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by Matt Casey
Aside from a 16 seed winning it all, Gus Johnson making it through a game without calling someone a warrior, and Rick Pitino wearing a sweater, anything is possible in the NCAA tournament.
That being said, most teams have virtually no shot at a title. And a handful of quality teams have too many holes or obstacles to conquer. Gonzaga? Never seem to have the same edge when they’re the favorite. Kansas? Those late-season losses weren’t by accident. Arizona? Too dumb, too soft. Syracuse? Dangerous, but nine in a row is a tall order for this crew. Louisville? Face a gauntlet of a schedule. Washington? Better than most people realize, but not enough D. Oklahoma? No one to take over. Florida? Tough to ride the same momentum wave for five weeks. Kentucky? Maybe some self-doubt after getting waxed by the Gators.
Which leaves us with six true title contenders:
North Carolina – Hands down, they have the most talent in the nation, and on paper, every need seems to be covered. Raymond Felton is the penetrating point guard. Sean May is the big presence inside. McCants can spot up with anyone in the country. Jawad Williams is one of the more underrated players in the country. Jerry Manuel is a defensive stopper, albeit on a team that plays very little, and only when they feel like it. Marvin Williams is instant offense off the bench, and would probably be a lottery pick if he comes out.
Still, the Tar Heels can be had. Duke, Clemson, and Georgia Tech all showed that when you get back on defense and stymie their running game, the Heels are suspect in their half-court set. Their comeback win against Duke was a big confidence booster, but the mental makeup of this team is still a question mark. Throw in a gagging coach, and you have a recipe for disappointment. Put it this way: do you have supreme confidence in a club that couldn’t even manage to get a last-second shot away against their arch-rival despite having 16 seconds to work with?
UConn – The Huskies are kind of an odd team. Unlike last year, they really don’t have a dynamic offensive threat. They don’t scare you from three, and neither Boone nor Villanueva have the polished paint game that Okafor boasted. But Marcus Williams, who has improved dramatically, is an enormous upgrade over Taliek Brown, who, despite his best efforts, couldn’t keep UConn from the title a year ago. And their size and athleticism make them so scary. Since they can’t shoot, they use quickness to drive the lane, and then use their height advantage to make like Moses Malone and pour in the offensive rebounds. You’ve gotta figure that if they get five put-backs on every trip down the floor, one of them is going in.
Another plus for the Huskies: even though they’re the defending champs, they haven’t had the bulls-eye on their backs this season. They lost to the Tar Heels at home this year, but showed they can play with them and that game was also amid the chaos surrounding the illness of Rashad Anderson. But they have the size to handle May, and the horses to run with the track stars on Carolina. They’ll run into trouble if a team can slow them down considerably like Syracuse did in the Big East tourney, or negate their big men by packing the middle with a zone and daring the Huskies to win from the perimeter.
Duke – With JJ Redick, the Blue Devils have a guy who can win a game by himself. The key is, they don’t look for this to happen. When he drops 35, it’s because he’s not missing anything, and it’s within the flow of the game. But Duke is by no means one-dimensional. Shelden Williams can be a go-to-guy in the paint when needed, although he has problems with double teams at times which leads to turnovers. The emergence of Lee Melchioni has been huge for Duke, as they haven’t been able to rely on the shooting performance of Daniel Ewing. Melchioni will continue to get open looks because teams double Williams and pay such close attention to Redick. And more often than not, he knocks down those unmolested threes.
Duke faces two big dilemmas: their lack of size and their lack of depth. Shavlik Randolph has played better of late, although he still provides almost zero offense. That’s fine, as long as he rebounds and plays defense. Far too often, Randolph plays soft and/or disappears, leaving Williams as the only rebounding threat. Because of this, Duke gets killed on the boards against bigger teams, and in their losses this year, the main culprit was allowing the opposition to control the offensive glass. Look for this subplot if Duke meets Syracuse in the Sweet 16. The Orange out-rebounded UConn, who boast an oversized player at every position. Then again, the Blue Devils have the outside game to handle a 2-3 zone.
The thin bench, particularly at the guard spot, is the reason why the Blue Devils struggle to put teams away and occasionally blow big leads. Against Georgia Tech, the five on the floor at the end was Redick, Melchioni, David McClure, Randolph, and Williams. Earlier injuries are partly to blame for the depth issue. McClure isn’t ready to contribute anything major in big sports because he missed the middle part of the year, Randolph’s mono set him back at least a month, and the absence of Sean Dockery means Ewing gets worn out quicker as a full-time point guard. Dockery’s expected return will be a plus, although they can’t expect him to be at 100% until the regionals, if ever. Freshman DeMarcus Nelson has relapsed a bit after finding a mid-season groove. His maturation throughout the tournament is an important wild card.
Wake Forest – The two seed could be a blessing in disguise. Wake, probably rightfully so, felt they deserved a one. Now they’re an angry club with a chip on their shoulder – scary considering they didn’t need that to beat teams in the first place. And Chris Paul should be primed for a big tournament. He’ll be in search of atonement after his suspension cost Wake, although he can’t get too pumped up and let his emotions backfire. Above all, he’s gotta keep his hands to himself. Or at least where everyone can see them.
Wake’s most glaring negative is they can’t defend anyone. Ollie could probably spring for 20 on them if the stars were aligned properly. That means things could get dicey if they meet run and gun Washington in the regional finals. They won’t be able to slap a restrictor plate onto Nate Robinson. But Wake can put them in as well as they give ‘em up, particularly with the sound inside game of Erik Williams to complement Paul and Justin Gray on the perimeter.
Oklahoma State – They’d be a popular Final Four pick if it weren’t for Illinois being in the same bracket. They have plenty of experience, and are undoubtedly hungry to reach St. Louis after last season’s heartbreaker to Georgia Tech. With five seniors, they’re not gonna gag in a big spot. And in freshman JamesOn Curry, they possess one of the more exciting players in the country, despite his being saddled with one of the most curious spellings to a first name this side of Shawon Dunston. Since he entered the starting lineup, the Cowboys have been a different team. Also, never count out a team that plays tough man-to-man D, a staple of Eddie Sutton teams. They could run into trouble against bigger teams, as their tallest player who sees any significant minutes in 6’8”. But they won’t face many giants in their region.
Illinois – For awhile, they were being looked at like this year’s St. Joe’s. No one wanted to believe that the Illini were indeed this good. Well, they are. Remember, they wiped out Cincinnati last year and then gave Duke fits in the Sweet 16, so it’s not like they came out of nowhere. Some critics bemoan a lack of an inside game, but James Augustine can play, and it hasn’t hurt them much so far this year, has it?
They’ll also need only a short bus ride to play their games in Indianapolis and Chicago, and St. Louis is just down the Mississippi. Plus, the unexpected death of Coach Weber’s mother might work to their advantage in a strange karmic way – although it’s a lock that this storyline gets more overplayed than anything you hear on Z100. It’ll be interesting to see how the Illini respond to pressure. Sitting undefeated at the top of the polls certainly made them a marked team, but most people seemed to be waiting for them to lose. Now, they’re expected to make the Final Four, and picked by many to win it all. Even with a partisan crowd, how will they deal with the expectations?