt's lockdown effort on speedy point guard D.J. Augustin could be giving normally care-free floor general Tywon Lawson nightmares.
X-Factor: The temperature of Shan Foster's shooting stroke
While Derrick Byars is a steadier go-to-guy for Vanderbilt -- and was the coaches' pick for SEC Player of the Year -- Foster is the kind of streaky outside gunner who could either go 0-fer from three-point land (like he did in the Commodores' first meeting with Georgetown) or 5-for-10 (in an upset of top-ranked Florida on Feb. 17). Vandy has improved immensely since it lost to the Hoyas by 16 in mid-November, but unfortunately, so has Georgetown, which now possesses one of the nation's most well-oiled offensive attacks. It's hard to imagine an upset happening without Foster knocking down at least 4-5 treys to counteract the Hoyas' inside advantage.
Clutch player: Jeff Green, Georgetown
Green, the homegrown (Hyattsville, Md.) product whom Hoyas reserve Pat Ewing Jr. calls a "new-age Scottie Pippen," does clutch in different ways than national poster boys Acie Law and Aaron Brooks, both point guards who always have the ball in their hands. Green's version is more opportunistic than cold-blooded. With Georgetown bumbling through its second-round game against Boston College, down eight early in the second half, Green grabbed an offensive board and turned it into a basket that ignited a 10-0 run. In the seventh minute, with the Hoyas clinging to a two-point lead, he followed an errant Roy Hibbert-shot with an awe-inspiring, one-handed dunk that served as a gut-punch to the Eagles' upset hopes. Green can change games even in the moments when he isn't the focal point of Georgetown's offense.
Home cooking: Georgetown
Georgetown is seeded No. 2 but ranked No. 1 in proximity -- East Rutherford is 227 miles from D.C. -- and also has one of the more dedicated student sections in the country, so the Hoyas should have an advantage in fan support. North Carolina fans travel well, though, and a Tar Heels-Hoyas final could be played before a 30-percent powder blue, 30-percent gray, 40-percent curious-and-unaffiliated crowd. Those locals will be the crowd's swing voters.
Best matchup: UNC-Georgetown
Would it still be possible to play that North Carolina-Texas game, maybe as an exhibition in mid-April? Kidding. While UNC-USC should be a highly entertaining, both-teams-in-the-80s affair, the potential regional final between the Tar Heels and Georgetown would be the juiciest showdown of the entire Elite Eight. It would feature the nation's Nos. 1 and 3 most efficient offenses (UNC has an adjusted rating of 1.242 points per possession on kenpom.com, while GU has 1.236) in a battle of highly contrasting styles. Williams' primary- and secondary-breaking Argyle Assault, with the fleet-footed Lawson at the helm, plays the ninth-fastest basketball in the country at 73.1 possessions per 40 minutes. John Thompson III's jacked-up Princeton offense, meanwhile, is the ninth-slowest attack in the nation, at 60.1 possessions per game.
The pick: Georgetown
Unlike the rest of their slow-down, Princetonian brethren, the Hoyas have the athletes to match up with Carolina and therefore won't be helpless on defense in transition. The key factor here won't be speed, but rather Georgetown's work on the offensive glass. The last two times the Tar Heels lost, to Maryland (on Feb. 25) and Georgia Tech (on March 1), it was because they allowed the Terps to grab a disastrous 45.8 percent of available offensive rebounds and the Yellow Jackets to get 39.7 percent, according to kenpom.com. The Hoyas happen to be the best offensive rebounding team left in the tournament, averaging 40.4 percent on the season. If Green and Hibbert can out-tough Hansbrough and Brandan Wright in that department, it's on to the Final Four.