I figured I’d get an earlier start on Friday’s Sweet Sixteen games, since I got a ton of emails from readers upset that they weren’t able to get in touch with their bookies before tonight’s games, or even worse made the wrong bets because they didn’t have my predictions yet. Man, I have a bunch of degenerate readers. I guess I should just be thankful I don’t have a stalker chasing me with duct tape, loaded guns and love letters like that guy who was after Shawn Johnson.
(12) Arizona Wildcats vs. (1) Louisville Cardinals
Favorite: Louisville (-9)
How they got here: Arizona beat (5) Utah 84-71 and (13) Cleveland St. 71-57. Louisville defeated (16) Morehead St. 74-54 before barely winning over (9) Siena, 79-72.
Keys to the game: After many (including yours truly) said Arizona should have been left out of the NCAA’s in favor of Saint Mary’s (err, San Diego St.), the Wildcats benefited from getting to play an overrated Utah squad followed by facing Cleveland St., who surprised many (but not me) by defeating Wake Forest. Even though Arizona has three players who’ll make the NBA, the Wildcats aren’t very good. Arizona lost five of six entering the Tournament, including two losses to Arizona St. and a loss at home to Cal.
However, you can’t deny Nick Wise has been incredible lately. In two Tourney contests, Wise has had 50 points, 10 assists, shot 15-for-26 from the field and 17-for-17 from the line. It’s tempting to think Wise and fellow future pros Chase Buddinger and Jordan Hill can spur Arizona to a miracle run through the tournament after losing 13 games during the regular season, but Louisville’s defense is fiercer than anything the Wildcats have faced all year, led by Earl Clark and Terrence Williams. Arizona will need Wise to be able to handle Louisville’s constant full-court pressure, and to play like they did in impressive early season wins over Gonzaga and Kansas. If the Cardinals get back to playing the way they did in the Big East Tournament, this could be a blowout.
Prediction: Whatever you think about Rick Pitino, wouldn’t you rather he coach your team after four days to prepare than some guy named Russ Pennell? Getting scared by a team like Siena is one thing, but Louisville is a far stronger team than Arizona. I’d love to see a Wildcats upset here, but it isn’t in the cards: Louisville 75, Arizona 58.
(3) Syracuse Orange vs. (2) Oklahoma Sooners
Favorite: Oklahoma (-1)
How they got here: Syracuse easily dispatched (14) Stephen F. Austin 59-44 and (6) Arizona St. 78-67. The Sooners blew out Morgan St. 82-54 and outlasted Michigan, 73-63.
Keys to the game: Oklahoma has the best college player in the nation in Blake Griffin, but Syracuse is a more balanced team. The Orange have five players who average double figures in scoring, led by guards Jonny Flynn and Eric “girl-puncher” Devendorf. Although Devendorf looks like a future felon and the fact that Jim Boeheim never sat him proves that Boeheim is a better when it comes to teaching the 2-3 zone than being a decent human being, Syracuse is a dangerous team that can beat you inside and out. That zone defense isn’t too bad lately either, just ask James Harden.
The Sooners are all about Griffin and guard Willie Warren, with a few role players including Taylor Griffin, Blake’s older brother. Wouldn’t that suck to be Taylor Griffin? You’re a 6’7″ senior, you score 9.8 points a game and will never collect a paycheck from playing professional basketball. Meanwhile, your sophomore brother is 6’10”, gets more than twice as many points and rebounds per game as you do and is about to become a multimillionaire. OK, maybe that’s just the older sibling in me talking.
Anyway, Oklahoma’s going to need Warren and somebody else to contribute if they have any hopes of winning, because Syracuse’s zone was created with the purpose of stopping dominant inside players like Griffin, so Warren must be dilligent in penetrating the zone and (that’s what she said) and the Sooners have to hit the occasional three every now and then.
Prediction: Syracuse is playing better than Oklahoma right now, and while Warren’s a good guard. the fact that the Sooners don’t have one guy who shoots higher than 40% from three-point range hurts. This will be both Griffins’ last game at Oklahoma: Syracuse 74, Oklahoma 67.
(3) Kansas Jayhawks vs. (2) Michigan St. Spartans
Favorite: Michigan St. (-1.5)
How they got here: Kansas beat (14) North Dakota St. 84-74 and (11) Dayton 60-43. Michigan St. defeated (15) Robert Morris 77-62 and (10) USC 74-69.
Keys to the game: Kansas is completely a two-man team; stop explosive guard Sherron Collins or center Cole Aldrich and you’ll beat the Jayhawks. Good luck with that. Collins has scored 57 points in Kansas’ two Tournament wins and Cole Aldrich had a 13 point-20 rebound-10 block triple-double against Dayton. With Griffin dominating all season Kansas got kind of overlooked in the Big 12 even though they’re the defending National Champs, in part because they lost to Baylor in the opening round of their conference tournament.
Michigan St. is the opposite of Kansas. No Spartan will ever be taken in the first round of the NBA draft, and Tom Izzo probably likes it that way. Not only does that mean he won’t have to deal with his players leaving early, but you always get the feeling Izzo enjoys coaching so-called blue collar teams like this, where a different guy may lead the team in scoring every game. Against Kansas it will be up to Goran Suton to control Aldrich, and Travis Walton (no relation to Luke or Bill, which won’t surprise you if you’ve seen Travis) to keep Collins from going too crazy.
Prediction: It’s tough to tell whether Michigan St. had such a hard time with USC because the Trojans were playing so well or because the Spartans just don’t have the firepower to run away from teams. This is a tough one to call, but the strength of Kansas’ conference and how well they did there (14-2), along with their future NBA talent, makes me give the nod to the Jayhawks. That, and the fact I picked them to win this game: Kansas 81, Michigan St. 78.
(4) Gonzaga Bulldogs vs. (1) North Carolina Tar Heels
Favorite: North Carolina (-8.5)
How they got here: The Zags topped (13) Akron 77-64 before beating (12) Western Kentucky 83-81 at the buzzer. The Tar Heels cruised past (16) Radford 101-58 before struggling against (8) LSU in a 84-70 win.
Keys to the game: Even though Tyler Hansbrough is in the running to win his second straight Naismith Award, the Tar Heels’ title chances rest squarely on the injured toe of point guard Ty Lawson. At full strength North Carolina is the most talented team in the nation. Did you know Larry Drew’s son (Larry Drew II, oddly enough), is a freshman guard for North Carolina?
Gonzaga is led by Josh Heytvelt, the mushroom-loving 6’11” forward who has been around as long as Hansbrough (sorry, I’m contractually obligated to put a Hansbrough’s-been-around-forever joke in every post that mentions UNC). On the subject of famous relatives, Zags point guard Jeremy Pargo is Jannero’s younger brother.
If you can’t tell, I don’t see much interesting going on in this matchup.
Prediction: Unless Hansbrough stomps on Lawson’s foot during warmups, North Carolina is going to blow out Gonzaga. I mean really, did you watch the WCC this year? The Bulldogs did beat Tennessee twice this season…oh wait, the Vols weren’t that good: North Carolina 91, Gonzaga 79.