Monday, March 24, 2008

NCAA tourney first weekend review, Sweet 16 preview


I've never liked Bob Huggins — and probably never will — but I give him this: The man can coach.

I watched in person Saturday as Huggins smartly played his backup point guard Joe Mazzulla 30-plus minutes in West Virginia's 73-67 upset win over No. 2 seed Duke.

Huggins, clearly, had watched Duke's 71-70 win over Belmont, when the Blue Devils struggled to contain the Bruins' quick guards. So he let Mazzulla do the same thing. He spread the floor and Mazzulla created for his teammates.

Huggins is just one of many excellent coaches who will guide their teams beginning Thursday. Here's my region-by-region Sweet 16 breakdown:


No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 4 Washington State: On Sunday night, Roy Williams was asked whether he's concerned that his Heels coasted to two blowout wins in the first two rounds. His answer was a resounding "No," and I agree with him. The Heels are playing as well as they have all season. Tyler Hansbrough didn't need a big game Sunday to demolish Arkansas. Rather, his frontcourt mates Deon Thompson and Alex Stepheson played extremely well. Additionally, Ty Lawson is starting to look more like his old self. All good signs.

But don't pencil in a victory for the Heels. Washington State is the type of team that could pull off this upset. For starters, the Cougars' staple is defense — and they held offensive juggernaut Notre Dame to 41 points. Secondly, they have a veteran backcourt made up of Derek Low and Kyle Weaver. This is an experienced team that also boasts two easy wins from the opening weekend.

My call: North Carolina 70, Washington State 62

No. 2 Tennessee vs. No. 3 Louisville: These teams had vastly different opening weekends. The Vols survived a scare against 15th-seeded American and needed overtime to dispose of Butler. Louisville, meanwhile, cruised to wins in its opening two games.

I still like the Vols, however. You can view close wins in two ways — either they're a big concern; or, your team knows how to pull out the tough games. Earlier in the year, I was disgusted by Tennessee's end-game decisions in a loss at Vanderbilt. Obviously, the Vols have improved in that area. The key for the Vols will be to play as physical as they did in their win over then-No. 1 Memphis. Led by David Padgett, the Cardinals are a very bruising team. They'll look to score down low and on second-chance points. Tennessee needs to control the boards and get out and run.

My call: Tennessee 76, Louisville 73


No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 12 Villanova:
Give the Wildcats credit for getting this far. A week ago, I didn't even think they deserved to be in the tournament. But Scottie Reynolds is a great leader at the guard position, and you can't count out a team with strong guards.
Kansas, however, has a pickup truck full of of talented guards, and better forwards than the Wildcats. As long as the Jayhawks do a good job guarding the 3-point arc and don't take the Wildcats lightly, they'll be fine.

My call: Kansas 83, Villanova 70

No. 3 Wisconsin vs. No. 10 Davidson:
Davidson is obviously the Cinderella pick, and I'm sure the CBS executives are praying for a Wildcats victory. Remember the last time Wisconsin made the Final Four, when they and Michigan State scored about 80 points — combined? Yeah, Stephon Curry is a little more exciting.

But style be darned, the Badgers get the job done — with great coaching, great defense and timely offense. Expect the same Friday night. Wisconsin will shut down Davidson's perimeter shooters — including Curry — for most of the night and dominate down low with its big bodies.

My call: Wisconsin 61, Davidson 54.


No. 1 Memphis vs. No. 5 Michigan State: Of the four No. 1 seeds set to play in the Sweet 16, the Tigers are the most likely to lose. On Sunday, they again showed how vulnerable they are because of their atrocious free-throw shooting. If the Spartans can keep the game close until the end, I like their chances. They don't face any pressure.

And I think they'll be there because of their guard play. Senior Drew Neitzel has been up and down this season, but I'm betting on him being up, and freshman Kalin Lucas is a jitterbug player who will stay in front of Derrick Rose all night long. Memphis is the more talented team — and has more depth — but if the Spartans can slow the game down and keep it tight, they can pull off the upset in crunch time.

My call: Michigan State 64, Memphis 63.

No. 2 Texas vs. No. 3 Stanford: This is the battle of the Bigs vs. the Littles. Brook Lopez showed he's capable of taking over a game in Stanford's overtime win over Marquette in the second round. Meanwhile, Texas' duo of guards A.J. Abrams and D.J. Augustin has been steady all season, and I expect the same in this game.

The difference will be the Longhorns' ability to bother B. Lopez and his brother, Robin, in the post. Damion James is a very underrated bruiser, and he n' his mates will defend well enough to get Texas the win in front of a large gathering of 'Horns fans in Houston.

My call: Texas 77, Stanford 67


No. 1 UCLA vs. No. 12 Western Kentucky: It's been a great story for the Hilltoppers and their NBA prospect, Courtney Lee, but the Bruins are too good to end their title push here. Expect a big game from big man Kevin Love, who will be well-rested by Thursday night. Also expect another stifling defensive performance by a Bruins team that doesn't seem to give up much more than 50 points in any game.

My call: UCLA 70, Western Kentucky 55

No. 3 Xavier vs. No. 7 West Virginia: A very intriguing regional semifinal, with the teams matching up pretty equally. But I give a slight edge to the Mountaineers. For one, they have the best player on either team in Joe Alexander, who has been on a tear of late and can score from both inside and out. Secondly, Mazzulla is quick enough to stay with Xavier speedster Drew Lavender. Finally, WVU has better outside shooters than the Musketeers.

Expect a back-and-forth tussle for most of the night, but when the smoke clears, WVU will be the highest seed left in the field of 16.

And did I mention that Huggins can coach?

My call: West Virginia 69, Xavier 67


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