NCAA Regional Reset: West RegionPosted by rtmsf on March 22nd, 2011
New Favorite: #1 Duke, 32-4. Duke was the original favorite, and they’re still the favorite. And with the addition of Kyrie Irving since the last time we spoke, they’re even more of a favorite, even if the freshman point guard is clearly not back to the level he was at prior to his injury. With Nolan Smith on the top of his game, Kyle Singler ready to do whatever he’s asked to do for the team, and a variety of role players ready to fill in around the edges, the Blue Devils remain the team to beat.
Horse of Darkness: #2 San Diego State, 34-2. When, exactly, can a team that is a #2 seed, with a top-10 national ranking and a 34-2 record be considered an underdog? Well, when that team has won two NCAA Tournament games in its history and is in a regional with three teams that have won a combined 183 games in the Tournament, including 22 Final Four appearances and seven championships. Throw in the timidity with which the Aztecs played down the stretch in their third round double-overtime victory over Temple, and despite SDSU’s prodigious talent, they’re a pretty significant underdog in this region.
Biggest Surprise (1st Weekend): #5 Arizona, 29-7. Well, given the Wildcats are the only team in the region to outperform their seed to this point, they’re the obvious choice. But even more surprising is how they got here, advancing to the Sweet 16 with a one-point win over Texas in a game where All-American candidate Derrick Williams had one of his worst games of the season, hitting just four-of-14 field goals, missing an additional six free throws (although he did get to the line 15 times), turning the ball over four times and fighting through some second half foul trouble. But other Wildcats stepped up, sophomore Solomon Hill and freshman Jordin Mayes in particular, and the Longhorns stepped aside, and Sean Miller’s club is still alive.
Completely Expected (1st Weekend): San Diego State. The more I think about it, the Aztecs are the only choice here. Duke’s first weekend was somewhat unexpected from the start, once it was announced that Irving would return, and their closer-than-expected win over Michigan was another bit of a surprise. Connecticut surprised a bit by showing no signs of slowing down after a grueling Big East Tournament, destroying Bucknell before pulling away from Cincinnati late. And we talked about Arizona above. By comparison, it wasn’t all that big of a surprise that the Aztecs, with no history of success in the NCAA Tournament, might falter a bit in closing out a good team. And the fact that they got through that game anyway is just about what we expected.
I’m Exceptionally Smart and Prescient: If you listened to me, you set aside a block of time on Friday afternoon to focus on Arizona and Memphis, and you were rewarded with an excellent game that had a little bit of everything you could want in a NCAA Tournament game, with the underdog getting out to an early lead, the favorite making a big charge to get back into it, and a back-and-forth, edge-of-your-seat battle down the stretch, ended by a great player making a great play in the waning moments. And the fact that it was not without a little bit of controversy is all the better.
Except When I Make Stupid Predictions: Like taking Oakland as a Sweet 16 sleeper. While the Grizzlies played Texas close enough to make it interesting, they just didn’t have the ability to keep the Longhorns from scoring at will against their defense.
First Weekend MVP: Kemba Walker, 51 points, 17 assists, 14 rebounds. While the Huskies were going to get past Bucknell no matter who was out there, it is likely that without this national player of the year candidate, Jim Calhoun and company are watching the Sweet Sixteen games from their couch. Walker had 33 points (including 16 points in the game’s last ten minutes), five assists and six rebounds in the third round matchup with Cincinnati and knocked down all 14 of his free throws, willing his Huskies on to Anaheim.
Breakout Star: Jordin Mayes, 24 points, three assists, two steals. Arizona’s freshman backup point guard got roughly the same number of minutes this weekend that he always gets (he averaged 16.5 minutes per game this weekend), but what he did with those minutes was a whole new thing. On Sunday, in particular, Mayes was crucial to the Wildcats’ upset victory over Texas, knocking down six of his seven field goal attempts and all four of his three-pointers on the way to a career-high 16 points. He also added a couple assists and a couple steals and was a rock-solid presence for UofA, even when their superstar forward Williams was struggling through the game. Without Mayes’ emergence in the bright lights of March (and without any number of other occurrences late in the game), Arizona’s season likely would have ended shy of the Sweet Sixteen.
More Home Cooking: San Diego State, 86 miles to Anaheim. While Arizona fans have roughly 500 miles to go to get to Anaheim (believe me, I know – I drove about every inch of that span last weekend), it’s the raucous Aztec fans who figure to have the biggest presence in the Honda Center this weekend. A short little jaunt up Interstate 5 and “The Show” figures to have the place rocking for the weekend. By comparison, the #1 seed Duke has to fly all the way across the country in order to continue defending their national championship.
Best Regional Semifinal Game: San Diego State vs. Connecticut, 3/24. They’re both very good games, but this one may have just a little bit more intrigue. The Aztecs faced down Jimmer Fredette a week ago in Las Vegas, but Walker is a different matchup, and it will be interesting to see how Steve Fisher chooses to defend him. We’ll also get to see the vaunted Aztec frontline against arguably the biggest and most athletic frontline they’ve faced all season. And perhaps most importantly, we’ll get to see if SDSU learned anything from their struggles down the stretch in the second round and if they’ll be calmer, cooler and more collected in the future after having survived that challenge.
Best Regional Final Game (projected): Duke vs. Connecticut. This region can’t produce anything less than a seriously intriguing regional final. Arizona vs. Connecticut. San Diego State vs. Arizona. SDSU vs. Duke? Are you kidding me? But in the end, the prospect of seeing these two behemoths playing a continent away from their homes in a quest to get their storied programs and hall-of-fame coaches back to the Final Four is just too much to pass up. Throw in the battle between All-American type guards Nolan Smith and Kemba Walker, and this game is a college hoops fan’s dream.
Top Storyline: Without a doubt, the biggest storyline is Kyrie Irving’s toe, much as it has been since early December. He’s back, and he’s showed brief glimpses of the amazing abilities he displayed prior to his injury, but we’re all waiting to see if he is able to shift gears and bring his “A” game after having missed three months of action. And even if Irving never does get back to 100% this season (a likely scenario), can he mesh with his teammates that have been there all along and still provide the Blue Devils with that extra little bit to get them over the top and advance to Houston.
Top Storyline for Contrarians: So many great programs here, so many great storylines. Duke, UConn and Arizona all trying to add to their NCAA championship banner collection, while San Diego State plays the rogue, trying to break into the big boy’s club behind head coach Steve Fisher, who has been there before. And Fisher’s joined here by the best college basketball coach in history, outside of a certain UCLA wizard, in Mike Krzyzewski, with fellow hall-of-famer Jim Calhoun along in tow and hot young commodity Sean Miller rounding out an impressive quartet. And finally we’ve got a collection of players out West who would make a darn good start to an All-American team. Nolan Smith, Kemba Walker, Derrick Williams and Kawhi Leonard? Yeah. That’ll do.
Revised Vegas Odds to Win Region: