– #1 UCLA vs. #3 Xavier (6:40 PM): Both teams are coming off hard-fought victories in the Sweet 16. Xavier obviously was challenged by West Virginia, who took them into OT and may very well have won if Joe Alexander had been able to hit a FT at the end of regulation (81% FT) or not foul out early in OT. The Bruins were challenged by Western Kentucky, who came back from 21 down at half as Tyrone Brazelton scored 31 pts abusing Darren Collison (before Collison fouled out with 5:39 to play). The Bruins held strong at the end and won with big efforts from Kevin Love (29 and 14–no surprise) and James Keefe (18 and 12–huge surprise).
The Bruins can count on a big game from Love who finds a way to get his numbers because he knows where he needs to be. What the Bruins can’t count on is Keefe coming anywhere near those numbers. They need Collison, Russell Westbrook, and Josh Shipp to really step up their games this round. If they can get this inside/outside balance, they should control this game, but they haven’t looked that good since their opening round game against Mississippi Valley State. However, I’m not sure if that was more UCLA or their opponent. In either case, the Bruins haven’t looked like the team that most analysts predicted would cut down the nets in San Antonio.
As noted earlier, Xavier escaped with a win in their Sweet 16 game with Joe Alexander’s mistakes and some clutch 3 point shooting from B.J. Raymond. Even though Josh Duncan dominated the scoring last round, the Muskeeters are usually pretty good at spreading the ball around leading to their extremely balanced scoring averages. It will be interesting to see how they try to match up against Love, Collison, and Westbrook as that may be the key to the game.
Opening Line: UCLA -6.
Prediction: As Kevin Love said after their last game, the Bruins play has been “unacceptable”. I think that on paper (and when they are on) UCLA has all the makings of a championship team with a nice mix of experience, talent, and an inside/outside game. If they’re firing on all cylinders, the Bruins could blow this game wide open like they did in the early part of their Sweet 16 game. Unfortunately for Ben Howland, they have not been able to do that consistently. I think UCLA has have played with fire one too many times and tonight it will catch up with them. I’m going with Xavier in a hard-fought game earning a trip to the Final 4.
– #1 UNC vs. #3 Louisville (9:05 PM): This is probably the best match-up of the weekend on paper. Both teams are absolutely loaded and appear to be playing at their peak. The Tar Heels have been the most dominant team in the tournament so far while the Cardinals have matched them in dominance the past 2 rounds. Both teams absolutely crushed their very capable opponents (Washington State and Tennessee, respectively) on Thursday night.
The Tar Heels’ calling card this season has been their phenomenal offense, but in the last round they showed Tony Bennett’s Cougars that they know how to play a little D too. Offensively, Tyler Hansbrough has been solid if not spectacular although he hasn’t needed to be so far in the tournament. One of the major drivers of the Tar Heels dominance in the tournament has been Ty Lawson who appears to be back near 100%. When he gets in the open court, I’m not sure if anybody can keep up with Lawson. Although those two get all the hype, I think the key to the game for UNC will be if Wayne Ellington can hit from outside. He’s the only great outside shooter that Roy Williams has and his ability to hit from 3 will be very important against Rick Pitino’s 2-3 zone. If he is hitting, Pitino will have a decision to make: let him bomb away or go man-to-man and risk having Psycho T go off.
Louisville is peaking at the perfect time. They made a very good Tennessee team look very bad on Thursday night although the Vols PG issues certainly contributed. They don’t have quite the star power that UNC has, but Pitino’s boys (David Padgett & company) are no slouches. Padgett has a lot of help offensively as the Cardinals have another half dozen guys who can get in double figures on the right night. The key for the Cardinals will be how their defense controls UNC. It will be interesting to see how their press is able to handle Lawson and how their zone matches up against Ellington’s outside shooting.
Opening Line: UNC -5.5.
Prediction: I’m going with the Tar Heels tonight. They’ve been the best team in the country in the first 3 rounds and they weren’t even clicking offensively against Washington State. Louisville has a great team and that line is ridiculously high, but I don’t think Hansbrough will let the Tar Heels lose. He’s had a very good college career so far, but he hasn’t been able to get his team over the hump. This will be a tight game, but I think that Hansbrough will come up big down the stretch giving the Heels the slight edge. The Tar Heels were on the verge of going to the Final 4 before collapsing against Georgetown and I can’t see them letting it happen again. As an added bonus, this sets up a potential national semifinal of Roy Williams versus Kansas. . .(more on that set of Elite 8 games later)