Tuesday, March 17, 2009

2009 NCAA Tournament Bracket Breakdown: South Region

North Carolina looks like they have the easiest path to the Final Four of all the #1 seeds. Oklahoma, Syracuse, and Gonzaga, the 2, 3, and 4 seeds, are all talented teams that, for one reason or another, have been streaky during the season. Gonzaga hit a lull in the middle of non-conference play, Syracuse struggled through the gauntlet that was the Big East schedule, and Oklahoma ended the season on a sour note, losing four of their last six games.

The issue for Carolina, obviously, is the health of Ty Lawson's toe. If you are or have ever been an athlete, then you know how damaging a toe injury can be. Think about it. Any movement an athlete makes - running, jumping, cutting - is finished by pushing off with your toes. If you have a bum toe, then you won't be as quick, you won't get as much lift on your jump shot, you won't be getting up the floor as quickly, etc. That can really have an effect on your game, especially if you are a guy that relies on your quickness like Lawson does.

But there is more to the South than just Ty Lawson, so without further ado, let's take a look at the South Region.

Final Four Favorite: North Carolina

This should be no surprise to anyone. The Tar Heels were overwhelming favorites in the preseason, and while they struggled through some defensive issues and injuries (Hansbrough, Lawson, Zeller, Ginyard), the Heels are still a favorite to win their second national title under Roy Williams. They do it with offensive firepower - getting out and running the floor, beating their opponent down the court for easy baskets. But all of that hinges on the toe of their floor general. There may not be a more valuable player in the country (DeJuan Blair, Hasheem Thabeet, and Blake Griffin come to mind) than Lawson, and not just because he is the engine that keeps the Carolina offense moving. He has also become their best scoring threat when the Heels are stuck in the half court offense. During the season's stretch run, there were a number of games that he simply took over (at Duke comes to mind, as does at Miami).

And If They Lose: Oklahoma

You have to give the Sooners some respect here, simply because they have Blake Griffin. The big fella is the player of the year in college hoops, and is capable of putting the team on his back and carrying OU to a Final Four. As good as Griffin is, the play of his teammates is much more important. When Willie Warren, Austin Johnson, and Tony Crocker are scoring threats and are knocking down three's, the Sooners are very difficult to beat. When they aren't, then teams can just collapse on Griffin in the paint. One huge issue for this team is attitudes. Both Warren and Juan Patillo were punished late in the season (Warren for his attitude, Patillo for skipping class). For Warren, it seems a bit like he has been reading his news clippings. His struggles seem to have come at the same time as people starting mentioning him as a lottery pick. One last thing for the Sooners - GET THE BALL TO THE BIG MAN. He is the best player in the country, and he took nine shots in a post season game (Big XII tourney loss to OK State). I know that the Cowboys were really collapsing on him, but that is unacceptable.

Sweet 16 Sleeper (10 or lower): Michigan

You know, to be honest I don't really like anyone from this region. Western Kentucky did it last year, but they lost Courtney Lee and Tyrone Brazelton. Temple has beaten Xavier and Tennessee this year, but I don't see them getting past Arizona State, let alone the Orange. I'll go with Michigan because they play a unique style and John Beilein has a proven track record of winning in March. And the Wolverines are talented - Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims get slept on, but both are extremely talented players. I think if they get by Clemson, then they have a shot against the Sooners as long as they pack in that 1-3-1 and hope that Johnson, Warren, and Crocker are missing.

Final Four Sleeper (5 or lower): Arizona State

I would have picked Butler if they were matched up with anyone other than North Carolina. I love the Bulldogs. They shoot it, they defend, and they are tough as nails. But I just don't think they have the athletes to play with the Heels. So I'm going to go with Arizona State. Yes, they have James Harden, but they also have big man in James Pendergraph, an underrated point guard in Derek Glasser, and some decent scorers/shooters on the wing (Ty Abbott, Rihard Kuksiks).

Seeded Too High: Gonzaga

The 'Zags were not very impressive to me this season. They never really seemed to learn how to play together. Their roster is loaded with talent and potential draft picks, but they still managed to disappoint during the regular season. Winning the Old Spice Classic was nice, as was beating Tennessee in Tennessee. But the first half of their season was pretty mediocre, as they lost to UConn, Portland State, a so-so Arizona team, and an overrated Utah team. Yes, they won 17 or 18 games to close out the season, but 16 of those games were against conference teams. Outside of St. Mary's, the WCC is not good. Yes, they beat St. Mary's three times, but both regular season wins were against their JV team without Patty Mills playing, and the win in the WCC Finals was Mills' second game back. That said, I think that the 'Zags have a shot at knocking off UNC in the Sweet 16. The Heels struggle against guards that can take over a game, and Pargo has that ability.

Seeded Too Low: No one

The committee actually did a pretty good job here. I'll say this - I think that both Butler and LSU are better than the 8-9 game (although, they don't necessarily deserve to be seeded higher). Before the brackets came out, they were two of the teams I thought had a shot of making a run through the first weekend. Not if they are playing UNC.

Player To Watch (8 and up): Jonny Flynn, Syracuse

I'm sure everyone is aware of what happened during the Big East tournament (6 OT's, Cuse in the finals, etc). The one thing that tournament proved to me, more than anything about any of the teams, was that you can ride Jonny Flynn. He is good enough that he can carry your team. He absolutely gave everything he had in those four days, and he came close to actually pulling it off and taking home the title. In each of the four games, anytime the Orange needed a basket, they put the ball into Flynn's hands. I don't think there is one player in the country that can truly stay in front of Flynn when the PG wants to get to the rim. I've talked about this in depth before (and will again at the bottom), but both UNC and Oklahoma have a tendency to struggle against PG's that can take over. If the Cuse are lucky enough the get to the Sweet 16, they will have a great chance at getting to the Final Four.

Player To Watch (9 and down): Dionte Christmas, Temple

I could go through a whole ramble about how Tennessee has some good wins this year (Penn State, Xavier) and that they had a pretty successful A-10 season despite the fact that Christmas struggled a bit with his shot at times. I could do that. Instead, I'm going to post a video of when he dropped 30 in the second half in a 16 point win over Tennessee. I watched this game live, and it was one of the most impressive displays I have seen:

Best Match-up, First Round: #7 Clemson vs. #10 Michigan

You can't get two styles that contrast much more than these two. Clemson loves to press, play at a fast pace, and get up in you defensively with a tough man-to-man. Michigan slows the ball down and sits back in a tricky 1-3-1 zone. For Michigan to win, they will need big games out of both Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims (Clemson can put up a lot of points), and will need to avoid turnovers in the back court. Clemson is going to need to knock down their three's in this one because they are going to get a lot of looks from deep.

Best Match-up, Potential: #1 UNC vs. #3 Syracuse

I know the one that the world wide leader wants - Oklahoma and UNC so they can wax poetic about Tyler Hansbrough vs. Blake Griffin yada, yada, yada. For me, there is nothing better than watching two great point guards go head-to-head. And there may not be two in the country better than Lawson and Flynn. Don't be surprised if the winner of this match-up (Flynn/Lawson) is the Regional MVP.

Upset Alert!!!: UNC and Oklahoma

As I mentioned earlier, both of these teams really struggle defending against scoring point guards (wrote about it a few weeks back here). If seeds hold, then the Sooners will get Jonny Flynn in the second round, while UNC gets Jeremy Pargo. Beyond that, the only real upset I can see happening in the first round is Western Kentucky over Illinois, simply because Illinois will be without Chester Frazier, who broke his hand Wednesday in practice.

Anything Else?

  • If they could play 1-on-1: James Harden vs. Dionte Christmas. Christmas wins, but only because they play 1's and 2's, and he starts firing from 30.
  • NBA scouts will be all over these games. Look at the prospects playing: Blake Griffin, James Harden, Willie Warren, Jonny Flynn, Austin Daye, Jeremy Pargo, Trevor Booker, everyone on UNC. That is 11 guys with at least a chance at being a first rounder.

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