Favorite: UCLA. My pick to win the national title when the NCAA Tournament began, the Bruins are still my choice despite not playing like the best team in the country so far. That will have to change if they are going to go all the way. They dominated Mississippi Valley State in the first-round, but needed a late-game comeback against Texas A&M just to knock-off the Aggies. The game was in question until A&M’s Donald Sloan was blocked (fouled?) by two UCLA players as the clock was winding down. The Bruins have all the ingredients, but they seem to like playing in close games and then just escaping as the buzzer sounds. Kevin Love is one of the best players in the country; he can dominate inside. Darren Collison might be the best point guard in the country, while Russell Westbrook has developed into an athletic menace at both ends of the floor. Josh Shipp needs to find his shot badly and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute has to become more of a factor. The Bruins shouldn’t have much trouble with Western Kentucky, as the Hilltoppers don’t have anyone to battle inside, and I think they are simply too good to lose in the Elite Eight.
Cinderella: Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers are responsible for the Tournament’s best moment so far, when Tyrone Brazelton dribbled three-quarters down the court and pitched the ball back to Ty Rogers, who nailed a 28-foot three-pointer at the buzzer with multiple defenders in his face to knock off Drake by two points in overtime. They followed up that win with one over San Diego in the second-round, and now are just two wins from the Final Four. They will be going against one of the national title favorites in UCLA, but no one is going to count WKU out just yet. It has one of the best backcourts in the country in Brazelton and Courtney Lee, a legit NBA prospect. The Hilltoppers have plenty of capable long-range shooters who can get hot from deep, as well as solid inside players who rebound and defend. They will need to play a near-perfect game if they want to beat UCLA, though. Brazelton went for 33 against Drake, while Lee had 29 vs. San Diego. If they both put up 30-point nights, and the role players pitch-in, look out.
Most intriguing personnel match-up: Xavier’s Josh Duncan vs. West Virginia’s Joe Alexander. With the upper-half Sweet Sixteen game expected to be a blowout, the bottom half will be the marquee match-up in this region. Xavier has been one of the top teams in the country all year, while West Virginia made a late run in the postseason to get here. This individual battle will be outstanding. Both players can score in a variety of ways, and are very difficult to defend one-on-one. Alexander is one of the hottest players in the country with his excellent face-up game and athletic ability, while Duncan is arguably the best sixth man in the nation. He has had back-to-back games in the NCAA Tournament, and will need another one to keep Alexander in check. Furthermore, will Duncan be able to take Alexander into the post and get points? It should be a very interesting head-to-head match-up.
First-weekend knockout that will be here next year: Connecticut. The Huskies played some of the best basketball in the country in February, when they were without star guard Jerome Dyson. However, once he came back, the chemistry simply wasn’t the same and UConn was upset in the first-round by San Diego. Next year there won’t be any first-weekend upsets – the Huskies will be legit. Assuming A.J. Price recovers from knee surgery and Jeff Adrien returns (Hasheem Thabeet is up in the air), the inside-outside combo will be back. Stanley Robinson could have a breakout year, and the Huskies will still have plenty of perimeter firepower with Dyson, Craig Austrie and Doug Wiggins. UConn has several big men that it can throw into the paint, and stud point guard recruit Kemba Walker could make an immediate impact if Price isn’t ready to start the season.
All-First Weekend Team:
Guard- Ty Brazelton, Western Kentucky: 24.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 5.0 apg, 2.5 spg
Guard- Courtney Lee, Western Kentucky: 22.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 2.5 apg, 2.0 spg
Forward- Josh Duncan, Xavier: 18.0 ppg, 6.5 rpg
Forward- Joe Alexander, West Virginia: 18.0 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 2.0 apg, 2.0 bpg
Center- Kevin Love, UCLA: 19.5 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 5.5 bpg
Sixth Man- Gyno Pomare, San Diego: 21.0 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 3.0 spg
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