- The Washington Times - Monday, March 17, 2008

BRACKET BULLIES

North Carolina: Let’s try this again: The Tar Heels will have a comfortable first weekend near Chapel Hill and undoubtedly possess a talented roster. A healthy Ty Lawson combined with the consistency of Tyler Hansbrough will make it unlikely for Carolina to lose before the regional final. But this team is built to win a title, and there are far worse choices as a pick to win it all.

Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish aren’t going to dazzle anyone with their flair, which is no surprise when their star (forward Luke Harangody) possesses all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Still, this isn’t a team that will beat itself and will dispatch inferior opponents with regularity. No team will take advantage of upsets in its draw better than Notre Dame.

Louisville: The Cardinals figured to be a top-15 team when healthy. They weren’t remotely close to those expectations in November and December, mainly because David Padgett and Juan Palacios were hurt and Derrick Caracter was occasionally a knucklehead. They were all back for league play and are poised to make a Final Four push under Rick Pitino.

Tennessee: Bruce Pearl has won championships before (at Division II Southern Indiana), and this year he doesn’t have Greg Oden standing in the way of reaching the Final Four. There is no shortage of depth or scoring options beyond guards Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith, and sophomore forward Tyler Smith figures to be a difference-maker. The Vols aren’t flawed, and that counts for a lot.

BRACKET BUSTS

Indiana: In a Shakespearean play, Hamlet is confronted by his father’s ghost, who reveals a dark secret. In the theater of Bloomington this year, Hoosiers fans are confronted by the specter of ousted coach Kelvin Sampson, whose revelation is the NCAA violations he and his cell phone have committed. IU supporters are not ROFL with the Hoosiers’ slide since the demise of Sampson’s career. It will continue. TTYL.

Oklahoma: Oklahoma has a few nice wins but nothing special. The Sooners lost to a bunch of good teams, including Kansas, Texas (three times) and Memphis. Those games could give them a preview of a potential second-round matchup with Louisville if the Sooners can get past Saint Joseph’s.

DREAM DRAWS

Louisville: Although Tennessee poses a challenge in the Elite Eight, the Cardinals caught a break with Boise State, and the trio of Palacios, Padgett and Edgar Sosa gives Louisville enough to make a real run.

North Carolina: As if getting to stay in-state until the Final Four isn’t good enough, the Tar Heels face no significant challengers en route to a possible showdown with Tennessee or Louisville.

NIGHTMARE DRAWS

Oklahoma: Proving it can beat great teams starts in the second round, in which Rick Pitino and Louisville present a tough battle for a spot in the Sweet 16.

Arkansas: Indiana is a nice first-round opponent for the Razorbacks. But then there’s North Carolina, and just getting to that game would be a success.

BRACKET BESTS

Best shooter A.J. Graves, Butler: He also doubles as the best player who probably weighs less than 150 pounds. The Bulldogs’ sharpshooter is deadly both on the perimeter and at the foul line, and teamed with Mike Green he has Butler poised for another push to the second weekend. No team other than Memphis and Xavier from outside a major conference is as well equipped for a deep run.

Best home cooking North Carolina: It’s funny how either Duke or North Carolina conveniently get to stay close to home. In 10 of the last 11 years, at least one of them has played an NCAA tournament game in North Carolina, and both will get to do it in the first round in Raleigh. It gets even better for North Carolina, which is in the East Region and will play in Charlotte if it advances to the regionals.

Best veteran party crasher George Mason: The Patriots don’t have the deep backcourt of two years ago, but they still have a charismatic floor leader (Folarin Campbell, more than capable of filling Lamar Butler’s role from 2006), an intelligent and efficient post presence (Will Thomas) and a roster dedicated to strong defense, few turnovers and few fouls. Jim Larranaga’s team will not go quietly if it loses in the first round.

Best unheralded backcourt Washington State: Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver aren’t as good as Texas’ D.J. Augustin and A.J. Abrams, but there’s no shame in that. Still, it is perimeter play that has brought the Cougars from the college basketball wilderness to the first back-to-back NCAA tournament berths in school history. Even if coach Tony Bennett stays in Pullman, the Cougars will miss Low and Weaver.

MATCHUP TO WATCH

Butler vs. South Alabama: Graves’ team made the Sweet 16 last season as a No. 5 seed by beating Maryland. The Jaguars are the small-conference team to watch this year.

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