In the three semi-final conferences, the best game goes early. Kentucky matches up with Tennessee at Noon EST in Nashville. The Wildcats survived Alabama yesterday in spite of being beaten badly to rebounds. The entire Tide front line hit double digits in rebounds, and the late-season slump of DeMarcus Cousins continued for Kentucky. The Volunteers beat Mississippi State and got to the line frequently, with Wayne Chism and J.P. Prince combining for 15 points from the stripe alone. Key to this game will be Chism. His 16-point/15-rebound game yesterday shows what he’s capable of, but he hasn’t always done that against other good teams.
The second game is pretty good itself, as Vanderbilt takes on Ole Miss. The Rebels won a big game against Florida in what may been a winner-take-all bubble battle. Ole Miss put all five of its starters in double figures and could use another win to seal the deal. But Vandy is the host of this tournament, and John Jenkins, inserted into the lineup for the slumping Brad Tinsley knocked down 25 in their win over Georgia. I think we’re headed for another Commodores-Cats showdown on Sunday, in the same venue where they came down to the wire a few weeks ago.
No league puts more emphasis on its postseason tournament than this one. It’s heading for an ending that’s either incredibly anticlimactic or incredibly dramatic. Duke was the only favorite to win yesterday’s quarterfinals and would appear to have smooth sailing to a 12th tournament crown in Coach K’s tenure.
Of course the flip side to all the favorites being gone is that an upstart could play its way into the tournament. Duke plays Miami in the early game today. The Hurricanes got past Virginia Tech by putting the clamps on the Hokie backcourt. This is their third game in as many days, and I just can’t see another run in them. Particularly now that Duke has the cobwebs shaken out after a sluggish first half against Virginia. The late semi-final here features Georgia Tech and N.C. State. The Yellow Jackets outshot Maryland from the floor and the three-point stripe, beat them at the foul line, beat them on the boards…and still almost lost thanks to 25 turnovers. Even if the Wolfpack are just the 11th seed, suffice to say that Tech can’t live like that anymore. N.C. State is having a nice run, but beating Clemson and Florida State doesn’t conjure up any memories of Jimmy V taking out Jordan’s Tar Heels and Ralph Sampson’s Virginia Cavaliers back in 1983. Look for the Jackets to win the late show.
ESPN has to be rooting against Georgia Tech—they realistically played their way into the NCAA field by beating the Terps and North Carolina the night before, removing any win-or-take-all drama from the final. Whereas N.C. State is the poster child for Cinderella runs in the conference tournament, thanks to Valvano’s legacy of 1983 (secured with another run in 1987). The 11th-seed Pack against big bad Duke would make a great storyline.
Evan Turner’s buzzer-beater and Michigan coach John Beilein’s defensive tactics on the last possession are getting the airtime on ESPN, and rightly so. But I would just like to call attention to Turner’s unselfish play. In addition to his heroics and his 18 points, he also dished eight assists and four Buckeye players got into double figures. Ohio State has talent beyond Turner, and he makes sure they all get involved in the offense. He may not win Player of the Year—indeed, because of his missed time earlier in the year, I’m leery of doing it myself. But when healthy, this is the most complete player in the Big Ten and one of the top two or three in the nation.
Ohio State goes up against Illinois, who took advantage of cold shooting by Wisconsin to advance. The Illini’s interior combo of Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis combined for 31 points and 18 rebounds. When both of these post players are playing well, Illinois is at least the equal of any team in the conference. The tendency of Davis to fade in and out—he earned himself pine time during the league schedule—is the wild-card here against the Buckeyes.
In the last five years, five different teams have won the Big Ten tourney. Of the remaining four, Minnesota’s the only one who can make it 6-for-6. They beat Michigan State in overtime and kept their longshot hopes for an NCAA invite alive. They buried 10 treys in the mild upset and now draw Purdue. The Boilermakers had their hands full with Northwestern. Without Robbie Hummel they have become completely dependent on E’Twaun Moore and JaJaun Johnson. Both players were great yesterday, giving Matt Painter a real inside-out combo. But if either one slips even a hair, Purdue becomes very average, meaning Minnesota has an even money chance of winning this game.
See you in the afternoon for previews of the Big East, Big 12 & Pac-10 finals.