by Trevor Whenham - 03/13/2006
Tournament time is just a couple of days away. Every game is exciting, but there are ten possible games in the first three rounds that have me licking my lips in expectation. The best game of the tournament is always hard to predict, but my bet is that there is a good chance that it could come from this list:
No. 6 West Virginia vs. No. 11 Southern Illinois - There is no first round game that I look forward to more than this one. It won't be an explosive, high scoring affair, but it will be interesting. Both teams use every second of the shot clock, cycling the ball around seeking an open look. West Virginia is dynamite from outside, but Southern Illinois is defensively superior. Both the Mountaineers and the Salukis have done a pretty good job of jamming their feet into the glass slipper in the last couple of years. This one will be like a life-sized chess match.
No. 4 Boston College vs. No. 13 Pacific - Pacific has won its first round game in surprising fashion against Providence and Pittsburgh, respectively, the last two years. It cruised to a conference championship, though admittedly the Big West isn't the best conference. Christian Maraker is the best Swedish basketball player you can name. Boston College played Duke very tight in the ACC final and they have Jared Dudley and Craig Smith, who are punishing scorers. Everyone is loving BC, but Pacific will be looking to rain on another parade.
No. 5 Syracuse vs. No. 12 Texas A&M - A week ago, Syracuse was a bunch of underachievers heading to the NIT. Then Gerry McNamara went insane and suddenly they're a No. 5 seed. They are riding a huge wave of momentum, but it's going to come crashing down at some point. Isn't it? Texas A&M wasn't consistent, but they did beat Texas during the season and they made their conference semifinal after crushing the life out of Colorado. I'll be watching this one to see if Texas A&M can pop the Syracuse balloon, or if McNamara can find nothing but net from deep in three-point territory in the closing seconds yet again.
No. 4 Kansas vs. No. 5 Pittsburgh - Kansas has something to prove after flaming out in the first round last year. Early in the season it looked like they weren't even going to make the tournament, but they won 15 of their last 16 and made Texas look silly in the Big 12 championship game. Pittsburgh is coming in off wins against Louisville, West Virginia and Villanova on consecutive days before falling to Syracuse. They are hot and they are battle-tested after surviving and thriving in the deadly Big East. I can make strong cases for both teams, so they're could be an explosion if they meet.
No. 4 Ohio State vs. No. 7 Georgetown or No. 10 Northern Iowa - Ohio State was the class of the Big Ten until it lost the championship game. The Big Ten is called the second toughest conference, but the teams beat each other up all season and none of them look truly dominant. This will be a great chance to see if the best team in the Big Ten is actually any good. If the Buckeyes aren't on their game then they could fall to whichever team gets through round one.
No. 1 Duke vs. No. 8 George Washington - George Washington as a No. 8 seed is the biggest insult the selection committee has dished out in years. The Colonials were ranked No. 6 in the top 25, they finished 26-2 and that second loss came in its conference tournament without the service of star center Pops Mensah-Bonsu. Pops had minor surgery on his knee early this month. If he makes it back, George Washington could give the slumping (for them) Blue Devils fits. Redick is off his game and the team has looked listless.
No. 3 North Carolina vs. No. 6 Michigan State - North Carolina was supposed to have an off year after losing the top seven scorers from its national championship team last year. Someone forgot to tell Roy Williams. He has his team on a roll, capped by a huge win over Duke at Cameron Indoor. The star has been freshman Tyler Hansborough, who is better than anyone expected and will run away with the Freshman of the Year award. The Tar Heels beat Michigan State in the Final Four last year and they will likely have to beat them again to make the Sweet Sixteen this year.
No. 2 Tennessee vs. No. 7 Wichita State - Tennessee is the least deserving No. 2 seed I can remember. Sure, Bruce Pearl is an amazing coach and he wears nice jackets, but his team has lost four of the last six. They look worn out. On the other side, the Wichita State Shockers are legitimate. Paul Miller, their center, is a pounder. He averaged almost 20 points against Illinois and Michigan State, so he can perform against Tennessee. The Vols are ripe for picking off and I will be watching to see if Wichita State can do it.
No. 1 Memphis vs. No. 9 Bucknell - The Bison shocked No. 3 Kansas in the first round last year and they are a much-improved team this year. They will be in tough against Arkansas, but if they get through that matchup, Memphis will be nervous. Bucknell will be outclassed in terms of talent, but they have the experience of last year to fall back on. They are mind-numbingly methodical and, if they get their breaks, could pull the unlikely upset. Memphis comes in with huge expectations and will be trying not to trip up. That's always fun to watch.
No. 2 UCLA vs. No. 3 Gonzaga - If you aren't drooling over this one, you don't watch enough West Coast basketball. Both teams have something to prove. UCLA and brilliant coach Ben Howland cakewalked through the Pac-10 and have to be tired of hearing how inferior the Pac-10 was. Gonzaga is looking to bounce back from repeated disappointing tournament losses, led by my unquestioned Player of the Year choice, Adam Morrison. Both teams are explosive and exciting, meaning this game could be one to tell the grandkids about.