A look at Thursday's games . . .
Pittsburgh (30-4) vs. Xavier (27-7): This is the opener at the Garden. Pitt has had a memorable season led by its tremendous trio of DeJuan Blair (15.8 points per game, 12.3 rebounds per game), Sam Young (18.9 ppg), and Levance Fields (10.6 ppg, 7.5 assists per game).
There are just two problems. The Panthers have failed to win anything yet. They did not win the regular-season title or the Big East Tournament. A national championship would erase all of that, of course.
The other problem is the health of Fields, the team's point guard and the reason Young and Blair can do so well. He has a groin problem and does not appear to be himself. There have been some problems with turnovers, and that was never the case earlier in the season.
Xavier seems to have rediscovered itself in the first two rounds of the tournament, beating Portland State easily and then putting Wisconsin in a submission hold in a street-fight of a game in the second round. Pitt is a physical team, but no more so than Wisconsin. Xavier showed some toughness in winning that game and will need it again Thursday night. The Musketeers play some excellent defense themselves, share the ball on offense, and have as much depth as Pitt.
Xavier has had ballhandling problems this season because it doesn't really have a true point guard. Tyrell Holloway, a freshman, might be one someday but he's been inconsistent this season. However in the NCAAs, sophomore guard Dante Jackson has solidified things in the backcourt. The Muskies need more of the same from him to conquer Pitt.
What's reliable for Xavier is guard B.J. Raymond (14.1 ppg) and forward Derrick Brown (13.7). Overlooked sometimes but a key player nonetheless is forward C.J. Anderson (10.0 ppg), a highly competitive player who has the knack for finding loose balls and turning them into baskets.
Duke (30-6) vs. Villanova (28-7): This game might not start until 10:15 p.m., so load up on the caffeine. Duke has been playing very well now that Coach K has settled on a lineup . . . yet I can't help but look at it a little differently.
The Blue Devils been lucky in both the ACC and the NCAA Tournament in terms of which teams they've played. There was very little challenge from Binghamton in the first round and although Texas did provide some competition, the Longhorns were playing their best basketball earlier in the season. I'm still thinking that the lack of an inside game will stop Duke somewhere along the line.
Speaking of good fortune for Duke, Villanova does not have quality big men. The Wildcats do have plenty of good players but no big man to speak of. That gives Duke an opportunity to capitalize on its outstanding perimeter game led by Gerald Henderson (16.8 ppg), Kyle Singler (16.5), and John Scheyer (14.9).
But not everything is breaking Duke's way. Villanova is playing very well in the NCAAs, repelling an upset bid by a determined American team in the first round and then blasting UCLA, 89-69, in the second round.
The Wildcats did it without getting top-notch play from their best player, guard Scottie Reynolds, who only scored 8 and 11 points, both below his average of 15.1.
Dante Cunningham, a 6-foot-8-inch senior forward, has been a revelation for Nova this season, averaging 16.3 ppg and 7.3 rpg. If Reynolds is back on his game and Villanova defends the 3-point arc, they've got a legit chance of winning.
UConn (29-4) vs. Purdue (27-9): A fascinating matchup now that Purdue is playing well again.
At one point this season the Boilermakers descended into a valley and didn't look like they were coming out. A back brace for injured star Robbie Hummel changed everything. He can get around pretty well despite his ailment.
The Boilers usually win the outside game with Hummel, guard E'Twaun Moore (14.0), and defensive ace Chris Kramer. They also have a center, JaJuan Johnson (13.4 ppg) who can draw UConn center Hasheem Thabeet away from the basket. They have to make their outside shots because, with Thabeet, there are limited opportunities near the basket.
Thabeet gets all the pub, but the Huskies' best inside player is former Globe All-Scholastic Jeff Adrien (13.9 ppg, 10.2 rpg). The Huskies also have benefited from the return to form of forward Stanley Robinson, who sat out the first semester. The real key to UConn is point guard A.J. Price (14.6 ppg, 4.7 apg), who is always good but many times has been great. He's facing a tough matchup against Kramer, a physical defender.
In the end, this game will come down to which is more dominant, Purdue's outside game or UConn's inside one.
Memphis (33-3) vs. Missouri (30-6): In some ways, Memphis should feel a little disrespected. The Tigers have won 27 straight games, yet they are not seen as the favorite in this tournament.
What's different about this team is it plays great defense, holding teams to 36.6 percent shooting. Coach John Calipari has said this team is a better defensive team than last year's national runner-up.
Calipari relies on freshman point guard Tyreke Evans to ignite things offensively. He averages 16.6 ppg and 3.8 apg. He also averages 3.5 turnovers per game. He can be spectacular at times and very much a freshman at other times. Memphis also has a powerful 1-2 inside punch in Robert Dozier (12.7 ppg) and Shawn Taggart (10.5 ppg).
Coach Cal will play up to nine players. Missouri has been in high gear behind its full-court press and fast-break offense, winning the Big 12 Tournament and beating Cornell and Marquette in the NCAAs. The Tigers were up big on Marquette, blew the lead, but had enough poise to stand tough and win the game in the end.
This team has several players who are capable of scoring big baskets in tough situations, most notably DeMarre Carroll (16.7 ppg), Leo Lyons (14.6), Zaire Taylor (6.5 ppg), J.T. Tiller (8.0 ppg), and Keith Ramsay (3.6 ppg).
Kim English, a 6-6 freshman guard, will affect this game, he's quickly emerging as a star. He came off the bench and torched Marquette.
- Michael Vega
- Mark Blaudschun
- Nancy Marrapese-Burrell