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The cream will rise (cont.)

Posted: Sunday March 16, 2008 9:07PM; Updated: Monday March 17, 2008 2:13PM
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Sophomore center Hasheem Thabeet (right) and UConn may be the only major roadblock for No. 1 UCLA in the West.
Sophomore center Hasheem Thabeet (right) and UConn may be the only major roadblock for No. 1 UCLA in the West.

Best draw: UCLA. The Bruins drew arguably the weakest No. 2 (Duke) and No. 3 (Xavier) seeds, and while No. 4 seed Connecticut could be scary due to the presence of 7-3 Hasheem Thabeet, the erratic Huskies could just as easily bow out to San Diego.

Worst draw: Butler. The Bulldogs had an even better season (29-3) than last year's Sweet 16 team (27-6), yet drew a lower seed (No. 7, down from No. 5) and must face an equally dangerous mid-major (South Alabama) in the Jaguars' home state (Birmingham). And if they win that, they get Tennessee. Apparently, the committee did not enjoy its time in Indianapolis -- home of Butler.

Biggest shaft that isn't really a shaft: Indiana's No. 8 seed. No one outside that committee room expected the Hoosiers -- a perceived Final Four contender just a few weeks ago -- to fall so far; yet at the same time, it's entirely understandable. Indiana hasn't been nearly the same team since Kelvin Sampson left, losing to Penn State and Minnesota. Call it the Hoosiers' cell-phone overage penalty.

Best first-round matchup: USC-Kansas State. Are you kidding me? Michael Beasley vs. O.J. Mayo. What's the over-under on how many sleazy agent-types will find their way into Omaha's Qwest Center?

Runner-up: West Virginia-Arizona.

Best potential second-round matchup: Connecticut-Drake. Does size really matter? We might find out, because while the Huskies have Thabeet inside, the Bulldogs have ... absolutely no one. They do, however, have a savvy point guard, Adam Emenecker, who can go toe-to-toe with the more touted A.J. Price.

Runner-up: Washington State-Notre Dame.

Best potential Sweet 16 matchup: Duke-Xavier. These are two extremely similar teams both in their offensive balance (the Blue Devils have five players who score between 10.5 and 15.5 points per game; the Muskies have five players who average between 10.3 and 12.2) and their emphasis on team defense. It would be a complete toss-up.

Runner-up: Tennessee-Louisville.

Best potential Elite 8 matchup: North Carolina-Tennessee. First one to 90 ... might still have to score a few more.

Runner-up: Memphis-Texas.

The Picks

East: North Carolina. The Tar Heels are hitting their stride at the perfect time, and there's no one in this region that can slow down their offense and neutralize Tyler Hansbrough.

West: UCLA. The Bruins, in particular Darren Collison, played some of their best ball of their year in the Pac-10 tournament, even with Luc-Richard Mbah a Moute sidelined in the title game.

South: Memphis. John Calipari's team has come awfully close the past two years, and this year's edition is clearly on another level, thanks to the exhilarating Derrick Rose.

Midwest: USC. You've got to have one wild-card, right? The young Trojans have been improving all season while playing in the nation's toughest conference. They'll be a tough out.

Final Four: I meant what I said earlier: There are some truly outstanding teams at the top of this year's bracket, none more so than North Carolina and UCLA. The two will meet the first Monday of April in San Antonio; the third time will be the charm for Ben Howland's Bruins.

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