In the rankings of toughest to easiest within the four regions, we’d put the Midwest third. To me, there really is only one team in the side that can win it all, Kansas. The #2 seed Georgetown has talent, but so many times this year, they lucked into wins they didn’t deserve. #3 Wisconsin had a great season at 29-4, but they over-achieved all year, have trouble scoring, and weren’t tested at all once conference season started in the below-average Big Ten. We aren’t buying Vanderbilt as a #4 seed when they couldn’t win on the road in conference. The team to watch is #5 Clemson.
Final Four Contenders
Readers of my columns know that I graduated from Kansas and live and die with this team. Since the bad one point loss at Oklahoma State on February 23rd, this ship has been righted. KU ripped off seven wins in a row, including the Big 12 Tournament championship. It seems like it’s now or never for Bill Self this time around. This team is nine deep with talent and experience galore. The front court has star Sophomore Darrell Arthur, the team’s leading scorer, whose 15 foot jumper is money. He stands next to two Seniors, Darnell Jackson and Sasha Kaun. Jackson is the heart and soul of the team and one of the most improved players in the country. Kaun is the best defensive big man KU has and is extremely physical. They rotate with Freshman Cole Aldrich who is a defensive specialist and the team’s best shot-blocker. On the wing, Brandon Rush has picked up his game in the last few weeks, sensing this is it for him as well. He was MVP of the Big 12 Tournament and is the team’s best deep shooter and perimeter defender. Mario Chalmers is no slouch either. He and Russell Robinson are the best defensive backcourt in the country and Chalmers is the guy who wants the ball in his hands at the end of the games. He had 30 in the Big 12 final against Texas.
As great as this team is, they won’t go deep without PG Sherron Collins being the player he has been since getting back to 100% after battling leg and knee injuries most of the year. It’s no coincidence that the team began to peak once Collins got healthy. That was after the loss at Oklahoma State. He runs the floor with break-neck speed and penetrates to the hole better than almost anyone in the college game. This team moves the ball better than any team you will see and is so unselfish, almost sometimes to a fault. There is also the specter of Bill Self not being able to get over the hump and get to the Final Four. Will this year be different?
Many experts think Georgetown is the squad that could come out of the Midwest. The core of this team got to a Final Four last year and they are an excellent defensive team, something that always goes a long way in March. Five guys score at least nine points a game, and they have a big shot maker in PG Jonathan Wallace. Wallace did not have the Senior campaign he had hoped. His scoring, assists, and shooting percentages all went down, while his turnovers went up. That said, he still shoots 45% from deep and is extremely clutch. SG Jesse Sapp, like Wallace, has the knack for hitting the big shot. He hits 40% from deep and has started every game over the last two seasons. Forward DaJuan Summers improved his game this season and scores 11.3 points per game and is very athletic. The X-factor for this team is Patrick Ewing Jr., one of the best sixth men in the country. He is a guy who does it all on both ends of the floor and is the emotional leader of this team. Did I forget to mention the 7’2, 275 lbs beast in the middle Roy Hibbert? We’ve been saying all year that he is the most overrated player in the country, but he is still a force. He leads the Hoyas in scoring and in rebounding. He needs to stay out of foul trouble or Georgetown will be in trouble. John Thompson III is an excellent game coach. Remember though, this team won three games in the end on controversial officiating. That will catch up to them at some point.
It’s hard to call a #5 seed a sleeper, but to this eye, the one team who could give Kansas the most trouble is Clemson. Four times this season, the Tigers gave North Carolina and Duke all they wanted. True, they only won one of those games, but taking the #1 team in the country to OT twice should count for something. They have solid low post threats in Trevor Booker and James Mays (a shot-blocking extraordinaire). Guards K.C. Rivers (JR) and Cliff Hammonds (SR) are savvy veterans and lead the team in scoring, and SG Terrance Oglesby is one of the best three point shooters in the country. Oliver Purnell loves to full court press and goes 10 deep.
If you are looking for a mid-range seed to get to the Elite Eight, than #6 USC is your squad. You know all about Freshman star O.J. Mayo, but what you may not know is that for all of the flash and hype, he has become the ultimate team guy and the Trojans have responded to it. Credit Coach Tim Floyd for that development in Mayo. Fellow Freshman Davon Jefferson is an extremely athletic Forward who has gotten better and better as the season has gone on. Taj Gibson is solid in the post and was the difference maker on last year’s Sweet 16 team. This team cannot be counted out because of how Floyd’s changing defenses. Whether its man, zone, box and one, or triangle and two, Floyd always seems to pull the right strings with his club.
The biggest sleeper potentially in the Tournament because of their draw, where they are playing, and their ability to shoot the ball is Davidson. A #10 seed, the Wildcats come in with a nation’s best 23 game winning streak. They played North Carolina to a four point game, lost to Duke by just six, and had an 18 point lead in the first half on UCLA in Anaheim before losing. Stephen Curry and Jason Richards are the best backcourt you’ve never heard of. Curry is a lights out shooter, averaging 25 points a game and nailing 43% from deep. They are playing their first two games in Raleigh, a short two hours from their Charlotte campus. Don’t be surprised if they give Georgetown fits in the second round.
Kansas – Brandon Rush, Mario Chalmers, Russell Robinson, Sherron Collins
Not only is this the best backcourt in the region, it’s the best in the nation. Collins is the straw that stirs the drink, Rush and Chalmers are big time shot makers, Robinson runs a steady point and is a lock-down defender. They are all interchangeable and Chalmers, Collins, and Robinson can all handle the ball.
Kansas – Darrell Arthur, Darnell Jackson, Sasha Kaun, Cole Aldrich
Call me a homer if you will, but you go and find me another team that has four solid post players, one who is a budding lottery pick, two battled-tested Seniors who love to do the dirty work, and a McDonald’s All-American Freshman who is a great shot blocker and rebounder.
Bo Ryan – Wisconsin
Nobody does more with less than Ryan. Every year, no matter how little talent he may have, his team defends, shoots the ball well, and just flat out wins. They don’t beat themselves. That is all coaching.
First Round Upset Alert
#13 Siena over #4 Vanderbilt – Vandy is a team that lives and dies with the three ball. The same can be said for Siena, who plays a five out, none in, style. Their tallest player is just 6’7. If Siena is hot and Shan Foster and company aren’t, the Saints could pull the stunner. Vandy was a poor road team in conference and if this game is close, you know the fans will pull for the little guy.
Best First Round Matchup
#6 USC vs. #11 Kansas State – This is probably the best first round matchup in the tournament. Lots of storylines here: K-State’s Michael Beasley, the best player in the country, against fellow Super-Frosh O.J. Mayo. Mayo’s high school teammate for three years, Bill Walker, is K-State’s second leading scorer. Big 12 vs. Pac-10, two of the three best conferences in the country this season. Should be a lot of fireworks in Omaha.
Juiciest Potential Matchups
2nd Round - #3 Wisconsin vs. #6 USC – Two of the better coached teams in the country who will probably keep the score in the 50’s. The difference in this matchup is that USC has O.J. Mayo and Wisconsin doesn’t.
Sweet 16 - #2 Georgetown vs. #6 USC – The Trojans lack of depth in the post will be tested, and it wouldn’t shock us to see all-everything defender Patrick Ewing Jr. attempt to stop Mayo. This will be another game played at a snails pace.
Elite Eight - #1 Kansas vs. #2 Georgetown – Lets see how Roy Hibbert handles the bevy of big bodies Kansas will throw at him. The battle of the backcourts, Jesse Sapp and Jonathan Wallace vs. Mario Chalmers, Russell Robinson, and Sherron Collins will be great to watch. The Hoyas will attempt to slow the Jayhawks down.
Players With the Most to Prove
Roy Hibbert – Georgetown – He should have gone pro after his NCAA Tournament performance last year. His stock has dropped because he can’t stay out of foul trouble and can’t get up and down the floor. He has the next three weeks to redeem himself.
Stephen Curry – Davidson – Most college hoops experts know he is an exceptional scorer, but he is far from a household name. Two wins this weekend and he will be.
Brandon Rush – Kansas – Like Hibbert, his NBA stock has fallen considerably this season. He began to make up for it with his Big 12 Tournament MVP performance, but if Kansas is going to get to the Final Four, Rush has to play that way, rather than the passive player we saw for a month and a half.
Don’t expect to see Georgetown in the regional final. We think USC gets past both Wisconsin and the Hoyas to meet up with Kansas for the second time this year. They Jayhawks have everything working in their favor. Their draw seems very manageable. They are playing their best basketball of the year and they’ve got karma on their side. Check this out: It’s the 20 year anniversary of the 1988 National Championship team. That year, they went through Nebraska and Detroit to get to the Final Four. This year, they start in Nebraska to get to the regionals in Detroit. Nobody in this region has the depth and the talent that the Jayhawks possess, and Bill Self is due to finally get over that hump. Kansas will head to San Antonio and take their chances there.