Look out for Louisville
My new Final Four: UCLA, Kansas, Louisville, Texas
Posted: Monday March 24, 2008 12:25PM; Updated: Monday March 24, 2008 1:54PM
When this year's NCAA tournament pairings were announced a week ago Sunday night, I took a look at the page and, for the first time in 20-plus years as a bracket hound, found myself tempted to pick all four No. 1 seeds to reach the Final Four.
Obviously, I couldn't go through with it, considering no such pairing had happened in the 64/65-team era (not to mention Grant Wahl would have called me a weenie), but it shows just how high a degree of confidence I had in North Carolina, Kansas, Memphis and UCLA. (In hindsight, there must have been a smarter way to avoid the trap than by picking one-and-done USC).
As I wrote that night, this year's field figured to be the most top-heavy in years, a premonition reinforced over the weekend when 10 of the top 12 seeds advanced to the Sweet 16.
Sure, the first two rounds provided their share of upsets, but the reality is No. 12 seeds Western Kentucky and Villanova and No. 10 seed Davidson aren't likely to be around much longer. No. 12 seeds are 1-13 in the Sweet 16, No. 10 seeds 6-11, and neither have ever reached the Final Four. (Strangely, neither has any No. 7 seed, a bad sign for West Virginia.) If anything, their presence only makes it more likely we'll see mostly chalk in San Antonio.
In fact, they might as well rename next weekend's Midwest Regional the Kansas Invitational.
If I were a betting man, however, I still wouldn't feel comfortable projecting an all-top seed Final Four. General rule of thumb: If something hasn't happened in 24 years, don't get your hopes up that the 25th will be any different. The challenge is identifying which one(s) will actually stumble.
It's time to re-examine the pulse of the tourney's four No. 1 seeds and assess their remaining path to San Antonio.
East: North Carolina
Confidence level: Sky-high. You couldn't ask for a much better start than a pair of wins by scores of 113-74 (over Mount St. Mary's) and 108-77 (over Arkansas), with the Tar Heels becoming the first team to post triple-digits in their first two tourney games since the Bo Kimble-led 1990 Loyola Marymount squad. Roy Williams' team has now won 13 straight, Ty Lawson's ankle injury seems like a distant memory and, best of all, two more de facto home games await in Charlotte.
Remaining draw: Brutal. The East is the lone region in which all four higher seeds remain. No. 2 seed Louisville was as dominant as UNC in opening-weekend routs of Boise State (79-61) and Oklahoma (78-48), holding Sooners star Blake Griffin to eight points; No. 2 seed Tennessee's experience shined through in its overtime win over Butler; and fourth seed Washington State's defense suffocated Winthrop (11 second-half points) and Notre Dame (season-low 48 points).
Biggest threat: Louisville. The Cougars will be hard-pressed to keep pace with the Heels' high-scoring offense, and Tyler Hansbrough presents a pretty glaring match-up problem for the smallish Vols. The Cardinals, however, have a frontcourt stalwart of their own, David Padgett. Had he and others not gotten hurt early on this season, we might be talking about Louisville as a No. 1 seed right now.
Confidence-level: High. The Jayhawks followed up their 84-74 Big 12 title-game victory over Texas with impressive performances against Portland State (85-61) and UNLV (75-56). The Rebels shot just 26.7 percent against Kansas, which itself shot 58 percent and had four players score in double figures. My only hesitation is the same one that's been there all along: Bill Self's inability to take any of his previous Illinois or Kansas teams beyond the Elite Eight.
Remaining draw: A blessing from above. With all due respect to Villanova, Wisconsin and Davidson, none exactly strike fear in a team like Kansas. Obviously, Villanova can't be taken as lightly as your usual No. 12 seed, and there's a reason Davidson was ranked in the top 25 by season's end, but neither are anywhere near as talented as the Jayhawks (though Stephen Curry could certainly start for them).
Biggest threat: Wisconsin. Largely overlooked heading into the tournament despite winning both the Big Ten regular season and tourney titles and beating Texas in Austin, the Badgers look like another vintage Bo Ryan team. Against Kansas State, they shut down Michael Beasley after halftime (six points) and got Bill Walker into foul trouble. They're capable of slowing down a team like Kansas just by controlling the tempo.