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A Sweet Weekend

March 25, 2003 Columns No Comments

A Sweet Weekend Ahead

by Bill Thayer

After one wild weekend of tournament play, we are getting set for the Regionals, the always-popular sweet 16 and elite 8 games. Only 16 teams have a chance to win the national championship, some surprising (Butler, Auburn) and some not-so-surprising (Arizona, Kentucky). After seeing parts of every game the first weekend, I’ve compiled a list of every team’s chances to win it all, based on who they’ll be playing, where they’ll be playing, but more importantly, how they’ve played thus far. Here are those rankings, starting at the bottom.

16. Wisconsin

Why 16? Kentucky. Outside of the West Region, the Badgers have the toughest road to the national championship. They’ll have to overcome the juggernaut known as Kentucky on Thursday night before even getting a chance to play in the regional final. They are also the one team in the regional semis that had no business playing in this round. Tulsa had them beaten for 32 minutes before a furious comeback set up Freddie Owens game winning three. Bo Ryan is a great coach and has improved the program to the point where its no surprise to see them still alive. It would be a surprise, however, to see them playing Saturday.

15. Michigan State

Why 15? Matchups. They’ll have to face the defending national champions, and, if they overcome that threat, will most likely face Texas in San Antonio. The Spartans looked impressive in their wins against Florida and Coloraod and have quietly stayed under the radar. Tom Izzo’s 18-4 record in the tournament should show that he is one of the best coaches in March. MSU makes their living on their inside toughness, and as Maryland proved against Xavier, they have as many horses inside as any other tournament team.

14. Butler

Why 14? Size. Other than 6’9″ Joel Cornette, nobody in the Bulldogs rotation is taller than 6’7″. That could cause problems against most teams, especially the way Oklahoma freshman Kevin Bookout has played in the tournament thus far. Their outside shooting and ability at the line can keep them in any game and they have adapted an “Us Against The World” mentality, talking about their lack of respect after their wins against Mississippi State and Louisville. Darnell Archey and Brandon Miller may have been the best backcourt last weekend, leading the way for the Bulldogs to stay alive. If they stay close against OU, look for the Albany crowd to get behind 2003’s Cinderella.

13. Auburn

Why 13? Location. If they played Syracuse on a neutral court, the Tigers may have a great chance of reaching the East Regional Final. Alas, they’ll have to face a pro-Syracuse crowd in Albany. Anybody who didn’t know about Marquis Daniels learned the name as he powered the Tigers past St. Joseph’s in their first round OT thriller. He has plenty of support, but almost no experience. Cliff Ellis’ club has four second year players (three sophs. and one JUCO transfer) in their starting five. In terms of talent, they may be better than Syracuse, but the Orangemen faithful will turn the Pepsi Center into a mini-Carrier Dome.

12. Connecticut

Why 12? Turnovers. As has been the case all season long, the spotlight will shine on Emeka Okafor if the Huskies win, but if Texas knocks off Connecticut look for fingers to be pointed towards the backcourt. Taliek Brown has been hot and cold, and turns the ball over far too often. He’ll have to take care of every possession if he hopes to outplay T.J. Ford. Okafor’s defensive ability changes a large number of shots but it will be interesting to see how he’ll play against the Longhorns physical center James Thomas. Again, look for the San Antonio crowd to be pro-Texas, making this essentially a road game for UConn.

11. Marquette

Why 11? Energy. Marquette has already been through two emotional games in wins against Holy Cross and Missouri. I don’t know if they’ll have enough left in their tank to knock off Pittsburgh, who cruised against Indiana and Wagner. Dwyane Wade can take over a game, but he’ll face one of the toughest wing defenders in the nation in Julius Page, who will look to rough Wade up all 94 feet. If they are able to get through Pitt, its unlikely for them to have anything left against Kentucky.

10. Duke

Why 10? Experience. Standing in the Blue Devils way is Kansas, then either Arizona or Notre Dame. Duke’s freshmen have proved their worth this year, J.J. Redick is the team’s top shooter and has been a great complement to Dahntay Jones. Shelden Williams has been the biggest inside threat, and his development has coincided with the team’s success. Williams and Redick will have to face a pair of experienced players in Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison. This time of year, teams and players who have been there are more likely to advance, as they’ve already dealt with the pressures and rigors of March.

9. Notre Dame

Why 9? Depth. The Fighting Irish have relied on their perimeter game through the season, but Chris Thomas and Matt Carroll have to be wearing down. Arizona can throw a large number of players at them, changing looks throughout the game. Thomas will have to outplay Jason Gardner if the Irish have any chance to advance. Forget about reaching the championship game, Notre Dame will have to win a pair of difficult battles just to win the West. They just don’t have enough fresh legs to do so, although they looked very impressive in their win against Illinois.

8. Syracuse

Why 8? Offense. Offensively there are no threats other than Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara, which is difficult considering they are only freshmen. They had no business beating Oklahoma State but the Orangemen will get a huge boost playing in their backyard in Albany. Defensively they are difficult to prepare for, and they have one of the best players in the nation in Anthony, so the Orangemen have a great chance of advancing out of the East. But, if McNamara and Anthony go cold, their time in the dance will be short.

7. Maryland

Why 7? Defense. The Terrapins had problems all year long stopping outside shooting. In the first round, the Terps shut down Brett Blizzard but couldn’t contain John Goldsberry. Of all players, Goldsberry averaged four shot ATTEMPTS per game before hitting a tournament-record eight threes in the first round. Maryland was bailed out by Drew Nicholas before stifling David West in the second round. Playing in San Antonio will be difficult if they face Texas in the regional final. If the Terps run into Connecticut in a rematch of last year’s East Regional Final, they will have to find a way to contain Ben Gordon. Their second round performance showed that the defending champions will be a difficult out, but they’ll have to stop the three in order to find their way out of the South.

6. Oklahoma

Why 6? Interior Game. Kevin Bookout stepped up his play last weekend, but OU has been searching for a replacement for Aaron McGhee all season long. Butler doesn’t pose a threat inside, but Syracuse does. The Sooners could have problems matching up with 6’9″ Carmelo Anthony. The Sooners look to have the easiest road of any number one seed, but playing Syracuse in Albany will cause another issue for Oklahoma. In addition, they’ll need Hollis Price at 100%, as Price is the heart and soul of the Sooner squad. He refuses to let his team lose, but could have a tough time doing it if he’s on the sideline.

5. Pittsburgh

Why 5? Kentucky. I was really impressed watching the Panthers this weekend. They reminded me of Big Blue, as they play stifling in-your-face defense for all 94 feet. Julius Page flies from baseline to baseline and Brandin Knight gives them a great on-court leader. Look for them to pick apart a worn-down Marquette squad before facing off with Kentucky. If any team can shut down the Wildcats, it may be the Panthers. However, the way UK has looked, it is a task easier said than done.

4. Arizona

Why 4? Mentality. Arizona looked like they thought they were given a free pass to the Final Four in their first two rounds. That was, until Gonzaga gave them a wake up call. Jason Gardner and Luke Walton gives the Wildcats a pair of seniors who can carry them in late-game situations. Salim Stoudamire is one of the best pure shooters and a dangerous threat from the outside. They’ll have to win two difficult games to advance to New Orleans, where they could end up facing Kentucky before the championship game. That could give them three more chances to be worn down before championship Monday. For Arizona to win it all, they will have to believe they need to play 40 hard minutes, something Arizona hasn’t done in weeks.

3. Kansas

Why 3? Danny Manning. Call it the Manning Factor. Look at recent champions and you’ll see a senior leading the way. Maryland (Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter), Duke (Shane Battier), Michigan State (Mateen Cleaves, Mo Peterson), Connecticut (Ricky Moore) have been the most recent examples. Kansas has theirs in Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich, two of the nation’s top players this season. While the Jayhawks struggled to defeat Utah State, they rebounded with a very impressive 32 point win against Arizona State. If the Jayhawks continue to play like they did last Saturday, they may find a way to get past not only Duke and Arizona in the West, but Kentucky in New Orleans.

2. Texas

Why 2? Homecourt. The Longhorns will be playing in front of a huge home crowd in the Alamodome this weekend. T.J. Ford will pace the Longhorns past Connecticut and into a showdown against Maryland. Look for the torch to get passed from the defending champions to the eventual champions in the South Regional Final. Texas may be one of three Big 12 teams in New Orleans. If that happens, remember this: Texas defeated Oklahoma twice this season and would face the Sooners a third time in the national semifinal.

1. Kentucky

why 1? Streaking. No team is on fire like the Wildcats. They have torn through any and all opponents since mid-December. Keith Bogans and Marquis Estill give them a pair of seniors but any of the five players who are on the court could be the go-to guy in late game situations. Gerald Fitch is as good of a rebounder as any other guard and Cliff Hawkins gives them great energy off the bench. They don’t have to go through a region as tough as the West, but they don’t get to play at home like Texas or Syracuse. Either way, look for UK to be playing in New Orleans in early April.


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