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Breaking It Down

March 18, 2003 Columns No Comments

Breaking it Down

by Bill Thayer

I don’t think there is anything that needs to be said to intro this. The field has been set. We know who is playing where and when…well, except for those crazy kids in the Spokane Pod. Here are my thoughts on the upcoming three-week extravaganza.

South Bracket

The Top Seed: Shockingly we saw Texas as the top seed in the south, instead of Kentucky. While others want to blast the committee for this, I will not. With the Regionals being played at San Antonio, it is fair for the Longhorns to stay close to home, rather than being shipped off to Minneapolis. A case could have been made for Oklahoma, but as it seemed to be throughout the bracket, the committee payed almost no attention to the games played on Selection Sunday. The road ahead of them should be bumpy. The way LSU shoots the three makes them a dangerous second round opponent (just ask Arizona). They are one of two number one seeds I like to reach New Orleans this season, despite their loss to Texas Tech in the Big 12 Tournament. T.J. Ford should be able to slow the tempo against LSU and could also turn it up when needed.

Looking Down The Bracket: BYU as a 12? Did I miss something? The Cougars were in the top 25 in the RPI throughout most of the season, which the committee apparently was looking at when it snubbed Boston College and Seton Hall. They should provide the Jeykil and Hyde Connecticut Huskies some problems in the first round and could even find themselves shaking up a couple regions by reaching the Sweet 16. Maryland may have fits trying to shut down UNC Wilmington’s Brett Blizzard. The Terrapins had problems stopping outside shooters in losses against Virginia and North Carolina and will have to find somebody to stop the UNCW’s all-time leading scorer if they hope to get out of the first round. Which Xavier team will show up? If it’s the same squad we saw towards the end of the regular season, they have the talent to reach the Elite 8. I think they will shake off the loss to Temple and do so.

Keep An Eye On: Colorado. The Buffs have proven their worth by knocking off Kansas, Texas, Missouri and Oklahoma State. Now, they were all at home, but playing on a neutral court in Tampa should not drag CU down. Florida’s struggles down the stretch leave them vulnerable in the second round. Look for Stephane Pelle and David Harrison to give the Florida big men fits.

East Bracket

The Top Seed: Oklahoma avoided Kansas and Texas in winning the Big 12 Tournament. Playing in Oklahoma City provides them with one of the best first weekend home court advantages. They should have no problems with South Carolina State and California. However, looming in Albany will be either Mississippi State or Louisville, both of whom could give the Sooners some major fits inside. Remember, the Bulldogs defeated Oklahoma back in December and could find themselves doing the same in March. OU has missed Aaron McGhee more than anybody has given them credit for. Oklahoma’s backcourt of Quannas White and Hollis Price are amongst the toughest in the nation, but their inside game leaves plenty to be desired.

Looking Down The Bracket: As mentioned earlier, Mississippi State could find themselves in the Sweet 16 against Oklahoma, but they will have a war on their hands against Butler in the first round. The committee seemed to be in a pleasing the public move when they added Butler. The Bulldogs were given an at-large bid after many in the press thought the Bulldogs deserved one last year. They missed a chance at a quality win in the Bracket Buster by traveling to Duke instead, where they played the Blue Devils hard before losing by 20. But, they’ve beaten almost everybody else in their path. Syracuse as a No. 3 seed amazes me. The Orangemen ended the Big East Tournament with a thud, losing to Connecticut for the second time. Their reward? A higher seed than the Huskies, along with a near home game in Boston followed by a pair of home games in Albany. The Orangemen will get a major boost from their home crowd. Wake Forest earned their seed by winning the regular season ACC title, which is fair considering Gonzaga and Southern Illinois both got in by winning their conferences. Looking down the bracket, this is the second toughest of the four.

Keep An Eye On: Jameer Nelson. The Hawks point guard has been carrying the team and has quietly improved his offense. Once a pass first point man, Nelson has adjusted his game and has become a top scorer. Many times it just takes one player to carry a team in a run during March, and with the ball starting in his hands, Nelson might be that player. Wake Forest will have to rely on Taron Downey and freshman Justin Gray to try and stop Nelson. They’ll both have their hands full.

Midwest Bracket

The Top Seed: The hottest team in the nation, Kentucky has won 23 in a row and did not cut down the nets after winning the SEC Tournament, electing to wait until the national championship to take the nets from the Superdome. They should have no problems getting there with the region they’ve been assigned. UK faithful will travel in packs to Nashville, giving the Wildcats a boost, but they shouldn’t need it. I don’t see any team finishing within double digits within the region. They are just that good on both ends of the floor and have too many interchangeable parts.

Looking Down The Bracket: Oregon got plenty of help to get their bid. Had UCLA lost to Arizona in the Pac 10 Tournament, we may not have seen the Ducks in the field of 65 as Arizona should have handed the Ducks their tenth loss. Utah will need Britten Johnson to get past Oregon, however. That wacky Spokane Pod rears its head in the Midwest. Weber State allegedly turned down the NCAA when they asked the Wildcats to switch regions with BYU. They match up very well with Wisconsin and may get past the first round. Dayton and Tulsa is an interesting second round matchup. After being in the top 20 early on, the Golden Hurricane slipped under the radar then tore through the WAC. Dayton had some help by playing at home in the Atlantic 10 Tournament but Spokane should be a neutral site, providing no help for any of the eight teams there. Missouri and Southern Illinois both have the experience of winning in March, as they each played in the second weekend a year ago. Indiana and Alabama meet in a game between two teams who some people felt had no chance of making the field. Pittsburgh deserved the two seed in the East by winning the Big East Tournament but their lack of strength of schedule prevented them from being a one seed.

Keep An Eye On: Indiana. Remember, this is the same team that reached the national championship a year ago, not to mention the same team that beat Maryland, Gonzaga and Illinois. It was their game against Kentucky that got the Wildcats season turned around. With experienced players like Tom Coverdale and Kyle Hornsby and their ability to hit the three, the Hoosiers may find themselves with a second shot at Kentucky.

West Bracket

The Top Seed: Everybody knew Arizona would be one of the four number one seeds, but unlike the others there was no surprise where they ended up. Lute Olson said the team had no desire to play in the Pac 10 Tournament but they shouldn’t have to just turn it on and off. At times they can outgun anybody they want, but they rely on some inexperienced players. Then again, on a team with Luke Walton and Jason Gardner, and as much talent as they have, there should be no problems. Ah…but that’s just looking internally. As, we’ll soon see…..

Looking Down The Bracket: There is ample talent here. There are the traditional powers: Kansas, Duke, Illinois, Notre Dame and Cincinnati. Mid-majors Creighton, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Central Michigan, Gonzaga and Western Kentucky can all prove tricky. Memphis got the shaft by getting stuck as a seven seed, despite being one of the hottest teams in the nation (and nearly defeating Louisville on the road in their last game). And Colorado State could be more difficult than anybody thought, especially if center Matt Nelson rebounds from an eye injury suffered against UNLV. Top to bottom there is loads of talent, too much to think that the bracket to stick to form.

Keep An Eye On: Illinois. Look for them to be the one to knock off Arizona. Brian Cook, one of my least favorite players entering the season, has stepped up his game and become one of the physically toughest in the nation. Dee Brown’s explosiveness helps the Illini beat many teams down the court. Ask Indiana, who the Fighting Illini beat by 26 in a late February meeting. Bill Self has won in March both in Illinois and at Tulsa. I’ve fallen in love with this team in recent weeks and look for them to be alive once the tournament reaches its final days.

Overall thoughts

Best first round game: South Bracket: 5 Connecticut vs. 12 BYU. If UConn plays like they did early in the season, they may run the Cougars off the court, but they have become a tough team to read. BYU does not have the marquee win that grabs the attention of the casual fan, but they’ve beaten Utah State, Arizona State and Colorado State, all tournament teams. Rafael Araujo will need to play well defensively and keep Emeka Okafor off the glass. Travis Hansen has the size to give Ben Gordon fits.

Best Pod: Indianapolis. Missouri/Southern Illinois, Marquette/Holy Cross, Notre Dame/Wisconsin Milwaukee and Illinois/Western Kentucky. All four games could end up as single digit outcomes. Marquette will look to make amends for last year’s first round loss to Tulsa, but Holy Cross has the big men to give the Golden Eagles problems inside. Notre Dame should be helped by a big contingent in Indianapolis to help them get over the hump against UWM, who may be as talented as the Irish.

Toughest Region: West. As proven above. Arizona’s road to the final four isn’t as easy as it once seemed.

Final Four: Texas vs. Syracuse and Kentucky vs. Illinois.

National Champions: I’m sticking with my pick from November, TJ Ford and the Longhorns will be cutting down the nets after beating Kentucky in the national championship.


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