Favorite: North Carolina. The Tar Heels came into the season as the heavy favorite to win it all, and probably the leading favorite to win the title coming into the NCAA Tournament. They easily dispatched of Radford in the first round, but struggled with LSU in the second round before pulling away late in the game. Wayne Ellington has been on fire so far in the Tournament, averaging 24 points on 63 percent shooting from the field and 55 percent shooting from three. Ty Lawson returned against LSU, scoring 23 points and dishing out six assists. Tyler Hansbrough dominated against Radford, but had trouble with LSU’s length inside. He is shooting just 41 percent from the field so far. Deon Thompson has been non-existent so far, while Danny Green has struggled with his shot but has still been productive. Ed Davis has been absolutely crucial off the bench, averaging 12.0 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per game. With Lawson back in the lineup – and hopefully healthy – the Tar Heels are going to be tough to beat. However, if he is not at 100 percent, this team could fall short of a title.
Cinderella: Gonzaga. Similar to the East Region, the top four seeds advanced to the regional semi-finals – leaving no true Cinderellas in the region. However, Gonzaga is a non-BCS team that would have to go through vaunted North Carolina to get to the Elite Eight. If that happens, the Bulldogs would be a Cinderella story. Gonzaga is one of the most talented teams in the country, and they do have the weapons and personnel to make a run at the Tar Heels. The Bulldogs struggled for the first 30 minutes against Akron before blowing out the Zips, and then needed a shot with 0.9 seconds remaining by Demetri Goodson to beat Western Kentucky. Matt Bouldin, as usual, has been the leader, averaging 16.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 5.5 assists in two games. Micah Downs has been solid, while Josh Heytvelt had 22 points and eight rebounds against Akron. Austin Daye also scored in double-figures in both games. Jeremy Pargo needs to be more aggressive driving to the basket, especially against UNC’s Ty Lawson.
Most intriguing personnel match-up: Oklahoma’s Willie Warren vs. Syracuse’s Jonny Flynn. With the Gonzaga-North Carolina match-up featuring interesting position battles across the board, it seemed right to head to the bottom of the region to talk about what could be the key to the Syracuse-Oklahoma game. Warren is not a true point guard, but he is the best playmaker Oklahoma has, and will need to come up big if the Sooners are to slow down the hot Orange. He can score in a myriad of ways, and has also improved defensively as the season wore on. Warren scored 16 points and dished out four assists in each of the first two games in the Big Dance, and the freshman has only turned it over three times. Flynn is one of the country’s premier point guards. He is an excellent scorer with deep three-point range who can also get to the lane on most defenders. He takes care of the ball and plays more than 37 minutes per game. Flynn is averaging 13.5 points and seven assists in the Tournament. It should be a fun battle to watch.
First-weekend knockout that will be here next year: Michigan. The Wolverines were not expected to reach the second-round in just two years under head coach John Beilein, but that is exactly what happened. They can go further next season. Guard Manny Harris and forward DeShawn Sims will be back, and will combine for one of the better inside-outside combos in the country. Shooters Zack Novak and Stu Douglass will also return, as will Laval Lucas-Perry and Kelvin Grady. Quick point guard Darius Morris will be welcomed into the fold. Clemson is another team to watch. The Tigers lose K.C. Rivers and Raymond Sykes, but five-star recruit Milton Jennings will join stud Trevor Booker down low. Demontez Stitt and Terrence Oglesby return as the starting backcourt.
All-First Weekend Team:
Guard- Wayne Ellington, North Carolina: 24.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists
Guard- Marcus Thornton, LSU: 27.5 points, 6.0 rebounds
Guard- Orlando Mendez-Valdez, Western Kentucky: 18.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, 6.5 assists
Guard- Matt Bouldin, Gonzaga: 16.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, 5.5 assists
Forward- Blake Griffin, Oklahoma: 30.5 points, 15.0 rebounds
Sixth Man- Manny Harris, Michigan: 17.0 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists
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