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Kansas vs. Niagara: Expect plenty of points this one—mostly in the Jayhawks’ column. KU is one of the favorites to win the National Championship, while Niagara is coming off of a nice win in the “opening-round game” over Florida A&M. The Purple Eagles have plenty of scorers on the offensive end, but they don’t have the weapons or defensive capability to give KU a scare.
Kentucky vs. Villanova: One of the more interesting 8-9 games of the Tournament. UK has not really played consistently all season, and have struggled against good teams for much of the year. ‘Nova have a very good duo in freshman guard Scottie Reynolds and senior forward Curtis Sumpter, but they don’t have many offensive options besides that. Additonally, Mike Nardi has been hampered for games by an injury. For Kentucky to win, Randolph Morris will need to take advantage of his edge on the inside.
Virginia Tech vs. Illinois: A contrast of personnel. Virginia Tech has a very good backcourt in Zabian Dowdell and Jamon Gordon, while Illinois likes to play big, led by Shaun Pruitt and Warren Carter on the inside. VT is very inconsistent, but is capable of beating—and losing to—any team in the country. Illinois might not even deserve to be in the Tournament, so they might go into the Dance with something to prove. The key will be VT’s Deron Washington’s ability to guard bigger players down low.
Southern Illinois vs. Holy Cross: If you like a lot of points scored, this game is not for you. Both teams like to grind-it-out in a half-court game, and this one likely be a “first to 50 wins” type of contest. SIU was one of the better teams in the country all season long, and will want to show the nation they deserved a protected seed. Holy Cross has a terrific backcourt in Keith Simmons and Torey Thomas, and they thrive on defensive deflections. Whoever can get clutch baskets down the stretch will win this game—SIU has come through in late-game situations all year long.
Duke vs. VCU: Here’s one of my “busts” vs. my big Cinderella pick. In other words, this is an upset waiting to happen. The Blue Devils struggle against quick perimeter groups that can spread the floor and attack the basket, and VCU is one of those teams. Remember the name Eric Maynor. I’ve been saying all year that he is going to be a household commodity by the NCAA Tournament. He is going to hassle Greg Paulus into turnovers, and will quickly turn those into points for the Rams. Will Coach K have something up his sleeve, though?
Pittsburgh vs. Wright State: This will be an interesting battle between two teams going in opposite directions heading into the Dance. Pittsburgh was blown out in the Big East title game, and has lost three of their last six. Wright State won both the Horizon regular-season and tournament titles, and have one of the nation’s best unknown players in Dashaun Wood. Do the Raiders have the inside presence to stop the Panthers’ Aaron Gray? That will be the key if they are to pull the upset.
Indiana vs. Gonzaga: Did the committee purposely make the bottom quarter of the West bracket exactly like the bottom half of last year’s Oakland region? These two teams faced off in the second-round last year, but both are completely different squads. Indiana did not play well to end the season, but has one of the best inside players in the country in D.J. White. Their perimeter shooting will be key. The Bulldogs were solid after the loss of Josh Heytvelt, but can the ‘Zags defend White inside? That will be the difference in the game.
UCLA vs. Weber State: Another team that was in the Oakland region last year. The Bruins could feel somewhat snubbed, as they had the resume for a #1 seed but were dropped to a 2. However, they won’t have any trouble in their opening game. Weber State was a solid Big Sky team, but they simply don’t have enough, offensively and defensively, to beat UCLA.
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