Breaking down the bracket and thoughts on the coaching carousel (cont.)
Look, I know picking these games is a silly exercise, and nobody really cares what I say anyway. Still, I put a lot of thought into who I announced as my championship pick on the CBS Selection Show. I was dead set on picking Pittsburgh for the last several weeks, but I got spooked by their loss to West Virginia in the Big East tournament. After checking with a source out in Pitt, I came to the conclusion that this team will actually benefit from having lost -- mostly because Levance Fields' sore back (which as you'll recall almost kept him out of the UConn game) needed time to heal. Remember, Pitt won the Big East tournament last year and lost in the second round. This may just be one case where a few days of rest and practice, combined with the healthy and humbling reminder that it can be beat if its not mentally ready, should be very helpful. That's my theory, anyway.
Xavier is another team that was leaking a little bit of oil coming down the stretch. The Musketeers lost at Richmond in their last regular-season game, and then bowed out to Temple in the semifinals of the Atlantic 10 tournament. Xavier has never gotten into a groove at the point guard position, and that is a fatal flaw to carry into the NCAA tournament. If, as I expect, the Musketeers draw Florida State in the second round, that is a really bad matchup for them. Not only will the Seminoles have the best guard on the floor in Toney Douglas, but FSU's frontline tandem of Solomon Alabi and Chris Singleton is really good defensively. I think they would give Derrick Brown some problems, though of course Brown is mighty capable of creating a few problems of his own.
UCLA has already found out the NCAA tournament is a little tougher when you're not a one seed. Instead of playing all its games out west, the Bruins now have to travel east to Philadelphia. I picked VCU to beat them in the first round on the Selection Show, and I'm not the only one, so Ben Howland will have plenty of bulletin board material to fire his guys up. But bulletin board material only gets you so far. How often does UCLA play a first-round game where the other team has the better point guard? That would be VCU's Eric Maynor, and I think he'll get the better of his matchup with Darren Collison.
You may want to argue that Duke's ACC tournament championship should come with an asterisk since the league's player of the year (Ty Lawson) didn't play, but it's still pretty remarkable the Blue Devils won the thing given where they were a few weeks ago. Remember now, at one point they lost four out of six games, including a humiliating 27-point drubbing at Clemson, and everyone in Duke Nation was despairing at the specter of another late February swoon. Mike Krzyzewski's decision to insert freshman Elliott Williams, who didn't play a minute in their losses to North Carolina and Boston College, as his defensive point guard and move Jon Scheyer to the point on offense was a stroke of genius (or desperation, whatever you want to call it). This Duke team is far from perfect, but it is much more mentally tough than the Duke teams of the previous two years. That should at least be enough to return the Blue Devils to the Sweet 16.
Why, then, do I think Duke is a great matchup for Pitt? Because it's one thing to be mentally tough, it's another to be physically tough, and that's exactly what Pitt is. Plus, while Duke's half-court offense may be more efficient with Scheyer at the point, the team is getting fewer run-outs and fast-break opportunities with him at quarterback. To beat a team like Pitt, you've got to get a few easy baskets, but Levance Fields is so good at taking care of the ball that it's hard to imagine Duke turning the game into a track meet. That means it would be a grinder, and nobody -- least of all Duke -- is going to out-tough Pitt in a grinder of a game.
I think it's fair to say Ty Lawson has the most talked about big toe since Sergeant Hulka's. It's a little odd that Lawson would clear himself to play in a regular-season game against Duke but be unable to go during the ACC tournament and be in jeopardy for the NCAAs. Clearly that was a bad decision. The injury is particularly troublesome for a player who depends so much on explosiveness and change of direction. It also compromises Lawson's ability to pressure the ball defensively, which wasn't exactly his strong suit to begin with. I do believe North Carolina is still the Tiger Woods of this tournament -- that is, the team with the best A-game in the field. I also think their most likely Sweet 16 opponent, Gonzaga, is a perfect matchup for them. But whoever they face in the regional final (Syracuse, Clemson or Oklahoma) will force the Heels to slug it out to get to Detroit. They can win three games without Lawson at 100 percent. I don't think they can win six of them.
One thing that has become certain in the tournament: a 12-seed always upsets a five in the first round. The popular choice this year is Arizona over Utah, but I sense that Western Kentucky over Illinois not far behind. It's not just that the Illini, who after all failed to score 40 points twice this season, are without their most important player, point guard Chester Frazier, but the Hilltoppers are pretty darn good. They reached the Sweet 16 last year, and while they lost three starters from that squad (most notably Courtney Lee, who was drafted in the first round by the Orlando Magic), they still had a great season punctuated by a 14-point win over Louisville back in November. I was actually tempted to pick the Hilltoppers to beat Gonzaga, but their best big man, Jeremy Evans, goes 6-9, 190 pounds, and is thus not well-equipped to take advantage of the Zags' lack of strength in the paint.
When Gerry McNamara led Syracuse on a dramatic run to the Big East tournament championship in 2006, the Orange followed up by losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament to Texas A&M. So why do I not believe that the same thing will happen this year? In the first place, this Orange team was a safe at-large team before the Big East tournament began, while the '06 squad needed to play its way in. Plus, this team is older, stronger and mentally tougher at all five positions. If Syracuse was going to be affected by playing so many overtimes, it would have happened against West Virginia. The fact that Syracuse won that game -- in overtime, no less -- should tell you all you need to know about this team's heart. It's got a lot of talent, too. That should be obvious by now.
I was speaking last week with a Big 12 head coach, and I asked him what he thought was wrong with Oklahoma. He answered me in two words: "They're overrated." His main argument that the Sooners are vulnerable when an opponent pressures their guards, especially point guard Austin Johnson, and forces them to make plays as opposed to simply running their offense. Clemson is the exact type of team that can do that. The Tigers love to pressure the basketball end to end, and in K.C. Rivers and Terrence Oglesby they have two guards who can really stretch the defense. No, Clemson doesn't have anybody as good as Blake Griffin -- nobody does -- but it does have one of the truly underrated power forwards in America in Trevor Booker, plus a glue-guy glass eater on the other block in Raymond Sykes. Obviously I don't like the way this team finished the season (losing four of its last five, including to Georgia Tech in the ACC tournament), but I expect them to crank up the effort this week.
More College Basketball
College Basketball Truth & Rumors