Twenty-one hours and counting until The Dance begins. By now, you’ve surely filled out a fair number of brackets and forked over some significant cash to go with them. We hope you waited to complete your best bracket last because here’s how SLAMonline’s college experts think the Tournament will play out.
by Justin Walsh
Louisville (1) vs. Wake Forest (4)
Both teams are fairly matched in the post, as well as the wing with Johnson/Aminu and Clark/Williams respectively. The No. 1 overall seed Louisville has one major weakness: lack of quality PG play. Wake Forest has the most explosive PG in this region. Expect Jeff Teague to pick apart Edgar Sosa and be the difference in a close victory for the Demon Deacons.
Kansas (3) vs. USC (10)
USC PG Daniel Hackett is probably the best perimeter defender in this region—he held down James Harden to just 4 points and Darren Collison to 1-9 shooting in the regular season. But Sherron Collins will be too much for the Trojans to handle. The key matchup in this game is going to be between Tyshawn Taylor and Demar DeRozan. DeRozan has been on a tear as of late, and it will be Taylor’s assignment to try and limit his production. At the end of the day, Cole Aldrich will be too much to handle for Taj Gibson, and the Jayhawks should come out with a win.
Wake Forest (4) vs. Kansas (3)
Wake Forest is probably the most athletic team Kansas will face all year. With all their length and size in the frontcourt, Cole Aldrich is going to have problems being effective offensively. On the other hand, Wake Forest will have some difficulty limiting Sherron Collins’ productivity. The key question here will be whether Tyshawn Taylor can stop Al-Farouq Aminu. Don’t count on that happening, the Demon Deacons will dance all the way to the Final Four.
Final Four Pick: Wake Forest (4)
Wake Forest is solid from top to bottom with Jeff Teague and L.D. Williams in the backcourt, Al-Farouq Aminu and James Johnson at the forward positions, and a workhorse Chas McFarland anchoring the frontcourt. The key for the Demon Deacons to win a national championship, outside of Jeff Teague consistently scoring, is to getting quality production from the rotational players coming off the bench. If L.D. gets in foul trouble, Ishmael Smith needs to step up and lead the way. That’s the main question for the Deacons, and if they can answer it, look for Wake Forest to have a shot at getting to the title game.
Key players: Terrence Williams, Earl Clark (UL); Jordan Hill (ZONA); Jeff Teague, Al-Farouq Aminu, James Johnson (WF); Sherron Collins, Cole Aldrich (KU); Demar DeRozan, Taj Gibson (USC); Tyrese Rice (BC); Kalin Lucas, Raymar Morgan (MSU).
by Adam Fleischer
Connecticut (1) vs. Purdue (5)
Purdue’s trio of Robbie Hummel, E’Twuan Moore and Keaton Grant had Boilermaker fans eying a deep tournament run back when the season first started. Since that time, the team has had its ups and downs, but they have the ability to present trouble for opponents on any given night, as evidenced by their march through the Big Ten Tournament. The biggest question in this game, as in most games UConn is involved in, is how their opponents deal with the Huskies’ interior play. Although many have been high on the play of Boilermaker big JaJuan Johnson of late, a lurking Hasheem Thabeet and double-double hungry Jeff Adrien will prove too much—even if Hummel & Co. are reigning shots like they’re capable of.
Missouri (3) vs. Memphis (2)
In J.T. Tiller and Zaire Taylor, Missouri has two sure-handed guards who rarely turn the ball over, something that will be key if Mizzou hopes to move past Memphis and their stifling D. The Big 12 champs’ up-tempo, high scoring style is exactly the way Memphis doesn’t allow opponents to play, however, as John Calipari’s team has let up just 50 ppg since the start of February. Missouri’s ability to effectively pressure the ball—earning over 10 steals per contest—will be their best shot at preventing a Memphis-UConn matchup in the following round. In the end, though, Mizzou will have no answer for Tyreke Evans, as the freshman will carry the Tigers to their fourth straight Elite Eight.
Connecticut (1) vs. Memphis (2)
Look for this battle of two of the top defensive squads to be a struggle, with whoever doesn’t let up coming out on top. Year after year, Memphis’ out of conference schedule comes into question, and they haven’t fared well in their few games against non-conference ranked opponents this year (1-3), but they’ve caught fire as of late—well, as of the last three months, as they ride a 25-game win streak into the Big Dance. With only some turnover on the roster from the successful Tigers teams of years past, their inexperience could play a factor in a match up against UConn. Look for A.J. Price to go off against Memphis’ rotation of point guards.
Final Four Pick: Connecticut (1)
UConn’s only losses all season have come at the hands of Pitt (twice), Georgetown and Syracuse in last week’s unforgettable marathon, and none by more than 10 points—so we know that they can play with anyone and keep it close ’til the end. The biggest question surrounding Jim Calhoun’s guys heading into the Tourney is if they’ll be able to bounce back from losing Jerome Dyson, something that they’ve thus far been unable to prove, having gone a mediocre 4-3 since he went down. Missing Dyson has highlighted UConn’s already weak perimeter game, which may hurt them and will force either Kemba Walker or Craig Austere to step up. That said, they have the leaders to put them in position for wins and the role players to help them pull games out. Senior A.J. Price is sure to be eager to leave his mark in the Dance, especially after last year’s injury while Thabeet and Adrien can and must own the paint and glass on both ends of the floor. The Huskies have the experience, core, coaching and enforcers down low to carry them to the Final Four and give them a shot at the title.
Key Players: Hasheem Thabeet, A.J. Price, Jeff Adrien (UConn); Tyreke Evans (Memphis); Greivis Vasquez (Maryland); Lee Cummard (BYU); Jon Brockman (Washington); Robbie Hummel (Purdue); DeMarre Carroll (Mizzou).
by Cub Buenning
Pittsburgh (1) vs. Florida State (5)
I foresee the Seminoles making it a through a tough Boise sub-region and coming out to face the Panthers. Unfortunately, for those that made the trip up to Boston from Tallahassee, Pitt should survive this game and advance to the Elite 8. FSU’s Toney Douglas is a marvel to watch score the basketball, but when he struggles, so does his team. Pittsburgh, behind their wall of talent, defense and depth will frustrate the ‘Noles’ senior guard and dominate inside for the win. Too many weapons versus too few.
Duke (2) vs. Villanova (3)
This might be one of the better Sweet 16 match-ups this side of Gonzaga and North Carolina. Nova should be fresh off the heels of two impressive wins at home in Philly, and, although Duke will be afforded the same hometown draw (they’re in Greensboro for the first weekend), this might be a tough match for Duke. The triumvirate of Scottie Reynolds and the two Coreys (Fisher + Stokes) will make life difficult on both ends of the court for the likes of John Scheyer, Nolan Smith and Greg Paulus. The frontcourt might a bit of a push, but I see the Wildcats flexibility (up-tempo scoring or slowed-down defensive grind-out) as the difference in this game.
Pittsburgh (1) vs. Villanova (3)
The ‘Cats won the only time these two conference foes faced in the regular season in a New Year’s Eve battle to shutdown the Spectrum in Philly. This game will be played in Boston, so neither team has a huge advantage. I do, however, like the idea of Pittsburgh losing relatively early in the conference tournament to give their dinged-up point guard LeVance Fields time to rest. His match-up with Reynolds will be huge and will likely determine the game’s outcome, so I will go with the experienced player here. Pitt in a squeaker.
Final Four Pick: Pittsburgh
In recent years, Pittsburgh is a team that has enjoyed first weekend success like no other. But this year should be their chance to break through and play into the tournament’s final weekend with their combination of talent and experience. DeJuan Blair is the horse in the middle and has proved his mettle against the nation’s most intimidating frontlines (ask UConn). Somehow, senior wing Sam Young flies under the radar but can and will score 25 on you with relative ease. His size, athleticism and strength are underrated and at this level he will be a tough match for any small forward. Against a balanced, Villanova team, the Panthers will need (and should get) some contributions from their bench. A potential meeting with North Carolina in the national semifinal could be epic.
Although my picks above surely fall into the “chalk” category, I see this region as loaded with first-round upset possibilities. My folded-up/back-pocket home bracket has Portland State beating Xavier (then losing to Florida State) and VCU using the “home-court” advantage against a travel-weary UCLA squad (before facing Villanova in the second-round), so keep your head up with the EAST!
Players to watch: DeJuan Blair, Sam Young, LeVance Fields (PITT); Scottie Reynolds, Dante Cunningham (Nova); Kyle Singler, John Scheyer (Duke); Toney Douglas (FSU); Jeremiah Dominguez (Portland State); Eric Maynor, Larry Sanders (VCU); Dexter Pittman (Texas); DJ Rivera (Binghamton).
by Tzvi Twersky
North Carolina (1) vs. Gonzaga (4)
Even with a questionable Ty Lawson (injured toe), the Tar Heels should have no real problem advancing to this point. Gonzaga—pronounced GONZAAAGA–similarly will find itself unchallenged until it meets up with UNC at the FedEx Forum in Memphis. At that point, the catalyst of UNC’s high-powered attack, which averages 90.2 ppg, will need to be at close to full-speed to deal with the Bull Dog’s equally ferocious defense (61.3 points against). If Lawson is healthy, look for UNC to pull-away from the Zags late in the game, behind the inside play of Tyler Hansbrough (21.4 ppg, 8.7 fta), the shooting of junior Wayne Ellington (15.2 ppg, 2.1 3pt-m) and their deep bench (four players on the pine play 10+ mins.).
Gonzaga (26-5), a team with two straight first-round exits, will need its eight-man rotation to be firing on all cylinders for the upset to occur—even if Lawson is feeling the effects of his injury. If guards Jeremy Pargo (2/1 A/T) and Matt Bouldin (13.7 ppg, 45 3pt%) hit their shots, take care of the ball and keep Ellington in check, then the game could be close. The same goes for Josh Heytvelt (14.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg): If he can keep Hansbrough off the glass and limit his open-looks, anything can happen.
At day’s end, look for UNC to leave the court victorious.
Oklahoma (2) vs. Syracuse (3)
Jeff Capel’s Oklahoma team may be given a run for its money in the second round by Michigan/Clemson; however, they should find a way to advance this far. Syracuse, fresh off of a tiring run to the Big East Tournament Championship, will have enough left in its legs to run by Arizona State/Temple and reach this point.
The knock on Ok. is that they are overly reliant on a single player, Blake Griffin (21.9 ppg, 14.3 rpg), and if he gets in foul trouble they really are no better than an average team. As long as he avoids that, and Willie Warren (14.7 ppg) doesn’t suffer from freshmen jitters, the Sooners (27-5) will be in this game.
Syracuse (26-9), a chic pick to go all the way, has a lot going in its favor: They showed an abundance of heart and toughness in the Big East Tourney, have one of the best PGs in the nation in Jonny Flynn (17.5 ppg, 6.7 apg), aren’t too reliant on either the J or inside play (24 fta, 19.5 3pt-a) and they have Hall-of-Fame coach Jim Boeheim. All in all, that’s a good tourney resume.
These two teams are hard to separate. They shoot the same percentage from the field (49 percent); they both shoot middling free throw percentages (mid-60s); they both rely heavily on sophomores (Griffin for the Sooners; Flynn and Rick Jackson for the Orange); and they both beat opponents by an average margin of around 10 ppg.
The deciding factor will be who is more valuable to his team: a potential No. 1 pick (Griffin) for the Sooners, or one of the greatest coaches of our time (Boeheim) guiding the Orange? I call it in favor of the old man.
UNC (1) vs. Syracuse (3)
Once again, if Lawson’s foot is good to go, than the Heels are good to go. With him absent in the ACC Tourney, the Tar Heels only averaged 76 ppg; a 14-point dip from their regular season total. He is the straw that stirs the drink. Without Lawson, they do a lot of standing around and do not penetrate to the cup nearly as well. If he plays, and plays like he can, however, Lawson is every bit as quick as Flynn and will neutralize him as a threat. The same goes for Wayne Ellington. If he is patient and waits for his shot, he has a decent advantage against ‘Cuse shooter Eric Devendorf (15.9 ppg, 2.24 3pt-m). Throw in Hansbrough, going up against a young Jackson, and it seems like UNC has advantages all around the court. And with Roy Williams standing on the Heel’s bench, four years removed from his first NCAA title, look for the No. 1-seed to do what it needs to do, as it clinches a bid—before the year thought guaranteed—to the Final Four.
Final Four Pick: North Carolina
With arguably the strongest starting five in the country (Lawson, Ellington, Danny Green, Deon Thompson and Hansbrough) leading the way, guards Larry Drew and Bobby Frasor coming off the bench and shot-altering Ed Davis joining them, look for the Tar Heels, after defeating the East Region’s representative, to engage in an epic battle with Louisville (Not if Justin Walsh has anything to say about it — Ed.), with the winner going home with the National Championship in hand.
Key Players: Ty Lawson, Tyler Hansbrough, Wayne Ellington (UNC); Tasmin Mitchell, Marcus Thornton (LSU); Orlando Mendez-Valdez (WKU); Matt Bouldin, Josh Heytvelt (GU); James Harden (ASU); Dionte Christmas, Lavoy Allen (TU); Jonny Flynn (SU); Blake Griffin, Willie Warren (OU).
Here’s how SLAMonline’s experts called it. There isn’t enough time in the week for us to agree upon a consensus winner, so let your imagination run wild after that Final Four.