Favorite: Kansas. Much like the Gators, the Jayhawks came into the NCAA Tournament as the favorite to win the region, and they might be more of a favorite after the first weekend. Kansas looked very impressive in their dismantling of Niagara in the first-round, and then used their overall talent and depth advantage to take down Kentucky in the second round. The Jayhawks are hitting their stride at the right time. This team has all the ingredients. Julian Wright is one of the best all-around players in the country, while Brandon Rush is a terrific shooter, both in the mid-range and from behind the arc. Russell Robinson and Mario Chalmers are both solid play-makers who are also terrific defenders. Sherron Collins is very difficult to guard offensively. Darrell Arthur is an athletic freshman down low, and Sasha Kaun. Against Southern Illinois, Kansas will need to be disciplined and patient against the Salukis’ defense. If they get past that, either Pitt or UCLA will await. Both teams have the weapons to knock off Kansas, but the Jayhawks look like the best bet to roll to Atlanta.
Cinderella: Southern Illinois. With the four highest seeds advancing, there isn’t much of a Cinderella in terms of an upset special. However, SIU is still not a national power, while the other three teams in this region have been here before. The Salukis are not known for the most part, and could send shockwaves if they beat Kansas. They play outstanding defense, and have clutch scorers offensively. Jamaal Tatum is a good shooter and is very quick, while Tony Young is a lock-down defender. Randall Falker can rebound and block shots very well, and Matt Shaw (if he plays) is a solid inside-outside performer. SIU is not explosive offensively, but their defense keeps them in games, and Tatum usually comes through down the stretch. It will be interesting to see how they match-up with Kansas. If SIU can knock off the Jayhawks, despite the Salukis’ inferior talent, they can beat anyone.
Most intriguing personnel match-up: Pittsburgh’s Mike Cook vs. UCLA’s Arron Afflalo. Two physical wing scorers will battle it out for the right to go to the Elite Eight. Cook does not get a lot of publicity on a national level, but he is the key for the Panthers. If he can get points from the perimeter, and take some of the pressure off of Aaron Gray, it will be huge. He is only averaging 12 points per game in the Tournament, but on a balanced Pitt team, that is key. Afflalo is one of the best players in the country, and might be the top two-way guard around. He struggled against Indiana, but he stepped up down the stretch and made the big plays for the Bruins to advance. Afflalo has been clutch all year for UCLA. If he can shut down Cook, it makes Pittsburgh much easier to defend offensively. Similarly, Cook and fellow wing Antonio Graves can’t allow Afflalo to have a big day. Indiana slowed him, and the Hoosiers were able to overcome a horrendous first half and nearly came back for the win.
First-weekend knockout that will be here next year: Duke. For all the Duke haters out there, this was your year to make fun of them. Next year, it will stop. The Blue Devils had no seniors on this year’s team, and only Josh McRoberts is even contemplating going pro. If he heads pro, the team won’t be as loaded on the inside, but the Blue Devils will be fine. DeMarcus Nelson and Jon Scheyer can score on the wing, and Coach K brings in one of the best recruiting classes in the country. Kyle Singler is a fantastic small forward. He has terrific range and is going to make a major impact. Nolan Smith and Taylor King are two more solid wings coming in. If Greg Paulus matures at the point, and a big man steps up for Duke down low (if McRoberts leaves), the Devils will once again contend.
All-First Weekend Team:
Guard- Eric Maynor, VCU: 18.0 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 8.0 apg, 3.0 spg
Guard- Mario Chalmers, Kansas: 17.5 ppg, 1.5 rpg, 5.0 apg, 3.5 spg
Forward- Randal Falker, Southern Illinois: 11.0 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 2.5 apg, 2.5 spg, 2.5 bpg
Forward- D.J. White, Indiana: 14.0 ppg, 12.0 rpg, 2.0 apg, 3.0 bpg
Center- Randolph Morris, Kentucky: 20.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 2.5 bpg
Sixth Man- Darren Collison, UCLA: 14.5 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 5.0 apg, 2.5 spg
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