Favorite: Pittsburgh. If not for a terrible first half against American, Villanova might be the favorite to come out of this region. As it stands, I’m not sure if there’s really a favorite at all – therefore, I tend to lean towards the team with the best chance of winning this region, and that is likely Pittsburgh. The Panthers have struggled mightily against both East Tennessee State and Oklahoma State, needing to pull out wins in the final minutes in each round. They were outrebounded on the offensive glass by ETSU 19-9, and turned the ball over 14 times against Oklahoma State. DeJuan Blair is averaging 18.5 points and 14.0 rebounds, but he was invisible offensively for much of the OSU game. Sam Young put on a show against the Cowboys, scoring 32 points. Levance Fields has a 14-to-5 assist-to-turnover ratio thus far. Ashton Gibbs has been key off the bench, averaging 9.5 points per game and hitting 5-of-6 from beyond the arc. The Panthers have been getting solid role play as well, but have had some serious problems in the first two rounds that need to be answered if this team is to win it all.
Cinderella: Xavier. With all top-four seeds advancing, there is not much room for a “Cinderella”, in its purest form. However, the only non-BCS teams remaining in the region would certainly be a sleeper and Cinderella story. Xavier came into the Big Dance struggling somewhat and even I picked them to get upset in the first round by Portland State. However, the Musketeers defeated both the Vikings and upstart Wisconsin en route to a berth in the regional semi-finals. Of course, the balanced Musketeers have not had anyone score more than 15 points and four different players have scored in double-figures. Athletic Derrick Brown and shooter B.J. Raymond are leading the way, but C.J. Anderson and Dante Jackson are also contributing at both ends of the floor. Xavier is getting good bench production, with 20 points each game coming from non-starters. With Pittsburgh’s struggles, Xavier could be poised for the upset if they shoot and rebound well.
Most intriguing personnel match-up: Duke’s Kyle Singler vs. Villanova’s Dante Cunningham. These are two of the most difficult players to defend in the country, and they will be facing off against each other. Singler is an inside-outside threat, with the ability to spot up and hit the three or get buckets down low. He is averaging 13.5 points and 8.0 rebounds per game, and has also hit five threes in the two games. Cunningham is one of the most improved players in the country, going from a reliable inside player to a very tough inside scorer who can hit a face-up jumper and also has a variety of post moves. He is averaging 21.5 points and 8.5 rebounds per game in the two NCAA Tournament wins thus far. Cunningham is shooting 16-of-27 from the field. It will be interesting to see if Cunningham can defend Singler on the perimeter and off the dribble, while it remains to be seen if Singler can stay out of foul trouble defending Cunningham down in the low post.
First-weekend knockout that will be here next year: Texas, Tennessee. Both of these disappointing preseason top-10 teams could be back in the Final Four mix as early as next year. Texas loses A.J. Abrams and Connor Atchley, but Damion James is likely to return as an All-American, while Dexter Pittman, Gary Johnson, Justin Mason and Dogus Balbay will all be back. Plus, the Longhorns are bringing in a phenomenal recruiting class, including five-star guard Avery Bradley, and talented forwards Jordan Hamilton, a five-star recruit, and Shawn Williams. Tennessee returns its top ten players, including Tyler Smith and Wayne Chism, as well as budding guard Scott Hopson. J.P. Prince and Bobby Maze will also be back. Additionally, recruit Kenny Hall is an athletic and versatile forward who can make an impact.
All-First Weekend Team:
Guard- Byron Eaton, Oklahoma State: 17.5 points, 8.5 assists, game-winning shot vs. Tennessee
Guard- A.J. Abrams, Texas: 21.5 points, 10-21 three-point shooting
Forward- Dante Cunningham, Villanova: 21.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, 16-of-27 field-goal shooting
Forward- Sam Young, Pittsburgh: 23.0 points, 10.5 rebounds
Center- DeJuan Blair, Pittsburgh: 18.5 points, 14.0 rebounds
Sixth Man- Gerald Henderson, Duke: 18.5 points, 6.0 rebounds
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