March 30, 2:55 p.m.: This NCAA tournament has lacked the unpredictable variable that has made it the compelling event it has become over the past 30 years. But this weekend brought one great game and an indelible moment – Villanova’s Scottie Reynolds's last-second shot to beat Pittsburgh – and a surprising result in Indianapolis, where Michigan State throttled a Louisville team that had surpassed 100 points just two days earlier.
The other two teams that advanced to the Final Four – Connecticut and North Carolina – were expected to win this weekend. Both teams are laden with talent and were strong preseason favorites – many figured Carolina had a chance to go unbeaten -- but their appearances are noteworthy because both have overcome significant injuries. Losing Marcus Ginyard, North Carolina’s lock-down defender, raised serious questions about whether the Tar Heels had the defensive chops to win the national title. The Tar Heels have answered those questions. Losing Jerome Dyson, one of Connecticut’s best all-around players, raised doubts about the Huskies' title aspirations and about whether U-Conn. had enough outside shooting. Outside shooting could still be an issue with the Huskies, but freshman Kemba Walker’s emergence gives U-Conn. another offensive threat in the back court. Without him, the Huskies probably don’t advance to Detroit.
Here is an early look at Saturday’s matchups:
The Spartans will be the feel-good story in Detroit. They will have the home-state fans behind them, and they bring a positive story line to an economically depressed city. It will be a factor, but it won’t be the deciding factor. There is so much attention on 7-foot-3 U-Conn. center Hasheem Thabeet, and rightfully so. “I can’t say I can tell you how we will counter him,” Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said. “You have to get a feel for him because he does some incredible things with his size.”
But he was less of a factor in U-Conn.’s victory over Missouri in the West Region final. In that game, the front-court players who truly made a difference for the Huskies were Stanley Robinson and Jeff Adrien, a tandem that combined for seven blocks. Adrien is an intimidating force, while Robinson is athletic and seems to be in the right place at the right time. Michigan State can take Thabeet out of the equation if it Goran Suton can hit perimeter jumpers like he did against Louisville in the Midwest Region final. But Robinson and Adrien remain significant factors. The rebounding battle will be fierce. Michigan State ranks first nationally in rebounding margin. Connecticut ranks third. A.J. Price will likely need to find more consistency with his shot. Walker is the wild card for the Huskies.
The Tar Heels were expected to be here. The Wildcats are playing with house money, and their best chance at a national title could be next season after a heralded recruiting class arrives. But Jay Wright’s team is playing as well as anyone and has really made strides defensively. Villanova has been a work in progress through much of the season but is playing its best at the right time. The most frightening thing for opponents of North Carolina these days is that Tyler Hansbrough, last season’s player of the year, does not have to dominate for the Tar Heels to dominate. Hansbrough was held to single digits in scoring against Oklahoma in the South Region final, but the Tar Heels still won by double digits.
It is difficult for anyone to slow Carolina’s offense these days, and the Tar Heels look like a more focused team than the one that coughed up a nine-point lead with two minutes to play at Maryland on Feb. 21. Ty Lawson’s nagging injury no longer appears to be an issue, and when he is near 100 percent, North Carolina is very difficult to slow. Danny Green’s three-point shooting could be the difference. Wayne Ellington can play better than he did against Oklahoma. Ed Davis could be a wild card. And Villanova is unlikely to match the 22-of-23 performance at the free throw line that it put up against Pittsburgh in the East Region final, but the Wildcats probably need to.
March 30, 2009; 2:54 PM ET
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