- The Washington Times - Monday, March 16, 2009

BRACKET BULLIES

Connecticut: Sometimes it’s simply a matter of talent. These Huskies aren’t quite as good as the 2006 crew that lost to George Mason in the regional final. But they’re still really, really good and have no good excuse to lose at any point in the first weekend of the tournament. Safely pencil them into the regionals and maybe the Final Four.

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs don’t have the resume of some of their predecessors in Spokane, but it doesn’t really matter. They deploy one of the best starting fives in the country, and Austin Daye is plenty capable of sinking a good team on a particularly good night. Gonzaga hasn’t played beyond its seed since 2003, but that streak should come to a close in the next week.

Louisville: Before he goes off to what he calls the “fish-and-seaweed draft,” point forward Terrence Williams has some matters to talk about and deal with in the next two weeks. College basketball’s chattiest star has plenty to say, but Williams is the biggest reason why Rick Pitino could take the Cardinals to their second Final Four this decade.

Memphis: The Tigers, unbeaten since before Christmas, don’t have the resume of their immediate predecessors. And they might not have an Elite Eight or Final Four run in them. But freshman Tyreke Evans and veteran lockdown defender Antonio Anderson should get Memphis to the second weekend, avoiding an upset that would cause some consternation among bracket builders.

North Carolina: Tyler Hansbrough keeps getting a little bit closer to the trophy he would really like to grasp. The Tar Heels have been bounced in the second round, regional final and semifinals in the past three years, and a regression sure doesn’t look likely. UNC isn’t a prohibitive national title favorite, but it remains as safe a bet as there is to reach the Final Four.

Oklahoma: It hasn’t been a good couple of years for Big 12 teams with national player of the year candidates. Neither Kevin Durant nor Michael Beasley made particularly deep runs, but Blake Griffin is probably surrounded by a better supporting cast. This is clearly the end of a title window for the Sooners, and they are unlikely to go out early.

Pittsburgh: If only Levance Fields, Sam Young and DeJuan Blair were each a few inches taller, everyone would be slobbering about how complete the Panthers are. Instead, they simply plugged along as a top-10 team all season, a tough bunch that slugged its way through the Big East. Pittsburgh isn’t entirely upset-proof, but it sure looks like an Elite Eight team at minimum.

Texas: Yes, the Longhorns underachieved this season. There’s no questioning that. But they still have A.J. Abrams and Damion James, and that means Texas is as good a bet from the bottom two-thirds of the draw. Maybe the Longhorns aren’t a good Final Four bet, but they could certainly foil someone else’s chances.

Villanova: The Wildcats remained under the radar much of the season in the top-heavy Big East, but they have an excellent chance of at least matching last year’s run to the regional semifinals. Dante Cunningham and Scottie Reynolds offer two reliable, high-scoring options and an inside-outside presence. Villanova has avoided inexplicable losses, and that should continue.

Wake Forest: No one wants to deal with the Demon Deacons’ size. James Johnson and Al-Farouq Aminu are long and lean, and the backcourt of the fearless Jeff Teague and the rugged L.D. Williams will keep opponents honest. Maybe this isn’t a Final Four team after missing the tournament the past three years, but Wake should make it to the second weekend.

Washington: UCLA seems like the safer pick out of the Pac-10 because of recent history, but the Huskies probably have the best chance of moving out of the subregional weekend. Other than an inexplicable opening loss at Portland, Washington has done nothing to suggest it will depart the postseason early. Without a Brandon Roy, don’t count on a deep run, but there are better bets to be upset.

Xavier: The Musketeers have gone deeper than their seed would suggest in three of their past four NCAA tournaments. Even with a few losses down the stretch in the regular season, it makes sense that Sean Miller’s team will pick up a couple of victories this year. Xavier is always a tough out, so steer clear of expecting an immediate upset of the Atlantic 10 power.

BRACKET BUSTS

Brigham Young: Yes, the Cougars went into their conference tournament ranked. And yes, there’s reason to believe they could win a couple games, but it’s really not worth the gamble. Brigham Young is a formidable homecourt team but struggled to accomplish much of anything away from Provo. Don’t count on that trend changing regardless of how good Lee Cummard is.

Butler: The loss in the Horizon League final should be warning enough to stay away from the Bulldogs and their penchant for close games. Yes, Butler is a good story and is pretty well set in its “Gonzaga of flyover country” status. But this isn’t as good a team as it was the past few years, and the Bulldogs will be lucky to win more than one game.

Clemson: Sometimes it’s just better to bet against a team until it proves you wrong. The Tigers have a nasty habit of scuffling along in March as their first-round ousters in last year’s NCAA tournament and last week’s ACC tournament quarterfinals attest. Certainly Trevor Booker is a great player, and Clemson is deep. But capable of a deep run? Don’t count on it.

Duke: Just because you recognize the greatness of the Blue Devils’ program in the past quarter-century doesn’t mean you have to pencil Duke into a deep tournament run. This script has played out before: Duke plays well all season, shows a few signs of sputtering in February and winds up tripping earlier than expected in March. The regional semis seem to be the max, and proceed with caution.

Illinois: There’s really only one thing you need to know about the Illini: They scored 33 points in a game last month against Penn State. Yes, Illinois is well-coached and has reversed course from a disastrous season a year ago. But the Illini might get stuck playing ugly, and eventually that leads to teams getting dispatched rather than advancing deep into the tournament.

Kansas: Defending national champ? Check. Overachieving bunch after losing a ton from a title team? Check. Well-entrenched in the top 20? Check. Sounds just like 2006 North Carolina, which was bounced in the second round by George Mason. The Jayhawks are poised to suffer a similar fate, even if Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich should at least net them a victory.

LSU: The regular-season “champion” of the SEC, the Tigers rolled up a gaudy record against a substandard league. Take Trent Johnson’s team out of the soft conference, and they get beat by Texas A&M, Utah and Xavier by double figures. Sure, the Tigers are athletic, but in no way should anyone expect an extended run this month.

Marquette: On paper, the Golden Eagles have a nice record and hail from a tough conference. They’re also playing without injured point guard Dominic James. Marquette should have “DO NOT PICK” slapped across their uniforms in giant neon green lettering because this is not a team destined to go far. This is a poor choice for any sort of success beyond the first day (if even then).

Missouri: Yes, the Tigers deploy a hellacious pressure defense. And they certainly have played well in a decent conference. Still, it’s their first NCAA appearance since 2003, and it’s never the wisest best to place a relative newbie deep into the field. Maybe Missouri can win a couple of games, but it makes a lousy Final Four sleeper.

Purdue: The team other than Michigan State from the Big Ten that should be good, the Boilermakers never really got rolling other than a surge in late January. A young team that represented well a season ago, Purdue should have been a top-15 team this time around. And while a win is certainly a possibility, there’s no logical reason to believe this team can win three in a row at this stage.

Tennessee: Another team with talent that never really fulfilled it, the Volunteers got lost in the muddled SEC. Tennessee will look good to fans who remember the top-10 teams Bruce Pearl has fielded in the past few seasons. This isn’t one of them, and the Volunteers are far from upset-proof. Don’t advance Tennessee more than a round in your bracket.

UCLA: Will the fourth time be the charm for Darren Collison? Not likely. The Bruins were a top-10 institution the past few years, reaching three straight Final Fours and always falling short. The freshman talent Ben Howland assembled wasn’t as good as expected, and as a result the Bruins are just a top-20 team. This could be a second weekend team, but don’t get snookered into thinking Final Four.

BRACKET BESTS

Best player

Blake Griffin, Oklahoma: Expect Griffin to get the Greg Oden/Kevin Durant/Michael Beasley treatment this postseason - the prodding and probing reserved for a guy who is a surefire top-of-the-NBA Draft talent. The Sooners have some intriguing pieces surrounding the sophomore big man, but the reality is he can carry a team like few others in the field.

Most dangerous mid-major

Siena: Remember the team that hammered Vanderbilt in the first round last year? Almost the entire team is back. The Saints, led by Kenny Hasbrouck, couldn’t pull off an upset in a loaded nonconference schedule that featured trips to Kansas and Pittsburgh. But they did roll through the Metro Atlantic, and it’s not a year too late to pick them for a regional semifinal run.

Most scrutinized toe

Ty Lawson, North Carolina: The great question for the prohibitive preseason favorite is the health of point guard Ty Lawson and his jammed right big toe. The Tar Heels looked just a tick above ordinary in two games without obvious team MVP Lawson in the ACC tournament. If Lawson’s back at full strength, Carolina goes far. If not, Ole Roy is going to fall short again.

Best veteran party crasher

Eric Maynor, Virginia Commonwealth: The senior guard carried the Rams to the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years, and there’s no reason to think they couldn’t spring an upset like they did against Duke in 2007. In reality, though, it won’t be much of an upset, mainly because most teams don’t have a talent who can so engage defenses like the magical Maynor.

Best low-profile player

Ben Woodside, North Dakota St.

Best coach who is due

Rick Barnes, Texas: This decade has featured national titles from plenty of coaches who waited a long time to reach the pinnacle of the profession - Gary Williams, Jim Boeheim, Roy Williams, Billy Donovan, Bill Self. The Longhorns aren’t a championship team, but Barnes has the goods to wheedle a run to the regional final if things break right.

Best defender

Antonio Anderson, Memphis: Watch the Tigers to see Anderson lock down anyone he happens to draw. It’s beautiful - and a big reason Memphis rolled up another 31 victories this season. The Tigers adjusted splendidly to losing Derrick Rose, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Joey Dorsey, building their identity around a nasty defense. Anderson is a one-man cloaking device who makes an opponent’s best guard disappear.

Best remaining patriots

Robert Morris: George Mason is gone. James Madison went quickly. George Washington didn’t even make the Atlantic 10 tournament. So sort of by default, it leaves the school that was named for the financier of the American Revolution. The only remaining competition is notable Texan Stephen F. Austin, which won the Southland tournament Sunday afternoon.

Best conference for the long term

Big East: A nice piece of the inane “best conference” argument will be decided in the next few weeks, and the best evidence is teams that can last deep into the tournament. Connecticut, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Villanova and West Virginia all have the goods to win two or more games. The ACC is next up, while the Big Ten will lose most of its teams in the first two rounds.

Best name

Chief Kickingstallionsims, Alabama St.: The 7-foot-1 senior averages 8.8 points and 4.1 rebounds for the SWAC champion Hornets and undeniably owns the best moniker in the field. Kickingstallionsims helped Alabama State to its first NCAA appearance since 2004 just a year after the Hornets went to the NIT.

Best interview

Terrence Williams, Louisville: The single best reason to root for the Cardinals is the blunt, loquacious senior who will reliably fill up reporters’ notebooks anywhere Louisville happens to go in the next few weeks. Oh, and he’s a remarkably good player, too. That’s a double bonus.

Best coaching story

Brad Greenberg, Radford: Greenberg, the older brother of Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg, segued from coaching to the NBA front office in the late 1980s before moving back into coaching earlier this decade. He got his first head coaching gig at age 53 at Radford. In two years, he turned the Highlanders from Big South doormats into conference champions.

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