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March 23, 2009

SCS.comThe opening round of action in the Boston region settled very little, as all four of the top seeds advanced to the round of sixteen, set to take place at the TD Banknorth Garden this Thursday and Saturday. Top-seeded Pittsburgh will take on Xavier, while Duke will battle Villanova in the opening round of games that features four teams playing relatively close to home. Thursday's winners meet on Saturday to determine who heads to Detroit and the Final Four.


(1) Pittsburgh - Jamie Dixon sure looked like a coach under pressure this weekend. With criticism starting to mount regarding his lack of NCAA tournament success— he’s never taken Pittsburgh past the Sweet 16—the Panthers fed the doubters even more ammunition. First, 16th seeded East Tennessee State came to Dayton with a historic upset in mind. The Bucs nearly pulled it off, and trailed Pittsburgh by two points with just over four minutes to play. Pittsburgh then survived a second-round upset bid by Oklahoma State, who made 10 three-pointers in the first half, by ending the game on a 10-2 run over the final 2:42 to win 84-76.
(2) Duke - After rolling Binghamton in the opening round, Duke earned a trip to the Sweet 16 by squeaking past a feisty Texas squad. Despite leading nearly the entire game, the Blue Devils could never extend its margin past 10 points, and the Longhorns eventually tied the score with 1:07 remaining. Had Damion James’ three-pointer not rattled out with less than a minute remaining, it could have meant another first-weekend exit for Duke. Instead, the Blue Devils will head to Boston to face Villanova.
(3) Villanova - Considering Villanova played its first two rounds at the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia, I’d hope that the Wildcats would make it to the Sweet 16 with ease. American gave them a real scare and even led by 10 points at half time, but Villanova rallied to take control of that game. The momentum seemed to carry over two days later, when Jay Wright’s team smacked UCLA, ending the Bruins’ bid for a fourth straight Final Four.
(4) Xavier - Remember when Portland State was a trendy upset pick over Xavier? I certainly do, because I picked it, but the Musketeers proved everyone wrong by blowing out the Vikings and then taking care of Wisconsin in a low-scoring affair. Despite struggling in the last month of Atlantic Ten play, Xavier took a very business-like approach to the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. Sean Miller and his crew have been in this position before, after all.


(1) Pittsburgh - Sam Young is shooting the ball exceptionally well from behind the arc (8-16 during first two rounds), which is good news considering his perimeter jumper has been erratic at best this season. If Young forces defenders to respect his outside game, he’ll have an easier time taking them off the dribble. Ashton Gibbs has also given Pittsburgh a lift off the bench, scoring 19 points in the first two games after playing somewhat sparingly over the course of the season. It’s important for the Panthers to get contributions from players other than Young, DeJuan Blair and Levance Fields.
(2) Duke - The shots are falling. Against Texas, Duke took just 14 threes but made seven of them, and Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler had a couple of contested daggers that took the wind out of the Longhorns in the latter part of the second half. Duke’s also finding other ways to score. The Blue Devils’ big guards and wing players are taking the ball to the hole and shooting free throws at an encouraging rate. When Duke is playing its drive-and-kick offense to perfection, it’s almost impossible to defend. Plus, Duke’s pressure defense has been effective lately, forcing Texas into 15 turnovers.
(3) Villanova - Like its Big East brethren Connecticut and Marquette, Villanova’s game plan all year on offense has been simple. Attack, attack, attack. The Wildcats don’t need to shoot the ball well from the perimeter to win. Offensively, they have the guards to penetrate into the paint and get to the free throw line. It also doesn’t hurt that Villanova usually knocks its shots down at the charity stripe. Defensively, ‘Nova has made a living off of aggressive play this year, and that seemed to intimidate UCLA into 20 turnovers on Saturday.
(4) Xavier - Does defense win championships? I have no idea. I do know that Xavier’s defense is responsible for two NCAA tournament wins, however. Portland State’s strength— three-point shooting— was neutralized last Friday, and Wisconsin couldn’t muster any type of offense in the second round Sunday. The numbers tell the whole story. Wisconsin shot 29 percent from the field against Xavier, 15 percent from three and had almost as many free throws (14) as field goals (16).


(1) Pittsburgh - DeJuan Blair has to play better than he did on Sunday against an undersized Oklahoma State squad. His teammates should take some of the blame for not getting him enough touches, as Blair took just seven shots. OSU only has one true post player, Marshall Moses, so it’s inexplicable why Pittsburgh didn’t get Blair the ball on every play.
(2) Duke - The bench has not been a key for Duke lately. The Blue Devils play only six or seven players a night, so when they run into a deeper team, someone other than the usual crew will need to contribute. David McClure has been that player at times this season, but he played just six minutes against Texas. Brian Zoubek has also failed to provide any sort of post presence, and Lance Thomas is in the starting lineup almost out of default. The leaders of this team can only carry the team so far—the bench needs to become a factor.
(3) Villanova - There’s a commom theme surrounding all of Villanova’s losses this season: turnovers. The Wildcats need to value the ball, or they’ll see results like a 93-72 loss to West Virginia (16 TO), a 56-54 defeat at the hands of Georgetown (20 TO), or a 69-55 blowout to Louisville (23 TO).
(4) Xavier - The Musketeers just need to find some offense. After losing Josh Duncan, Stanley Burrell and Drew Lavender to graduation, Xavier has had a hard time scoring this season. That’s partly because it’s relying on sophomore Dante Jackson and freshman Terrell Holloway at the point. Still, C.J. Anderson, B.J. Raymond and Derrick Brown are the focal points of Xavier’s offense in the frontcourt, and those three shot a combined 8-27 from the field against Wisconsin. For those of you unwilling to do math, that’s right around 30 percent.


(1) Pittsburgh vs (4) Xavier
Head to Head: Sam Young (Pittsburgh) vs B.J. Raymond (Xavier) - Raymond might be Xavier’s best defender, and his team will need an excellent effort from him to contain Young, the most dynamic offensive threat Pittsburgh has. The two players are molded similarly. Both can shoot the three but usually prefer to attack the basket, and they can both score in a variety of ways.
For the Panthers to win.... Pittsburgh needs to play inspired basketball. I don’t know what else to say. Offensively, Pitt has everything you could ask for: strong point guard play, a talented wing and a dominant big man, plus a productive bench. Defensively, the Panthers are more than capable. So what’s the problem? It’s impossible to say. Pittsburgh just needs to get back to its blue-collar mentality.
For the Musketeers to win.... Containing Blair and keeping off the offensive boards will be a key for Xavier. Luckily, with a wealth of big bodies, that shouldn’t be much of a problem for the powerful Musketeers. Point guard play will also be important from Jackson and Holloway. Xavier is relying on them to feed its scorers the ball and facilitate the offense.
The deciding factor: Xavier isn’t devoid of talent or overmatched in any way against Pittsburgh. Thursday will be a battle of two outstanding and experienced basketball teams. I expect a physical game in Boston, between two teams that pride themselves on their toughness. Xavier has the size to slow down Blair, but can its young guards lead the way?
(2) Duke vs (3) Villanova
Head to Head: Dante Cunningham (Villanova) vs Duke’s frontcourt - ‘Nova doesn’t have a whole lot of depth in the post after Cunningham, but that’s OK because the senior forward is having one heck of a year. Duke will attempt to defend him with a number of different players, whether it’s Lance Thomas, Brian Zoubek, or David McClure, but the Blue Devils will need to somehow counter his athleticism and versatility.
For the Blue Devils to win.... Duke needs to do what it does best. That is, spread the floor and give its main scoring threats opportunities on the offensive end. The Blue Devils also have to clamp down on defense, like they’ve done all year, and force Villanova to turn the ball over. As I said earlier, the Wildcats have been turnover-prone in their losses.
For the Wildcats to win.... The guards for Villanova must be strong with the ball against Duke’s relentless defense, and they must use their quickness to attack the hoop. The one advantage of Duke’s in-your-face defense is that it creates driving opportunities.
The deciding factor: These two teams have similar make-ups. Except Villanova has one thing that Duke does not have— Dante Cunningham. He could be the difference in what should be an extremely close game.
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