Favorite: Duke. While I don’t think that the Blue Devils are going to get to the Final Four, it’s difficult to argue against them as the favorite to advance to Indianapolis. Duke manhandled play-in winner Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the first round by 29, outrebounding the Golden Lions by 15 and shooting better than 51 percent from the field. The second round featured a more difficult test from California, but Duke pulled away late despite hitting just 17.6 percent of its threes and getting only seven points from Jon Scheyer. Scheyer’s numbers have dipped in the NCAA Tournament, with the 6-4 guard averaging 10.0 points, 1.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists, while shooting just 5-for-18 from the field. He will need to step up the rest of the way. Nolan Smith has come up big, going for 20 points against California. He is a tough defender who is very strong with the dribble, enabling him to get into the lane. The third member of Duke’s vaunted trio is forward Kyle Singler, who is putting up 19.5 points and 7.5 rebounds in the Big Dance. His inside-outside ability makes him a very difficult match-up. Brian Zoubek took advantage of his edge down low against California, producing 14 points and 13 rebounds. Lance Thomas can rebound, while the Plumlee brothers, Miles and Mason, are solid down low. Freshman Andre Dawkins can shoot the three. Against Purdue, Duke needs to take care of the ball and get production from all three of its big scorers. Defensively, keeping E’Twaun Moore out of the lane and defending JaJuan Johnson is imperative.
Cinderella: Saint Mary’s. Out of the remaining double-digit seeds, the Gaels might have the best chance of any to reach the Final Four, although they face a very difficult route in getting there. Saint Mary’s started off by handling Richmond in the second half and knocking off the Spiders by nine, outrebounding them by a whopping 23 boards. The first upset of the second round occurred when the Gaels took down Villanova, holding the Wildcats to 36.2 percent shooting. The main reason for the victories has been Omar Samhan, who has absolutely burst onto the national scene (although MMAS readers have known about him for years, no big deal). He went for 29 and 12 against Richmond, then followed that up with 32 points and seven rebounds in the win over Villanova. Mickey McConnell might be the best three-point shooter in the country; he is averaging 19.0 points in two games and has hit eight three-pointers. Backcourt mate Matthew Dellavedova is a crafty all-around player who has struggled shooting the ball in the Tournament. Ben Allen is an inside-outside scorer, while Clint Steidl is a good role player.
Most intriguing personnel match-up: Saint Mary’s Omar Samhan vs. Baylor’s Ekpe Udoh. This could be one of the marquee battles of the Sweet 16 round. Samhan has been one of the most dominant big men in the country throughout the season, scoring at will around the rim and control the glass at both ends of the floor. He can also block shots at a very high rate. Udoh, a former Michigan transfer, has completely transformed the Bears on both sides. He is an extremely athletic center and one of the best shot-blockers in the nation. Offensively, he finishes around the rim and can also beat slower big men off the dribble with his face-up game. Samhan has been a phenomenal performer in the NCAA Tournament, averaging 30.5 points and 9.5 rebounds in two games, while Udoh opened with 20 points, 13 rebounds and five assists, but struggled a bit against Old Dominion. He needs to keep Samhan from taking over around the rim.
First-weekend knockout that will be here next year: Villanova. As long as Jay Wright is the coach of the Wildcats and continues to recruit with the best of them, Villanova will always be in the hunt for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. They do lose Scottie Reynolds and Reggie Redding, but there are plenty of perimeter players to step into the starting lineup next to Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes, namely rising sophomores Maalik Wayns and Dominic Cheek. ‘Nova will need additional frontcourt help, although if Mouphtaou Yarou continues to improve and incoming freshmen Jayvaughn Pinkston can provide a boost, the Wildcats will be fine up front. Fellow Big East power Louisville will also be back in the mix.
All-First Weekend Team:
- Guard- LaceDarius Dunn, Baylor: 19.5 points, 6.0 rebounds
- Guard- Mickey McConnell, Saint Mary’s: 19.0 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists
- Guard/Forward- Frank Hassell, Old Dominion: 15.0 points, 8.5 rebounds
- Forward- Kyle Singler, Duke: 19.5 points, 7.5 rebounds
- Center- Omar Samhan, Saint Mary’s: 30.5 points, 9.5 rebounds
- Sixth Man- JaJuan Johnson, Purdue: 17.0 points, 9.0 rebounds