ARTICLE OF THE DAY
 
March Madness Not Far Away

by Eric Gilmore
2/16/06

With all of the recent National Signing Day hype whetting the taste buds of college football fans across the nation, basketball took a brief backseat. But starting now through earliest of April, college basketball will be on the main stage of sports fans everywhere.


Unexplainable upsets, bubble teams clawing to survive and around the clock media coverage of Coach K’s every thought will dominate the headlines for the next two months. And outside of late fall, isn’t March Madness the best month of the sports calendar?


Unlike football, basketball can consume fans for the entire week. Instead of pre-game shows leading to just one day of coverage, the Big Mondays and Throwdown Thursdays don superb match-ups consistently. Three, maybe four quality games a night hold hardcore fans hostage from their wives.


So now into the heart of February and the stretch run of conference play, contenders have separated themselves from preseason pretenders. Teams like
Wake Forest have gone from a Final Four threat to a squad destined for the ACC cellar. To the contrary, the University of Florida has answered critics with an unexpected resurgence.


Even though the cream has risen to the top, the crystal ball remains a bit hazy. For those who like to fill out their brackets a little early, here’s four teams that you can pencil (not pen) in for the Final Four.

 

Texas Longhorns (22-3, 10-1 Big 12)

Premier Point Guard: Daniel Gibson

Veteran Leader: P.J. Tucker

NBA Prospect: LaMarcus Aldridge

Role Player: Brad Buckman

Final Four lock:

The Longhorns were ranked the Preseason’s No. 3 team for a reason: sheer talent. But the Longhorns have yet to capitalize on the hype and assume the top ranking. For that reason alone, Texas remains Final Four worthy. 


Consider the NBA talent compiled in
Austin. The Longhorns tout a potential No. 1 pick in LaMarcus Aldridge and point guard Daniel Gibson has made Austin natives forget about T.J. Ford. Add the increased maturity level of former Enloe High School standout P.J. Tucker, and the team seems destined for Final Four success. 


Tucker (16.6 ppg, 9.3 rpg) and Aldridge’s (16.2 ppg, 9.3 rpg) statistics are eerily similar despite the five-inch differential between the teammates. Eight Longhorns are averaging over 15 minutes a game, including two seniors who were part of the 2003 team that advanced to the Final Four.

 

No way:

     The national media hasn’t recovered from the Longhorns’ back-to-back home embarrassments during non-conference play. A damaging 31-point loss to Duke on Dec. 10 coupled with a 17-point hiccup to Tennessee severely dented the lore surrounding Rick Barnes’s squad.


Excessive turnovers remain a problem for the Longhorns, who commit 14.4 per game. Also, Tucker and Aldridge both will have to veer from foul trouble. The junior and sophomore have been whistled for four or more fouls in eight contests including two of the team’s three losses respectively.


But the biggest knock on the Longhorns are the lack of close games. The nation’s leader in scoring margin has only two games within a margin of eight points. Fortunately for
Texas fans, the Longhorns inched out both games.  

 

Memphis Tigers

Premier Point Guard: Darius Washington, Jr.

Veteran Leader: Rodney Carney

NBA Prospect: Shawne Williams

Role Player: Antonio Anderson

Final Four lock:

Memphis has won 12 consecutive games and 20 of their last 21. The only defeats have been to soon-to-be No. 1 Duke and No. 6 Texas while wins over ranked teams like UCLA, Gonzaga and Tennessee shower the resume. Who can argue with results?


The Tigers are long, athletic and have yet to wilt to inferior teams down the stretch. Despite being in a nationally weak conference,
Memphis has beaten every conference opponent, for the exception of one, by a double-digit margin.


The team few flaws offensively. John Calipari’s squad torches the nets for 83.3 points per game, which ranks fifth nationally. Rodney Carney (18.0 ppg) is arguably the most athletic player in the nation and a lock for a 2006 Lottery Pick. Darius Washington, Jr., who suffered an off-season of full of ridicule when he missed a foul shot that would have secured an NCAA Tournament invite, has avoided a sophomore slump.


Calipari is a veteran coach with a 1996 Final Four trip. The ex-NBA coach is an excellent recruiter, but at
Memphis has had trouble keeping his talent in order. But this year he appears to head a team with chemistry to back up the potential.

 

No way:

           Calipari revoked slated starter Jeremy Hunt from the team during the preseason after the senior guard was found to be involved in an altercation on Beale St. To combat the problem, backup center Kareem Cooper pled guilty on Tuesday to possession of marijuana. Cooper sat through a four-game suspension, but scored 13 points and pulled down 13 rebounds in a Tuesday rout of Southern Miss.


Off the court problems aside, the Tigers need to increase their defensive intensity, already relinquishing 68.6 points per game. Also, free throw shooting remains suspect at a team-combined 68 percent. Calipari’s lack of depth at the point also means keeping Washington, Jr. from developing foul trouble. The Tigers seemed to have ironed out the 3-point shooting woes that hampered them throughout the non-conference play.

           
Memphis
’ glaring weakness is youth and inexperience. Starting three freshmen, a sophomore and a senior keeps experts skeptical about a deep tournament run. Can Carney’s leadership provide enough to dodge an upset scare? But again, who can argue with results?

 

Washington Huskies (18-5, 7-5 Pac 10)

Premier Point Guard: Ryan Appleby

Veteran Leader: Brandon Roy

NBA Prospect: Jon Brockman

Role Player: Bobby Jones, Jr.

Final Four lock:

            Lorenzo Romar’s team still wishes that current N.Y. Knick Nate Robinson had decided to stay in school for his senior season. But last year’s surprise No. 1 seed still has enough talent to get where Robinson couldn’t take them a season ago.


Despite the Huskies’ struggles in conference play,
Washington still boasts one of the top scorers in the country in senior guard Brandon Roy (19.2 ppg). However, Washington remains balanced using a 10-man rotation, all of which average double-digit minutes. Washington is 12-0 when four or more players score in double-digits this season.


The nation’s third ranked scoring team (83.4 ppg) gives slower teams trouble because of their willingness to run. The Huskies like to expose their opponents’ lack of depth by getting them into foul trouble.

           
The Huskies were ranked as high as No. 7 after winning their first 10 games. After recently dropping three straight road contests, they quickly bounced back with quality wins over USC and UCLA. Consider that
Washington has not lost to a ranked opponent this season. They have beaten then-No. 6 Gonzaga and then- No. 11 and No. 13 UCLA for a record of 3-0 against top-25 opponents.  The schedule is light down the stretch, which should provide some momentum. With a string of confidence, the Huskies’ up-tempo style and depth could easily take them to Indianapolis.

 

No way:

          Like Memphis, the Huskies need to focus on improving on the defensive end of the court. Romar’s club is giving up over 70 points per contest. In the five losses, the Huskies have allowed an average of 79.6 points per game.

           
Washington has also been suspect on the road, going only 2-3 away from home. The Huskies’ first 12 games were inside the friendly confines of Bank of America Arena. Because of the Northwest location, having extensive travel time could cause jetlag should the team advance deep in the tournament.

          
The most talented teams don’t always make it to the Final Four.
Washington is neither the most talented nor even the best squad in their conference. However, a year removed from an Elite Eight trip can’t rule the Huskies out. They do enough necessary tools and players alike to bust some brackets. But did the Huskies lose too much?

 

Boston College Eagles (20-5, 7-4 ACC)

Premier Point Guard: Louis Hinnant

Veteran Leader: Craig Smith

Best NBA Prospect: Jared Dudley

Role Player: Sean Marshall

Final Four lock:

            Boston College has endured through a rude awakening in their first season in the ACC. But Al Skinner and company are probably content in dodging the new-age Big East. But as rude as some ACC guests have been, the Golden Eagles are building momentum.

          
Boston College are winners of four straight, including three ACC games to advance a game behind second-place N.C. State. Despite the record, the Golden Eagles play to the level their opponents, going 10-4 in single-digit margins.


Craig Smith (16.8 ppg) and Jared Dudley (16.7 ppg) combine to give opponents’ frontcourt headaches. Both forwards stand at 6’7” and pound the glass, which often translates to zone defenses. Patience is a virtue of an Al Skinner coached team. It may cause too many close games, but it translates to plenty of assists and high percentage shots. The Golden Eagles rank 10th and 18th nationally in each category respectively. If the other starters find the bucket like the two frontcourt stars, look out for the ACC rookies.

 

No way:

          Unlike Washington, Boston College is only 1-4 against ranked opponents. Despite playing Duke tough at home, the Golden Eagles have only beaten then-No. 25 UNC. Losses to Maryland, Michigan St. and Georgia Tech litter the schedule and have kept the team from a marquee win.


Louis Hinnant, a sporadic point guard needs to stay within Skinner’s system. Because the opponents figure in on both Smith and Dudley, Hinnant and Tyrese Rice will be forced to drain perimeter shots. Because Skinner prefers half-court games, free throws loom large in late-game situations. The team shoots a combined 68 percent, while superstars Smith and Dudley shoot 66 and 70 percent respectively.  


The team is smart with the ball, but is it athletic enough to run with higher-paced teams? The jury is still out, but a couple of perimeter shots could quickly turn the Golden Eagles into contenders. Will the shots fall all the way to
Indianapolis?

 

Teams that will make the Elite Eight:

Duke

UConn

Iowa

Villanova

Eric Gilmore
ejg1102@mail.ecu.edu