While the East boasts the overall #1 seed in North Carolina, the committee really did the Tar Heels no favors with their region, despite the fact that they will not have to leave the state of North Carolina to get to the Final Four. Strangely, in our humble opinion, the #2 seed Tennessee could have been a #1 seed over Kansas and nobody would have said a word about it. #3 Louisville is extremely dangerous now that they are healthy, and the winner of a potential #4 Washington State vs. #5 Notre Dame could give the Tar Heels are run for their money. You also have quality in the middle with teams such as a top 10 team in Butler, who got jobbed as a #7 seed; Indiana (8), Arkansas (9), and St. Joseph’s (11). This region is loaded.
Final Four Contenders
It obviously starts with the #1 team in the nation, North Carolina. The Tar Heels are led by a guy you may have heard of, PF Tyler Hansbrough. In the last 20 years, there has never been a player so beloved by the press than Hansbrough. If we have to hear “nobody works harder” one more time, we may stick a fork in our eye. Seriously, the guy is a seminal college talent who does everything well. Along with the Junior big man, PG Ty Lawson is the key guy. He missed six games with a high ankle sprain and when 100%, is one of, if not the quickest point guard in the nation. Since coming back, he hasn’t shown that burst we are used to seeing. The best thing that came out of this injury was backup Quinton Thomas has now become useful. Before, he was a turnover machine, but now he has become a steady party of the rotation and can be used in tandem with Lawson. Sixth man Danny Green is a three-point shooting, energy guy who is a Roy Williams favorite. SG Wayne Ellington must be on his game. When he is hot, he can take over a game and be the difference maker. When he is off, he tends to disappear. This is a classic Williams team; they get up and down the floor, work their offense through the post, and have a point man who runs the secondary break to perfection. Their one bugaboo is their defense. They can be scored upon and other than Marcus Ginyard, don’t really have anyone consider an above average defensive player. With all of that said, they will be playing two games in Raleigh, and two more in Charlotte. There will be no excuses for not winning this region when you don’t have to leave your own state.
As we stated earlier, #2 Tennessee got jobbed by the committee. This team is the only team to beat Memphis (on the road by the way), they beat Xavier (a #3 seed on the road), and Gonzaga (a #7 seed on the road); they won their conference going away, and go ten deep with quality. Oh, did we mention they have the hottest coaching commodity in the nation in Bruce Pearl? Their full court pressure, three-point gunning style is extremely tough to beat. Senior SG Chris Lofton is still the most clutch player in the country and has been hitting big shots at big times for four years. Tyler Smith is an extremely athletic PF who can step out and hit threes as well as play with his back to the basket. Next to him in the five spot is big Wayne Chism, who has taken a quantum leap during his sophomore year. Backing him up are two high-quality post men in thick Freshman Brian Williams and Sophomore Duke Crews, who has returned from a heart ailment. Then you have the guys that make the pressure defense go, Ramar Smith, JaJuan Smith, and J.P. Prince. All three are great off the ball defenders and solid three-point shooters. All of these ingredients make up for a Final Four run. But they tend to live and die by the three. If they are off and can’t set up their press, will they get knocked out early? We did pick Tennessee as our preseason National Champion. We aren’t ready to hand that to them today, but it certainly is a possibility.
Some people love #3 Louisville as a Final Four sleeper. We don’t. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t one. Any Rick Pitino coached club has a fighting chance, especially when you have the talent the Cardinals do. SF Terrance Williams has been described by Pitino as “the best athlete I’ve ever coached.” 5th year Senior David Padgett is a coach on the floor and is one of the best passing big men you will fine. The talented and mercurial PF Derrick Caracter shares the post minutes with Padgett and when he wants to, can dominate. Forward Earl Clark is another guy who seems to fade in an out, but is capable of being the teams #1 offensive threat. The guards are the question mark. Can PG Edgar Sosa find himself? Can Jerry Smith and Andre McGee make enough shots to keep the post men from being double-teamed? Will Juan Palacios become a factor again after battling through injuries all season? As we said earlier, we don’t buy this team coming out of the East.
#11 St. Joseph’s comes from the vastly underrated Atlantic 10 conference. They beat Xavier, a Final Four contender, twice in the past two weeks, and are a veteran laden team behind Seniors Pat Calathes and Rob Ferguson and Junior Ahmad Nivens. Phil Martelli can coach ‘em up with the best of them. With a draw of a banged up #6 Oklahoma, and a potential second round matchup with Louisville, it wouldn’t shock us to see the Hawks in Sweet 16.
#7 Butler got the screws put to them by the committee. They have been a top 10 for the last month and won their conference regular season and tournament. They have to go to Birmingham to face South Alabama, which will now become a de-facto road game. How’s that for being jobbed? If they can get by South Alabama, which won’t be easy, they have the ball handlers and the shooters to break the Tennessee press and cause them fits.
Tennessee – Chris Lofton, JaJuan Smith, Ramar Smith, Jordan Howell
This is a tough call over Derrick Low, Kyle Weaver, and Taylor Rochestie at Washington State and Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington at UNC. The depth, defense, and shooting ability of the Vols backcourt is second to none in this region. Plus, Lofton is the most clutch shooter in the nation.
North Carolina – Tyler Hansbrough, Deon Thompson, Alex Stepheson, Will Graves
The truth is Hansbrough makes this group the best. Thompson and Stepheson are good complimentary parts, but it’s Psycho T that makes this group great. A close second is Notre Dame with Big East Player of the Year Luke Harangody, Rob Kurz, Zach Hillesland, and Luke Zeller.
Rick Pitino – Louisville
Not an easy choice with a region that boats back to back Big East coach of the year Mike Brey, Roy Williams, and SEC Coach of the Year Bruce Pearl. But give me one game to win and I can choose any coach in this region, and I’m picking Pitino because he is a genius motivator, a solid X’s and O’s guy, and he has been there before.
First Round Upset Alert
#12 George Mason over #5 Notre Dame – It’s the old 5/12 game. Mason coach Jim Larranaga has said this year’s team is better than the one who went to the Final Four two years ago and they still have two players who played major roles in Follaren Campbell and Will Thomas. We don’t think this will happen as N.D. is solid, but you never know.
#11 St. Joseph’s over #6 Oklahoma – This one would be an upset by seed only. The Hawks have beaten quality teams and know how to win, as they played in a rugged A-10 conference all year long. Also, it’s tough to go against a veteran club with a great coach in Phil Martelli. They will have their hands full with OU’s stud Freshman Blake Griffin in the post.
Best First Round Matchup
#7 Butler vs. #10 South Alabama – Nobody knows it, but South Alabama received an at large bid, went 26-6, 1602 in the Sun Belt and have a terrific SG in Demetric Bennett. Butler in the meantime went 29-3, are ranked in the Top 10 in the last regular season poll, and have five guys on the floor at all time who can nail a three. Should be a very intriguing matchup.
Juiciest Potential Matchups
2nd Round - #1 North Carolina vs. #8 Indiana – The thing about the Hoosiers is they were a four seed until Kelvin Sampson was let go, then the players essentially quit on Dan Dakich. If they can recapture their play from late January, early February, they could win this game, especially with D.J. White’s ability to wear down Tyler Hansbrough on both ends.
Sweet 16 - #2 Tennessee vs. #3 Louisville – Who doesn’t want to see two teams who want to force their style on the opponent and love to full court press? Plus, Bruce Pearl vs. Slick Rick Pitino on the sidelines. Nice. A close second would be UNC/Notre Dame. Hansbrough vs. Harangody.
Elite Eight - #1 North Carolina vs. #2 Tennessee – Many feel Tennessee got shafted by getting a two seed, the lowest two seed at that. This matchup actually works for them as UNC is not known for their defense and this could turn into a shootout, which the Vols would LOVE.
Players With the Most to Prove
Eric Gordon – Indiana – The uber-talented Freshman has been very quiet lately, but has the talent to carry his team very deep. If he catches fire, he can score from anywhere on the court. We hope he and his teammates wake up before it’s too late.
Edgar Sosa – Louisville – He went from star to backup in the span of nine months in Louisville, but the truth is he is extremely tough to guard when he gets going. The problem is, that doesn’t happen often enough. The kid from the Bronx has to play like he did in last year’s tournament or the Cardinals season will end sooner than they’d like.
Matt Howard – Butler – Nobody knows about this Freshman in the State of Indiana, but if Butler goes deep in the tournament, it will be because of his inside presence; something the Bulldogs have lacked in the past. Howard wants the country to know he can bang with the big boys.
We struggled big time with this one. Back and forth, UNC…Tennessee….UNC….Tennessee…. When the two teams meet for the right to get to San Antonio, there is going to be one big difference, that will be the pressure of the Tennessee guards. Ty Lawson and Quinton Thomas are not at their best when they see the swarming full court press and will turn the ball over a ton. Tyler Hansbrough will be bodied by Wayne Chism, Duke Crews, and Brian Williams all game long. Chris Lofton will come up big once again and the Vols will sneak there way out of Charlotte with a Final Four berth.