Thursday, March 27, 2008

An Unbiased Sweet Sixteen Analysis…UNLEASHED!!!

Pay and I have decided to stick with what works, revisiting last year’s Elite Eight format we enjoyed so much, as we deliver your Unofficial Unbiased Preview to the Sweet Sixteen.

Don’t worry. We aren’t afraid to tick off a few coaches, call out non-professional athletes, or let our gut reactions – not our corporate sponsors or contacts – decide our analysis and perhaps, a prediction or two.

Without further banter, let’s roll!

Thursday’s game get their pub today, with Friday’s slate arriving tomorrow morning.

East Region

Their opening matchups were a little on the easy side, so Terrence Williams and his fellow Cardinals are in for a much tougher affair against the Volunteers.
Credit: Yahoo! Sports

#1. North Carolina Tar Heels vs. #4. Washington State Cougars [Pay]

Perhaps, the most intriguing matchup of the Round of 16, UNC and WASU has the potential to be the second coming of Kansas and Southern Illinois (Kansas went on to win by the skin of their teeth). It all comes down to tempo and who sets it. If the Tar Heels own the tempo battle, then the score will be in the 70s or perhaps the 80s; however, if the Cougars have any say, the UNC scoreline may be closer to the 56.1 ppg that WASU has allowed this season under the tutelage of Tony Bennett. Over the last three halves of action, the Cougars have undeniably been the East Region’s second-best team after Carolina. They will need to trump their performance against Notre Dame (Luke Harangody wonders how that is possible) and frustrate the heck out of Tyler Hansbrough and obtain production from unexpected sources (e.g. Daven Harmeling, Caleb Forrest and Nikola Koprivica).

Players to Watch: Because he’s still not 100%, all eyes are always on Ty Lawson (who will be shadowed all night by either Derrick Low or Kyle Weaver), whose silky smooth moves split double teams in the backcourt on a regular basis allowing for easy Carolina points. Of course, there’s Wayne Ellington, who has quietly (don’t say that to Clemson) averaged 17 points per contest. Nevertheless, the key player for Carolina in this tournament run is none other than Danny Green (11.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 44 blk, 42 stl), who is the nation’s most influential 6th-man and can change a game with his energy on both sides of the floor. He will likely be challenged by senior forward Robbie Cowgill who has had an up-and-down season. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels must be concerned with Taylor Rochestie’s ability to get on a hot streak from behind the arc. Though more than a few can light it up from three-point range, none can shoot at Rochestie’s 44% clip. What teams often forget is that Rochestie can make decisions with the best of them (146 assists to 54 turnovers) once defenses begin to overplay his deep shot.

Moment of Truth: If UNC finds itself down late in the first half due to a high turnover amount, what changes will Roy Williams make? On the flipside, if WASU is down by double digits entering the break, do they continue their deliberate style or go small to up the pace and maximize possessions? If the Cougars can punish the Tar Heels for liberal ball-handling, get three players in double figures and avoid foul trouble, then they have a chance. Of course, it’s important to know that the Cougars were 0-5 against UCLA and Stanford, teams who have dominant bigs who can be mentioned in the same breath as Psycho T.

#2. Tennessee Volunteers vs. #3. Louisville Cardinals [Clement]

As the only region to hold seed, one might think the East Region is the toughest out there. Not so fast. While the Tar Heels have been nothing but lights out their first 80 minutes of PT, the 2-seeded Vols have been far from impressive. Struggling against Jeff Jones and American was borderline embarrassing, especially considering how the Eagles were completely dominant on the glass. Transition to Sunday and the Vols nearly coughed up a second-half double-digit lead before narrowly escaping Butler (Mike Green, could you miss so many gimmies like that ever again?) in OT. Fortunately, the region regains its momentum with the phenomenal play of the Cardinals. Keep in mind that Rick Pitino is as savvy a coach remaining in the tournament field. With his team playing EXACTLY how Pitino knew they could, this is a lethal team that presses, passes, and hits deep threes at will.

Players to Watch: Chris Lofton’s injury may or may not end up being a big deal. Whether his “leg injury” limits his time or his range is extremely important for the Vols. There’s no better way to quiet a streaky three-point shooting team (like Louisville) than to knock down early shots and encourage them to force up rushed shots of their own. As for Pitino’s bunch, if you know anything about me – and my feelings towards Louisville – you’d know I have both of my eyes constantly, for better or worse, focused on Edgar Sosa. Whether he can play intelligent or not is pinnacle to his team’s ability to step up from above average to sublime.

Moment of Truth: When either team faces that early 19-11 deficit (and trust me, one of these teams undoubtedly will), will there reaction be panic or steely resolve? In a game likely to be filled with momentum shifts and runs, the team that can adjust in the half court and isolate the best shot opportunity for each possession will walk away the victors.

West Region

Westbrook's flair for the dramatics - on both sides of the ball - must be present for the Bruins to end Cinderella's run.
Credit: Yahoo! Sports

#3. Xavier Musketeers vs. #7. West Virginia Mountaineers [Clement]

It’s no secret that I’ve been calling out nearly every major media pundit (ESPN, CNNSI, CBSportsline, etc.) for labeling the Musketeers as a potential “Cinderella” story. Obviously, no true upset occurs any earlier than a 6/11 matchup (and when teams like Villanova are a #12 seed, additional requirements must be filled). However, I can’t blame the media for not loving what Xavier brings to the table. Despite choking away the end of their season (two bubble-busting losses to St. Joe’s) in A-10 play, the Musketeers have senior leadership, tremendous guard play and tournament pedigree. It doesn’t take Bob Knight to realize that those are three vital components for a championship contender. Meanwhile, on the PHSports bubble for quite some time, WVU rode a wave of momentum through the Big East Tournament semi-finals (including an impressive W over UCONN) and were seemingly under the radar to an overrated Arizona squad and given far too little a chance against the Dookies [sic]. Meanwhile, despite lacking any sufficient depth, the Mountaineers have a tourney-tested coach (sans his thugs), a dynamic scorer in Joe Alexander and resolve after battling through arguably the nation’s most competitive conference.

Players to Watch: We all should know the big names (Alexander, Burrell, Lavender, Duncan, & Butler) by now. However, each team possesses vital role players – whether starters or reserves – that are key to each reaching the Elite Eight. For the Musketeers, Derrick Brown (11 & 7) might draw the unenviable task of Joe Alexander duty (good luck). Just as important as staying out of foul trouble for Brown is Xavier’s need for him to crash the boards on offense and add some garbage points to their scoring total. As for the Mountaineers, I’m remembering back to Xavier’s classic 2nd-round matchup versus the Buckeyes. I’m remembering the clutch threes that ultimately blew Xavier’s late lead and buried the A-10 representatives. So, who is most likely to deliver that from Coach Huggins’ country boys? Alex Ruoff is that guy. Around 3 for 7 a game from behind the arc, he has the ability to hit those shots that cut deficits or break the backs of opponents. That’s a lethal combination when the Elite Eight is on the line.

Moment of Truth: My question for the Musketeers, my personal selection to win this game by double-digits, is how they’ll (Xavier) react in the final, not the first, ten minutes of the first half. While WVU has shown lights-out shooting in the second half, I want to see if Lavender (offensively) and Burrell (defensively) can completely suffocate the overachieving WVU guards. Adjusting against an unbalanced Duke is one thing; however, if Duncan stays out of foul trouble, Xavier’s balanced attack on both sides of the ball will be far too much for the Mountaineers to overcome in the second-half.

#1. UCLA Bruins vs. #12. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers [Pay]

The Hilltoppers enter Thursday are gunning for their 30th victory. Enter UCLA. While conventional wisdom suggests that #12 seed Western Kentucky has little chance to advance, their perimeter shooting and ability to cause turnovers provides real hope. Additionally, Josh Shipp and Russell Westbrook have struggled mightily in their last three games. As a result, two players – Darren Collison and Kevin Love – scored 40 of their 51 points on Saturday night against Texas A&M. Though much credit goes to Mark Turgeon’s young men, if a repeat offensive performance occurs on Thursday night, UCLA’s exit will dominate water cooler conversations on Friday morning. That’s because the Hilltoppers can score (77.3 ppg and shoot it from behind the arc (six leading scorers shot 38% or better in the regular season).

Players to Watch: We all know to watch for Kevin Love when he winks for the camera going into every other media timeout. In all seriousness, Josh Shipp must regain his beloved mid-range jumper if UCLA wants to cut down nets in San Antonio. Even if Westbrook struggles offensively, he is too much of a defensive stud to let that get to him. For Western Kentucky, Courtney Lee will likely be gloved by Westbrook, so Tyrone Brazelton, who has been the Hilltoppers’ best player in the NCAA Tournament, must continue to be aggressive, but, at the same time, make good decisions.

Moment of Truth: When the ball is tipped, which Western Kentucky will we see? Will we see a team who feels fulfilled by simply making it to Phoenix or a team with a chip on its shoulder that is continuing to seek respect for its institution and conference? Many intangibles, including (dare I say) whistles must not go in UCLA’s favor for WKU to continue dancing. In all honesty, I see this as a three-possession game until the final three minutes.

See you Friday morning with the treatment for the Midwest and South regions!

Until next time…

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