- The Washington Times - Monday, March 16, 2009

MIDWEST

Louisville came out of nowhere to earn the top overall seed in the tournament by sweeping the Big East regular-season and tournament titles. Like Pittsburgh and to a lesser extent Connecticut, the Cardinals have an outstanding combination of depth and inside-outside balance. The addition of Samardo Samuels down low has given Rick Pitino a nasty post presence to complement superb wingmen Earl Clark (14.0 points. 8.8 rebounds) and Terrence Williams (12.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, 5.1 assists).

But the Cardinals’ improvement from behind the arc is what really has elevated this team to legit title threat. Last season’s Elite Eight team struggled from the perimeter, but guards Preston Knowles and Jerry Smith are more than adequate zone-busters.

The Cardinals still don’t have a true point guard, though Williams does a passable imitation. Nor do they possess much experience in the pivot, where both Samuels and primary backup Terrence Jennings are freshmen. Given those weaknesses, the committee didn’t do the Cardinals any favors in the power-seed department.

Wake Forest is probably a little young and sloppy to oust Louisville, though the Demon Deacons are arguably the toughest out among the No. 4 seeds, particularly if Jeff Teague finds his cape. But Michigan State and Kansas are both the kind of physical, fundamentally sound, defensive-minded teams that could stop the Cardinals short of Detroit.

In typical Tom Izzo fashion, the Spartans are a miserable shooting team with very little semblance of an offense. But they will defend you. They will beat on you. And they will crush you on the boards (No. 1 in rebounding margin at plus-10.1). The Spartans could win in a physical war with Louisville for one key reason: The Cardinals are a very poor free throw shooting team. They aren’t quite Memphis from last season, but Louisville is just about the worst free throw shooting team in the field at 64.5 percent.

As for upsets, nobody should be surprised when Siena dispatches Ohio State after the Saints mauled Vanderbilt in last year’s tournament opener.

WEST

The most unpredictable bracket in the most unpredictable event in sports.

Does Connecticut have enough shooters without Jerome Dyson?

What happens to Memphis now that it’s no longer facing the Washington Generals?

Is anybody buying the Pac-10? Missouri?

The entire region is a conundrum.

First, the committee made the right decision in awarding the No. 1 seed to the Huskies and not the Tigers. Memphis stepped outside the CYO league otherwise known as Conference USA to play five real teams this season. And the Tigers finished 2-3 in those games with losses to Georgetown, Syracuse and Xavier and wins at Gonzaga and Tennessee.

On the plus side, Memphis has won 25 consecutive games and has not lost since freshman sensation Tyreke Evans (16.6 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists) moved to the point, ending John Calipari’s experiment with 6-foot-8 freshman Wesley Witherspoon (who is not exactly Magic Johnson).

But Memphis is still an unknown, especially compared with last season’s superb squad. Missouri is the other scorching team in the bracket after running through the Big 12 tournament, but the other Tigers’ solid but unspectacular guard play is scary in a tournament that has long been associated with little men coming up big.

Washington is reliable but only consistently average. Purdue, like Missouri, was a shocking winner in the Big Ten tournament. Marquette has won once in six games since senior point guard Dominic James went down.

Perhaps Connecticut wins this region by default. The Huskies certainly have the ultimate game-changer in the region in center Hasheem Thabeet. The Huskies are the pick to join Pittsburgh, Michigan State and Gonzaga in Detroit, but Connecticut has more issues than the other No. 1s.

EAST

Given the patsy-lined path the committee gave Pittsburgh, no one would ever know Louisville was actually the overall No. 1 seed.

The Panthers have been a popular pick to win it all since they went into No. 1 Connecticut a month ago and humbled the Huskies behind sophomore forward DeJuan Blair’s 22-point, 23-rebound opus. The East Region bracket only strengthens suspicions that the Panthers are the most likely to cut down the nets in Detroit.

In the brawny Blair (15.6 points, 12.2 rebounds), leading scorer and swingman Sam Young (18.7 points, 6.1 rebounds) and senior point guard Levance Fields (7.6 assists), the Panthers have the best combination of balance, talent and experience across the key positions.

Then consider the Nos. 2-4 seeds the committee gave them. Xavier looks like the weakest No. 4. And both Villanova and Duke are guard-centric teams ill-equipped to deal with an interior presence like Blair and his buddy Tyrell Biggs.

The Panthers’ toughest game before Detroit could come in the second round against the winner of the Oklahoma State/Tennessee matchup. The Cowboys are among the worst rebounding teams in the tournament and thus a woeful matchup for a Pittsburgh crew ranked second in the nation in rebounding margin (plus-9.9).

But if Tennessee escapes its opening game with the far-more-disciplined Cowboys, the Volunteers are a dangerous No. 9 seed more capable than other 8/9 combos of ousting a No. 1. The Volunteers are nothing like Bruce Pearl’s recent teams in that they play shoddy defense and are poor from behind the 3-point arc. But athletes abound, and Tennessee is a good nine deep with legitimate options. Wayne Chism, Tyler Smith and Brian Williams give the Volunteers the frontcourt bodies to upset Blair and the Panthers if Pittsburgh has an off-day on the offensive end.

The East’s upset special, however, belongs to Virginia Commonwealth and special senior guard Eric Maynor (22.4 points, 6.2 assists). The Rams definitely have the chance to bounce perimeter-heavy UCLA.

Expect Xavier to join UCLA in the bust category with Binghamton’s extremely athletic roster giving Duke a closer-than-expected game in the opener.

SOUTH

The committee savaged North Carolina for its sins in the ACC tournament. Even if the most important big toe in North Carolina weren’t swollen, it would be difficult to pick the Tar Heels to reach Detroit.

For one, Gonzaga is the most complete No. 4 seed in the tournament. Gonzaga is the only team in the field that ranks in the top 10 in both field goal percentage defense (No. 2, 36.9) and field goal percentage (No. 8, 48.8). Coach Mark Few has experience and talent at the critical point guard and center spots in seniors Jeremy Pargo (5.1 assists) and Josh Heytvelt (14.9 points, 6.7 rebounds), a confident gunner in Matt Bouldin (13.7 points) and a dazzling sophomore talent in Austin Daye (12.9 points, 6.9 rebounds).

The Bulldogs are also overdue to take down a heavyweight after losses to Memphis and Connecticut. Something has been off about the Tar Heels all season; perhaps that’s what happens when folks crown you six months before the season starts. In any case, North Carolina will have to survive both Gonzaga… and potentially Oklahoma en route to Detroit. If guard Ty Lawson doesn’t return to full speed, the point is moot (see turnover-happy Florida State).

The Sooners are one of the teams that folks have wanted to see the Tar Heels face all season because everyone wants to know how three-time All-American and Tobacco Road demigod Tyler Hansbrough would fare against Oklahoma pivot and runaway national player of the year Blake Griffin (21.9 points, 14.3 rebounds). The guess is not well, though the rest of UNC’s roster, particularly its backcourt, is vastly superior to the Sooners’ spare parts. That said, it’s the game most would like to see, if for no other reason than to put the quietus on the Hansbrough hubbub.

Among the flameouts, Syracuse definitely merits a nomination. Nobody does what the Orange managed in the Big East tournament and has anything left for the big bracket.

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