- 12:39 AM ET 03.31
MEMPHIS -- Poolmaster Anderson Varejao has been up all night crunching numbers, and has come to a number of important conclusions:
Our overall leader in the Tourney Blog Pool with 107 points, Danielle Battle of Washington, D.C., has Louisville winning it all, and is therefore out of the running for the big prize.
Unofficially (since Varejao didn't go to college, and is just OK with numbers) there are nine readers in the running for the tourney blog pool title. The winners in the following championship scenarios are:
• If North Carolina beats UConn: Cuong Nguyen (University of Virginia '12).
• If Carolina beats Michigan State: Jonathan Newton (University of New Brunswick '11) and Tom McCutcheon (UNC Wilmington '10).
• If Villanova beats UConn: Brendan Birns (Albany, N.Y.)
•If Villanova beats Michigan State: Jamie Furgason (Wilmington, Del.).
• If UConn beats Carolina: Erin McDonnell (Stevens '11)
•If UConn beats Villanova: Jaime Hiatt (Kansas '04)
• If Michigan State beats Carolina: Matthew Spitzley (Michigan State '09)
•If Michigan State beats Villanova: Kyle Knight (Air Force Academy '10)
I'm in 555th place (out of 1,091 brackets), by the way. Carolina was about the only thing I got right.
MEMPHIS -- The kid Carolina couldn't afford to be without was in the locker room on Sunday, wearing a suit and holding the South Regional trophy, proudly surveying the scene in front of him. Marcus Ginyard had no need to shower; he's on a medical redshirt and hasn't played since Jan. 4. One week after his last game, the Tar Heels lost to Wake Forest to fall to 0-2 in the ACC, and the early verdict on them was that, without Ginyard, their senior lockdown artist, they had little chance of defending well enough to win a national title.
But here at FedEx Forum, with a trip to the Final Four on the line, the Tar Heels withstood the superhuman force of Oklahoma's Blake Griffin, holding him to 23 points (seven under his tournament average), and forced the Sooners' guards into shooting 2-of-19 from beyond the arc in a 72-60 victory (RECAP | BOX). And Ginyard was pleased that his presence was no longer so sorely missed. "I think it's our best defensive performance that I can remember," he said. "I loved every bit of it. And I loved how everyone thought we couldn't [defend]."
Just to clarify for a moment: It's not as if Carolina has suddenly turned into 1996 Kentucky, smothering every team in its path with defensive pressure. These Heels, who are similarly loaded with NBA talent, will never be in the same league on defense. But what makes them the overwhelming favorite in Detroit is that fact that, as point guard Ty Lawson said, "we're actually guarding people now." They double-teamed Griffin without getting exploited on the perimeter, swarming to recover in time to challenge shooters Tony Crocker and Willie Warren. They did not look like the same Carolina team that was so porous in January. "I don't think [Oklahoma] was ready for that," said freshman Ed Davis. "People don't look at us as a defensive team, so that really messed with them."
Nitpicking Carolina has been pundits' favorite pastime this season, but the Heels were near-flawless in Memphis, where they played defense, Lawson looked like the nation's best point guard (he won the Most Outstanding Player award), they survived a game at an undesirably slow pace, and overcame an eight-point, six-rebound effort from Tyler Hansbrough. Hansbrough's off-night could be explained by Blake Griffin-related foul trouble, and the rest of the Heels appeared to be firing on all cylinders. Two days earlier, Gonzaga coach Mark Few, whose team had just been throttled 98-77 by the Heels, said, "If all 16 of us play at the top of our game, North Carolina wins the national championship. I just feel like, when they're playing at their highest end, they're better than the rest of us."
As we head to the Final Four, that statement still applies.
Herewith, our breakdown of a half-chalky foursome in Detroit:
South Region: No. 1 North Carolina
Tournament Identity: The Heels were Team Toe in the first two rounds, as lingering questions over Lawson's jammed right toe dominated every media session. He sat out the first-round win over Radford, but played 31 minutes against LSU in the second, scoring 23 points, and went on to be the Most Outstanding Player in Memphis, dishing out 14 assists against just two turnovers in wins over Gonzaga and Oklahoma.
Lawson is still getting treatment for the toe -- on Friday, he had his whole foot in an icebath, and on Sunday, he was icing it again -- but thinks the injury might actually be making him a better point guard. "I can't go as fast, so I have time to make the right decisions," he said. "Maybe I don't want my toe to get better."
How To Let Them Beat You: Fail to keep Lawson out of the lane. He's doing less damage in transition now, but he's still dangerous in the halfcourt, where his main attack plan is to poke through the first line of defense, then hit a pull-up jumper or create an open shot for a teammate. Sleeping on Danny Green is a bad idea, too: He's stepped up to the point where it should no longer be a surprise when he has a huge game -- he had 18 points against Oklahoma, and 13 and seven assists against Gonzaga. He makes so many big plays on the glass and in transition that he's become more of a defensive problem than Wayne Ellington.
How to Beat Them: The slowdown game didn't work for Oklahoma, which thought it might be able to grind and let Blake Griffin score 50 percent of its points. The key is to get big nights out of guards who can penetrate and challenge Carolina in transition -- and neither Austin Johnson nor Willie Warren really did that on Sunday. As improved as the Heels are on defense, they still may strugge to stop aggressive ballhanders from getting to the rim.
East Region: No. 3 Villanova
Tournament Identity: Team Clutch. The 'Cats pulled off a second-half rally to escape 14th-seeded American in the first round, then rallied to beat Pittsburgh in the Elite Eight on the greatest play of the tournament: Scottie Reynolds' dual homage to the Bryce Drew inbounds pass from 1998 and the Tyus Edney scramble from 1995.
Villanova is guard-heavy, with a frontcourt that's just 6-foot-7 and 6-8, but don't mistake the Wildcats for a finesse team. They're a gritty, physical squad that locked down on Duke to the point that Blue Devils star Gerald Henderson, who was 1-of-14 from the field in the Sweet 16, said, "That's the best defense I've seen this year, and it was every [possession]." In the Elite Eight, 'Nova did the improbable and out-toughed Pitt, winning the rebounding battle 33-28 and holding DeJuan Blair to just two offensive boards.
How To Let Them Beat You: Foul them too frequently. Reynolds' heroics will be the enduring memory of the Elite Eight, but 'Nova really beat Pitt at the foul line, going 22-of-23 while the Panthers were just 21-of-29. Guards Reynolds, Corey Fisher and Reggie Redding are hard to defend one-on-one, and unflappable from the stripe late in games. Their goal is to attack the rim as much as possible, even though they're all capable three-point shooters; against Pitt, coach Jay Wright insisted that they "don't settle for jump shots," and their early second-half surge was almost all a result of buckets in the paint.
How To Beat Them: As good as 'Nova's guards are, they've been vulnerable to frenetic pressure. The only team to defeat them twice this season is Louisville, which pressed the Wildcats into 23 turnovers -- including six by Reynolds -- in the Big East tournament on March 13. Rattle Reynolds and force him into one of his off-nights, where he's shooting a low percentage from the field and not setting up teammates, and the Wildcats are vulnerable.
West Region: No. 1 UConn
Tournament Identity: Off the floor, the Huskies were Team Drama, with coach Jim Calhoun missing their first-round win over Chattanooga because he was hospitalized for dehydration, and the entire program facing questions about alleged NCAA violations in the wake of an expose on the recruitment of Nate Miles. On the floor, though, their dominance was relatively drama-free. Their 103-47 win over Chattanooga was the third-largest rout in NCAA history (Mocs coach John Shulman said his team was hit by a "monsoon"), and although the scores against Texas A&M (92-66), Purdue (72-60) and Missouri (82-75) got progressively closer, UConn didn't sweat profusely on the road to Detroit. Previously star-crossed senior guard A.J. Price has been averaging 20 points per game in the tournament and taking the bulk of the big shots. He's their engine, despite frequently playing off the ball when freshman Kemba Walker, who was brilliant with 23 points against Mizzou, takes over the point. Forward Stanley Robinson, who rejoined the team for the second semester, has morphed from an X-Factor into a dominant force. Robinson locked down A&M's Josh Carter and Purdue's Robbie Hummel, and has averaged 14.8 points in the tourney, compared to a season average of 8.2.
How To Let Them Beat You: Guards Price and Walker are too strong with the ball to be flustered by full-court D, so pressure them at your own peril. Louisville tried it on Feb. 2 and lost 68-51 at home; Mizzou tried it in the Elite Eight and lost 82-75. On offense, if you're intimidated by the 7-3 presence of Hasheem Thabeet, and end up shooting contested jumpers instead of driving the lane, you've fallen into the Huskies' trap. Plenty of teams have: It's no fluke that UConn is ranked third nationally in defensive efficiency.
How To Beat Them: Impersonate Pittsburgh. Blair repeatedly put his shoulder Thabeet's body, scored on him and got him into foul trouble. If you don't have a physical presence to challenge Thabeet, at least try to pull him away from the basket by making him guard pick-and-pop situations and hedge on ball-screens. You'll also need a defender who can check Price off the dribble; he's 1-of-9 from long distance in his past two games, but has been deadly with floaters in the lane.
Midwest Region: No. 2 Michigan State
Tournament Identity: Team Suton (And Assorted Stars). Senior center Goran Suton said he didn't even know about the Final Four until he left Bosnia to attend high school in Lansing, Mich. Now he's responsible for leading the Spartans to one, with his understated inside game and deadly range for a big man. Suton had 11 points and 17 rebounds against Robert Morris; seven and 10 against USC, while also holding Taj Gibson to four points; 20 and nine against Kansas to match Cole Aldrich's 17 and 14; and then 19 and 10 against Louisville. Suton is sometimes a reluctant offensive force -- against Lousiville, coach Tom Izzo had to tell him, "Shoot the ball or I'm going to take you out" -- and he'll probably be the most unheralded star in Detroit. Point Kalin Lucas, a poised Motor City product who scored seven points in the final minute of a Sweet 16 nailbiter against Kansas, is more the face of the team.
How To Let Them Beat You: Allow the Spartans to impose their will, like Louisville did, succumbing to the intensity of a physical man-to-man defense that ground the Cards' running game to a halt. Izzo devised a game plan that kept Louisville from scoring a single fastbreak point, a stat that's almost unfathomable. Teams that fail to guard Suton on the perimeter will be in trouble, too; few centers are used to having to defend a Euro-style big man, and he tends to make them pay in pick-and-pop situations.
How to Beat Them: In the postgame press conference after Louisville's 64-52 loss, coach Rick Pitino said, "You're going to have to make shots against them, because they don't give you good looks." The Cards shot just 38.3 percent from the field, and didn't seem to be able to work for open looks in halfcourt situations. Teams will also need to defend the three better than Louisville did; the Spartans are only an average three-point shooting team on the year (they ranked 96th in the country, at 35.8 percent), but the Cards allowed them to make 8 of 16 attempts. If Lucas, Suton and Durrell Summers can't make treys against UConn, it could get ugly.
North Carolina 76, Villanova 70. The Wildcats' guards are too good to let this one turn into a blowout, and Wright has them defending well enough to keep the game out of the 80s ... but it all goes back to what Few said: as long as the Tar Heels play up to their potential, no one can beat them. They learned their lesson about coming out flat in San Antonio, when Kansas ran them out of the Alamodome, and won't let it happen two years in a row.
UConn 72, Michigan State 71. The Huskies, unlike Louisville, will be fine in a halfcourt battle with the Spartans. Jeff Adrien, Thabeet and Robinson are physical enough inside to outplay Suton, Raymar Morgan and Delvon Roe, and Price and Walker are better versions of Lucas and Walton. The Spartans' home-state advantage can only take them so far.
1. The play that put Villanova in the Final Four should be known as the Dual Homage. The inbounds pass to Dante Cunningham was in the same style of the bomb Valparaiso threw to Bill Jenkins -- to set up Bryce Drew -- in 1998, in that both teams entered the ball to a leaping big man rather than the shooter. And the three-quarter-court race that Scottie Reynolds went on after receiving the ball from Cunningham was reminiscent of the mad dash UCLA's Tyus Edney used to beat Missouri in 1995, in that both point guards weaved through traffic and sunk a short floater in the face of the final defender, who stood with his hands up in the lane. Even the time was nearly the same: There were 5.5 seconds left on the clock for Reynolds' rush, and 4.8 for Edney's.
What sets Reynolds' play apart from Drew's and Edney's, though, what was at stake: Nova's first trip to the Final Four since 1985 -- not just a win in the first weekend of the dance. Even if Reynolds does nothing else in this tournament, he'll forever have a place in tourney lore.
2. Pitt's national title hopes weren't just killed by Reynolds, though; in a big-picture sense, they died at the free-throw line. The Wildcats had ice in their veins, going 22-of-23 from the stripe, with the lone miss coming by Reggie Redding with 20 seconds left in the game. The Panthers, meanwhile, went 21-of-29, with DeJuan Blair, a 61.5 percent free-throw shooter on the season, going just 2-of-6. The discrepancy in accuracy was no fluke. 'Nova ranked 22nd in the country in free-throw shooting, at 74.8 percent, while Pitt ranked 229th, at 67.3. Like it did to Memphis in last year's tournament, lackluster stripe-work finally caught up to Pitt.
3. As good as Villanova looked in wins over Duke and Pitt, it looks like we're headed for a UConn-North Carolina title game. The Huskies match up well with likely Midwest Region rep Louisville -- UConn won by 17 in Freedom Hall on Feb. 2, and seems impervious to pressure -- and Carolina can outscore 'Nova in a transition game. There were times during the season where public opinion soured on both the Huskies (soon after the Jerome Dyson injury) and the Heels (when they lost to Boston College and Wake to open up the ACC, and weren't playing D) but they're now the two strongest teams in the field.
4. UConn can win it all if Stanley Robinson keeps playing like he has over the past four games. He'd fade in and out during the regular season -- like when he scored 19 at Marquette on Feb. 25, and then three against Notre Dame on Feb. 28 -- but has been locked in in the dance, acting as an explosive finisher around the basket as well as a defensive stopper. He had 13 points, six boards and four blocks against Mizzou and was a big help in withstanding the Tigers' chaotic
pressure. There isn't a team in the country that can stop Robinson, Jeff Adrien and Hasheem Thabeet at the same time when they're all playing together in the Huskies' frontcourt.
5. NCAA: Stop playing non-Final Four games in football stadiums. Their excuse is that they have to test out those regional sites for future Final Fours, but the gridiron venues are horrible for Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games. NBA arenas -- like FedEx Forum and TD Banknorth Garden -- are big enough. The backdrop in Glendale, Ariz., for the West Regional was downright eerie, just a sea of empty red seats. The photo above, from the UConn-Missouri game there, should give you a decent idea of the scenery. Even the fans who did show up seem miles away from the court, which is the complete opposite of the raucous, densely-packed settings college basketball is played in during the regular season. I understand they need to make money on this thing -- if cash were no object, then I'd put tourney games in Cameron Indoor and Hinkle Fieldhouse every year -- but it's coming at the expense of the atmosphere.
MEMPHIS -- Oklahoma freshman Willie Warren, who had been projected as a Lottery Pick in June's NBA Draft, said on Saturday that he's coming back to Oklahoma for another season. And then he hedged a little bit, saying he was "98.9 percent sure" he'd be with the Sooners next year.
"I want to play a year without Blake [Griffin] to see how good I am," Warren said. "I didn't come into college basketball to be a one-and-done player."
Warren said coach Jeff Capel has talked to him about his role as a playmaker next year, with senior point guard Austin Johnson gone, and the coach hopes Warren will take incoming freshman point guard Tommy Mason-Griffin under his wing.
But Warren also said there's a very slight possibility he'd reconsider his decision to return. "I'd have to have a pretty amazing rest of the tournament for me to do something like that," he told SI.com. "I'd have to average 30 the rest of the way. And I don't see that happening."
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.
The Tourney Playlist (Daily, free mp3s from Gorilla vs. Bear)
- 1. Wavves: So Bored
- 2. Ratatat: Mirando
- 3. Vetiver: Everyday
- 4. Bon Iver: Blood Bank
- 5. Dept. of Eagles: No One Does It Like You
- 6. Grizzly Bear: He Hit Me (Cover)
- 7. Bodies of Water: Gold, Tan, Peach ...
- 8. El Guincho: Palmitos Park
- 9. Swan Lake: A Hand At Dusk
- 10. No Age: Teen Creeps
- 11. Crystal Antlers: Andrew
- 12. Bosque Brown: Went Walking
- 13. Camera Obscura: My Modern Career
- 14. SALEM: Brustreet
- 15. VEGA: Well Known Pleasures
- 16. Crystal Antlers: Andrew
- 17. The Rosebuds: Life like
- 18. Music Go Music: Warm In The Shadows
- 19. Dan Rossen: Too Little Too Late
- 20. St. Vincent: The Strangers
- 21. Here We Go Magic: Fangela
- 22. Karl Blau: Mockingbird Diet
- 23. Chad Vangaalen: Willow Tree
- 24. Women: Black Rice
- 25. Nite Jewel: Weak For Me