Favorite: Kentucky. With overall No.1 seed Kansas knocked out in the second round, Kentucky is the highest-seeded team left in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats have dominated so far, beating East Tennessee State by 29 in the first round and then rolling past Wake Forest by 30 points in the second round. They shot nearly 52 percent in the first round and better than 60 percent against Wake Forest, hitting a combined 22 three-pointers in the two games. Not surprisingly, John Wall has been the primary catalyst in the wins, averaging 15.5 points and 9.0 assists in two games. His ability to create his own shot whenever he wants is uncanny. However, the Wildcats are getting plenty of help from other players. DeMarcus Cousins had a poor opening round, but bounced back in the second round. He might be the best big man in the country. Eric Bledsoe hit eight three-pointers against ETSU, and then scored 13 in the second round. Patrick Patterson had 22 in the first round, but put up only four points against Wake Forest. Evan Darius Miller has been effective, going for 20 points and nine boards in the second round. With Daniel Orton blocking shots and rebounding off the bench, this team is rolling. Against Cornell, Kentucky needs to continue to defend the three-point shot, as opponents have hit just 6-of-32 three-point attempts. However, the Big Red have been supremely efficient offensively and can get hot.
Cinderella: Cornell. The story of the Tournament, Cornell has put on a tremendous display of offensive execution in the first two rounds. They have scored 165 points in only 119 possessions, which equals an unbelievable 1.39 points per possession. What makes that even more impressive is that it came against two of the best defenses in the country, Temple and Wisconsin. The Big Red are shooting 60-for-102 from the field in the NCAA Tournament, and have hit 17 three-pointers. Louis Dale has upped his scoring numbers, averaging 23.5 points and dishing out 5.0 assists. Ryan Wittman has continued his usual offensive prowess, hitting seven three-pointers and averaging 22.0 points in the first two games. Jeff Foote has provided inside balance, averaging 14.0 points and 7.0 rebounds, while Chris Wroblewski is putting up 10.5 per game. Kentucky will not go down as easy as Temple and Wisconsin did, due to the Wildcats' tremendous talent and athleticism, plus the fact that they are more of an up-tempo team than the first two opponents. However, if the Big Red continue to perform unbelievably well at the offensive end of the floor, they could give Kentucky a game.
Most intriguing personnel match-up: West Virginia’s Da’Sean Butler vs. Washington’s Quincy Pondexter. Two of the best forwards left in the Tournament, these two will battle all night. Butler might be the most clutch player in the country, hitting six game-winning shots this season. He is versatile offensively, with the ability to score in the lane and from the perimeter. Butler hasn’t shot the ball well in the Big Dance, but he still managed to average 18.5 points in the first weekend. Pondexter has blossomed into an absolute star this season in the Pac-10, carrying the Huskies offensively throughout the year. He is very athletic and can finish in transition with the best of them. He hit the game-winning shot against Marquette in the first round, and followed that up with another 18-point effort against New Mexico. West Virginia has struggled to contain penetration at times this season, and Pondexter is effective at getting to the rim and drawing fouls or finishing. On the other end, Pondexter can’t let Butler get hot.
First-weekend knockout that will be here next year: New Mexico. There are certainly a few teams that could win a couple of games next season, including Temple and Missouri. However, the Lobos are poised for another excellent campaign and won’t be upset in the second round. Darington Hobson will return as the west coast’s Evan Turner, while Dairese Gary is a physical point guard who can create. Philip McDonald can shoot. New Mexico will miss Roman Martinez, but four-star center Alex Kirk will provide inside balance, something the Lobos lacked this season. Kendall Williams is another solid recruit, and A.J. Hardemann will return as a banger on the inside. With another season on their belts, the Mountain West champs could find themselves in the Sweet Sixteen.
All-First Weekend Team:
- Guard- Louis Dale, Cornell: 23.5 points, 5.0 assists
- Guard- Eric Bledsoe, Kentucky: 21.0 points, 3.0 assists
- Forward- Da’Sean Butler, West Virginia: 18.5 points, 7.0 rebounds
- Forward- Quincy Pondexter, Washington: 18.0 points, 8.0 rebounds
- Forward- Jon Leuer, Wisconsin: 21.5 points, 6.0 rebounds
- Sixth Man- Dairese Gary, New Mexico: 20.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists