Analyzing the Madness - Sweet Sixteen Breakdown

Wed, 03/21/2007 - 1:37pm

By Adi Joseph

[img_assist|nid=3987|title=Tajuan Porter - AP Photo: Elaine Thompson|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=248|height=512]I might be alone, but I am glad Cinderella is dead.

As much as I enjoy rooting for the underdog, too often the Cinderella Sweet Sixteen team falls dead once it gets to the regional semifinals. So while the first weekend was less entertaining, the quality of the teams remaining will make next weekend extremely interesting.

I think it is wrong to enter into the Sweet Sixteen with the belief that there is no team to root for. While George Mason captured the nation’s heart with their No. 11-seed and relative anonymity, you can still root for Butler or UNLV, the last standing mid-majors, if you can even tag either with that ominous title. Or you can just pick the team you enjoy to watch.

Maybe you love UNC’s relentless pace, or maybe you prefer to grind it out with Southern Illinois. Maybe you can’t get enough of little Tajuan Porter or big Roy Hibbert. Or maybe you’re a Grizzlies fan and you want to see as much Greg Oden as is possible with hopes of having him on your team in the near future.

Whatever the case, there is no reason to let a lack of Cinderella stories defuse your interest in the NCAA tournament. The talent level remaining promises something special as we head toward one shining moment.

Let’’s take a look at those teams left reaching for the championship.

The Midwest

1. Florida Gators (31-5)

Key Players: Al Horford (13.3 ppg, 9.3 rpg), Corey Brewer (13.1 ppg), Joakim Noah (12.1 ppg, 8.3 rpg)

Strengths: The defending champs have an advantage over everyone else in a key category: experience. These are players who have done it before. They’ve also got the nation’s best front court, with the aforementioned Noah, Horford and Brewer, along with key reserves Chris Richard, Dan Werner and Mareesse Speights (keep your eye on this guy next year). Taurean Green, Lee Humphrey and Walter Hodge provide the backcourt support but the key for the Gators is to dominate the paint. Horford is a powerful post presence and Noah has a proven fire that comes to life in the biggest of situations. Florida seems to have a switch that they can turn on for the bigger games, which is always a dangerous factor in March.

[img_assist|nid=3988|title=Corey Brewer - AP Photo: Alex Brandon|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=250|height=329]Weaknesses: He’s a proven winner, and maybe that should be enough to make me change my mind, but I will probably never believe Green is a top flight point guard. He makes too many poor decisions and has questionable shot selection, notable in his shooting 6-26 in Florida’s past three losses (@Vanderbilt, @LSU, @Tennessee). Noah has also proven to be an x-factor of sorts for the Gators. He carried Florida down the stretch last season, and if he isn’t at the top of his game the Gators will struggle to repeat.

3. Oregon Ducks (28-7)

Key Players: Aaron Brooks (17.8 ppg, 4.2 apg), Bryce Taylor (14.6 ppg), Maarty Leunen (10.9 ppg, 8.3 rpg)

Strengths: No team has a better assemblage of guards. Brooks, Taylor, Tajuan Porter, Malik Hairston and Chamberlain Oguchi give the Ducks depth and talent with players capable of playing multiple positions. Similar to Villanova’s Randy Foye last year, Hairston has guarded every position from shooting guard to power forward. The Ducks use their quickness to play outstanding defense especially on the perimeter. Brooks is a true playmaker and one of the top 10 players in the entire country. Leunen is an outstanding rebounder and defender, and his presence is imperative for the Ducks to match up with bigger teams. It also helps to be playing great basketball at this point in the year.

Weaknesses: Beyond Leunen, Ernie Kent has absolutely no size. As a result, the Ducks do not match up well one-on-one against the majority of the elite teams remaining in the tournament. They also tend to struggle on the boards at times, which becomes a bigger issue on a cold shooting night. Despite their makeup of guards, a high scoring game would cause trouble for the Ducks as they play better in the half court, especially defensively.

5. Butler Bulldogs (29-6)

Key Players: Mike Green (13.9 ppg, 6 rpg, 4 apg), A.J. Graves (17.1 ppg), Brandon Crone (11.4 ppg, 4.7 rpg)

Strengths: The Bulldogs may be more settled into their game plan than any other team in the tournament. Butler is tied for the fifth slowest tempo in the country, averaging only 60.3 possessions per 40 minutes. A.J. Graves leads Todd Licklighter’s battalion of shooters, and Graves is an outstanding shooter. The key to the Bulldogs’ success is their lack of turnovers, averaging only a paltry 9.5 turnovers per game. Defensively, Butler plays tough and gritty, forcing opponents into their sluggish pace and out of rhythm. The Bulldogs also shoot an outstanding 75.9 percent from the free throw line, tops among the remaining teams in the tournament.

Weaknesses: The most blatant weakness is the lack of overall talent. The Bulldogs can’t compete with the rest of the Sweet Sixteen in terms of athleticism, skill and size. If the Bulldogs cannot set pace early, they will be run out of the building by a team like Florida. The combination of poor rebounding and shooting percentages will be their downfall. Though Todd Licklighter’s system has lead to an improbable and memorable season, no remaining team seems less likely to cut down the nets in April.

7. UNLV Running Rebels (30-6)

Key Players: Kevin Kruger (13.4 ppg, 5.2 apg), Wendell White (14.6 ppg, 6.2 rpg), Wink Adams (14.1 ppg)

Strengths: The Rebels thrive on experience, effort and defense. Lon Kruger has infused a toughness in his players that shines on the court. It also helps to have three guards as good as Kevin Kruger, White and Adams. The Rebels jack up three pointers regularly and play a style that puts pressure on the opponent on both ends of the court. Their backcourt strength gives the Rebels the talent to back up their high effort defense. In the front court, Gaston Essengue and Joel Anthony provided UNLV with two athletic, efficient and sturdy big men to give help to the guards and improve the back of the defense. Anthony is an outstanding shot blocker.

Weaknesses: While the Rebels do love to jack up threes, averaging over 20 attempts per game, they are really not that efficient from behind the arc. And while they are near impossible to beat when hot, a shooting draught can really bury this team. Relying primarily on defensive intensity, the Rebels have not played any team quite as skilled at ball handling or as ready to matchup with their guard heavy rotation as Oregon.

The West

1. Kansas Jayhawks (32-4)

Key Players: Brandon Rush (13.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg), Julian Wright (12.3 ppg, 8 rpg), Mario Chalmers (12.6 ppg, 2.5 spg)

Strengths: No team has looked quite as good as the Jayhawks thus far in the tournament. They entered as one of the hottest teams in the country and the win streak continues. They have a ton of talent with great size and athleticism, and Bill Self has made these kids commit themselves to the defensive end. As a result, no team matches up very well with Kansas. They shoot at high percentages and are overall one of the most efficient teams in the country. Russell Robinson has flown under the radar, but the cagey point guard is one of the prime reasons for the Jayhawks’ success on both sides of the ball. Other than perhaps UNC, no team wants to run with Kansas, as their speed is too much to handle.

Weaknesses: Kansas really doesn’t have many weaknesses. One way to beat them, though, is to force the ball away from Wright. When Wright has a big game, no team in the country can beat the Jayhawks. Forcing Wright out of the offense puts Mario Chalmers into the position of creator, which he is not very comfortable with yet. Self can be out coached, although I am not a believer that he cracks in pressure situations. You must force the Jayhawks to play in a slowed down tempo to beat them.

2. UCLA Bruins (28-5)

[img_assist|nid=3989|title=Darren Collison - AP Photo: Jose Sanchez|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=250|height=343]Key Players: Arron Afflalo (16.7 ppg), Darren Collison (12.8 ppg, 5.9 apg), Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (8.5 ppg, 7.7 rpg)

Strengths: Similar to last year’s team, the Bruins can really grind it out in the half court. But with Collison, not Jordan Farmar, running the show, these Bruins can fly down court on a fast break. Collison is a tremendous sparkplug with great point guard skills and incredible speed. He is incredibly efficient for a player with such a motor, too. Afflalo is one of the top shooting guards in the country, and he has a knack for playing with the game on the line. Josh Shipp was injured all of last year, but he provides a silky smooth wing with a good skill set. They don’t get talked about much, but UCLA’s bench is stacked with players who know exactly how they fit into Ben Howland’s system.

Weaknesses: Collison is the Bruins’ best player, but he is also the key to beating them. He doesn’t make many poor decisions, but if a team can pressure him and get him off his game, the UCLA offense will really struggle. None of the other starters can really create. Afflalo is prone to going cold for long stretches, and he continues to try to heat himself up because he is such a vital scorer for the Bruins. The Bruins are not playing their best ball of the season right now, and may need to heat up in hurry before March passes them by and they aren’t involved in April.

3. Pittsburgh Panthers (29-7)

Key Players: Aaron Gray (14 ppg, 9.6 rpg), Levance Fields (9.1 ppg, 4.6 apg), Mike Cook (10.6 ppg)

Strengths: Only North Carolina has as much depth as the Panthers, who run nine deep. The roster has a great mix of size and shooting. Aaron Gray has established himself as one of the best 7-footers in the country, and his rebounding and post play are essentially for the make-up of the Panthers. On the perimeter, Jamie Dixon has some tough nosed defenders who can shoot, too. Antonio Graves and sixth man sensation Ronald Ramon can light it up from behind the arc, while Mike Cook and Sam Young provide the athleticism that Pitt teams have lacked in the past. Young is an x-factor for the Panthers, and when he plays well, Pitt simply doesn’t lose. The backbone of the team is still the defensive intensity, which continues at relentless levels.

Weaknesses: The biggest weakness for Pitt is their inability to cope with transition teams. Young and Cook aside, the Panthers don’t have the athleticism or speed to keep up with a faster team. Carl Krauser was the only player that this team lost from last season, and yet Krauser will be sorely missed as no one on this year’s team can create off the dribble like Krauser and no one has developed into a true go-to scorer. As a result, the Panthers do not respond well when they face a team of strong defenders, which doesn’t bode well in this region.

4. Southern Illinois Salukis (29-6)

Key Players: Jamaal Tatum (15.1 ppg), Randall Falker (12.4 ppg, 7.7 rpg), Tony Young (9.8 ppg)

Strength: It seems to be a repetitive notion in this bracket, but the Salukis are the true grind-it-out team. Essentially, coach Chris Lowery has stacked a team full of athletes, taught them how to play staunch defense, and showed them just enough offense to get by. Tatum is one of the best leaders and players in the country, and he also gets a nod for his outstanding locks. However, it’s Falker that is the key to this team’s success, giving Lowery an outstanding post option who can only further slow the game down and frustrate opponents. The Salukis’ outstanding defensive pressure forces opponents out of their games, and they do all they can to keep the pace of the game slow and grinding. It may be an eyesore, but it is effective.

Weaknesses: The Salukis have only topped 75 points twice this year. By virtue of playing in the Missouri Valley, Southern Illinois rarely has to try to keep up with a faster team, but that could be a major issue in the tournament. In Kansas can control the pace early, the Salukis will be run off the court, as they cannot score with the big boys. In fact, beyond Tatum and Falker the Salukis lack any true offensive weapons, made even more true if Matt Shaw is unable to play. This team seems to be a big-time scorer away from a Final Four.

The East

1. North Carolina Tar Heels (30-6)

[img_assist|nid=3990|title=Tyler Hansbrough - AP Photo: Chuck Burton|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=250|height=315]Key Players: Tyler Hansbrough (18.6 ppg, 7.9 rpg), Brandan Wright (14.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg), Ty Lawson (10.5 ppg, 5.6 apg)

Strengths: No team runs faster or more often than the Tar Heels. North Carolina plays at a frantic pace and can do so because they literally run 11 deep. Essentially, when his starters get tired, Roy Williams can put in an entire unit of bench players and still feel comfortable running his team. Ty Lawson and Tyler Hansbrough are the keys for Carolina’s success. Lawson is the fastest player in college basketball, and his speed at the point sparks everything for the Heels. He has played outstanding basketball lately, and when he is on they are tough to beat. Hansbrough is the rock underneath, providing dominant post play and giving Carolina a consistent scorer. Defensively, the Tar Heels are as good as any team in the country with their athleticism.

Weaknesses: Hansbrough is their only top flight scorer. Wright is super athletic but he makes some bad decisions at times and shows his immaturity too often. Their wings are their weakness, as Reyshawn Terry lacks confidence and Wayne Ellington is susceptible to poor shot selection. If you force the wings to beat you, the Tar Heels will struggle. When Hansbrough is on the bench, the team chemistry is off, so he cannot afford to get into foul trouble.

2. Georgetown Hoyas (28-6)

Key Players: Jeff Green (14.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg), Roy Hibbert (12.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg), Jonathan Wallace (11 ppg)

Strengths: This team has size to go on for days. Hibbert has emerged as the second best 7-footer in college basketball. He has improved his post play and is a defensive monster who can really control the paint. Jeff Green is the most versatile player in the country. Everything runs through Green, who uses his great court vision to control the tempo. No team plays a better half-court offense than the Hoyas. They run a slightly altered Princeton offense that is predicated on great passing and the ability to finish. Defensively, their size and athleticism creates tons of matchup issues for other teams, as they can push around opposing offenses. Jonathan Wallace is as good a shooter as there is in college basketball when he’s hot.

Weaknesses: Georgetown has struggled with on the ball pressure all season. Because they rely on the half court offense, if they can’t get set and comfortable they will struggle to score. Wallace and Jessie Sapp are good players but neither is a true point guard. The lack of a true point has made turnovers a huge problem for the Hoyas. Defensively, they can struggle to keep pace with a team that likes to run. Essentially, the team they match up worst with in this tournament is North Carolina, a bad sign for a team in UNC’s region.

5. Southern Cal Trojans (25-11)

Key Players: Nick Young (17.6 ppg), Gabe Pruitt (12.4 ppg, 4.2 apg), Taj Gibson (12.1 ppg, 8.6 rpg)

Strengths: It’s good to see that the world is waking up to the skill of Nick Young. Young is one of the most versatile and talented swingmen in the country, with a dazzling array of finishing moves around the basket and a sweet stroke. Gabe Pruitt had a slow start after a suspension, but the junior point guard has come on very strong lately. Both Young and Pruitt have first round hopes in their futures. Taj Gibson is one of the finest freshmen in the country, and his hustle, determination and rebounding making him an invaluable force. The key to this team is that Tim Floyd uses his talented, lanky athletes to play some of the best defense in the nation, keying off big fast break opportunities where Young and Gibson really shine.

Weaknesses: Size will be their downfall. The Trojans simply cannot match up against teams with the size of UNC or Georgetown properly. Rebounding has been an issue all season, and to indicate the size deficiency, Tim Floyd stuck 6-5 Daniel Hackett out on 6-9 Kevin Durant. Against smart, turnover-free teams the Trojans will struggle to utilize their athleticism to full effect, as they don’t really have a great half court offense. They rely on Young too much at times, although he is a pretty good guy to rely on.

6. Vanderbilt Commodores (22-11)

Key Players: Derrick Byars (17 ppg, 5 rpg), Shan Foster (15.6 ppg), Dan Cage (11.1. ppg)

Strengths: Vanderbilt is loaded up with talented swingmen. Byars is one of the best and most unheralded players in the nation. He is strong and skilled and can take over a game down the stretch, as he proved against Washington State. Cage is a deadly marksman and three point shooting has been the Commodores calling card all season, jacking up 24 bombs a game. All five starters can shoot, and with good ball movement they tend to find the best look. Ross Nelter provides the Commodores with a big man who can rebound and shoot the three, the perfect fit in Stallings’ system. Vandy can really rack up steals with their aggressive perimeter defense. They also manage to control the ball rather well on their side.

Weaknesses: Vandy will struggle against more athletic teams because they themselves are not all that athletic. However, the big issue for the Commodores is their three point shooting. If a few players fall into shooting slumps early, Vandy will find itself in a major hole. Defensively, they aren’t very tough, and a strong post player can dominate inside. Rebounding can be an issue as well, as the wings are relied on heavily to crash the boards.

The South

1. Ohio State Buckeyes (32-3)

[img_assist|nid=3991|title=Greg Oden - AP Photo: Al Behrman|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=250|height=362]Key Players: Greg Oden (15.6 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 3.4 bpg), Ron Lewis (12.2 ppg), Mike Conley Jr. (10.6 ppg, 6.2 apg)

Strengths: Oden qualifies as a strength himself. He’s the best big man in the country, with incredible quickness and a defensive instinct that completely sets him apart from the rest of the pack. Conley has displayed a great feel for the game himself, with a knack for getting to the basket and great passing ability. The key for the Buckeyes though is their shooting, lead by Lewis, Daeqwon Cook, Jamar Butler and Ivan Harris. The shooters carried the offense before Oden was healthy enough to play, and now serve as spark plugs as the focus has shifted to Oden. It is to their credit that the Buckeyes have not been even mildly “upset” this season, with their only losses coming on the road to Florida, UNC, and Wisconsin.

Weaknesses: Beyond Oden, the Buckeyes are very weak up front and on the boards. Othello Hunter has provided valuable minutes but beyond him OSU has a focus on perimeter players. On a team as young as this, a lack of tournament experience could be an issue. Pulling Oden away from the basket has been an issue at times as well. But the key is to keep Mike Conley out of the lane, which is much easier said than done. If you prevent Conley from creating, the Ohio State offense can struggle.

2. Memphis Tigers (32-3)

Key Players: Chris Douglas-Roberts (15.4 ppg), Joey Dorsey (8.7 ppg, 9.7 rpg), Jeremy Hunt (13.6 ppg)

Strengths: The Tigers have enviable depth. They run right along with UNC and Pitt as the deepest teams in the nation with a nine-man rotation featuring three talented big men, two point guards, and four skilled wings. Defensively, you won’t find a team that is much better at ball pressure. The Tigers are athletic and skilled and committed to defense, which allows them to lead the nation in points allowed per possession. This is a team with someone to fill every roll, and their depth allows them to recover from any player having an off night. If Douglas-Roberts is too hurt to play against Texas A&M, John Calipari will simply sub in Hunt, regularly a sixth man, to fill the void. Calipari is one of the best coaches in the country, always a factor in March.

Weaknesses: The biggest knock on the Tigers is that they play in such a weak conference that they are never tested. I don’t really buy that. However, offensive efficiency is a huge problem for the Tigers. Primary creators Antonio Anderson, Andre Allen and Willie Kemp all have very questionable shot selection and are not the types of players a team would want to rely in key moments of a game. Big men Kareem Cooper, Robert Dozier, and Joey Dorsey have all been very inconsistent for Calipari this season. Free throw shooting has been a huge issue for the Tigers as well.

3. Texas A&M Aggies (27-6)

Key Players: Acie Law IV (18.2 ppg, 5.1 apg), Joseph Jones (13.4 ppg, 6.8 rpg), Dominique Kirk (7.3 ppg)

Strengths: No team in the country is as efficient as the Aggies. They are top ten in the nation in both points scored and points allowed per possession. For this reason, it has proven impossible to take the Aggies out of a game. Josh Carter, Kirk and Law provided the team with three marksmen from behind the arc, with Carter being one of the nations top shooters at 50.3% from three. They have great athleticism and know how to force opponents to play their slower style of game. And Acie Law, if you haven’t heard of him, is the best clutch player in the country and he can dominate late in a game, a huge factor considering how hard it is to pull away from the Aggies. It’s nice that the Aggies get to play in San Antonio, too.

Weaknesses: Jones and Antanas Kavaliauskas are the Aggies primary big men, but both have a tendency to find their way into foul trouble. Against top teams, the Aggies will need at least one of those two on the court at all times. The Aggies also have a tendency to sit back and watch Law score at times, which really hurts their efficiency. If Law has a bad day or they put too much pressure on him early, it could be a rough game for the Aggies. Billy Gillespie is the least experienced remaining coach, which might end up being a factor as well.

5. Tennessee Volunteers (24-10)

Key Players: Chris Lofton (20.7 ppg), JaJuan Smith (15.3 ppg), Dane Bradshaw (5.6 ppg, 4.7 apg)

Strengths: When they are hot, Tennessee can bury a team with their three pointers. The collection of guards Bruce Pearl has at his disposal is one of the finest units in the nation. Lofton, specifically, may be the best shooting guard in college basketball and is almost certainly the purest shooter. He has infinite range and can drop 25+ points without batting an eye. Defensively, the Vols use their tremendous guards to trap opponents and force turnovers at any given chance. Big men Wayne Chism, Duke Crews and Ryan Childress provide enough backing for the press to be efficient. Bradshaw is the team’s consummate leader and he is an incredibly efficient player, with 16 assists and only one turnover in the first two rounds.

Weaknesses: The Vols don’t outrebound anyone. Their big men are not the best rebounders and too often they run a four guard rotation, leaving the boards open for the taking. This becomes an even bigger issue when the shots aren’’t falling, and Tennessee has dug itself in big holes early in games a few times this year because of poor shooting. Sloppy play is still an issue as this is a relatively young team and freshman point guard Ramar Smith is susceptible to poor decision making.

Game Notes: Anyone that watched Mississippi State destroy Florida State Tuesday night got a chance to see a team that will be VERY good next year. I fully expect an NCAA appearance for the Bulldogs, provided Jamont Gordon returns for his junior year… I look for Syracuse to emerge in the NIT on the backs of senior Demetris Nichols and freshman Paul Harris, who I love despite his inconsistent play… Purdue’s Carl Landry proved that he is a great post player in the Boilermakers’ loss to Florida. He’s got great skills and an NBA ready body, and measurements may be crucial for him… Arizona couldn’t have asked for a much more disappointing season, though they out performed Alabama and LSU who had similar top 10 preseason hype… If Duke loses Josh McRoberts, they will have a major lack of size next season. McRoberts has every reason to stay, as well, as his stock has fallen. Still, money can be awfully tempting… The decisions of Hasheem Thabeet and Spencer Hawes, the top two big men not to play in the post season, will be very interesting. If I were in their shoes, I’d work my stock up again and stick around on my young and promising team… Eric Maynor is special. And VCU will be a trendy pick next year for good reason… Have a great Sweet Sixteen weekend, see you next week.

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