Alright, boys and girls, the tournament is back. Before I go into a sedentary state of marathon basketball watching, my first act as a member of Rumors and Rants is to bring you my comprehensive preview of Thursday’s Sweet 16 games. This should get you ready. Be on the lookout for a preview of tomorrow’s games as well.
Until then, enjoy another weekend of college basketball.
Editor’s note: The times listed behind the games are Eastern Time. All of them will be on CBS, where you can suffer through those God-awful John Mellencamp Chevy commercials.
Game 1: No. 3 Xavier vs. No. 7 West Virginia (7:10 p.m.)
How they got here: Xavier came back to beat No. 14 seed Georgia in the first round then held off an always scrappy No. 6 seeded Purdue team in the second round. Neither victory left a particular impression. But then again, there’s nothing wrong with that. The Joltin’ Joe Alexanders dispatched Arizona (dammit) in the first round then out-muscled and upset No. 2 seed Duke in the second round. That in itself is a reason to root for the Mountaineers.
Xavier will win if: It rebounds the basketball better. It’s no secret how the Mountaineers beat Duke: They absolutely demolished them on the glass (45-19). Some crack research shows that Xavier was outrebounded in each of its first two games by teams not nearly as big and physical as WVU.
West Virginia will win if: Somebody other than Joe Alexander does work. The Mountaineers go as Alexander goes, but guys like Alex Ruoff and Darris Nichols need to score consistently if they want to move on. Xavier’s defense looked great against Purdue, so it’s imperative other guys get involved in the offense.
Matchup to watch: Alexander against the world. That’s pretty much what the story is here. West Virginia relies very heavily on Alexander’s production and probably needs him to score at least 20 to win the game. Xavier, on the other hand, has five guys averaging double digits in scoring and nobody averaging more than 12. Eight players average 10 or more minutes per game. Talk about balance.
The Bottom Line: At this point in the tournament anybody can win. Why would I let that keep me from making picks, though? That’s right, I wouldn’t. I like West Virginia, 77-70.
Game 2: No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 4 Washington State (7:27)
How they got here: North Carolina blitzed both No. 16 Mount St. Mary’s and No. 8 Arkansas. Sweet mother, neither of those games were close. Washington State used a huge second half to sink No. 13 Winthrop then suffocated No. 5 Notre Dame into submission with boa constrictor defense. Oh, that’s pretty clever. I like that…boa constrictor.
North Carolina will win if: All of its players show up. Oh, and I guess Roy Williams too. Seriously, after the way the Tar Heels destroyed a pretty athletic and talented Arkansas team 108-77 in the second round, I don’t see how they lose this game. Period.
Washington State will win if: North Carolina players start getting hurt. I know what you’re thinking, “The Cougs sure did a number on Notre Dame and they like to get up-and-down just like North Carolina. So, why can’t they do it again?” I’ll tell you why. Tyler Hansbrough is better than Luke Harangody. Ty Lawson is way better than Tory Jackson and the rest of the cast is infinitely better than Rob Kurz and Co. I mean, it’s not even close. Wazzu just doesn’t have the athletes. No matter how much you want to impose a style of play, if you don’t have the horses it’s not gonna happen.
Matchup to watch: UNC’s Wayne Ellington against Wazzu’s Kyle Weaver. Ellington is a great shooter and has been playing well all tournament. As much as the Heels feed of Hansbrough’s tenacity and production, Ellington really makes their offense go. Weaver will likely get the defensive assignment on Ellington. He’s an athletic, lanky guy and a great on-ball defender. I don’t think it will be enough to stop the Heels from winning, but if Weaver can really frustrate Ellington it could keep the Cougs close.
The Bottom Line: North Carolina will not be stopped in its trek to the Final Four. I don’t think this game will be even close. I say…80-60. Wazzu can take solace in keeping UNC under the century mark. Awesome.
Game 3: No. 1 UCLA vs. No. 12 Western Kentucky (9:40)
How they got here: UCLA pounded No. 16 Mississippi Valley State (yawn) then slipped past No. 9 Texas A&M in a game they perhaps should have lost. Stupid Aggies. Western Kentucky “upset” No. 5 Drake in the first round on that amazing buzzer beater by Ty Rogers and then held off No. 13 San Diego in the second round behind the brilliance of Courtney Lee.
UCLA will win if: Kevin Love plays like he did on the first weekend. He was great. Understatement. WKU doesn’t have anybody that can really defend the versatile and crafty Love. If he gets going early and, as the great Ebby Calvin LaLoosh once said, announces his presence with authority, this game is over by half time.
Western Kentucky will win if: Courtney Lee goes crazy. Call me crazy, but I think if Courtney Lee gets going early WKU’s confidence will soar and they’ll find a way to stay in the game down to its final moments. Lee is a legit NBA prospect from Pike High School in Indianapolis. Same school as former ND wank Chris Thomas. That makes me laugh. OK seriously, if that brilliant Ben Howland defense can keep Lee out of rhythm it won’t even be close.
Matchup to watch: WKU’s Tyrone Brazelton against UCLA’s Darren Collison. Brazelton made a great, and perhaps overlooked, play against Drake when he dished off to Ty Rogers for the game-winning shot. He’s been the cog that really keeps WKU going, but he’s got a major problem when Darren Collison lines up to defend him. Collison is long and athletic and is the point man for Ben Howland’s ultra-stingy man defense.
The Bottom Line: The Toppers are definitely athletic enough to stay in the game, but history is not on their side. I don’t know the numbers exactly, but I do know that No. 12 seeds have a big goose egg in the win column against No. 1 seeds in the Sweet 16. I’d love to see WKU win and don’t want to rule it out, but my head says UCLA in a close one, 68-65.
Game 4: No. 2 Tennessee vs. No. 3 Louisville (9:57)
How they got here: Tennessee got past No. 15 American after letting the Eagles hang in the game far too long then barely held off No. 7 Butler in the second round. The Vols didn’t blow either team out. More on that later. Louisville beat Boise State convincingly (79-61) in the first round then just demolished Oklahoma (78-48) in the second round. One could say the Cardinals are playing well, couldn’t they?
Tennessee will win if: The offense gets its act together. I know, the Vols have scored 72 and 76 points in the first two games and that’s actually pretty good. But they played American and Butler. Let’s be serious here; these aren’t the two most athletic teams ever. So, why couldn’t the Vols run them out of the gym? I don’t know, exactly. I do know that if they don’t figure it out against Louisville’s outstanding defense they’re gonna be heading back to Knoxville after tomorrow.
Louisville will win if: It continues to play the same kind of defense its played in the first two games. Oklahoma is no Tennessee, but to hold a talented Big 12 team to 48 points is impressive. This is nothing new, either. The Cardinals have been doing it all year even though David Padgett and Rick Pitino’s offense get all the headlines. They’d be nowhere without that defense.
Matchup to watch: Chris Lofton against himself. It’s been well documented that Lofton’s senior season hasn’t been exactly what anyone had in mind. He’s had some serious shooting slumps that nobody saw coming from one of the nation’s top 3-point shooters coming into this year. Louisville’s defense is just too good if Lofton isn’t shooting well in this game. I think the first few shots will tell the story. If they go down, Tennessee will be OK. If they don’t, it’s going to be a long night.
The Bottom Line: This is a bad, bad time for the Vols to play Louisville. The offense has been struggling and the ‘Ville is a great defensive team. That, my friends, is what I like to call a disaster matchup. I really don’t like Tennessee’s chances of finding that missing gear against the Cardinals. Louisville moves on 78-71.