Thursday, March 27, 2008

16 to 1: Ranking the Sweet Sixteen

16. Western Kentucky – So after I brag a tad bit about having WKU in my Sweet Sixteen, I’ll return to reality and hear the clock striking midnight on the Hilltopper’s ball. NBA prospect Courtney Lee and his WKU teammates will run into a dominant UCLA team and will have to leave their glass slippers at the door. This year’s George Mason has had their moments, Ty Rogers 3 at the buzzer and Tyrone Brazelton’s 33 point effort against Drake to name a couple, but the Bruins will just overpower and outman the Hilltoppers tomorrow night in Phoenix.

15. Villanova – Normally an expected player in the national picture, Nova had a frustrating regular season going just 9-9 in the Big East. No one expected a Sweet Sixteen run from this bunch, but this is why we play the games. Jay Wright and his star point guard Scottie Reynolds have the 12-seed Cats playing their best basketball of the season. Coming back from a 16 point deficit against Clemson illustrates both their strong defensive presence and their giant hearts. Nova will need a flawless appearance against red-hot Kansas, but will come up a bit shy of an Elite Eight berth.

14. Tennessee – You may think you are reading this wrong and that I clearly skipped over a couple of teams, but no one has played sloppier and less deserving in this tournament than the Volunteers. Bruce Pearl’s team let 15-seed American stick around until nearly 2 minutes left in the game and needed an overtime period and the hand of God to get by Butler. Factor in Lofton’s sketchy injury and the fact the Louisville has yet to face a challenge in this tournament and Tennessee will be in offseason by 10pm central time on Thursday.

13. Davidson - Stephen Curry may just be the best player in the country. Yes, I said it. Part of me is so confident in this kid that I want to pull out the upset card and match them up with North Carolina in the Elite Eight. However, the way he waits until the second half to play, may be too late for the strengths of Wisconsin’s guard play and steady defense. Bob McKillop will have his team more ready to play on Friday night than any other team and if Andrew Lovedale can play his biggest and best game, I think Davidson has a chance to do the unthinkable, but Wisconsin’s guards should get Lovedale in foul trouble early and just outmatch the talented Wildcats.

12. Washington State – Ol’ Wazzu has looked just as good as any team in the first two rounds and they’re doing it through that good old fashioned, bust your balls defense. Tony Bennett is becoming one of the premiere coaches in America (Indiana, pay attention) and with his duo of Kyle Weaver and Derrick Weaver; the Cougars have a chance to do something special. The way the Cougars shut down the Irish’s Luke Harangody give them some positive confidence this week against Tyler Hansbrough, but facing a team that is averaging over 100 points a game in the tournament may be the end of their winning by defense.

11. Stanford – Trent Johnson’s ejection from last weekend’s game against Marquette said one thing loudly if nothing else; the Cardinals aren’t playing around. The Lopez twins (Brooke and Robin), give Stanford the best two man post combination left in the tournament. Against a number of other matchups, I may say that the Cardinals have a shot, but they are a completely opposite team than Texas. Stanford does not have the speed to match Texas’ guards and will be run out of the “home” gym in Houston. Look for calls to go against them in Houston and we may see Johnson tossed again.

10. West Virginia – Bob Huggin’s team has been a pleasant surprise in this tournament and has played almost flawlessly in big wins over Arizona and that extremely overrated Duke team. I mean they simply devoured Duke and introduced the country to big man Joe Alexander. Alexander has shown NBA scouts his worthiness but its been his supporting cast (Joe Mazzulla, Darris Nichols, Da’sean Butler) that have the Mountaineers this far. Honestly I can’t believe that this team hasn’t been this dominant all year and I’ll admit that I’ve stupidly overlooked them all year. Not anymore. I think Xavier’s guard play is too good and the Musketeers are too fast for the Mountaineers, but watch out for Huggins on the recruiting trail.

9. Michigan State – I strongly considered ranking Michigan State ahead of Memphis because: 1. I believe the Tigers are heavily overrated and 2. There may be no better tournament coach than Tom Izzo. However, Memphis is undoubtedly faster and far more talented than the Spartans. This will be one of the closest matchups in the Sweet Sixteen and if Drew Neitzel and Raymar Morgan can keep the Spartans in the game until the end, free throw shooting may be the difference. Also, watch out for Kalin Lucas; he has played lights out toward the end of the year.

8. Xavier – After a first round near miss against red-hot Georgia, the Musketeers are back to the second weekend. The Musketeers will matchup well with West Virginia, a lot like the matched up against Purdue. Point Guard Drew Lavender is one of the hardest guards in America to guard and I think that may mean early foul trouble for the Mountaineers. If the Musketeers can keep the tempo to their liking, they will probably advance to the Elite Eight, only to hit a road block and against a more half court savvy UCLA.

7. Memphis – You may feel this is too low for the one-loss Conference USA champion, but as I said previously, the Tigers may be the most overrated team this season. The talent level is there. The record looks sexy. They have the names, players, and coaches to win a few games. The defense isn’t always there though and their free throw shooting is horrendous. They hadn’t truly been battle tested before last week since their loss to Tennessee. When these late round games are on the line, I don’t trust the Tigers. They’ll slip by MSU, but the guard play of Texas will not favor John Calipari’s squad.

6. Wisconsin – The Badgers are slowly becoming one of those elite teams in college basketball, improving year in and year out. Bo Ryan made sure that these Badgers remember the early exits they suffered in the last two tournament appearances. I think that this Wisconsin team may be the most overlooked team in the country and is one of the most balanced teams in the field. The Badgers play great defense and slowly extend leads on their opponent until they can slam the door on them. Look for Michael Flowers to put the clamps on the dynamic Stephen Curry and get the Badgers to the Elite Eight before being out manned by Kansas.

5. Kansas – Well you have to give the Jayhawks some credit; they got through the first two rounds without getting upset by a Bucknell or Bradley or some other B-college. Coach Bill Self has gotten over one hump, but he still has a large monkey on his back. These Jayhawks need to get into the Final Four to justify all that talent and depth. Kansas look to be able to out run and out gun any team left in their regional and may have the easiest road to San Antonio.

4. Texas – Is it finally Texas’ time in round ball? After quality years in all other major sports, its time for Rick Barnes and company to show that basketball isn’t a second tier sport in the Lone Star state. D.J. Augustin and A.J. Abrams combine for one of the best guard duos in the country. The key to Texas’ success is from behind the arc. The Horns have knocked down 23 three pointers in only two tournament games.With basically home court advantage the rest of the way, its Final Four time for the Horns.

3. Louisville – This is the only team in my final four rankings that will miss the actual Final Four. However, after seeing the Cardinals first two games, they are far more deserving of a two-seed than Georgetown and Duke and as we will see this weekend, Tennessee as well. Coach Rick Pitino is a heck of a tournament coach and knows how to get it done when everything is on the line. If the Cardinals can continue their stingy defense and make their free throws they may give North Carolina a run at it. The problem is those are hard things to do against North Carolina, especially so close to Chapel Hill.

2. UCLA – Such a close game against Texas A&M is a little deceiving because the Aggies matched-up so well with the Bruins. Such matchup problems may not be an issue again until the national championship game. Kevin Love is a force down low and Darren Collison adds the perfect compliment for an inside outside game. I’d say the Bruins are the most complete team from top to bottom as far as role players go. Reminds me a lot of last year’s Florida team.

1. North Carolina –Although I picked UCLA to win it al, there is no argument that North Carolina is the best team in the tournament to this point. The Tar Heels have scored more than 100 points in back to back tournament games and that’s after running through the ACC tournament as well. They are the hottest team in America. They are deep. They are balanced. They have experience. They have a great coach. They are battle tested. What more can you ask for in a run for a National Title. Ty Lawson and Tyler Hansbrough give the Heels a dominant one-two punch that will be in San Antonio next week. I’ll be rooting for the Bruins, but expecting the Tar Heels.

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