NCAA Tournament: Weekend Review
Is there any better time of year than March? When else could millions of people sit on a couch all day long, and not feel the least bit guilty? When else could you carry on an in-depth conversation at a bar about UNC's press break or Kevin Love's outlet passes or Stephen Curry's ability to move without the ball with a total stranger... and feel like it's perfectly normal? When else could you field a phone call at 3 a.m. because a friend's team lost and they just need to vent? I know June brings the warm weather, and December brings Christmas and days off work...but for my money, nothing beats March. And this weekend was a testament to that.
- What else can be said about Tyler Hansbrough that hasn't been said already? The unrelenting UNC big man simply would not let the Heels lose to Louisville on Saturday, draining some late jumpers to thwart a Cards comeback. Hansbrough was bothered early with Louisville's athleticism and size down low, but like he always does, he just kept attacking. Perhaps the highlight of the night was a thunderous tip dunk off a Danny Green miss that pushed the lead back to six points and got the pro-UNC crowd on their feet.. Hansbrough's monster effort and will helped the Heels finally shake off the sting of last year's Elite 8 collapse to Georgetown, and they enter the Final Four as hot as anyone. With Hansbrough leading the way, the Heels have a great chance to cut down the nets in San Antonio this year.
- Similarly, we're running out of superlatives to describe UCLA's freshman phenom Kevin Love. On a veteran team with two Final Fours under their belts, it was Love who carried this team to San Antonio, providing scoring, rebounding, and at least one how-did-he-do-that outlet pass every game. Love has not only lived up the massive hype surrounding his arrival in Westwood, he's exceeded it with a remarkable season. He's an absolute beast down low, using his strength to get into position wherever he wants. However, the big man has no problem stepping out to the perimeter, where he drained two clutch three-pointers to keep a pesky Xavier team at bay. Enjoy him now Bruins fans - this will probably be your only shot.
- Speaking of Memphis - think they were a little upset that they were the most commonly picked #1 seed to get upset? The Tigers played all weekend with a chip on their shoulder, absolutely destroying Michigan State before dispatching Texas easily to reach their first Final 4 since 1985. In both games, freshman guard Derrick Rose set the tone, using his superior athleticism to get the Tigers off and running. The game against the Spartans featured no fewer than three one-on-zero fast breaks for Memphis, including a double-pump reverse stuff for Rose, who appeared to be jumping off a trampoline. Then, they simply overwhelmed the tremendous Texas backcourt of DJ Augustin and AJ Abrams, holding them to 10-34 shooting as they took all the drama out of the game early on. If they continue to play as focused as they did all weekend, they just might walk away with their first-ever national title.
- Finally, Kansas managed to put an end to the Stephen Curry show, but not before a little drama to wrap up the weekend. The Jayhawks played sloppily all day, despite the presence of veteran guards, and they were a missed Jason Richards three-pointer at the buzzer away from another disappointing exit from the tournament. However, there’s no denying Kansas' talent, as they have a ton of offensive weapons both inside and out. When Brandon Rush is dialed in, he's among the most lethal scorers in the country. The same can be said of Darrell Arthur down low, who has the potential to dominate whenever he wants, but doesn't always showcase it. Throw in Russell Robinson, Mario Chalmers, Darnell Jackson, Sherron Collins and Sasha Kaun, and the Jayhawks have more than enough firepower to grab their first title since 1988.
- As with every tournament, there's always some bittersweet moments, no matter who you're rooting for. Davidson, who captured the country with their magnificent run, saw their season end on Sunday, but there should be no head-hanging in that locker room. Undersized and outmanned athletically in all four games of the tournament, the Wildcats refused to back down, knocking off the Big East champ (Georgetown) and the Big 10 champ (Wisconsin), and nearly knocking off Big 12 champ Kansas before bowing out. Sophomore Stephen Curry played his way into the heart of every college basketball fan over the past two weeks, draining 22 three-pointers on his way to averaging 32 points per game. Senior guard Jason Richard also had an incredible run, averaging 13 points and nine assists. The Wildcat faithful should be proud of this team for showing the heart and determination that makes college basketball so special.
- The same can be said of Western Kentucky, who started the tournament with a buzzer-beater to upset Drake, and never let off the gas pedal after that. Even facing a 21-point deficit against the big, bad UCLA Bruins, the Hilltoppers staged a valiant comeback, leaving everything they had on the floor. Senior point guard Tyrone Brazelton nearly brought the 'Toppers back by himself, dropping in 25 second-half points. Though their season ended in the Sweet 16, these kids certainly made their fans proud.
- A remarkable run by Xavier also ended over the weekend, as the rock-solid Musketeers were simply overmatched by UCLA. Under the radar all season, Xavier was a team in every sense of the word, with six players averaging between nine and 12 points per game. The Muskies made quite a run themselves in the tournament, staging a second-half comeback to beat Georgia, holding off a solid Purdue team and then surviving an overtime scare against West Virginia before being humbled by the Bruins. A terrific senior class of Josh Duncan, Stanley Burrell and Drew Lavender shed tears and shared hugs as they exited the floor Saturday night, but these guys have nothing to be ashamed of. They played the game the right way, and made their fans proud as they visited the Elite 8 for only the second time in school history after dominating the A-10 regular season. Commentator Bll Raftery referred to Lavender, all 5'7" of him, constantly throughout the weekend as the "little guy with a big ticker", a label I think is appropriate for everyone on this tough, gritty, never say-die squad.
- Tennessee's fantastic season, which saw them reach the #1 ranking for the first time ever, ended Thursday, amidst some bizarre decisions by Coach Bruce Pearl. A close friend of mine, who happens to be a Tennessee fan, wondered aloud, "Why change the rotation now? We won 31 games, and now he's gonna mess with the line-up? Give me a break!"
Indeed, Pearl's decision to take the ball out of Ramar Smith’s hands and let JP Prince assume more ball-handling duties backfired, as the Vols couldn't handle the Louisville pressure. Combine that with Lofton's cold streak, and the Vols were no match for the Cards, losing by 19 in what was thought would be a close match-up. Pearl has certainly instilled energy and enthusiasm into the program, but his in-game coaching may be questioned this off-season.
- Stanford, Washington State, Villanova and Wisconsin also took their final bows, exiting with double-digits losses. Stanford simply couldn’t contain the Texas guards, even though head coach Trent Johnson stuck around the entire game and theoretically could have made adjustments. Villanova's hot streak ran out against Kansas, while Wazzou's defense proved to be little more than a minor annoyance to UNC, who still won by 21 points despite scoring only 68 points. As already noted, Wisconsin ran into a buzz-saw named Stephen Curry, who riddled them for 33 points as the Badgers were blown out. Thanks for playing guys - see you again next year.
- And finally, for the first-time ever, all four #1 seeds will play in the Final Four, meaning the potential of this coming weekend is through the roof. In one match-up, basketball blue-bloods UNC and Kansas will battle, pairing UNC's Roy Williams against the school he led to the Final Four as recently as 2003. Both teams are deep, talented, well-coached and hungry.
In the other match-up, UCLA and Memphis are also out on a mission. The Bruins return to the Final Four for the third straight season, yet are still searching for their first title since 1995. Memphis on the other hand, finally broke through after two straight Elite 8 losses Ironically, although both teams have veteran players, the key may be how well the two superstar freshmen - Love and Rose - handle the bright lights. Neither has appeared phased so far, I look for UNC to knock off Kansas, while UCLA will outlast Memphis, setting up a great championship game on Monday. When it’s all said and done, I look for Roy Williams to hoist his second national title trophy since returning to his alma mater, as the Heels cut down the nets in San Antonio.