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NCAA Tournament: Weekend Preview

Well, the NCAA Tournament field has been trimmed from 65 to 16, with that number set to be dwindled to four by the end of the weekend.

Before we get there though, a lot of good basketball is still to be played.

Here is what to look out for this weekend.

Best Match-Up: Villanova vs. Duke, East Region, Thursday 9:57 p.m.

It’s a classic match-up of two college basketball’s best teams, from its two premiere conferences Thursday night in Boston.

What makes this match-up one to watch however, is that both teams play similar styles of basketball, using dribble penetration by its guards to create open shots on the perimeter, and easy baskets for the big guys down low.

For Villanova it all starts with Scottie Reynolds.

While his numbers may be a bit down from previous years, the point guard has been as good as ever, as his ability to break-down defenders creates open shots from 3-point range for Villanova’s wing players.

Both Corey Stokes and Corey Fisher contribute off the bench, combining for about 19 points and two 3-pointers a game off the bench.

Like Duke, Villanova isn’t big down low, with Dante Cunningham and Shane Clark getting the bulk of the minutes in the paint.

Cunningham is one of college basketball’s most improved players this season, averaging 18 points and seven rebounds, after being a role player for most of his career.

But while the Wildcats do like to get Cunningham the ball in the post, most of his points still come off put backs, and his guards ability to create off the dribble.

Duke plays in a very similar way.

They’re top three scorers all do most of their work on the perimeter, with Gerald Henderson, Kyle Singler and Jon Scheyer combining for about 56 points a game.

The Blue Devils too lack a true low-post presence, with Singler often lining up on the opponents power forward, despite spending most of his time away from the basket.

Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas are Duke’s primary low-post players, although neither is much of an offensive weapon.

The key in this game will be how Duke handles Villanova’s more athletic backcourt.

Against UCLA, the Wildcats were simply able to do whatever they pleased with six players scoring in double-digits.

Reynolds and Reggie Redding seemed to be able to get into the lane at will, with the “Corey’s,” Fisher and Stokes, combining for five threes.

All year Duke struggled with athletic ball-handlers (Jeff Teague of Wake Forest, Tyrese Rice of Boston College and of course Ty Lawson of North Carolina), and will need to have their best defensive effort of the year to hang stay with Villanova.

But if Reynolds and the rest of Villanova’s backcourt are able to make plays it will be a long night for Duke fans, and likely the Blue Devils last game of the season.

Best Match-Up No One is Talking About: Syracuse vs. Oklahoma, Friday 7:27 p.m.

This game has it all.

Star-power? Absolutely, with Blake Griffin of Oklahoma and Syracuse’s Jonny Flynn.

Great coaching? Hall-of-Famer Jim Boeheim and up-and-comer Jeff Capel certainly qualify.

Playing styles? Check, as Oklahoma wants to push the ball and Syracuse wants to play in the half-court.

But what will be the key in this one is how Syracuse’s famous 2-3 zone handles Blake Griffin and Oklahoma’s 3-point shooters. Because to quite be honest, their defense a week ago against Arizona State left a lot to be desired.

Yes, the Orange did a good job in holding Arizona State superstar James Harden to just 10 points, and limiting Jeff Pendergraph’s effectiveness down low.

However, whenever it looked like Syracuse was ready to put Arizona State away, the Sun Devils always seemed to make a run, usually fueled by the three point shot.

In the game, Arizona State role players Ty Abbott and Rihards Kuksiks seemed to always be open, combining for 40 points on 12 3-pointers.

Simply put, that will not get the job done against Oklahoma, which boasts four genuine perimeter threats in Austin Johnson, Tony Crocker, Willie Warren and Cade Davis. Each can light it up, and each will make you pay if left open.

This is the biggest reason why I think Syracuse may be in trouble this weekend.

While it seems natural for the Orange to try and double Griffin every time he touches the ball, he is a great passer out of the double team, and seems to always find the open man on the perimeter.

If he can do this with any regularity, and Oklahoma is able to swing the ball into the corners as effectively as Arizona State did, Syracuse will be in trouble.

Offensively, look for Syracuse to do what they’ve been doing, running their half-court sets, and relying on the dribble penetration of do-it-all point guard Jonny Flynn.

The sophomore has elevated his game since the beginning of the Big East tournament, and is the biggest reason why the Orange are still playing on the second weekend of the tournament.

Syracuse too has great perimeter scorers in Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins, as the two each average double figures, and are killer when left open on the perimeter.

Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson are big bodies down low, but will have trouble getting easy baskets the way they have in previous games with Griffin and his brother Taylor down low for the Sooners.

This one will be close, but look for Oklahoma’s perimeter players to be the difference.

After every win and every double-double, Griffin is quick to praise his guards, and rightfully so.

While they don’t get the publicity the big guy down low gets, they are equally important in the Sooners run to the Sweet 16.

They’re skill-set will be on display this weekend, and be the biggest reason Oklahoma marches on to the Elite Eight.

Most Important Player: Ty Lawson, G, North Carolina

Could it be anyone else?

The Tar Heels point guard and ACC Player of the Year is the single most important player to his team in this tournament.

During his absence due to a toe injury, North Carolina lost in the ACC Tournament to Florida State, and struggled upon his return against LSU in the first half of their second round match-up.

However, Lawson was phenomenal in the second half, scoring 21 of his 23 points after intermission, including a three-point play that gave the Tar Heels momentum that ultimately pushed them to victory.

Reports are this week that the toe is getting better, and if North Carolina is going to win Friday night against Gonzaga, they’ll need the junior.

The Zags want to play at a fast pace, and may be the best offensive team left in the field besides North Carolina. And they are deep on the perimeter with Matt Bouldin, Jeremy Pargo and freshman hero Demetri Goodson, causing match-up problems if Lawson isn’t healthy.

If they do push the pace of the game- which they’re expected to do- it will be crucial that Lawson be at full strength to keep North Carolina’s offense rolling, and scoring the points needed to keep up with Gonzaga.

While it does appear Lawson will play Friday, it is still uncertain how much he will be able to give, and how healthy the toe actually is.

North Carolina fans better hope for the best game Lawson has played all season.

They were able to beat LSU with their point guard on nine toes. They might not be able to do the same Friday.

No. 1 Seed Most Likely To Lose: Louisville

Yes, the Cardinals have the benefit of playing a No. 12 seed in Arizona, but their opponent certainly isn’t your conventional Cinderella story.

The Wildcats boast two future NBA draft picks in Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill, and beat the likes of Gonzaga, Kansas and UCLA during the regular season.

Louisville meanwhile is coming off a struggle against a good Siena team, but one that certainly didn’t have the athletes to match-up against the Cardinals. If it wasn’t for Terrence Williams 24 points and 15 rebounds, Louisville might not be playing this weekend.

While Arizona will be the toughest match-up Louisville has faced this far, they should still win.

The Cardinals full-court defensive pressure should eventually wear down a good Arizona team, but one that really only plays six players.

Also it’s hard to imagine Hill- a future NBA lottery pick- able to get easy baskets the way he did in the first two rounds. Louisville boasts one of the deepest front-courts in all of college basketball, with Earl Clark, Samardo Samuels and Terrence Jennings down low.

Look for Louisville to defend, run and ultimately pull away in the second half against a game Arizona team, but one that simply can’t stay with the Cardinals for forty minutes.

Louisville should win comfortably, but didn’t we say that against Siena too?

Best Storyline: Look Who’s Left!

Everybody gets all gushy whenever a Cinderella upsets a big name, but it makes for better basketball and better ratings when the good teams are still alive.

Because the best players come and go so frequently, what’s best for college basketball is to have recognizable programs and coaches in the tournament. It is what gives the casual fan something to root for, and against.

For example, how many of you out there really know who Memphis’ starting center is? Even if you do know the answer- Shawn Taggert by the way- I doubt you have much of an opinion, good or bad, on him. But everybody knows the Tigers coach John Calipari, and whether you love him from his days at Memphis or with the New Jersey Nets before that, you most certainly have some preconceived ideas about him.

The same is true in Durham, North Carolina and Storrs, Conn., where Coach K and Jim Calhoun seem to have patrolled the sidelines since the beginning of time, and have gained both fame and infamy along the way.

So while the players change, the jerseys do not, and that is what’s best for this tournament.

Look at who’s left.

Of the 16 teams, seven have coaches who have won a National Championship (Roy Williams, Coach K, Calhoun, Jim Boeheim, Tom Izzo, Rick Pitino and most recently Bill Self), while Arizona won a National Championship just 12 years ago, under a coach who just retired this season in Lute Olson.

Villanova (Jay Wright), Gonzaga (Mark Few) and Pittsburgh (Jamie Dixon) are led by long-time floor generals who have been on the cusp before, and may have their best teams to date this year.

And of course there is Calipari, who was just a few seconds away from getting his own hardware a year ago.

So while there may be no Davidson or George Mason this year, enjoy this weekend, because we’ve never seen more top-flight coaching and talent on the court among the final 16 teams.

And while you may not have a chance at winning your office pool because you had West Virginia and Wake Forest in the Final Four, at least you get to watch good basketball.


Aaron Torres
With a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Connecticut, Aaron Torres has covered a number of different sports for several different media outlets in the northeastern United States. You can find more of his writing at www.aarontorres-sports.com and you can follow him on Twitter (http://twitter.com/Aaron_Torres).
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