Favorite: Syracuse. Nothing in the first weekend of the Tournament could have possibly changed your mind about the Orange being the favorite to come out of this region. They were one of the best teams in the bracket, blowing out both Vermont and Gonzaga by an averaging of 22.5 points. The two teams combined to shoot 8-for-43 from three-point range, proving that the way to beat this Syracuse 2-3 zone is not to constantly jack from behind the arc. Syracuse has been its usual balanced self. Wesley Johnson has been the key cog for Syracuse, averaging 24.5 points and 10.0 rebounds in the first two games, including a 31-point, 14-rebound effort against Gonzaga. Andy Rautins has provided outside production, hitting eight three-pointers and averaging 17.5 points per game. Rick Jackson is averaging 8.5 rebounds on the inside, while Kris Joseph is not thriving as effectively since being thrust into the starting lineup. Arinze Onuaku is likely to return from injury against Butler, which will put Joseph back on the bench. Brandon Triche has scored in double-figures in each of the first two games, while Scoop Jardine is averaging 11.5 points off the bench. The Orange will have to handle a half-court affair against Butler, and will need to keep the Bulldogs off the free-throw line.
Cinderella: Xavier. While Butler might be more of a true mid-major sleeper, Xavier is the lower seed and has a better chance of actually making a run to Indianapolis. The Musketeers have won a couple of games at slower paces than they would prefer, and now get a chance to push the ball against Kansas State. Xavier held Minnesota to below 31 percent shooting from the field, dominating the second half against the Golden Gophers and winning by 11. In the second round, the Musketeers hit 50 percent from three and 48 percent from the field, holding off Pittsburgh late in a three-point win. Jordan Crawford has been one of the best players in the Tournament so far, averaging 27.5 points and 6.0 rebounds in two games. Jason Love and Jamel McLean have been providing inside production with points and rebounds, while Terrell Holloway has turned the ball over just three times, while averaging 9.5 points and 3.5 assists. Dante Jackson is a solid backcourt partner, hitting threes and playing defense. He can also handle the ball. The Musketeers lost their first match-up to Kansas State by 15, but they are a completely different team now. Someone besides Crawford needs to step up offensively, though, and Xavier will need to slow down Denis Clemente and Jacob Pullen.
Most intriguing personnel match-up: Syracuse’s Wesley Johnson vs. Butler’s Gordon Hayward. If Jordan Crawford and Jacob Pullen end up defending each other, that battle immediately moves to the top of the match-up rankings. However, I expect Frank Martin to stick physical 6-5 forward Dominique Sutton on Crawford. Anyway, even though Syracuse plays a zone defense and Johnson will therefore not truly guard Hayward, this match-up will be fun to watch. Hayward is one of the best forwards in the country, with the ability to get to the rim and also hit the three with consistency. He is also a very good rebounder who draws fouls at a high rate. Johnson has been one of the best players in the country, and has really come on strong in the NCAA Tournament. He is coming off of a dominant performance against Gonzaga, when he had 31 points and 14 rebounds. Hayward will need to contain Johnson if Butler is going to have any shot of winning this game.
First-weekend knockout that will be here next year: Pittsburgh, Florida. There is a lot of potential in this region heading into 2010-11. Gonzaga loses just Matt Bouldin from its starting lineup, while BYU loses frontcourt players Chris Miles and Jonathan Tavernari. Florida State will miss Ryan Reid, but the Seminoles have a very good recruiting class coming in next year. UTEP returns every player on its roster from this season’s Conference-USA champion. Pittsburgh and Florida will be top-15 teams, though. The Panthers lose only Jermaine Dixon from a team that finished second in the Big East despite being extremely inexperienced. Jamie Dixon also brings in three guards who will provide scoring punch. Florida will bring back all five starters, and welcome dominant inside force Patric Young into the fold. Casey Prather will provide athleticism on the wing.
All-First Weekend Team:
- Guard- Jordan Crawford, Xavier: 27.5 points
- Guard- Jacob Pullen, Kansas State: 24.5 points, 2.5 assists
- Guard- Jimmer Fredette, BYU: 29.0 points, 4.0 assists
- Guard- Shelvin Mack, Butler: 18.0 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists
- Forward- Wesley Johnson, Syracuse: 24.5 points, 10.0 rebounds
- Sixth Man- Andy Rautins, Syracuse: 17.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists