Joe Murphy/Getty Images
MEMPHIS -- Five things we learned on Sweet 16 Friday...
1. Sunday's North Carolina-Oklahoma game could be the saving grace of a lackluster tournament, but don't fall into the trap of framing the battle as narrowly as Tyler Hansbrough vs. Blake Griffin. It's bigger than that: It's the concept of the Longtime Favorite (the Tar Heels, who've been favored to win it all for nearly nine months) against the Dominant Force (Griffin, who's staging a Carmelo-like takeover of the tournament just before he jumps into the NBA Lottery).
Is Griffin, who had 30 points and 14 rebounds against Syracuse, an unstoppable phenomenon that can't be kept out of Detroit? He has teammates, I'm aware, but their effectiveness is largely a result of the massive (and futile) effort defenses put into double- and triple- teaming the post. (Tony Crocker, who scored 28, would not have had six open threes without Griffin on the floor.) The most Big Blake was bothered on Friday against Syracuse was when he went up for a magnificent baseline dunk with three minutes left ... and scraped his cheek on the side of the backboard in the process of slamming the ball home. He ran back up court holding his face, and trainer Alex Brown said, "The thought of a concussion" -- the injury that kept Griffin out of losses to Texas and Kansas, and kept OU from being a No. 1 seed -- "was on my mind for a second." But Griffin was fine, and he's Carolina's problem now.
I asked Tar Heels guard Bobby Frasor whom, if anyone, they'd faced in the ACC that rivaled Griffin's explosiveness. No names immediately came to mind. I suggested that Clemson's Trevor Booker, who's not in the same league as Griffin, might be similarly explosive ... "But," Frasor interjected, "he's not that size. Maybe he's a mini- Griffin. I just don't know if there's anyone in the ACC that qualifies. ... Griffin is a freak, he's skilled, and he can jump out of the gym."
Carolina hasn't seen anything like Griffin this season, which means there's nothing to gauge how Hansbrough might hold up -- although the
20-25 picks that separate Hansbrough and Griffin in NBA mock drafts give some indication. But what happens when the country's most dominant player runs into the country's most talented team, top-to- bottom? There has also been a sense, ever since Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington opted to return to school for one more season, that Carolina is destined to win it all. Public opinion on the Heels wavered when they endured mid-season defensive woes, but Friday's 98-77 rout of Gonzaga showed, as Lawson said, "that we're actually defending now." A Tar Heels team that guards should be invincible, but guarding Blake Griffin in this tournament has been nearly impossible.
2. Don't worry much about Lawson's big toe against Oklahoma. After the game on Friday night, he conducted interviews with his right foot submerged in a tub of ice water, but said that it was feeling exponentially better than it did last week. "It really doesn't hurt that much right now," he said. "I was walking around after the game, and after that LSU game [on Sunday], it was tough for me to walk at all."
Lawson appears to have acclimated himself to the pain and figured out how to play in spite of it, going for 17 first-half points on 6-of-7 shooting against Gonzaga. UNC guard Danny Green says he can see where Lawson is still limited -- "Defensively, he's not able to move as good as he wants to" -- but Lawson still managed to finish with 19 points, nine assists and just one turnover. He'd prefer to keep playing uptempo games on the toe, too: "When I run more," he said, "it gets warmed up earlier and I stop thinking about it."
3. Scratch the possibility of an all-Big East Sweet 16. Syracuse is dead. There was a funny moment late in the first half, with 2:41 left, when Jonny Flynn drove to the rim, scored and was fouled by Oklahoma's Austin Johnson. Flynn's momentum took him right up to the Sooners dance team, which was seated on the baseline. He took the opportunity to scream, "That's f---ing right!" in their faces. One of the stunned dancers turned to the rest of her crew and said, "OH MY GOD!" Flynn hit the free throw to make the score 28-22, and the Orange seemed to be showing signs of life.
Less than two minutes later, it was knocked out of them. Flynn chased Griffin on a fast break with the hope of taking a charge, and got there a half-second too late. Griffin ran over him like a bus flattening a pedestrian, and still sunk the layup. Flynn lay on the floor for a few seconds, then got up, wincing and holding his lower back. The collective feeling in the arena, after watching it, was, "Oh my God." Griffin hit the free throw with 53 seconds left to put the Sooners up 36-26, and they rolled to a 84-71 win. Griffin said he didn't think the initial contact he made with Flynn was all that rough, but worried that he might have landed on 'Cuse's point guard too hard. "I kind of felt bad for him," Griffin said. We all did, Blake.
4. The league that comes out of the NCAA tournament looking the worst is the Pac-10. The SEC was already regarded as weak before the brackets came out, but the Pac-10 still had a handful of teams -- in Washington, UCLA, USC, Arizona State and Arizona -- that were regarded as potential sleepers. Only Arizona reached the second weekend, and then went down in flames against Louisville's pressure. The Big Ten redeemed itself by putting its best team, Michigan State, in the Elite Eight, and its second-best, Purdue, in the Sweet 16. The Big 12 validated itself with two teams in the Elite Eight. The ACC will ride Carolina to the finals. The Pac-10 has nothing left.
5. What did we do to deserve such lopsided basketball? On Thursday and Friday we got little redemption for the Cinderella-free first weekend, with Duke, Arizona, Syracuse and Gonzaga all flopping their way out of the dance. At halftime of Syracuse-Oklahoma here at FedEx Forum, folks on press row were examining a box score that showed 'Cuse 0-for-10 from long distance, and all they could do was shake their heads. In the back hallway, there was a telecast of the Louisville-Arizona game on -- by that time a 27-point rout that would only get uglier -- and people walked by that shaking their heads, too. They saw Gonzaga, normally a steady team, commit seven turnovers in the first 15 minutes against North Carolina. And, I at least, saw Matt Bouldin turn away from the free-throw line with 4:34 left in that half, look at the scoreboard, see 47-32, and just say, "F---." It was that kind of night, in all but the Kansas-Michigan State game in Indianapolis. It would only be fair if we received an epic Elite Eight.