CBKB: Sizing up the West
By J.P. Pelzman
The Record (Hackensack N.J.)
Syracuse. No, Syracuse wasnít expected to be in this position when the Orange began the season, but Big East Player of the Year Wes Johnson, a transfer from Iowa State, proved to be better than advertised. The Orange are hoping bulky Arinze Onuaku, one of the keys to their inside game, will be good to go after suffering a quad injury in the Big East tournament. The first-round game against Vermont recalls the time the Catamounts bounced Syracuse in the first round five years ago.
Butler. Sooner or later, one would think the Bulldogs will break through and make a deep run, and this is as good an opportunity as any. Pittsburgh still hasnít slayed all of its Sweet 16 and Elite Eight demons, Vanderbilt is vulnerable, Syracuse could be banged up and Kansas State isnít all that experienced at dealing with big-game pressure. Butler has a balanced offense and a tough defense.
Vanderbilt. Murray State isnít a soft touch in the first round, as the Racers have five players averaging from 10.3 to 10.6 points per game. Translation: It isnít easy to figure out whom to stop. Weíve already extolled the virtues of Butler, and if up-tempo UTEP gets past the Bulldogs, it can match Vanderbiltís outside scoring and inside might. Get to the Sweet 16 and Syracuse could be waiting.
Xavier vs. Pittsburgh. A potential second-round game between the sixth and third seeds, and it would be a rematch of a Sweet 16 classic from last March. Xavier blew an eight-point halftime lead, but still had a two-point lead in the final minute before Levance Fieldsí three-pointer put Pitt ahead to stay ó two days before a loss to Villanova in the East Regional final. Fields is gone, as is then-Xavier coach Sean Miller, now at Arizona.
Players to watch
Denis Clemente, Kansas State; Gordon Hayward, Butler; Ashton Gibbs, Pittsburgh; Wes Johnson, Andy Rautins, Syracuse; Matt Bouldin, Gonzaga; Jordan Crawford, Xavier; Derrick Caracter, UTEP; Jimmer Fredette, BYU; Marqus Blakely, Vermont
Minnesota. Despite a blowout loss Sunday to clearly superior Ohio State, the Golden Gophers gained confidence and their tournament bid at the Big Ten tournament, outlasting fading Michigan State before thumping Purdue in the semifinals. Tubby Smith won a national title with Kentucky, so he certainly knows how to coach at this time of year.
Oakland. The 14th-seeded Golden Grizzlies shouldnít be intimidated by playing Pittsburgh, considering Oakland had trips to Kansas, Michigan State, Syracuse and Memphis this season. They breezed through the Summit Conference tournament, winning all three of their games by double digits despite being the overwhelming favorite. Pitt sometimes feels the pressure at this time of the year, and will be relying on players who werenít go-to guys for last seasonís tourney run.
On to the Sweet 16
Kansas State, Syracuse, Butler, Xavier.