Besides Tulsa’s impressive upset over Dayton in the first round, the Midwest bracket was relatively unexciting. Kentucky, many fans’ favorite to win the national title, has been very impressive in beating two overmatched opponents. I expect the very athletic Wildcats to exhaust a slow-tempo Wisconsin team that likes to keep its scores in the 50s and 60s. The Badgers won the Big Ten regular season crown but were insulted by the selection committee’s decision to give them only a number five seed. The other sweet sixteen match-up pairs two teams not used to being in the National Championship hunt: Pittsburgh and Marquette. The Pitt Panthers play perhaps the best defense of any team in the country and have been extremely consistent all season, remaining in the top 10 for most of the year. Panthers’ point guard, Brandin Knight, is one of the best guards in the country and has the ability to take over a game with his quickness and defensive prowess.
The West bracket is undoubtedly the most talented bracket in the tournament. Every team remaining, Arizona, Kansas, Duke and Notre Dame, has an All-American-caliber point guard who will likely play in the NBA someday. With Jason Gardner, Salim Stoudamire and Luke Walton, Arizona is my pick to win this year’s national championship. The ‘Cats were a top-ranked team coming into the tournament, and although they were given a scare by Gonzaga in the second round, they should be rearing to return to their national championship glory of 1997. ‘Zona will have to get by a very talented Notre Dame team that lacks an inside presence on defense but has two players, Matt Carroll and Chris Thomas who can score against anyone in the country. Kansas looks like a team on a mission after a history of tournament failures. Despite struggling in their first round game, the Jayhawks blew out Arizona State in the second round and certainly have the ability to knock out Duke. Although Kansas has only advanced past the sweet sixteen twice in the last nine years, (despite five appearances as a one or two seed) many experts feel this could be their season. Once again Coach K has Duke in prime position to make a national championship run behind freshman sharp shooter J.J. Redick and senior Dahntay Jones. This is the first year since 1998 that the Blue Devils have not been a number-one seed, and they surely want to prove the critics wrong and win another title for Coach K.
The South bracket is the most intriguing bracket as far as I am concerned, with the one, five, six, and seven seeds remaining. Texas must be considered the favorite as the one seed, but they live and die by the play of Player of the Year-candidate T.J. Ford. Ford is averaging 9.5 assists in the tournament thus far, including all eight of his team’s assists in a 77-67 win over Purdue in the second round. Who gets every single one of his team’s assists? Who does that? The Longhorns will face a UConn team featuring arguably the best big man left in the tournament, Emeka Okafor. Okafor is averaging 19 points, 11.5 rebounds and 4 blocks per game in the tournament. The winner of this game will most likely advance to the Final Four. In the other South game, defending champion Maryland, the six seed, squares off against Michigan State. The Terps and Spartans are both surprises in the sweet sixteen, but both teams are familiar with their position. Even though the Spartans dismantled a talented Florida team in the second round, I think Maryland will move on in a low-scoring battle.
Thus far, the East bracket has been upset city, with two double-digit seeds
advancing to the regional semifinals. Oklahoma must love where it sits right now, with a game against upstart Butler. Butler has won two nailbiters behind the unbelievable shooting of Darnell Archey, who made 8 of 9 three-pointers against Louisville and must be a little drained. The Sooners have been the one seed that no one seems to be talking about and seem primed to win the East Region. In the other game, third-seeded Syracuse faces tenth-seeded Auburn. The Orangeman start three freshmen, including Carmelo Anthony, an almost definite top-three pick in the NBA Draft next season and should roll over the overmatched Auburn Tigers, who squeaked by a highly overrated Wake Forest team in the second round.
So here you have it; my breakdown of the teams left in the NCAA Tournament. I like Kentucky coming out of the Midwest Bracket, Arizona in the West, Texas in the South and Syracuse in the East. Look for the Arizona-Kentucky game in the Final Four to be the quasi-national championship game, as both teams are much more experienced, talented and deep than any of the teams in the South or East.