Five Burning Questions

While most everyone is still recovering from one of the most exciting opening weekend’s in NCAA Tournament history, as hard as it is to believe, the Sweet 16 is set to tip-off again Thursday.

As you get ready for another exhilarating weekend of basketball action, here are the five most burning questions heading into this weekend’s games:

1. Is Northern Iowa The New Favorite In The Midwest?

It’s funny, but just a few short weeks ago we were calling the Midwest the “Bracket of Death,” as Kansas, Ohio State and Georgetown seemed set to duke it out in St. Louis for the right to get to the Final Four. Only here we are ready to tip-off, and Kansas and Georgetown will be watching the action from the comfort of their couches, just like you and I will be.

With those two college basketball super powers out of the equation, has a new one emerged? Is Northern Iowa now the team to beat in this region?

Think about it. Michigan State is without their best player, guard Kalin Lucas (Although we should all know by now to never, ever, doubt a Tom Izzo coached team). Ohio State has hardly been impressive over their last half dozen games. Tennessee will be the underdog in their game. So why not Northern Iowa?

Remember also, that the Panthers rank in the top 10 in college basketball in free throw percentage, fewest turnovers and fewest points allowed. It’s simple math really, if you do all those things well, you’re going to be in every game you play.

So could this team be another George Mason from 2006? Maybe, but if so, it’d be in Final Four acumen only. This Northern Iowa team is already better than that one was, regardless of what happens going forward.

2. Will Cornell Be Able To Keep Up With Kentucky?

For all the talk about Northern Iowa last weekend, Cornell was just as impressive, if not more so. But when they line up against Kentucky on Thursday night, it will be an entirely new ball-game.

We all know what the Wildcats have: Size, strength, agility and athleticism, amongst a bounty of other skills. They’ve got the highest paid (and arguably) best coach in the game. Basically, they’re a professional team taking the court in a college uniform. And they’re nothing like Cornell has seen all year.

Sure the Big Red played at Kansas earlier this season, and even nearly pulled off the upset. But remember, there’s a big difference between a mid-week game in December, and a Sweet 16 matchup in March. There is no way Kentucky will be overlooking their Ivy League counterparts, and Cornell definitely won’t be creeping up on anyone this weekend.

Remember though, this game will be played in Syracuse, just a mere few miles from the Cornell campus. Meaning, that if the Big Red can keep this game close, they’ll have 40,000 people cheering for them all game long.

But will it be enough against the tournament’s best remaining team?

3. Can St. Mary’s Center Omar Samhan Keep Up His Heroics?

Amongst a bunch of already great stories, Samhan is the talk of this tournament. Not only is he a heck of a player on the court, but he’s lively, interesting and gregarious off it. And he’s been a hit.

But the Baylor frontcourt he’ll be going up against Friday is no joke. Ekpe Udoh, Quincy Acy, Anthony Jones and the suddenly red-hot Josh Lomers provide the size, skill and depth that the Gaels have yet to see so far. Udoh in specific is a feared shot blocker, averaging almost four a game.

It’s a little unrealistic to expect Samhan to score 30 points against Baylor like he did against Villanova. But the Gaels will need at least 20 to keep up.

Is their biggest man, up for his biggest challenge of the season?

4. Staying in the South

Can Duke Exorcise Their Tournament Demons? They’re the team that everyone loves to hate. They’re the Duke Blue Devils.

But for all that animosity, Duke really hasn’t been all that good in recent tournaments. This is the first year they’ve been a No. 1 seed since 2006, and haven’t been to a Final Four since 2004. In between they’ve had tournament disappointments scattered all over their resume. Could this be the year things change?

It won’t be easy, as on Friday, they’ll go up against a feisty Purdue team that might have lost its best player, but hasn’t lost its fight to compete. They’ve won two close games already and won’t be afraid of Coach K’s boys. Should Duke win, they’ll get either Baylor or St. Mary’s.

The path for Duke won’t be easy, but this is the best Blue Devils team we’ve seen in half a decade.

Coach K and his boys are running out of excuses.

5. Can Syracuse Stay Hot?

With all the chatter about all the teams listed above, our old friends from Syracuse got a bit lost in the shuffle. Not only did they beat an underrated Vermont team in their opener, but were fantastic against a Gonzaga crew that was ranked in the top 25 for virtually the entire season. It’s hard to imagine this team performing any better than they did in their 87-65 win over the ‘Zags on Sunday. They did it all: Played great defense, made the extra pass and hit their open jumpers. Wes Johnson even added 31 points and 14 rebounds just for good measure.

But now, as they get ready to take on Butler in the West Regional in Salt Lake City, a new question has emerged. When, if ever, will the Orange get back Arinze Onuaku? Coach Jim Boeheim announced at a Wednesday press conference he wouldn’t be playing Thursday, and his status for Saturday has to be highly questionable at this point.

It’s important to note that the Orange should be able to get by Butler without Onuaku. But they won’t be hoisting a championship trophy without him.

To read all of Aaron’s work, including his detailed predictions of this weekend’s Sweet 16 games, please visit him at www.aarontorres-sports.com. Also, for his thoughts on all things sports, including on this weekend’s NCAA Tournament action, be sure to follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres

While most everyone is still recovering from one of the most exciting opening weekend’s in NCAA Tournament history, as hard as it is to believe, the Sweet 16 is set to tip-off again Thursday.

As you get ready for another exhilarating weekend of basketball action, here are the five most burning questions heading into this weekend’s games:

NCAA Tournament: Round Two Recap

After an exciting opening round of the NCAA Tournament, it seemed all but impossible that the excitement could be topped when Round 2 tipped off on Saturday. Only it was was.

Here are the bet and brightest, that the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament had to offer.

Best Game: Northern Iowa-Kansas

No if’s, and’s or but’s about it, this one was the best game of the weekend by far.

Northern Iowa and Kansas had everything you could ever want from an NCAA Tournament game: A small school going up against one of college basketball’s established powers; As much excitement and tension as any game in recent memory (was anyone on the edge of their seat for just about the last 10 minutes of this game? Because I sure was); A great comeback from a championship caliber team; And ultimately the most shocking result of this young tournament.

But here’s the question: How big of an upset was this really? Remember, Northern Iowa returned five starters off a team that played in the NCAA Tournament last year, narrowly losing to Purdue in the First Round. They had the No. 2 scoring defense in college basketball this year, allowing only 54 points a game. And they went 28-4 during the regular season, and won their final three games before the tournament by at least 15 points.

This one may have an upset to you and me (and made us rip up our brackets in the process). Just don’t tell the kids from Northern Iowa this one was an upset. They won’t believe it.

Best Team Performance of the Weekend: Cornell

We touched on this one a little in the First Round recap, but it’s worth repeating. The Big Red were nothing short of phenomenal this weekend, blitzing two teams that’d been ranked in the top 25 all year. And like Northern Iowa, watching them play, it was the Big Red, not their opponents who seemed to think that they were the favorites.

With two wins under their belts, Cornell goes to Syracuse this weekend to take on Kentucky, in the Sweet 16 on Thursday.

Has there ever been a matchup between two teams that are so seemingly different?

Best Individual Performance: Omar Samhan, St. Mary’s

Samhan was nothing short of spectacular against Villanova on Saturday, scoring 32 points and grabbing seven rebounds, just two days after toasting Richmond for 27 and 11. Not bad for a guy that few had heard of just a week ago.

In the process, Samhan displayed every trait that NBA General Manager’s drool over when evaluating big men: Quick feet, soft hands, a softer touch around the hoop, and the ability to pass out of the low post.

With St. Mary’s heading to Houston to take on Baylor this weekend, Samhan has at least one more game before his college career is over. But he’s also got the beginnings of what looks to be a bright professional future as well.

Best Coaching Performance: John Calipari, Kentucky

Whether you love or hate Calipari (and outside of Kentucky those feelings are definitely mixed), no coach out there knows how to get players to perform this time of year quite like he does. I guess it makes sense that 2010 marks the fifth straight year a Calipari coached team has reached the Sweet 16, with his clubs reaching the Elite Eight or beyond in 2006, 2007 and 2008 as well.

And after two wins by a combined 59 points over the weekend, Calipari’s ‘Cats are just starting to roll.

After their victory Saturday, Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio had this to say about Coach Calipari’s crew: “I’ve been in the ACC for 10 years. That’s (Kentucky) as good a basketball team as we played against in the 10 years I’ve been here.

Well that’s certainly not the kind of praise you hear from the opposition very often. But then again, when your John Calipari at this time of the year, you’re probably used to it.

Worst Coaching Performance: Jay Wright, Villanova

Look its hard not to love what Jay Wright has done during his time at Villanova, as no one does more with less than he does.

But Wright just didn’t have his best showing Saturday against St. Mary’s. And truthfully, anyone who saw the Wildcats opener against Robert Morris knows that Villanova could have (and maybe should have) lost that game too.

But here’s the bigger question about Villanova’s stink bomb Saturday afternoon: How did Scottie Reynolds (84 percent foul shooter) and Corey Fisher (77 percent foul shooter), only combine to shoot five free throws the entire game. Even more embarrassingly, why did they continue to shoot from the perimeter, as the two went just 5 for 24 from the field?

I have a feeling those are questions that Wright will be asking himself for a very, very long time.

Five More Teams That Are Rolling Into The Sweet 16:

Syracuse: Arinze who? The Orange made HSBC Arena in Buffalo their personal boxing ring, as they beat both Vermont and Gonzaga to a pulp, on their way to the Sweet 16. Imagine what they’ll be like when they do get Arinze Onuaku- their starting center- back in the lineup this weekend? Can someone say, Final Four?

Kansas State: Another set of Wildcats (is every team nicknamed the Wildcats in this tournament?) got physical with BYU and put them away late, thanks in a big way to Jacob Pullen’s 34 points. This season marks Kansas State’s first trip to the Sweet 16 since all the way back in 1988, a year when several of their current players weren’t even born.

Washington: Finally (finally!) the Huskies look like the team that everyone had in their preseason top 15. The truth is, if Washington keeps playing the way they have in their opening two rounds, West Virginia could be their latest upset victim this weekend.

Tennessee: All hail Bruce Pearl. It seems like every time we begin to doubt the Tennessee coach, he comes up even bigger and better than we could have ever imagined. Forget the Volunteers victories over Kansas and Kentucky this season, Tennessee had their biggest win Saturday, when they advanced to their third Sweet 16 in four years. Who says Tennessee is just a “football school?”

Baylor: Remember everyone’s favorite dark horse team to make it to the Final Four? Well amidst all the chaos on Saturday, the Bears quietly advanced to their first Sweet 16 in school history. Is their first ever Elite Eight in the immediate future too?

Five More Players Who Deserve Some Praise:

Wes Johnson, Syracuse: Yes, he was the Big East Player of the Year, but Johnson saved his best performance of 2010 for Sunday’s victory over Gonzaga, when he scored 31 points and added 14 rebounds. Johnson was already considered an elite NBA prospect, but now that pro stock seems to be going through the roof.

Korie Lucious, Michigan State: Who needs Kalin Lucas, when you’ve got Korie Lucious? The low scoring sophomore hit the biggest shot of his Michigan State career Sunday, a game-winning, 3-pointer at the buzzer to propel the Spartans to a victory over Maryland. With Lucas expected to be out this weekend and beyond, this might not be the last time we hear Lucious’ name.

Chris Kramer, Purdue: Apparently Kramer got quite offended about being labeled a defensive player. The 6’3 senior scored 17 points in Purdue’s overtime victory over Texas A&M Sunday, extending his career in West Lafayette at least one game. Purdue will face off with Duke this weekend.

Eric Bledsoe, Kentucky: Don’t sleep on Kentucky’s other…other…freshman. The Wildcats fourth leading scorer on the season has never played better than he did this weekend, when he scored 29 points in the Wildcats opener, followed by a 13 point, five assist performance Saturday.

Ronald Nored, Butler: For all the talk about Gordon Hayward, Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack, it was Nored who came through the biggest for the Bulldogs in their Second Round victory over Murray State. He scored 15 points and had six assists, not to mention a three point play in the final seconds, which sealed the victory.

Finally…

Check back to HoopsAddict.com on Wednesday, as we reveal the Five Biggest Questions Heading into the Sweet 16.

To read all of Aaron’s additional work, make sure to stop by his site, www.aarontorres-sports.com. Also, for his opinions on all things sports, follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres

NCAA Tournament: Round One Recap

The first round of the 2010 NCAA Tournament is officially in the books, with the action coming to an end late Friday night, as Maryland beat Houston.

But from the opening tip of Thursday’s games, fans were treated to some of the most exciting college basketball action in modern tournament history, as 11 of the 32 games were decided by five points or less, with three going into overtime.

Let’s take a look back now, at the good and bad, pretty and ugly and everything in between in Round 1.

The Biggest Winner: The Fans

Experts are calling Thursday’s opening day the best in the history of the tournament, and it’s hard to disagree, as several games came right down to the wire, and two of the first three needed extra time to decide them.

Amongst the highlights were BYU’s double overtime win over Florida, Robert Morris’ near shocker of Villanova, Murray State’s buzzer beating win against Vanderbilt and much more, including higher seeded teams like Wisconsin and Tennessee holding on for dear life.

The Most Surprising Team…In A Good Way: Ohio

Wow. What else can you say, but wow? Not just because Ohio beat everyone’s favorite dark horse Final Four team in Georgetown- a team with three or four future NBA players- but because of the way they did it.

Ohio not only won Thursday night, they absolutely dominated the Hoyas from the opening tip-off. They shot an incredible 58 percent from the field, 56 percent from three (13 of 23) and 77 percent from the foul line, turning a game in which they were big underdogs, into a laugher late in the second half. Not only did the Bobcats beat Georgetown, they embarrassed them by 14 points.

The story of the game was the play of Indiana transfer Armon Bassett who finished with 32 points as well as his teammate and point guard D.J. Cooper, who tallied 23 points and eight assists.

This all, by the way, from an Ohio team who finished ninth in the MAC regular season standings, never won more than two games in a row between Christmas and March, and needed a conference tournament run just to be in the NCAA Tournament.

I guess there really is a reason they call this tournament March Madness.

The Most Surprising Team… In A Bad Way: Villanova

Yes, they won, which is more than a lot of other higher seeded teams can claim. But, what a truly disappointing effort, from a team that is one of the most experienced in the tournament.

The Wildcats played their opening round game against Robert Morris, lethargic, lazy and disinterested, and needed some spotty officiating down the stretch to get out of their opener with a win (I have my opinions on all this, but I’ll save it for another day). And to make matters worse, Villanova’s two best players- and supposed leaders- Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher, were benched to start the game, for what Coach Jay Wright deemed, “Minor Teaching Points.” Whatever that means.

Regardless, hopefully Thursday was the wake up call Villanova needed. Because if they play on Saturday against St. Mary’s like they did Thursday, it’s going to be a short March stay for the Wildcats.

Best Coaching Job: Steve Donahue, Cornell

You could make a case for any number of guys: Ohio’s John Groyce, Old Dominion’s Blaine Taylor, even Robert Morris’ Mike Trice in defeat. But today, we’re giving the edge to Steve Donahue at Cornell, who not only beat Temple, but beat his former mentor too, Owls coach Fran Dunphy.

What made Cornell’s win so surprising, was the ease with which they made it look. The Big Red jumped out to an early lead against Temple, and never let them get comfortable. They were more prepared, got to every loose ball, and just seemed better on offense and defense than Temple. Basically, if you took an average basketball fan who knew nothing about these two teams, they’d have thought Cornell was the No. 5 seed and Temple the plucky underdog.

Either way, it’ll be interesting to see how Cornell matches up with a struggling Wisconsin team on Sunday, and to see if they can pull another upset against the Badgers. Then again, with the way they played Friday, would it really even be an upset?

Worst Coaching Job: Rick Barnes, Texas

I know Barnes had to deal with some injury issues this year, but still. There might not be a single coach who routinely gets less out of his talent annually than Barnes does.

Watching Texas’ game against Wake Forest, the Longhorns not only looked ill-prepared, but at times, like they were on another planet, as Wake point guard Ish Smith sliced and diced them, ending the game with a near triple double (19 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists).

Even when Texas did put together a comeback to force overtime, they squandered an eight point lead in the extra period, and missed crucial foul shots down the stretch to lose.

It was another short March in Austin, a trend that is becoming all too routine this time of year. And after awhile, it’s hard to blame the guys on the court.

Stars of Round 1:

Jimmer Fredette, BYU: Hoops Addict told you to watch out for Fredette, and he obliged, putting up 37 points on 13-26 shooting in BYU’s double overtime victory over Florida.

It’ll be interesting to see what he has in store Saturday afternoon, as the Cougars take on Kansas State, a team that you know will be happy to run up and down and make this a high-scoring game. This one will be nothing, if not entertaining.

Indiana Transfers: We already mentioned Armon Bassett’s heroics for Ohio against Georgetown, but what about his former teammate Jordan Crawford? Crawford scored 28 points, and added six rebounds and five assists in Xavier’s victory over Minnesota Friday afternoon.

With Bassett and Crawford shining this March, we’ve got to ask ourselves: What kind of dynasty could Kelvin Sampson be putting together at Indiana right now? If only he could keep his phone dialing fingers to himself…

Omar Samhan, St. Mary’s: Samhan looked like a man against boys on Thursday against Richmond, as the St. Mary’s center had the easiest 29 point and 11 rebound performance you’ll ever see. What made the whole thing even more impressive was that he did it in just 28 minutes because of foul trouble.

Maybe more importantly, Samhan poses a huge (Pun definitely intended) problem for Villanova on Saturday afternoon. The one thing Villanova simply cannot account for is a big guy who can score, and Samhan most certainly fits that bill.

Could St. Mary’s be in store for another shocker Saturday?

Ish Smith, Wake Forest: We already mentioned it, but it’s worth repeating, 19 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists. Never a bad line for a 5’11 point guard. Right?

John Calipari, Kentucky Coach: Whether you love or hate Calipari (and believe me, there are plenty of people on both sides of that fence), you can’t deny that there isn’t a coach who has his team better prepared this time of year.

In his last four years at Memphis, Calipari’s resume looked like this:

Elite Eight in 2006

Elite Eight in 2007

National Championship Game Runner-Up in 2008

Sweet 16 in 2009

And his Kentucky team opened this tournament with maybe the most impressive opening round performance of all, a 100-71 beat down of hopeless and hapless East Tennessee State.

There’s still a lot of time between now and the National Championship game in early April. But could this year finally be Calipari’s one shining moment?

Running Down Ten Second Round Games, In Two Sentences Or Less:

No. 10 St. Mary’s vs. No. 2 Villanova, Saturday, 1:05 p.m.: If both teams play the way they did Thursday (St. Mary’s great, Villanova not so much), we could be in line for the first upset of the second round, just one game in.

No. 9 Northern Iowa vs. No. 1 Kansas, Saturday, 5:40 p.m.: The nation’s No. 2 scoring defense (Northern Iowa) goes against college basketball’s No. 1 overall team. This one culd be closer than you think.

No. 11 Washington vs. No. 3 New Mexico, Saturday, 5:50 p.m.: Despite the seeding, Washington actually comes into this game as the favorite, after their victory over Marquette Saturday. Guess the Pac-10 wasn’t so bad after-all, huh?

No. 7 BYU vs. No. 2 Kansas State, Saturday, 8:10 p.m.: Set the TIVO, because a trio of great guards (Fredette, Kansas State’s Denis Clemente and Jacob Pullen) could make this one an instant classic.

No. 9 Wake Forest vs. No. 1 Kentucky, Saturday, 8:15 p.m.: A lot of brackets could be busted if Kentucky were to lose here. John Wall vs. Ish Smith is worth the price of admission alone.

No. 8 Gonzaga vs. No. 1 Syracuse, Sunday, 12:15 p.m.: Gonzaga’s got the scorers inside to beat Syracuse, especially if the Orange are still without Arinze Onuaku. But the start time sure doesn’t help Gonzaga (9:15 A.M. Spokane time).

No. 10 Georgia Tech vs. No. 2 Ohio State, Sunday, 2:20 p.m.: Georgia Tech’s size and length could keep this one close right down to the wire. Don’t be shocked by an upset here.

No. 12 Cornell vs. No. 4 Wisconsin, Sunday, 2:50 p.m.: Similar to Villanova and St. Mary’s. If these two teams both play the way they did Friday, Cornell will be Sweet 16 bound.

No. 6 Xavier vs. No. 3 Pittsburgh, Sunday, 4:50 p.m.: An absolute street fight between two, tough, physical teams. Question: Why didn’t anyone talk me out of my Oakland over Pittsburgh upset pick?

No. 8 California vs. No. 1 Duke, Sunday, 5:15 p.m.: Could the weekend end with No. 1 seed packing its bags and headed home? Nahhh…

To read all of Aaron’s additional work, make sure to stop by his site, www.aarontorres-sports.com. Also, for his opinions on all things sports, follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres