Oklahoma's Blake Griffin has soared over the competition throughout the season.
David E. Klutho/SI
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Momentum: No. 3 Syracuse. Two weeks ago the Orange were a Big East afterthought, in a class below the three powerhouses who received No. 1 seeds. Then they went on an epic Big East tourney run, beating Seton Hall, UConn (in the six-overtime, Neverending Game) and West Virginia (one overtime) before their legs finally gave out in the second half against Louisville. In the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament 'Cuse has looked as good as anyone, beating Stephen F. Austin 59-44 and then holding James Harden to 10 points in a 78-67 win over Arizona State. Lovable point guard Jonny Flynn and eminently dislikable shooting guard Eric Devendorf have emerged as March's best backcourt scoring duo and made the Orange a dark-horse Final Four team.
Best Matchup: No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 2 Oklahoma (in the Regional Final). This one may not happen, given that Syracuse is in the Sooners' way, but aren't we all curious to see what would happen in a duel between last year's Wooden Award winner, Tyler Hansbrough, and this year's (nearly guaranteed) recipient, Blake Griffin? I suspect Griffin would dominate -- mainly because no one else has stopped him this year -- but Carolina, which is more talented from top to bottom, would win. And Hansbrough, whose draft stock is of the late-first-round variety, could earn himself serious money if he somehow manages to stay even with Big Blake.
Home Cooking: Gonzaga will be at a huge disadvantage in Memphis, where the Carolina crowd will travel in droves and be an overwhelming presence at the FedEx Forum. Economic conditions may be limiting some fan travel during this tournament, but Tar Heels faithful didn't have to shell out for airfare to see their team in the first two rounds: the Greensboro site was just 50 miles away. Syracuse fans should pack the New York-to-Memphis flights and be the second-biggest contingency, now that there's a renewed sense of optimism about the Orange's chances of reaching Detroit.
Burning Question (Not Involving Ty Lawson's Toe): How will Blake Griffin be guarded -- and officiated -- in the post? His first two tourney games were marred by a judo flip (by Morgan State's Ameer Ali), an undercut-flip (by Michigan's Manny Harris) and a myriad of cuts and bruises. Helpless defenders are getting questionably physical with Griffin, and his father, Tommy, told SI.com during Saturday's game that it's gone too far: "For a guy who's considered to be possibly the player of the year, and he's getting beat up like that -- from my observation, over the years, you don't normally see that," Tommy said. "You know Blake is going to get beat up in certain games, but it shouldn't be every game. And it is every game. Every game he's the target, but there's nothing we can do about it. We can just sit here and be as calm as we possibly can." Conversely, Michigan coach John Beilein received a technical foul for arguing his players were being whistled for too many chippy fouls while guarding Blake, and told refs, "What are you supposed to do?"
Difference maker: Lawson. He played 31 minutes against LSU on Saturday, and while he may not have looked 100 percent healthy, he did score 21 second-half points to get the Heels to the Sweet 16. Another week of rest will do wonders for his jammed toe, allowing him to get the best of two other point guards who might be selected in the next draft, Gonzaga's Jeremy Pargo and Syracuse's Jonny Flynn. The kid whom Roy Williams calls Dennis the Menace will, in Memphis, be called the regional's Most Outstanding Player.
The Pick: No. 1 North Carolina. The Heels have the toughest Sweet 16 opponent of any top seed in Gonzaga, which has athletes capable of handling a game in the high 80s. But the Zags don't have enough inside to contend with the Heels' giant foursome of Hansbrough, Deon Thompson, Ed Davis and Tyler Zeller. UNC will win that battle on the glass, then survive a shootout with Syracuse in the Elite Eight. They'll need to get good shooting nights from Danny Green and Wayne Ellington to outscore 'Cuse's long-range bombers.
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