by Cub Buenning
Let me start today’s thoughts by apologizing for not “being there” more over the past week. After a very busy few days (remember, I have a full-time writing job that is not associated with SLAM or even basketball) I chose to sit back, order the DirecTV March Madness package (well worth the duckets) and watch.
With my folded-up, in-and-out-of-the-back-pocket-for-the-next-month bracket just starting to show some wear, I was out of contention in most of my pools by the first week’s end. My hours and hours of not only close viewing, but in-depth analysis of this year’s college season, led me to believe that West Virginia and Wake Forest were on a head-on collision in the Midwest’s Regional Final (cue snickers and laughter).
Honestly, WVU has looked really nice lately and their three major contributing freshmen had been playing like upperclassmen. I don’t have the highest opinion of this year’s Atlantic-10 (I had all three losing in the first round) so I liked the Mountaineers draw. Kansas and Michigan State are teams with balance, but maybe not ready to win six in a row. My feelings on Louisville (the biggest joke of an overall No. 1 seed maybe ever) are more than well known as I am still searching for an impressive, quality win on their resume or in the 15 or so games I saw of them this year. I had trouble getting them out of Dayton and past Ohio State (who didn’t even get by Siena) in the second round, so the inevitable match-up with an extremely talented, but albeit disappointing as of late, Wake Forest team was an easy selection for me. In addition, I still don’t think that this is a year (like last season) when we will see all the top seeds. In my estimation one of ‘em is going down over the Thursday/Friday “holiday.”
Which brings me to the purpose of penning these ideas, which team(s) might it be?
Which of the four No. 1 seeds will pack it in early and be forced to consider the season a failure?
My aforementioned impressions on the Atlantic-10 should lead you to assume that Pittsburgh should skate on through to the weekend in the East. Purdue might be a little thin up front to have many answers for Jeff Adrien and Hasheem Thabeet, so UConn should advance.
However, I am not so sure about the other two.
Arizona is playing great and before I illuminate on my preseason “illusions of grandeur” about how this might the best team in Pac-10 (which were met by a chorus of written disbelief by mainly, cough…. Washington fans) and how they are the only team remaining from that conference, I’ll say, Arizona and Louisville might turn into a classic and an upset is surely not out of the question. Six sure-fire (yes, Nic Wise is going to be a pro) NBAers on the court at the same time should be enough for even our most ardent NBA-diehards to turn to CBS for a few minutes on Friday at 7 p.m. ET.
But I truly believe the best of the next eight games will be played in Memphis when the North Carolina Tarheels meet the Gonzaga Bulldogs on Friday at 10 p.m. I don’t see a better or more complete team in the nation than UNC and why they weren’t named the No. 1 seed is beyond me. My aforementioned “bracket of doom,” however, does involve a Gonzaga win and an eventual trip to the Final Four.
Follow me on this.
If there is one team in the nation that actually matches-up with the Tarheels in the depth/athleticism/size/experience/talent department, the Zags might be that team. So with those thoughts and impressions in mind, I shall waste the next few minutes of your time breaking down this regional semi-final.
North Carolina comes in with 28 wins while their counterpart paved their Sweet 16 trip with 26 wins. Both were regular season champions in their conference, but let’s look at the personnel specifically, as apposed to crunching numbers that might be meaningless at this point in the year.
The health of several point guards was one of my main concerns entering the conference tourneys two weeks ago. Carolina’s Ty Lawson was my biggest worry. A turf toe injury might be one of the more debilitating injuries that a fast-paced point guard can endure. With Lawson struggling through the injury (and more than likely ready to go after his gutsy game on Saturday against LSU) what was an advantage for UNC might become more of a push. Lawson is a one-man show from back there and the opposition can roll out senior leader in Jeremy Pargo who has size and strength over Lawson and might be as quick as the slightly hobbled Tarheel. Gonzaga freshman back-up Demitri Goodson proved his stones by not only taking the outlet pass against Western Kentucky directly in-front of Pargo, but then proceeding to make like Moses; parting the red sea of Hilltoppers on the way to the winning bucket and instantaneously legendary status in Spokane. This position and this position alone might determine the outcome of this game.
By now, most of y’all know I am a big fan of my boy from Colorado, Matt Bouldin and that I think the world of him as an all-around player, but this might be a really tough match for him, against Wayne Ellington. While Bouldin is the superior shooter, playmaker, rebounder, post-player, and probably some other areas I am forgetting, Ellington’s first-step quickness and explosiveness (especially when his perimeter shots are hitting) will give Bouldin fits.
What gives Gonzaga some promise in this spot, though, is that with a player such as Stephen Gray coming off the bench combined with Bouldin’s versatility, the slight mis-match can be covered-over. Coach Roy Williams only has six true contributors but between the four-guard rotation that Mark Few can trot out, this game should prove the old “guard play” theory for tournament success.
Danny Green has grown to personify the streaky shooter that doesn’t always know when to stop shooting. If he can hit some perimeter shots early, the Tarheels could be in a good position to stave off an early run against a still “cold” Lawson. Gonzaga can play the three guard rotation of Pargo, Gray and Bouldin with the latter sizey enough to defend the majority of college wings. If not, senior Micah Downs is steady and can do a bit of everything as a senior leader. The rebounding and intensity he has shown lately will be greatly needed.
Austin Daye does not fit the prototype of a regular college power forward (although he fits a rather ideal one for a professional one) and his rebounding will be so crucial to sealing up the paint against the active, athletic and relentless inside attack of Carolina. Whether it is Deon Thompson, Ed Davis, or Tyler Hansbrough, all attack the rim hard and are players that must be accounted for on both sides of the glass. Daye has proven at times to be a dominating rebounder, but his slight frame might be exposable against the stauncher opposition. Josh Heytvelt is playing a high level, again, and his interior defense against Hansbrough should prove a tough test for the ACC’s all-time leading scorer. Heytvelt has a similar physical make-up to Hansborough but has an honest two-to-three inches on him. If Heytvelt plays timid (as they all did against Memphis) Carolina will dominate this game in the paint.
There is no set formula on how to take these individual decisions and mend them into one concise winner. I can play out several scenarios in which both teams control the play and come out victorious. Ty Lawson proved that once he got his toe “warm-up” he could dominate his opposition, but this time, his opposition is not LSU. The Zags can throw several different looks at the hobbled Heel, from the similarly built (but again, another 2-3 inches) Pargo to the young and impressionable Goodson to even the long athletic energy of Gray. The Zags have also proven to be quick starters through out the year as well as in both of their two tournament games to date. If Lawson cannot get warmed-up quickly, this game could look like a replay of last year’s national semi-final against Kansas.
Prediction: The minute Lawson’s speed was compromised due to his toe injury; an opponent like Pargo became the ideal “Ty-stopper.” Throw in Gonzaga’s depth across the board and versatility at the guard position, as well, and the nod has to go to the Zags.
You can ignore for a second the fact that an extended Gonzaga run is about the only way that I can crawl back into my pools…
Check Cub Buenning’s scouting website for weekly player reports.