NCAA Sweet Sixteen: West Region PreviewPosted by rtmsf on March 25th, 2009
Ryan ZumMallen of LBPostSports is our NCAA Tournament West Region correspondent.
Welcome to the Mild, Mild West, which saw a grand total of three upsets in the opening twelve games, and whose Cinderella (if that term can even be used) is a five-seed that boasts the Big Ten Tournament championship.
The upside to having a predictable regional field is, of course, that four obviously superior teams emerge from the first weekend and are sure to provide high quality competition. Three of the four teams won their conference tournaments, and the one that didn’t is a #1 seed. This was the bracket that many experts said was the most accurately seeded, and it looks like they were right.
Having won their first two games by an average of 41.0 points, this has to go to UConn. The Huskies have played inspired ball and got great performances out of their great players, which is key to establishing confidence on a Tourney run. But UConn is a #1 seed, and their road is (theoretically) the easiest. Both Purdue and Missouri looked excellent in their two wins, with sound performances followed by clutch play when it mattered most. Purdue, though, would simply not have beaten Marquette if not for JaJuan Johnson (or maybe, an inadvertent toe), so if UConn is disqualified, then Mizzou is the best-looking squad right now.
I’d be previewing a Marquette/Maryland game right now if not for Memphis’ Roburt Sallie. The reserve guard just couldn’t miss against Northridge, pouring in a career-high 35 points when the Tigers looked dead in the water. He got Memphis rolling again in the Maryland win and finished with 13. For all of the superstar athletes on that team, it’s been Roburt Sallie’s grit and sharpshooting that has kept them alive. Can he keep it up? Can Memphis survive if he doesn’t?
The Northridge fiasco was a doozy and nearly the shocker of the year, but Purdue’s victory over Washington was the highest quality of exciting basketball in the West Region so far. Purdue showed how they were victorious in the Big Ten tournament this year, while Isaiah Thomas, Washington’s brilliant freshman point guard, simply refused to let the Huskies die. The 76-74 Boilermaker win was sealed by back-to-back rejections from superfreak-forward JaJuan Johnson, and even Washington fans could leave knowing that both teams left it on the floor.
I wish Jarvis Vernado had stayed out of foul trouble to have given my Upset Special a chance in hell, but Mississippi State was beaten by a superior Washington team – so this doesn’t quite qualify. The Huskies then were in turn beaten by a better all-around effort from Purdue despite battling hard, so they escape this distinction, too (although a Washington win would have given this region a Huskies-Huskies and Tigers-Tigers matchup; so close!). I guess it’s ok to call a winning team a disappointment, as Memphis’ near-collapse at the hands of Cal State Northridge sent supporters into a tailspin. By next Monday, will we look back at that game as a fluke, or an omen?
Game To Watch
The Memphis-Mizzou game will be an absolute thrill, with two high-paced teams trying to force each other into mistakes, while also looking to attack on every possession. It’s going to be a Tournament gem. But I’m predicting the winner of the West comes out of the UConn-Purdue game. Is UConn battle tested after two blowout wins? Can Purdue sustain the level of play needed to hang with a hot Huskies squad? It’s going to be a slugfest.
#1 UConn vs. #5 Purdue
The Huskies have won their first two games by an average of 41.0 points, while the Boilermakers claim a 3.5 advantage. But UConn’s opponents were certainly not the caliber of Purdue’s, and the Boilermakers can argue that they’ve accomplished more in their two nailbiters. Whatever the case, both teams boast quality rotations without over-reliance on a few stars. UConn is star-laden, yes, but the Huskies have shown that their scoring can come from anywhere and Purdue will not be able to focus their defensive energy on stopping a single player. Similarly, the Boilermakers can count on the entire roster to chip in, with E’Twaun Moore leading the way. Purdue may be a bit overmatched, yes, but they play sound defense and don’t turn the ball over – which is how they overcame a quiet night from Moore in the Washington win. Hey, the Huskies are on an absolute tear right now, but they’ve inexplicably played poorly at times this season while Purdue is gelling when they need to. If you look past this game as a foregone conclusion, you need a March Madness lesson.
#2 Memphis vs. #3 Missouri
Ok, did anybody (besides my CSUN-grad girlfriend) have Northridge upsetting Memphis in Round One? My guess is that you were like me, rocking back and forth in the fetal position hoping that Robert Dozier would just make a freaking layup. Whether it was nerves, or looking past the Matadors, or the popular cake-schedule argument, the Tigers nearly went home early before realizing they should be beating Northridge while blindfolded. They finally found their footing and won, then kept it going by avalanching Maryland – enough to quietly reassure Tiger fans, but also enough to keep them cautious. If Memphis continues to need hot shooting from reserve Roburt Sallie as they did in order to salvage both games, they’ll find trouble against their next opponent. Missouri will not afford Memphis the luxury of a slow start, easily handling Cornell and surviving a gritty Marquette team that battled back from a 16-point deficit. The Marquette game, besides providing one of the best Coach Flip-Outs of the tourney so far, provides a near-perfect segue for Mizzou as they progress from defeating a weak team to a good team. They’ve got a great one in Memphis. But it’s the higher-ranked Tigers that should be worried. Memphis dominated Conference USA with a quick press and stifling halfcourt traps, but the defense has looked rusty so far in the tournament. The best way to beat a pressing team is to press them, and Missouri’s looks sharp.