This happens to be the softest draw of the four by leaps and bounds. UCLA should thank the committee for doing them a real solid. They were granted a shaky #2 seed in Duke, a #3 Xavier team who’s PG Drew Lavender has a severely sprained ankle, and #4 Connecticut may have peaked in mid-February. This side does have great stories with #11 Baylor, SEC Tournament Champion #14 Georgia, and the 5/12 matchup of mid-major powers Drake and Western Kentucky. Watch out for #13 San Diego and the sleeping giant 10 seed Arizona.
Final Four Contenders
To this corner, its UCLA’s region to lose. In fact, we’ll say it, unless Kevin Love’s back flairs up, or Luc Richard Mbah a Moute’s ankle is more injured than they are letting on, the Bruins are a lock to come out of the West. They start out in Anaheim for two games, where they will be playing essentially home games; then they move on to Phoenix where they again will have a huge crowd advantage. That’s just the fan aspect. What about the fact that they have a superb big man in Kevin Love who gets a double-double in his sleep? Love is the main difference in this year’s Bruins club compared to the back-to-back Final Four teams that preceded him. Those teams were guard oriented and didn’t have anything in the post that resembled half of Love’s talent. PG Darren Collison has been their catalyst for two years after backing up Jordan Farmar as a Freshman. He is known for his sticky hands on defense and the ability to hit the dagger from deep. His backcourt mate Russell Westbrook may be the best athlete in college basketball today. His dunks are legendary (just youtube his name and you will see three beauties), his defense is stifling, and he gets up and down the court with lightning speed.
On the wing is Josh Shipp, who has quietly taken Arron Afflalo’s spot as the key perimeter threat and the Bruins haven’t lost a step. Mbah a Moute is their Mr. everything at the power forward position. He is an exceptional offense rebounder, garbage man, and defender. Bench bigs Lorenzo Mata-Real and Alfred Aboya have played major minutes for each of the last three seasons and know what it takes to succeed in March. If there is one hole with the Bruins, its depth in the backcourt. Collison and Westbrook rarely come out of games. In fact, they both played all 40 in the Pac-10 title game win over Stanford. Shipp also rarely comes out. They really miss three point specialist Michael Roll, who has missed all but six games this season and hasn’t played since late December. With this draw though, nothing should derail Ben Howland’s team. They have played so many tight games this year and know how to close.
Is #2 Duke really a Final Four caliber team? We don’t think so. While they have the legendary Coach K pulling the strings, the lack of a post game will really hurt them when they get into a half-court game. They do have shooters galore and always have four guys on the floor that can hurt you from deep. PG Greg Paulus has stepped up his game in a major way this season and looking like the player everyone expected him to be when he came in three years ago with such promise and hype. His turnovers were cut in half from last season and he is a 43% three point shooter. Paulus is one of five Duke players who averages in double figures. Senior SF Demarcus Nelson leads the way at 15.2 per game, while grabbing six boards. Freshman Kyle Singler lived up to his advance billing as a 6-9 face-the-basket forward who can stroke it from anywhere. Sophomore Guards Gerald Henderson and Jon Scheyer provide scoring ability on the perimeter as well. Henderson is more of a drive to the hole kind of player, Scheyer is perhaps the Devils most clutch shooter. Coach K benefited from watching Phoenix Suns Coach Mike D’Antoni during the summer, and plays a similar four out, one in style that has worked well for this particular group. Their bugaboo is going to be scoring and defending the post. Teams wants to slow them down and make them play a half-court game. We see them as a Sweet 16 team and no better.
If you were a regular reader of our stuff during the season, you know we are very high on #3 Xavier and the Atlantic 10 conference. They have one of the best young coaches in the game in Sean Miller, who if we were Indiana’s A.D., we’d be after immediately to run our program. This is a veteran laden team with guys who have been here before. Six players score in double digits, led by Senior Sixth man Josh Duncan, Duncan does it inside and out. At one point this season, he had back to back perfect games, going 15-15 from the field including all eight of his triple tries. PG Drew Lavender’s sprained ankle is a concern; he has not been himself over the last couple of weeks, but Miller says he is 100%. SG Stanley Burrell seems like he has been around forever. Also watch out for the C.J. and B.J. show (Anderson and Raymond) on the perimeter. This is a very dangerous team.
Don’t sleep on UConn either. A month ago, we would have told you there were a chic Final Four pick because of their two dominating post players (Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien) and solid point guard play (A.J. Price), but they have been struggling of late. Thabeet is a game-changer on the defensive end and the best shot blocker in the nation. Adrien goes hard on both ends of the floor and is NBA strong. This is a young team with a great coach in Jim Calhoun. Keep in mind, no team who lost in the first round of their conference tournament has even won the National Championship.
We’ve been waiting for 10th seeded Arizona to break out all year long. There is so much talent there in the starting five. PG Jerryd Bayless is one of our favorite players in the country. He can drop 30 on you at any time. Sophomore Chase Budinger has the sweetest stroke in the nation on the wing, and PF Jordan Hill is the muscle on the inside. They’ve been banged up all year, but played the toughest schedule in the country and can play with anyone.
Don’t be surprised if #12 Western Kentucky pulls off two upsets and gets into the Sweet 16. There two best players, Courtney Lee and Tyrone Brazelton are seniors and Lee is a first round NBA prospect. They went 27-6 and 16-2 in their league. Trust us, this team can play.
Can #13 San Diego continue their improbable run and knock off Connecticut? The Torreros knocked off Gonzaga and St. Mary’s to win the WCC conference tournament and steal the automatic bid. Behind Brandon Johnson and Gyno Pomare, anything is possible.
Baylor – Curtis Jerrells, Henry Dugat, Ladarius Dunn, Aaron Bruce, Tweety Carter
Scott Drew’s club plays four guards at all times and they are all interchangeable scoring threats. All five have led the team in scoring in at least one game, and Jerrells was a first team all Big 12 performer. They love to penetrate and kick out for triple attempts. Close call, but on sheer depth, the Bears win out over Duke and UCLA.
Connecticut – Jeff Adrien, Hasheem Thabeet, Stanley Robinson, Gavin Edwards
This is all about the three starters. They play the majority of the minutes and each excel in their own way. Thabeet is an incredible shot blocker. Adrien controls the glass. Robinson is the lockdown defender and improved greatly on the offensive end.
Mike Krzyzewski – Duke – You can’t go against a guy who has been to 10 Final Fours in this era. That is unprecedented. This year has been one of his finer coaching jobs. His team has been near the top of the heap the entire season despite having zero low post threat. He has played four, sometimes five perimeter guys at once and it has worked. Ben Howland of UCLA wins in any other region except this one.
First Round Upset Alert
#13 San Diego over #4 Connecticut – The Huskies have played up and down ball since the return of Jerome Dyson from suspension, going 3-3. San Diego is rolling after winning the WCC Tournament. They won at Kentucky earlier this year. They will not be intimidated and the Huskies won’t have any sort of home court advantage in Tampa.
Juiciest Potential Matchups
2nd Round – #2 Duke vs. #10 Arizona – If these two meet, it could be curtains for the Devils since Jerryd Bayless is too quick for Greg Paulus and there is nobody who will be able to stop Jordan Hill in the post. Duke, on the other hand, will try to run the Wildcats until they drop, since ‘Zona literally goes six deep.
Sweet 16 – #3 Xavier vs. #2 Duke – Two teams who love to get up and down and shoot the three. Sean Miller is one of the best young coaches in the country and he’ll meet up with the legend that is Coach K. Would love to see this one.
Elite Eight – #1 UCLA vs. #2 Duke – Two programs on the Mount Rushmore of College Basketball. Coach K vs. Ben Howland. The main question would be who on Duke could possibly stop UCLA’s Kevin Love?
Players With the Most to Prove
Robbie Hummel – Purdue – The 6’9 Freshman has carried the Baby Boilers over the last few weeks and is one of the toughest players to guard in this country. If he gets it going, Purdue could go deep. If he is off, they could lose to Baylor in the first round.
Joe Alexander – West Virginia – Bob Knight called him the best player in college basketball over the last month. He averaged 28 points a game in his last seven contests and turned a bubbling West Virginia team into a seven seed. He has to keep it going if The Mountaneers are going to make noise.
Courtney Lee – Western Kentucky – There may be no player in this bracket with more on the line with NBA scouts than Lee. The swing man led his team in scoring could vault himself into the lottery with a great NCAA Tournament. He has the size and strength to be an NBA two guard.
Is there really any question? The only real question is who will finish second. We think it will be Xavier. UCLA was granted quite the draw and an ultra-soft bracket. They have been here before. This will make three straight years. They defend so well, have great talent, and play so smart thanks to the genius that is Ben Howland on the bench. Kevin Love will be the difference this time around.