Recapping the first weekend of madness

by March 24, 2008

By Adam Fleischer

After four straight action packed days of college basketball, we’re down to sixteen teams and left with a few days before the field gets narrowed down even further. There were plenty of last second finishes, a handful of upsets, and of course a number of top seeds taking care of business.

Some of the top seeds experienced their share of disappointment in the first two rounds. Vanderbilt (4), UConn (4), Clemson (5), and Drake (5), all were taken down by much lower seeds in the first round. UConn’s pain was felt especially by A.J. Price, who got injured during the game; there’s almost no question to me that UConn would have gotten past San Diego and then probably Western Kentucky had Price not gotten hurt. They looked like they didn’t know where or who to go to with the ball when he wasn’t out there, and that proved costly.

In round two, Pitt, whose popularity exploded by the end of the Big East tournament, couldn’t get past Tom Izzo and Drew Neitzel, who was acting like he refused to lose—and, in the end, he stood his ground on this. They present an interesting challenge to Memphis, but seem overmatched. Of course there’s also Duke’s second round K.O. at the hands of West Virginia. It was said all year, but Duke’s lack of an inside presence and their reliance on the three point shot (5-22 Saturday) were enormous factors in their loss.

The one region whose top teams were able to boast the feat of holding seeds through second round play was the East, with North Carolina leading the way. Three of the four teams remaining in the region took care of business rather easily in their first two contests: Washington State, who now look fully back on track after some of their early season momentum seemed to dwindle later in the year; Louisville, who was coming into the tournament with a full head of steam; and North Carolina, who has dropped 113 and 108 in their first two games. Tennessee, the two seed in the East, who many thought deserved a number one coming into Thursday, was unable to put away American until late and had their second game pushed to overtime by Butler and in question in the waning seconds. They’ve looked far from untouchable so far, but still are one of the most dangerous teams when they bring their best play.

Probably the biggest thing that has stuck out to me about this region, and maybe about the tournament thus far, is that UNC is not messing around. They’ve been going deep into the bench and getting contributions down the line—in addition to the normal superb play from the usual suspects. When I consider the way that they’ve been playing and then think about the ability that they have to knock it down from the stripe if they do ever end up in a close game (75.5% on the year), I start to really like Carolina’s chances of coming out of their side of the bracket. Going in, I thought that the East and Midwest were the two hardest regions, which they still may prove to be, but each region’s number one seed (UNC and Kansas) has won both games by a hefty margin. Although Villanova has without question proven their right to be in the tournament and Wash State may prove a tough challenge for the Tar Heels, I think both UNC and Kansas will be heading to the Elite Eight.

Sticking with the Midwest, I’m excited to see how a defensively focused Wisconsin team will control the key to Davidson’s success as well as one of the stories of the past weekend: Stephen Curry. Anyone who watches college basketball in March saw the kind of things this kid can do last year, and his encore has only been sweeter. Anytime you have someone who can net 40 or 30 on a given night (Curry’s outputs for rounds one and two, respectively), your team has a nice shot of winning. It doesn’t hurt Davidson’s cause to have the kind of talent around the sophomore that they seem to, especially someone like Jason Richards who has played extremely well in the first two rounds.

One thing that really helped Davidson earn a trip to take on the Badgers was Georgetown’s abysmal free throw shooting on Sunday (8 for 17—yikes). There has been much talk of how inconsistency from the line can really hurt a team this time of year, and that was no doubt reflected in the final score of that game. Memphis almost met a similar fate as the Hoyas mere hours later, as they were lucky to squeak past Mississippi State by three. In the final minutes of the game, things got close, Memphis broke it open a bit, and then Mississippi State climbed back in with the help of poor free throw shooting by the Tigers (15 of 32 for the night and 2 of 6 in the last 20 seconds). You’ve gotta think that this is eventually going to come back and bite them to the point where it ends their season and any shot at a title. If they can fix up their act a little bit from the line, then who knows, but if they can’t improve their free throws at the end of games, it’s gonna be hard to win.

UCLA also struggled to come away with the win in their second round game. And, although they didn’t show the whole UCLA-Texas A&M game in my area, the final minutes left me really liking the Bruins’ chances. Unlike Memphis’ close win, UCLA’s gave me the impression that they can and will pull away if and when things get close; I felt like the Tigers were going backwards and forcing themselves into a close game. It’s not necessarily a good sign that UCLA was fighting back for much of the night on Saturday, but I just can’t look past the ways that Kevin Love and Darren Collison were able to step up and bring the game home. Watching Love play is so enjoyable for me as a fan—he does so many things so well and differently than a lot of other guys. Western Kentucky’s win against Drake was certainly exhilarating, but UCLA is too talented and experienced to lose this Thursday night.

When it’s all said and done on Friday, I like UNC, Tennessee, Kansas, Davidson, Memphis, Stanford, UCLA, and Xavier to be left standing as we head into the weekend.