The 2009 NCAA Tournament is about as close as you can come to getting the best 16 teams in the Sweet Sixteen. The Tournament's first weekend was mostly chalk, which bored some, but for the true college basketball fan excited them for the prospect of nothing but great games. The East and West regions kick off the Sweet Sixteen tonight in Boston and Glendale, Arizona.
West Regional Semi-Final
#5 Purdue (27-9) vs. #1 Connecticut (29-4)
Instead of the talk being about basketball, UCONN has started facing distractions about alleged recruiting violations. The story broke yesterday on Yahoo Sports and has the media questioning UCONN coach Jim Calhoun. While the allegations have nothing to do with any of UCONN's current players the question of where their minds will be is a valid one. One thing the Huskies do have going for them is that they were the most impressive looking team in the opening weekend. They thrashed both Chattanooga and Texas A & M. Everyone knows about UCONN's C Hasheem Thabeet but the Huskies have other players that are critical including G A.J. Price and F Jeff Adrien.
The Boilermakers had high expectations entering the season and while overall they have had a successful season the type of basketball they have played for the past two weeks is what was expected of them all season. First they blitzed through the Big Ten Tournament and then won nail biters in the NCAA Tournament against Northern Iowa and Washington. Purdue is led by their guard E'Twaun Moore and forwards JaJuan Johnson and Robbie Hummel.
Purdue and UCONN's styles are similar, they are both grind it out teams, with very physical defenses. Where UCONN has the edge is on the offensive side of the ball, as they have more dynamic threats. I don't think the players will be distracted and I expect UCONN to move on.
Prediction: Connecticut 78, Purdue 72
East Regional Semi-Final
#4 Xavier (27-7) vs. #1 Pittsburgh (30-4)
The Panthers were challenged in both of their games last weekend. It took them all game to get past East Tennessee State and they gave up 49 first half points to Oklahoma State before pulling away in the second half. F DeJuan Blair carried them in the First Round, while F Sam Young was the catalyst in the win over the Cowboys, pouring in 32 points.
The Musketeers are looking to get back to the Elite Eight for the second year in a row. While Gonzaga has seemed to shed that label of mid-major the Musketeers from the Atlantic 10 still carry that title. That isn't really fair considering the Musketeers have had more success in the Tournament over recent years than the Bulldogs. Xavier is led by G-F B.J. Raymond and F Derrick Brown.
I think their undoing in this game will come at the hands of Panthers guard LeVance Fields. I don't think the Musketeers have the players to slow him down and that will allow Blair to have a monster game down low, sending the Panthers to their first Elite Eight since the Tournament field expanded to 64 teams.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 79, Xavier 67
West Regional Semi-Final
#3 Missouri (30-6) vs. #2 Memphis (33-3)
It's a Tigers fight when Memphis and Missouri clash in Glendale. I was skeptical of Memphis coming into the Tournament and they confirmed my skepticism with a sloppy performance against Cal-State Northridge. However, against Maryland they shot lights out and blew the Twerps out of the building. Memphis' most known player is G Tyreke Evans, but they have two beasts down low in forwards Robert Dozier and Shawn Taggart.
Missouri blew out Cornell in the First Round and then just barely outlasted Marquette in the Second Round. Missouri has been quite the surprise this year and a lot of that has to do with the magnificent coaching job done by Mike Anderson. He is already a candidate for several jobs and if Missouri can keep marching on his stock will continue to soar. Missouri is a balanced team but is definitely carried by two players, their forwards DeMarre Carroll and Leo Lyons. It will be up to their guards, Matt Lawrence and J.T. Tiller to keep Evans in check.
I like Missouri to pull the semi-upset. I think their guys down low can contend with Memphis' post players and I expect Evans to have an off night. I just don't believe in Memphis.
Prediction: Missouri 82, Memphis 80
East Regional Semi-Final
#3 Villanova (28-7) vs. #2 Duke (30-6)
The Wildcats come in riding a wave of momentum after their impressive stomping of UCLA last Saturday. There was some cause for concern after American gave the Cats all they could handle but that went away quickly. Villanova dominated UCLA from start to finish, buoyed by playing in Philadelphia. They should have the crowd advantage in this one playing in Boston. Both Villanova and Duke win games on the perimeter for the most part, but Villanova showed against UCLA that they can dominate down low when they need to.
The clash of styles between the Big East and ACC are stark. The Big East teams prefer a more physical brand of basketball, while the ACC is more finesse, and run and gun. Where I think Villanova will have the advantage tonight is with F Dante Cunningham. I think he can abuse Kyle Singler and Gerald Henderson. Duke guard Jon Scheyer has been playing really well as of late for Duke and made a key play late against Texas that propelled the Blue Devils to their first Sweet Sixteen in three years. Villanova will have to slow down Scheyer. Another key for Villanova is the play of their G Scottie Reynolds. Reynolds has struggled in the first two games of the Tournament and had his slack picked up by guards Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes. Villanova can't always count on them and if Reynolds struggles again they could be in trouble.
I know I am biased but I think a lot of people agree with me that Villanova is the favorite in this one, despite the lower seed. I love the ACC but save for Carolina it has been proven that the Big East is greater than the ACC.
Prediction: Villanova 75, Duke 70
So based on my predictions I expect the Elite Eight on Saturday to be UCONN against Missouri and a Big East battle between Villanova and Pittsburgh. I think UCONN's size will be too much for the Tigers and I expect Villanova to knock off the Panthers for the second time this season. Villanova and UCONN will be headed to the Final Four after this weekend.