)Duke: The Blue Devils look to have the complete package. The backcourt is excellent, with Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith. Forward Kyle Singler can score both inside and out. The emergence of Brian Zoubek as a consistent rebounder has given them a physicality they haven’t had the last couple years. The question is, how good is the ACC that they won? It grades out as the best in the RPI. Didn’t seem quite as strong as December.
2)Villanova: The Wildcats are fading fast. The incomparable Scottie Reynolds can score, defend and dish at the point, but the rest of the lineup is struggling to keep up. Even when functioning at full speed, they are guard-oriented and need forward Antonio Pena to play well each game.
3)Baylor: The team I’ve been hyping since January is playing well coming into the field. The backcourt is great, with Tweety Carter at the point and the explosive LaceDarius Dunn as his running mate. Getting contributions from Ekpe Udoh in the post, and Carter avoiding turnovers hold the key.
4)Purdue: In February, I was ready pick them as NCAA champ. Then they lost Robbie Hummel, which ended those hopes. Even worse, the way they have played without Hummel suggests that either they were never that good to begin with, or that Hummel is one of the singular great players of our time. Purdue lost at home to Michigan State and turned in a horrific display against Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament.
5)Texas A&M: Great coaching job by Mark Sturgeon. Donald Sloan is the only notable player, and he’s not a superstar. But they’ve competed well in the Big 12 and have played their best basketball the last six weeks.
6)Notre Dame-Old Dominion: The injury and return of Luke Harangody have been brilliantly handled by Mike Brey. First, the Irish coach, slowed the tempo turned his team into a grind-it-out squad and got them playing well. When Harangody back, Brey stuck with a good thing and made his star conform to the team’s new style, rather than vice-versa. ND is looking good right now.
7)Richmond-St. Mary’s: I’m really looking forward to this midmajor showdown, and I can’t tell you why. Because I couldn’t tell you anything about either team. Pulling for the Spiders, the alma mater of a good friend, where I had a wild drunken weekend back in the spring of 1992.
8)Cal-Louisville: Another great 8-9 matchup between major conference powers. The Golden Bears have all the pieces in place. Four solid scorers in the lineup, including the explosive Jerome Randle as a clear go-to guy. But they’ve been inconsistent and how much credit do you give the Pac-10 vs. the Big East?
See you tomorrow for the Midwest & West. Thursday will be the day for final picks for the Sweet 16 and Final Four.