Favorite: North Carolina. This comes with a disclaimer: I picked Louisville to reach the Final Four heading into the Tournament, and I still think the Cardinals will get to San Antonio, but the Tar Heels have to be the favorite right now. They were playing some of the best basketball in the country before the Big Dance began, and have continued that in the tourney, scoring more than 100 points in each of their first two games against Mount St. Mary’s and Arkansas. The games have not been close at all. Ty Lawson has been phenomenal so far, not turning the ball over yet this tournament. Wayne Ellington has been knocking down shots, while Tyler Hansbrough has been, well, Tyler Hansbrough. Deon Thompson is a factor down low, and Danny Green is a very solid role player. The Tar Heels love getting out in transition to get easy baskets off of turnovers or long rebounds. They have the ability to score in the halfcourt as well, but they are much better in a running game. Defensively, they have some question marks. They will have to solve those to get to the Final Four.
Cinderella: Washington State. With all top-four seeds advancing, there is not much room for a “Cinderella”, in its purest form. However, with UNC and Tennessee winning their respective conferences, and Louisville playing some of the best basketball of anyone in the country, the Cougars are the only team left. However, if their play in the last three halves are any indication, the Cougs are going to be a tough out. After heading into halftime tied with Winthrop in the first-round, WSU outscored the Eagles by 31 points for a blowout win. They continued that against Notre Dame, knocking off the Irish by 20 points and holding them to just 41 overall. Kyle Weaver is one of the best all-around players in college basketball, while Derrick Low can score. Aron Baynes is the main option down low, although Robbie Cowgill has been contributing. Taylor Rochestie does a little of everything. If the Cougars can keep their game against North Carolina in the halfcourt, and keep the Heels from getting up and down, they may have a shot.
Most intriguing personnel match-up: Tennessee’s Tyler Smith vs. Louisville’s Terrence Williams. Although the battle in the top half of the bracket between North Carolina’s Wayne Ellington and Washington State’s Kyle Weaver may have more star power, this match-up will pit two of the best all-around players in the country against each other. Both players can do nearly everything on the court, from scoring inside and outside to passing to rebounding to playing defense. Smith might be the most important player on the Vols; he has contributed in every way possible in the NCAA Tournament, although he can’t have a repeat of his a seven-turnover performance against Butler. Williams needs to take good shots, but when he does, he is a factor all over the court. He is extremely athletic and is difficult to defend. He is also an excellent playmaker who can create for himself and his teammates. It should be fun to watch.
First-weekend knockout that will be here next year: Notre Dame. The Irish were picked to finish in the bottom half of the conference, but they overachieved and eventually received a bye in the Big East Tournament. They bowed out of the NCAA Tournament in a disappointing way, losing by 20 to Washington State. However, they will be back next year. Rob Kurz is the only loss, meaning Luke Harangody returns on the inside, while Tory Jackson and Kyle McAlarney are back on the perimeter. Harangody is dominant down low; Jackson can do-it-all; and McAlarney is a dead-eye shooter. Ryan Ayers can really shoot the ball, while Zach Hillesland is a very solid all-around performer. Notre Dame has always been able to score; with another year of experience on everyone’s belt, the defense will be able to match the offense.
All-First Weekend Team:
Guard- Ty Lawson, North Carolina: 20.0 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 5.5 apg, 2.0 spg, 0 TOs
Guard- A.J. Graves, Butler: 19.5 ppg, 1.5 rpg, 4.0 apg, 4.5 spg
Forward- Sonny Weems, Arkansas: 25.0 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 2.0 apg
Forward- Wayne Chism, Tennessee: 16.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.0 apg, 1.5 spg, 1.0 bpg
Center- Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina: 19.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg
Sixth Man- Kyle Weaver, Washington State: 14.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 2.0 apg, 2.0 spg
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