Sweet 16 will lead to a chalky Final Four (cont.)
Looking back: I admit I was a little nervous watching Pitt struggle against East Tennessee State. I realize these things mean very little in the grand scheme of things, but as a general rule, I kind of like to see my championship pick make it out of the first round. Given that Pitt lost at Providence and later fell to West Virginia in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament, you have to wonder whether this team has lost the mojo it would need to win a title. That said, the main problem Pitt faced in those first two rounds was bad matchups. Aside from Levance Fields, the Panthers' perimeter players are not very good ball handlers. So it's natural they would struggle against small, quick teams who love to crank up the full-court pressure. And even though the Oklahoma State game was close, Pitt was pretty much in control throughout the second half. A win is a win, folks, especially during a one-and-done tournament.
There were more good games during the first two rounds in this region than any other. Probably the most interesting one was Duke's escape against Texas. This was exactly the kind of game Duke would have lost (and did lose) the last two years. The Blue Devils still have deficiencies at center and point guard, but if there was any question about this team's mental toughness, consider it answered. Also, I'm not normally a big believer your performance in a conference tournament correlates to how you'll play in the NCAAs, but I really think winning the ACC gave the Blue Devils a badly needed jolt of swagger.
Looking ahead: Is there any more exciting matchup than Duke-Villanova? We're talking two up-tempo, guard-oriented teams who play tough man-to-man defense. If they played 10 times, they'd probably split 5-5. In this case, I'm going to go with Duke because I have a feeling Kyle Singler will be the difference. 'Nova's Dante Cunningham has had a terrific year, but Singler is a better player, and in 7-1 junior center Brian Zoubek Duke has a serviceable reserve to play 10-12 minutes and shut off Villanova's drives to the basket.
Otherwise, East Tennessee State and Oklahoma State may have been tough matchups for Pitt because of their full-court pressure, but Xavier is not that kind of team. In fact, the Musketeers have much bigger problems at the point guard position than Pitt does. Since Xavier prefers a half-court, grind-it-out game, their mission now is to out-Pitt Pitt. That is hard to do.
The pick: Duke is a perimeter-oriented team, but while the Blue Devils' half-court defense is terrific, they're not a ball-pressure team like the first two Pitt played. I think the Panthers' guards will play a disciplined game against Duke. And as good as Singler is, Sam Young is that much better. The reality is, if Pitt plays Duke, the Panthers will only have to play the Blue Devils to a draw in the backcourt. That will enable DeJuan Blair to do his thing. Pitt marches on to the Final Four.
Looking back: For just one moment, I thought the Tar Heels' NCAA title hopes were done. Ty Lawson came up hobbling early in their second-round game against LSU, took off his right shoe, winced in great pain and put his towel over his head. A few minutes later, lo and behold, Lawson got back in the game and played great basketball -- again -- in leading North Carolina to the win. I remember sitting in Roy Williams' office back in October and hearing him joke about how Lawson actually got through a practice playing hurt, which he had never done before. Well, Lawson showed his toughness beyond a doubt last week, and that trait, even more than Lawson's blinding speed, will be North Carolina's most important asset moving forward.
Gonzaga's win over Western Kentucky was obviously the most exciting game in this region last week, but for my money the most impressive performance was turned in by Syracuse in its win over Arizona State. The victory wasn't spectacular, it was methodical -- and that's what made it so good. Syracuse is a great example that it's not always about having the most talent this time of year, it's about being the best team. Arizona State's primary weakness was a lack of inside strength next to Jeff Pendergraph. So what do the Orange do? They pound it inside to Arinze Onuaku, get Pendergraph into foul trouble, and call it a night. If they were playing a team that was strong inside, then Jonny Flynn would have scored 25 points. Whatever Syracuse has to do, it's able to do, and the chemistry between those guys on the floor is palpable.
Looking ahead: Gonzaga is dangerous because it always has five players on the floor who can make jump shots. Still, it can be frustrating to watch a team play with a pair of talented 6-11 forwards (Josh Heytvelt and Austin Daye) who play like they're 6-3 shooting guards. Gonzaga will try to outscore and outrun North Carolina, so good luck to them. If that game is a track meet, then Syracuse-Oklahoma has the makings of a wrestling match. Both teams have guards who can push the tempo and shoot, but both have quality big men should things grind to a halt. Given the stakes, he who grinds best will win.
The pick: Onuaku is obviously no Blake Griffin, but his physical presence, plus the help that will come from Rick Jackson and Paul Harris, should at least prevent Griffin from winning this game by himself. If that's the case, then this game will be decided by the guards, and that's where Syracuse will have the advantage.
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