Archive for Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Smith: Jayhawks aren’t the only threat in Midwest

March 19, 2008

Hey, you. Filling out that fresh 2008 NCAA bracket.

Even if you proudly rock and chalk, don't be so quick to go chalk in your Midwest region, which features the No. 1 seed Kansas Jayhawks.

At least ponder the viability of the other candidates rounding out the region before writing KU into the Final Four with permanent marker.

Sure, the Jayhawks (31-3) are hot and coming off an impressive win against Texas, a team with one of the best resumes in college basketball, in Sunday's Big 12 title game.

But they call it March Madness for a reason, and the Midwest isn't void of suspects ready to upset.

While a No. 16 seed never has defeated a No. 1 and that trend will undoubtedly continue when Kansas faces Portland State on Thursday in Omaha, Neb., those eights and nines can be pesky.

UNLV (26-7) won the Mountain West Conference tournament, went to the Sweet 16 last season (although most of the players from that team are gone) and has one of the best assist to turnover ratios, 14.8:10.6, in the nation.

The eighth-seeded Runnin' Rebels face No. 9 Kent State, which won the regular season and tournament titles in the Mid-American and is 11-1 in its last dozen games.

Should Kansas survive Omaha unscathed, a Sweet 16 match-up in Detroit with Vanderbilt, Clemson, Villanova or Siena awaits the Jayhawks.

No. 4 Vandy's biggest weapons are ball movement and the three-pointer. The Commodores average about nine treys a game and 18 helpers per outing. They knocked off Tennessee in Nashville just a few weeks ago.

Clemson, the five seed, might be the most underrated team in the nation. The Tigers (24-9) were third in the ACC and three of its losses this year came to North Carolina, the tournament's No. 1 overall seed.

Clemson, which presses maniacally and forces nearly 10 steals a game, proved its worth by pushing the Tar Heels to the wire every time they matched up. At home, the Tigers fell 90-88 in overtime. In Chapel Hill, they lost 103-93, but it took double overtime. And on Sunday in the ACC title game the Tigers lost, 86-81. Think they can't beat a top-10 team? Well, they beat Duke, 78-74, on Saturday.

No. 12 Villanova is a long shot to make it to Detroit, but if it does, it will likely be because of 6-foot-2 dynamo guard Scottie Reynolds, who averages 15.6 points and 3.3 assists.

Siena, the 13 seed, is an even longer shot. While the Saints boast a non-conference win against Stanford, that came in November when the Cardinal was without post stud Brook Lopez.

A little further down the bracket lies KU's six potential Elite Eight foes - we'll exclude Cal-State Fullerton and Maryland Baltimore County for time and sanity purposes - and among them is a pair of teams the Jayhawks are already familiar with. No. 6 Southern Cal and No. 11 Kansas State both faced KU in the regular season. (Consult your digitally recorded archives for a complete breakdown.)

The Midwest's No. 3 has quietly put together one of the best seasons in the country. Wisconsin leads the nation in points allowed (53.8 per game) and holds its opponents to 38 percent shooting from the floor. The Badgers (29-4) won at Texas, something KU couldn't pull off, and brought home the Big Ten's regular season and tournament titles.

No. 7 Gonzaga, which of course has former Jayhawk Micah Downs (8.2 points, 3.8 rebounds) on its roster, is battle-tested if nothing else. The Bulldogs split with Saint Mary's, and in the non-conference played Saint Joseph's, Connecticut, Washington State, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Georgia and Memphis, going 3-4 in those contests.

Tenth-seed Davidson from the Southern Conference is white-hot. The Wildcats have won 22 straight games, powered by a lethal backcourt. Stephen Curry averages 25.1 points and over four threes a game. Jason Richards leads the nation in assists, dishing out eight per contest.

Lastly, the most likely opponent for KU to face on its way to San Antonio: the Georgetown Hoyas (27-5).

The Big East regular season champion, Georgetown is anchored by 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert, who averages 13.6 points, 6.5 boards and 2.3 blocks. The Hoyas, who made the Final Four in 2007, lead the nation in field goal percentage defense (36.7) and allow just 58 points a game.

Now go ahead and fill out that bracket. Because now you know. And knowing is half the battle.

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