NCAA Midwest Region 1 Preview
by Brian Seymour
1. Kansas vs. 16. Holy Cross
Despite the obvious 1 vs. 16 mismatch, this game has the potential to be one of the more entertaining first-round games. Holy Cross isn’t as undersized as most people would expect with 6-foot-8 forward Tim Szatko and 6-foot-11 center Nate Lufkin lurking in the Crusaders’ frontcourt. Holy Cross dominated the boards against most of its opponents, but would do well to stay even with Kansas in that category.
What can you say about the Jayhawks? At their best, they are probably the best team in the country. High-scoring, entertaining, quick. A joy to behold. At their worst? A loss to a more disciplined Ball State team and a horrid performance in the Big 12 championship game. Kansas only needs Drew Gooden to be his usual superb self (20.6 ppg, 11.1 rpg) to dispatch Holy Cross.
Analysis: Despite its record and its resume, don’t dismiss Holy Cross. Roy Williams’ Kansas teams have a history of spectacular failures in the tournament and what would be bigger than the first loss ever by a No. 1 seed? The Jayhawks won’t be able to push Holy Cross around physically, so they’ll have to use their superior speed and talent. If they can’t put the Crusaders away in the first 20 minutes, it could go down to the wire.
8. Stanford vs. 9. Western Kentucky
Probably one of the more overrated teams in the tournament (Stanford) against one of the more underrated. The Cardinal are lucky that they matchup pretty well against the Hilltoppers. Western Kentucky is led by 7-foot-1 center Chris Marcus, who averages 16.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game, but Stanford can counter with 7-foot center Curtis Borchardt.
As you might expect, Stanford typically plays smart, but can struggle against quick and deep teams, which the Hilltoppers are. Sun Belt champ Western Kentucky has played some big games already this season, including a victory over Kentucky. It won’t be intimidated by the bright lights of the Big Dance.
Analysis: Another exciting matchup, probably the best 8-9 game. Western Kentucky can throw players in waves and will try to outrun Stanford. If the Cardinal keeps cool, can limit Marcus to about 15 points (or better yet, get him in foul trouble), they’ll probably advance. It’ll almost definitely come down to which big man – Marcus or Borchardt – has a better game.
5. Florida vs. 12. Creighton
On the face of it, a potential disaster for Florida. The danger to No. 5 seeds in the first round of the tournament is well documented and Creighton is from the Missouri Valley Conference, a mid-major with a long history of tournament upsets. However, the Gators have so much talent it would take a Herculean effort to knock them off. Start in the middle with center Udonis Haslem (15.9 ppg, 8.4 rpg), throw in a talented frontcourt mate in Matt Bonner (16.4 ppg) and sharp guard play from Brett Nelson (14.6 ppg, 3.3 apg).
Creighton’s leader is junior Kyle Korver, who amazingly only missed three games in December after a serious knee surgery. Korver scores 15.2 points a game and is the Missouri Valley’s active leader in three-point shooting. The Bluejays have a lot of size despite not being able to match the Gators in talent.
Analysis: The Gators have historically had first-round problems. Even as national runner-ups in 2000, they needed a miracle shot from Mike Miller to beat Butler. If they start cold and give Creighton some momentum, an upset is possible. If Creighton gets behind, however, it’ll be hard to mount a comeback unless Korver gets really hot with the threes. Look for Florida to focus their defense on him though.
4. Illinois vs. 13. San Diego State
Their loss in the Big Ten tournament notwithstanding, the Illini are one of the hottest teams in the country. Eight wins in their last nine regular season games and they were starting to show some of the talent that made them an almost universal Top 5 team when the season started. A very streaky team, Illinois has a lot of balance and a lot of depth, but could end up winning the whole enchilada or losing to the Aztecs in the opening round. In short, there’s no predicting which team will show up.
San Diego State, on the other hand, also won eight of its last nine games, but needed to win the Mountain West tournament to get an invitation. Their five starters are all juniors or seniors, led by senior forward Randy Holcomb, who averages 17.1 points and 9.1 rebounds per game.
Analysis: Thanks to the emphasis on geographical pairings, the Illini essentially get two home games in downtown Chicago, about two hours from their campus. That’ll make it harder for the Aztecs to pull off an upset, but don’t start their epitaph just yet – the Illini are as streaky a team in the country – and the Aztecs defeated UNLV on the Rebels’ home floor to get their ticket into the Dance.