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Sweet Sixteen Preview
Disappointment. Torment. Anguish.
Welcome to a place where such emotions find a home every spring. Every year it happens and every year it is beautiful. Welcome to March Madness. In any real game there is a winner and a loser; the last time I checked nobody plays to be the loser. That supposition proved to be legitimate during the opening weekend of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship Tournament. The weekend saw good teams and great players feel the pain of being upset (Bucknell over Kansas and Wayne Simien, Vermont over Syracuse and Hakim Warrick, West Virginia over Wake Forest and Chris Paul) as well as higher seeded team roll on to victory in convincing fashion (Illinois, North Carolina, Washington). In each and every upset there were tell tale signs of what the losing team underestimated. Somehow during the process of scouting the opposition, Kansas, Syracuse, and Wake Forest failed to factor in a defensive game plan for will, for passion, for a person seizing the moment and refusing to lose.
You saw an example of that will in the Bucknell Bison as they battled the mighty Kansas Jayhawks and their senior class laden with multiple Final Four appearances. They fought valiantly before eventually sending Kansas home dejected and left to cope with the realization of another college season ending on the wrong side of an upset.
You saw the passion personified in the inspired play of the underdog West Virginia Mountaineers and their clutch point guard Mike Gansey (19 of his 29 points in the 2 overtime periods) as they gutted out two extra periods to upset the Wake Forest Demon Deacons and their talent loaded roster.
You saw Vermont Catamount guards Germain Mopa Njila and T.J. Sorrentine seize the moment on the games largest stage and play the game of their lives while upsetting a team featuring two upperclassmen leaders and former national champions (Gerry McNamara and Hakim Warrick) in the Syracuse Orange. There is no other way to explain a season long backup (Mopa Njila) erupting for a season high point total. There is no defense for 26 foot three pointers from the top of the key in crunch time (Sorrentine). Quite frankly there is no need for explanation, because there is no defense for a player who refuses to lose.
None at all.
The first two rounds featured many great contests but here’s a quick recap of this past weekend’s most important contest. I say it occurred during the Round of 32, North Carolina State over Connecticut 65-62 A three point play by former ACC player of the year Julius Hodge decided this contest and sent the defending National Champions home after the second round. Senior leadership is always a theme during tourney time and this game should be a reference for that theme. Although extremely talented, UConn’s youth movement (Josh Boone, Charlie Villanueva, Rudy Gay and Marcus Williams) could not overcome a group of ACC battle tested, seasoned veterans. This was a hard-fought physical match up and in the end NC State’s flawless execution of its Princeton style motion offense allowed them to get good shots in crunch time; the exceptional talent of senior wing Julius Hodge allowed them to move on to the next round. Look for this theme of senior leadership to continue throughout the tourney as players not quite willing to have their college career end will turn out big time performances. The sweet sixteen is now upon us and here is a quick preview of the eight match ups and my prognostication for each contest.
Illinois vs. UW-Milwaukee The Illinois Fighting Illini are picking up both rhythm and confidence at exactly the right time. The scary thing about Illinois is that Dee Brown has yet to impact a game in the ways only he can. From running the fast break (which means that the break is extremely fast), to shooting well from the perimeter, and harassing the opposing teams point guard so much that the oppositions offensive rhythm is seriously offset. Look for Brown to have a big game and UW-Milwaukee’s Cinderella run to end.
Sweet Sixteen Loser: UW-Milwaukee Oklahoma St. vs. Arizona Of all the matches set to take place this weekend this has the most potential to be an instant classic. The sweet left handed stroke of Salim Stoudamire going up against the individual defensive prowess of Daniel Bobik and Stephen Graham. The Final Four and big shot making experience of point guard John Lucas against Arizona prodigy Mustafa Shakur. Most important in my mind though will be the play of each team’s respective pivot. Either Channing Frye or Ivan McFarlin will decide which team wins this game. My money is on McFarlin.
Sweet Sixteen Loser: Arizona Washington vs. Louisville This game is a litmus test for the legitimacy of Louisville’s claim that they are a National Championship contender. They cannot win a run and shoot contest against Washington. Washington is in a real groove right now and they will be all too comfortable making the game a track meet. If Louisville can make the game into a half court contest, consisting of execution and disciplined play then they can win this game and pull the upset. Expect this game to be a close one with Francisco Garcia playing the role of Julius Hodge (read: Senior who comes up big in the games waning moments) this round and making a critical play that will send Washington packing.
Sweet Sixteen Loser: Washington Texas Tech vs. West Virginia Both teams pulled impressive upsets in the round of 32 and face each other to decide whose fantasy run will continue. Ronald Ross and Jarrious Jackson will provide the scoring and reliable ball handling but a post presence as well as rebounding will come by committee for Texas Tech. Both Texas Tech and West Virginia play comfortably in the open court but there is one crucial difference; Kevin Pittsnogle. West Virginia’s 6’10” center has shooting range out to 3 and will present a match up problem for Texas Tech’s big men. If Tech does not find a way to cool down West Virginia’s confident backcourt and successfully defend Pittsnogle then Bob Knights great run in the tourney will end: I do not think the General is ready to go back to Lubbock.
Sweet Sixteen Loser: West Virginia Utah vs. Kentucky Andrew Bogut is using the tourney to prove himself and show that he deserves all of praise being heaped upon him by coaches and the media alike. He gave a triple-double caliber performance but settled for a double-double since it takes teammates finishing passes to accumulate assists. If that trend continues it will cost him dearly in the round of sixteen against Kentucky. Above all else, Tubby Smith coached squads are teams. They will play offense and defense as a team and they will win or lose as a team. The forward tandem of freshman Randolph Morris and Senior Chuck Hayes will make Bogut work for all of his points and rebounds. If Utah is depending on their All-America center to have a 30 point-15 rebound night then they are in for a rude awakening. The Utah supporting cast is going to have to step up in a big way for Utah to even compete in this game, let alone win it.
Sweet Sixteen Loser: Utah Duke vs. Michigan State The Michigan State comes into this game after vanquishing the upstart Vermont Catamounts and any thoughts of a second straight upset by the America East League Champions. Daniel Ewing is not T.J. Sorrentine and Sheldon Williams is definitely not Taylor Coppenrath so the Spartans game plan will have to be altered somewhat to earn a win. The depth of Michigan State’s backcourt matches up nicely with Duke’s because depth is exactly what the Blue Devils lack. Daniel Ewing has Final Four experience but his backups (Sean Dockery and Demarcus Nelson) are not nearly as comfortable in a big game atmosphere and it will show. Expect Michigan States physical play offensively and defensively to wear Duke down and offset the hot shooting of long range marksman J.J. Redick.
Sweet Sixteen Loser: Duke Wisconsin vs. North Carolina State NC State emerges from the round of 32 after an impressive, down to the wire victory and looks to extend their good fortune against a solid Wisconsin squad. This game has the potential to be an ugly, slow paced, low scoring affair; a strategy that would play right into Bo Ryan and Wisconsin’s preference. As a fan of Big Ten basketball I know that Wisconsin can win a 43-40 contest, but I am not sure NC State can. Count on Bo Ryan devising a defense to slow NC State’s Princeton offense (Northwestern also runs the offense so Wisconsin sees it twice every year) and to take the game out of Julius Hodge’s hands. When this game comes down to the last few possessions (and I’m sure it will) pay close attention to who steps up and takes the big shot. Just know it will not be Julius Hodge, and because of that fact I’ll have to go with Wisconsin.
Sweet Sixteen Loser: NC State North Carolina vs. Villanova Quite frankly North Carolina is a juggernaut. I have not witnessed a team like this since the National Champion UNLV Runnin’ Rebels team that terrorized college basketball in the early 90’s. When operating on all cylinders and performing efficiently in every aspect of the game (fast break, offensive and defensive sets, free throw shooting, etc.) the only teams that can beat North Carolina are the lineups known as injury and North Carolina. That being said, Villanova does have a chance. Unless you were not aware, the greatest upset in college basketball history featured Villanova as they defeated the Georgetown Hoyas 20 years ago. Much like that game, ‘Nova will have to play a perfect game. They must slow the game down and force Carolina to execute flawlessly on both sides of the time line. In addition they must attack North Carolina in the paint, specifically Sean May. If done successfully, taking away two of North Carolinas offensive options (the fast break and secondary break as well as its post presence) is the best way to go about beating them. Sadly that is only theory and the reality is that Roy Williams is coaching a team of 6, maybe 7, NBA caliber players. This is a national title team and Villanova is simply game 3 out of 6.
Sweet Sixteen Loser: Villanova