We’re getting down to the nitty-gritty of the NCAA basketball championship tournament as only 16 teams remain. On Thursday the remaining contenders continue their march to this year’s Final Four in Detroit.
Here’s a rundown by region.
Games to be played at TD Waterhouse Arena Boston, MA (Boston Garden)
Thursday, March 26
(1) Pittsburgh vs. (4) Xavier 7:27 pm ET
Number one seed Pittsburgh Panthers, one of four teams to represent the Big East in the sweet sixteen, has made it to this round five out of the last eight years. The Panthers struggled in beating lower seeded Eastern Tennessee State and Oklahoma State. Forwards Sam Young (23 ppg., 10.5 rpg., 53.3 FG, 50 3FG) and Naismith award hopeful DeJuan Blair (18.5 ppg, 14.0 rpg, 54.2 FG) may power the team to the Elite 8 for the first time since 1974.
The Atlantic 10 regular season champs, number four seed Xavier, are also no strangers to the regional semifinals (getting there two of last three years). A traditionally steady team, the Musketeers defeated Portland State and Wisconsin behind the play of guard/forward BJ Raymond (14 ppg, 35.7 3 FG).
My pick: Pittsburgh
Update: The Panthers kept dragging their tail in another tournament win, this time 60-55 over Xavier. Pittsburgh point Levance Fields (14 points, 6 assists) sowed this winner for me, hitting a 3-Pointer late with 50.9 seconds left in the game.
(4) Villanova vs. (2) Duke 9:57 Boston, MA 9:57 pm ET
Duke comes to Boston via wins over Texas and Binghamton. The Blue Devils are helmed by guard Gerald Henderson, but they bring a balanced scoring attack. All five starters scored in double digits in its first round win, including Kyle Singler (62.5% 3FG) and Jon Scheyer (50% 3FG, 2 spg). This is Duke’s first Sweet 16 appearance in three years. Coach K hopes his team will not be singing the blues after their trip to Boston.
The Wildcats of Villanova are a dangerous wild card in Boston, with deep tournament experience (sweet 16 four of last five years), a blowout win over tournament stalwart UCLA (89-69) last week, and a dominating guard in Donte Cunningham (21 ppg). This could be The Wildcats year to break out.
My pick: Duke
Update: Dante Cunningham (14 points, 11 points) paced The Wildcats to a 77-54 upset over The Blue Devils. My unlucky number this tournament is turning out to be 2, as in 2 losses for both my #2 seeded picks.
Thursday, March 26
University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale AZ
(1) Connecticut vs. (5) Purdue 7:07 PM ET
One of three Big East number one seeds, the Huskies have notched two easy victories against Chattanooga and Texas A&M, led by guard AJ Price (23.5 ppg, 11 apg), forward Jeff Adrien (18 ppg, 12 rpg), and “The 7-3 Beast from the East”, Naismith finalist Hasheem Thabeet (8.5 rpg, 2 bpg). Time for UConn to finish strong here and not dog it.
Purdue, this year’s Big Ten Tournament Champions, reached the Western region semifinals with an upset win over fourth seed Washington, 76-74. The Boilermakers are paced by JaJuan Johnson (18 ppg, 2.5 bpg) in their first Sweet 16 since 2000.
My Pick: UCONN
Update: My hometown pick, UConn, did me good by routing the Boilermakers 72-60 behind the play of Hasheem Thabeet (15 points, 15 rebounds, 4 blocks).
(2) Memphis vs. (3) Missouri 9:37 PM ET
Memphis, the undefeated champion of Conference USA, return as last year’s NCAA tournament runner-ups. This year’s Tigers trumped California State Northbridge and Maryland with a young, balanced team led by guards Robert Sallie (18 ppg, 1.5 spg, 70 FG, 68.4 3FG), Antonio Anderson (10 apg, 2 spg) and Tyreke Evans (5.5 apg, 2.5 spg, 2.5 bpg). It’ll be really hard to catch this tiger by the tail.
Missouri became the third Big 12 team in 2009 to make the sweet 16, with wins over Marquette and Cornell. The Tigers’ key tournament players are Leo Lyons (20 ppg.) and sublime sub Kim English (60% 3 Pt.) This team just happens to be “Grrrrrrrrreeat” this year.
My Pick: Memphis
Update: Despite rallying from a 24-point deficit, The Tigers still fell to their Missouri namesakes 102-91. J.T. Tiller was the star man with 23 points and 3 steals. Post a Big L for me here.
Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis, IN
Friday, March 27
(1) Louisville vs. (12) Arizona 7:07pm ET
Louisville, the top ranked team and Big East Champion, has moved on to the sweet 16 with a win over Morehead State and a nail-bitter over Sienna. The Cardinals are stocked full of quality players, including forward Terrence Williams (18.5 ppg, 12 rpg, 60.9 FG, 53.8 3FG ), guards Edgar Sosa (3.5 apg, 66.7 3FG,) and Earl Clark (8.5 rpg, 5 apg). Do not take this squad lightly.
With the lowest seed among the 16, Arizona is playing the role of Cinderella this year. The Wildcats proved they were worthy of an at-large bid this year with an upset over Utah and a convincing “W” over Cleveland State. The team, powered by guard Nic Wise (25 ppg., 57.7 FG , 5 apg.) and forward Jordan Hill (11 rpg), is showing signs of life in the post-Luc Olson era. Let's see if this championship slipper fits.
My Pick: Louisville
(2) Michigan State vs. (3) Kansas 9:37pm ET
Michigan State, the regular season Big 12 champ, finds itself in its eighth sweet sixteen in the last 12 years. The Spartans are no strangers to the Jayhawks, beating them 75-62 earlier this season at home in Lansing. If they continue to get production out of guard Kalin Lucas (11.5 ppg, 5 apg), center Goran Suton (13.5 rpg, 1.5 bpg), and guard Durrell Summers (50% 3FG) they can make their way home to the final four in Detroit. It’ll take more than the strength of 300 to beat these Spartans.
Kansas returns as champion, having played their way to a third straight sweet 16 by defeating North Dakota State and Dayton. Key players for the Jayhawks include guard Sheron Collins (28.5 ppg, 5 apg) and center Cole Aldrich (62.5 FG, 16.5 rpg, 6 bpg).
They will light you up with the “D” and the "Jays" if not careful.
My Pick: Kansas
FedExForum, Memphis, TN
Friday, March 27
(1) North Carolina vs. (4) Gonzaga 9:57 PM ET
North Carolina rounds out the sweep of #1 seeds to reach the regional semifinals. Senior forward Tyler Hansborough (18.5 ppg), the reigning College Basketball player year, has led the Tar Heels to victory over Radford and LSU in his quest to add a national championship to his long list of accolades. UNC will need point guard Ty Lawson to be healthy and productive to advance further. Guard Wayne Ellington (24 ppg , 3.4 apg, 62.5 FG, 54.5 3FG) is a player who is hitting his stride at the right time.
Gonzaga makes its way back to the sweet sixteen for the first time since 2006. The hottest team in the tournament, the Zags have 11 straight wins including those over Akron and Western Kentucky in the tourney. The WCC champions will rely on forward Josh Heytvelt (16 ppg, 1 bpg), and guards Matt Bouldin (16.0 ppg, 5.5 apg ) and Guard Jeremy Pargo (4.0 apg, 66.8 FG, 80 3FG) to zig zag The Zags to the tourney championship.
My pick: North Carolina
(2) Oklahoma vs. (3) Syracuse 7:27 PM ET
The healthy and hungry Naismith-nominated forward Blake Griffin has led the Sooners past Morgan State and Michigan, amassing 61 points and 30 rebounds along the way. OU has gotten solid play out of guards Willie Warren (16 ppg, 4 apg, 52.6 FG, 41.7 3FG) and Austin Johnson (50 3FG, 1 bpg). They could not have gotten hot any sooner.
Syracuse has glided past Stephen Austin University and Arizona State to make it to the sweet 16. It hopefully is déjà vu all over again as the Orangemen defeated Oklahoma in this round during their run to the national title in 2003. Syracuse may have a shot at a trip to Detroit if guards Jimmy Flynn (57.9 FG, 7 apg.) and Eric Devendorf (15.5 ppg., 7 apg, 57.9 FG) continue their stellar tournament play. Forward Arinze Oanaku (80 FG%) will also need to make his large presence felt. No more ex"cuses” Syracuse.