Monday, March 21, 2011

The Great Debate: Who impressed the most in the Tournament's opening weekend?

Bracket torn to pieces? Already sick of the Madness and tired of hearing the words "Cinderella," "upset," and "chalk" being thrown with regularity in conversation?

Well, too freaking bad! We only get one NCAA Tournament a year and we -- Matt Donato and Michael Kelly -- are going to live it up while we can. Here's our take on the most impressive team from each region in the men's NCAA Tournament. As always, feel free to chime in using the comments section.


KELLY: I don't think we'll have too much of a difference in opinion over this one -- Ohio State was the most impressive team in this region by quite a bit.

First, Ohio State easily dispatched of UT-San Antonio by 29 points. While being the latest No. 1 to knock off a 16-seed is not exactly something to write (email?) home about, the Buckeyes did maintain their focus and hold the Roadrunners to 46 points. As a big UNC fan who watched his team allow (freaking) Long Island score 87 points, I know how easy it is for an overwhelming favorite to allow itself to simply play along with the underdog. Ohio State deserves credit for not doing so.

Then, George Mason. Wow. The Patriots were being thought of as a club with a legitimate shot to upset the Buckeyes and, instead, Ohio State made George Mason look more like a wide-eyed mid-major than a program only a few years removed from a Final Four run.

While outscoring the Patriots 52-26 in the first half was obviously the eye-popping team statistic, I am more impressed by Ohio State's 46-40 second-half advantage. Even up 26, the Buckeyes maintained their focus. Right now, they're the epitome of a team on a mission.

DONATO: I agree. I was absolutely certain that George Mason was going to give the Sullinger Gang a fight to the buzzer. The team couldn't find a rebound this year outside of Sullinger, and had a very shallow bench. Somehow this week, we underrated the No. 1 overall seed, and they proved to us just how good they really are.

They are the No. 1 seed though, and should be expected to dominate the opening rounds. Marquette, however, has acted like most people expected every other Big East team to play in the tournament, yet did so as an 11-seed.

They handled Xavier easily (won by 11) in the opener, and dispatched my "hindsight is 20-20" East favorite Syracuse on Sunday night. They are the forgotten Big East team, dismissed as the 11th member who only just got in. Yet their conference makes their run seem less Cinderella-esque.

The Saratogian's Alex Ventre was in the office Sunday night rooting for Marquette because he'd prefer UNC play them over the Orange, but the Golden Eagles are playing with some dangerous nobody-believed-in-us swagger.

Your -- Kelly is a UNC fan -- Tar Heels will win the battle of the boards, but if Marquette can hit 82% of their FTs like they did Sunday and hold UNC to under 70 points like they did to Xavier and 'Cuse, the Eagles have played well enough to envision them being the fifth 11-seed ever to make it to the Elite Eight.


DONATO: I am really pleased with how my Huskies have performed out west, putting down Bucknell with ease and outplaying familiar foe Cincinnati, but the team that has really caught my attention in these first two rounds has been Arizona.

While they have not blown out either of their opponents, winning by a combined margin of three points, they have become the collegiate Anti-Heat with their close wins against tough opponents.

Memphis was 28th in RPI when the tournament started and was as high as No. 13 overall in the AP poll this season, and Texas spent three weeks as the No. 3 overall, finished No. 8, yet still drew a 4-seed. Both are a misleading draw, neither in favor of Arizona, yet the Wildcats played both games down to the last second and have survived into the Sweet 16.

They have shown great tenacity and grit. I only hope they still have something in the tank for Duke.

Despite shooting 4-of-14 from the field against Texas, Derrick Williams has been really impressive these last two games (Did you know he hit 61% 36-of-59 of his 3-pointers this season? How does he not shoot them more?) with his game-saving block against Memphis and amazing game-winning three-point play on Sunday.

When Williams was shooting poorly, Solomon Hill was filling in the gaps. Both had good peripheral numbers in the Texas game as well. I hope Duke will not take them as lightly as I did heading into the tournament.

KELLY: Before I explain my unconventional pick for this region's most impressive team, yes, Arizona was fantastic and Williams is a stud. To answer your questions about his lack of 3-point attempts -- that's my favorite thing about him. Williams is the rare player in this generation who seems to like to bang down low even though he has a nice perimeter game.

If I had the No. 1 pick in this upcoming draft and did not have a positional need to dictate my choice, I would take Williams in a heartbeat.

ANYWAY, my choice for the West's most impressive team is the now-eliminated Michigan Wolverines. A 30-point blowout of Tennessee and an almost upset of No. 1 Duke was enough for me; coach John Beilein has the once-vaunted Big Ten program back in the thick of things. Michigan has gotten to the tournament now in two of the last three years (after not being in the tournament since 1998) and has won a game in each visit.


KELLY: We certainly have a bevy of choices to pick from here. I'll take the VCU Rams, a program now headed to the Sweet 16 for the first time in the school's history. After spending the days leading up the tournament hearing how they did not even belong in the play-in game, the Rams went out and beat USC of the Pac-10, Georgetown of the Big East and Purdue of the Big Ten.

Correction: Not only won, but defeated each major-conference representative by at least 13 points. VCU's average winning margin so far in the tournament has been 16.3 points per game. Even better for Cinderella-watchers, VCU next has a winnable game against the ACC's Florida State, which likely would be followed by a date with Kansas out of the Big 12. Could you imagine if VCU ran through five of the six major conferences on its way to a Final Four berth?

DONATO: I am loving the Rams in the tournament this year. The whole Southwest has been a lot of fun, with 10 through 13 making it to the technical third round and 10 through 12 still playing in the Sweet 16, there are plenty of teams to choose from.

I'm going to have to throw my support behind Florida State, because Sunday night's win over Notre Dame was never in doubt. The Seminoles grabbed about a 10 point lead midway through the first half, and the game stayed at that level throughout.

Florida State has been great this year at limiting opponents' FG% and did just that to the Irish. Notre Dame shot 31 percent from the field, and their dangerous 3-point shooters hit only seven of their 30 shots (23%) from behind the arch.

Bernard James has been a great low post threat, hitting 11-of-16 shots in the tournament and collecting 16 rebounds. VCU and Florida State meet on March 25, and the way the Southwest is going, the winner may face Richmond. (Man, how did Richmond not get any love in this column?)


DONATO: I could make a case for each of these teams, and would do so if that did not mean that I would walk all over your end of the contributions for this region. The team that has stood out to me the most has been Wisconsin.

The Badgers did not allow Belmont to get going after Belmont became a chic upset pick, and stopped Kansas State when the majority of people felt that Jacob Pullen and the Wildcats were the favorite. Wisconsin was also coming off a train wreck loss to Penn State in the Big Ten tournament by a score of 36-33.

As much as I liked Wisconsin during the regular season (one of two teams to beat Ohio State), I gave them high probability to lose either of their first two games, and even though their seeding suggests that they belong in the Sweet 16, their play in getting there has been a pleasant surprise.

KELLY: I'm just going to do it. Jimmer and the Fredettes were this region's most impressive team and here's why: No team had more to prove -- "You can't win without Davies!" -- and a bigger spotlight -- both games on CBS, prime-time -- and the BYU Cougars delivered.

Sure, they were touch-and-go for a bit in the Wofford-game, but the Cougars responded with a 22-point drubbing of Gonzaga.

More importantly, the local kid did himself right. Averages of 33 points and 6.5 assists per game, showing once and for all he's just not a kid who can light it up against the whatstheirnames in the Mountain West.

So, what's your take? Agree, disagree? Let us know in the comments!

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