Favorite: North Carolina. It’s mostly a toss-up between the Tar Heels and Georgetown, but I think that, at their best, North Carolina is better than Georgetown. As a result, I’m going with UNC as the favorite heading into the Sweet Sixteen. They have struggled in both of their first two rounds, allowing Eastern Kentucky back into the game for a short stretch before pulling away, and going back-and-forth with Michigan State for most of the game. However, they are the deepest and arguably the most talented team in the country. Tyler Hansbrough and Brandan Wright form one of the best post tandems around; Hansbrough seems to have regained his dominant form. Tywon Lawson has done a terrific job at controlling tempo, while Reyshawn Terry has been a consistent contributor. Against USC, the Tar Heels will have to contain the Trojans’ perimeter players, especially Nick Young. They have a huge edge inside, though. If they face Georgetown in the Elite Eight, the battle in the paint between the big men for both teams is going to be interesting, but UNC has the edge on the perimeter.
Cinderella: USC. The Trojans are a higher seed than Vanderbilt, but many people had the Commodores pegged for the Sweet Sixteen. On the other hand, USC has flown below the radar this year, and were a popular upset pick in the first round to Arkansas, and were almost completely overlooked heading into the Texas game. They dominated both games, especially in the second half. I’ve been on the Trojans’ bandwagon for most of the season, and it’s nice to see them finally putting it all together. Nick Young is a terrific wing player who creates match-up problems due to his athleticism and scoring ability. Gabe Pruitt and Lodrick Stewart can shoot it from the perimeter, and Taj Gibson is tough down low. If their guards are hitting their threes, and Gibson can control the paint, the Trojans have a shot at beating anyone. They might not have the size to knock off North Carolina, but it will be interesting.
Most intriguing personnel match-up: Georgetown’s Jeff Green vs. Vanderbilt’s Derrick Byars. This should be a terrific battle between two of the best all-around players in the country. Green was the Big East Player of the Year and is stock has risen considerably over the past few months. He can do it all, and is a versatile offensive player. He can shoot it, drive to the basket, and is a very good passer. Byars, the SEC Player of the Year, is one of the nation’s most improved players. He stepped into the national spotlight with his terrific performance in the ‘Dores win over Florida. He can shoot the three with efficiency, and is tough when driving to the basket. Both players can play inside and outside, making for a very entertaining match-up. Green has the height advantage, but Byars is quicker and might be able to take Green off the dribble. Byars will need to play good defense on Green, as he is the focal point of the Hoyas’ offense and can take over games, even without scoring. Green can’t let Byars get hot from long-range.
First-weekend knockout that will be here next year: Texas. The Longhorns were a trendy pick to reach Atlanta this season, mainly because of Kevin Durant. However, he didn’t get enough help against USC and Texas was bounced. Next year, Texas will reach the Sweet Sixteen, with or without Durant. If he stays, they are immediately on the short list of national title contenders. If he goes to the NBA, D.J. Augustin and A.J. Abrams will still form one of the best backcourts in the country. Moreover, with the addition of two quality big men in Clint Chapman and Gary Johnson, Damion James should be able to move away from the basket, enabling him to utilize his athleticism and all-around game some more. The young Longhorns will all be one year older and more experienced; they’ll be back.
All-First Weekend Team:
Guard- Tyrese Rice, Boston College: 24.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 3.5 apg
Guard- Drew Neitzel, Michigan State: 19.0 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 5.0 apg, 1.5 spg
Forward- Nick Young, USC: 21.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 1.0 spg, 1.0 bpg
Forward- Kevin Durant, Texas: 28.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 2.0 spg, 1.5 bpg
Center- Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina: 27.0 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 2.0 apg
Sixth Man- Taj Gibson, USC: 17.0 ppg, 11.0 rpg, 2.0 bpg
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