As needed, these bruisers in the Sweet 16 will bump, grind and even deftly score
If there was a recurring on-court theme during the first week of the NCAA tournament, it was this: Muscle matters. With that in mind, here are seven Sweet 16 entries whose physical power will make them formidable foes in this week's regionals.
Thanks to 6'8" shot blockers Jeremy McNeil and Hakim Warrick, who anchor the back line of a 2-3 zone, other Orange defenders can be more adventurous. That helped Syracuse beat Oklahoma State 68-56 after falling behind early 25-8.
The Irish trot out 6'10", 240-pound freshman forward Torin Francis, whose inside presence has opened things up for the team's outside shooters, giving them such good looks that they hit 11 of 16 three-pointers in the first half of a 68-60 second-round victory over Illinois.
The Longhorns' 6'8", 235-pound center James Thomas is to the rebound what point guard T.J. Ford is to the assist. Thomas pulled down 12 boards in Sunday's 77-67 defeat of Purdue. The 5'10" Ford can pick a few himself: He grabbed nine rebounds against the Boilermakers.
Few teams deploy beef better, and the Panthers, with 6'6", 265-pound center Ontario Lett, have brains to go with brawn. "They have so many big bodies, and they know how to use them," said Wagner coach Dereck Whittenburg after Pitt hammered his team 87-61 in the first round. Lett is bookended by 6'4" Jaron Brown (20 points in the 74-52 win over Indiana on Sunday) and 6'9" Donatas Zavackas; imposing reserves include 6'7" Chevon Troutman and 6'10" Toree Morris.
The Sooners' infirm guards—Hollis Price is suffering from a strained groin, and Ebi Ere has a broken bone in his left wrist—got a lift last week from a freshman center, 6'8", 260-pound Kevin Bookout, as they hobbled around the perimeter, hunting shots. Bookout muscles his way close enough to the basket to have been the Big 12's most accurate shooter (57.1%), In Oklahoma's 74-65 win over Cal on Saturday he nimbly dropped in nine of 11 from the field and scored 22 points.
The Spartans rotate three 6'10" wide bodies (most notably 240-pound freshman Erazem Lorbek) through their lineup, as well as senior Aloysius Anagonye, a 6'8", 260-pound holdover from the 2000 title team. All know when their bruising style has softened up opponents. "They start running a little slower, or they're breathing harder, or their legs aren't planted quite as hard," says Anagonye. "As soon as one of us notices it, he'll say, 'So-and-so is beat. Let's go right at him.' "
The day before the tournament opened, coach Jim Calhoun touted the clean defense of his center, 6'9", 252-pound Emeka Okafor. "He always goes straight up!" Calhoun said, pointing to a picture in the Huskies' media guide of an impeccably vertical Okafor returning a shot to sender. The nation's leading shot blocker (4.7 per game), Okafor rejected seven BYU field goal attempts in the first round. Two days later he boosted the Huskies past Stanford by grabbing six offensive rebounds.