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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Mike Bradley: Playing Favorites Has Never Been So Hard, Part 3

Pac 10

Contenders: UCLA, Arizona State

While not the same dominant UCLA team of years past, this Bruins team is more than capable of making some noise this March. Even with the likes of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love plying their trade in the NBA, Ben Howland's squad still has the talent and leadership to have a deep run in the tournament. Led by senior studs Darren Collison and Josh Shipp, as well as Alfred Aboya, the leadership provided by the trio is the perfect counterbalance to the young talent of freshman phenoms Jrue Holiday and Drew Gordon. An early season loss to Michigan was a bad omen, as well as a later nonconference loss to Texas, but UCLA looks like they are saving their best basketball for the tournament yet again. With four conference losses thus far, half of those losses came at the hands of an extremely talented Arizona State team. With lottery-bound sophomore superstud James Harden lighting the world on fire, the Sun Devils have the go-to scorer needed to have success in the postseason. They are far from a one-trick pony, however. Senior forward Jeff Pendergraph provides rebounding ability and extra scoring to compliment Harden's wing play, while guard-forward Rihards Kuksiks takes some heat off of Harden on the outside with his 10 points per. Even with an early loss to Baylor and a few inexcusable losses in conference play, you can't count out a team with such undeniable talent.

Jury is still out: Washington

Easily the most baffling team in the Pac-10, the Huskies have all the talent to be a top 10 team in the country. However, they continue to show that they can't be trusted on a game-by-game basis. A season-opening loss to Portland should have been an omen, as the team continued to lose nonconference games to both Kansas and Florida, and then conference games at home against California and then at Arizona, Cal again, UCLA. One of the most balanced teams in the country, the Huskies have a pair of sub-6' guards in freshman Isaiah Thomas and Justin Dentmon who are both average over 16 PPG. Down low, senior big man in the league Jon Brockman, averages a double-double while forward Quincy Pondexter tosses in 11 points and
 5.6 rebounds a game. With all the talent they have, it's easy to see a decent showing in the tournament. At the same time, all of the consistent makes it hard to put Washington any farther than the second round.

Pretenders: Arizona, California, USC

With the early season controversy surrounding the health and subsequent retirement of legendary coach Lute Olson, the decommitment of many incoming freshmen, and the game
 lapses from a mentally drained team, it's almost a miracle the Wildcats are even in position to make the tournament in the first place. Headlined by two players they have been lucky to have for this long, Arizona gets 18 points a game from Cali Boy Chase Budinger and a double-double from big man Jordan Hill. If the pieces around those building blocks can put it together and point guard Nic Wise can run the show effectively under pressure, the Wildcats may just prove the naysayers wrong. The California Golden Bears are built like Washington, without the bangers down low. With three guards averaging at least 12 PPG, Cal relies mainly on the 5'10'' Jerome Randle to carry the load. While it might work against the Pac-10, it'll be a whole different story for them to bang bodies with the likes of the Big East, ACC, and Big Ten when it's tourny-time. Led by head coach Tim Floyd, the Trojans surrounded wunderkind DeMar DeRozan with juniors Taj Gibson, Dwight Lewis, and Daniel Hackett for what was suppose to be an even better run than the one they completed with already-NBA star O.J. Mayo. However, things haven't gone smoothly. Losses to Seton Hall and Missouri early on, coupled with Pac-10 losses to Oregon State and Arizona, highlight some of the disappointing losses that weren't suppose to happen this year. Inconsistency and crushing losses early on will most likely end up costing the Trojans another shot at a March Madness appearance. 


Contenders: LSU

Even with the premature exit of freshman phenom (but NOT NBA ready) forward Anthony Randolph, the Tigers look like they haven't missed a step. In fact, they look better than last year's version. Led by senior sharpshooter Marcus Thornton (20.3 PPG) and junior forward Tasmin Mitchell (16.9 PPG and 7.3 RPG), LSU is the SEC's best chance at a respectable showing come March. With 6'11'' big man Chris Johnson anchoring the middle with 2.8 blocks per game and sophomore guard Bo Spencer providing some extra scoring, the Tigers should be a very good team for the seeding they will inevitably be given.

Jury is still out: Tennessee, Florida, Kentucky

The most disappointing team in the SEC has to be Bruce Pearl's Tennessee Volunteers. With Tyler Smith returning for his junior year and his shot to lead the team, expectations were high to pick up where Chris Lofton had left them the year before. Tyler Smith has put up his end of the bargain, averaging 17.6 points, 5.7 boards, and 3.5 assists per game as the do-it-all man an otherwise underachieving team. Wayne Chism has produced fairly well as a complement to Smith, but it's hard to find any other player on the roster playing to their potential. The monumental hype surrounding McDonald's All American Scotty Hopson seems incredibly misplaced based on his first year in Knoxville. For a team that relied heavily on three point shooting last year (thanks, in large part, to the graduated Lofton), they just don't have the firepower to reproduce last year's performance. Look for an early exit this March. Two years removed from their second straight National Championship, the Gators are looking to get into the dance yet again. However, they don't have nearly enough firepower to make a run even remotely close to the 2006 or 2007 teams. Nick Calathes can do it all (19-5-6) and Alex Tyus has done a nice job down low for the Gators, but that's about all there is to them. An extremely young team, look for the Gators to compete in a year or two if everyone stays. Down in Lexington, KY, there's a lot to like about the Wildcats this year. Phenom Patrick Patterson has managed to stay healthy while sensational guard Jodie Meeks has put it all together in a Player of the Year type campaign. The only problem is, those two are all that there is to Kentucky. Their third scoring option stands at 6'9'' and barely 200 pounds (Perry Stevenson) and the rest of the supporting cast is subpar at best. When Meeks is double-teamed (e.g. @ Mississippi) or when Patterson is out (e.g. @ Vanderbilt), the Wildcats are dead in the water. That being said, if both of them go off, specifically the sweet-stroking Meeks, the Wildcats can compete with anyone.

Pretenders: South Carolina

The last of the SEC teams with a legitimate shot at the tournament, the Gamecocks should be happy just to be there. Sensational guard play from Devan Downey and Zam Fredrick has gotten them this far, but success in March is a lot of pressure to put on the narrow 5'9'' and 6' shoulders of the two scorers. With losses to College of Charleston and Mississippi State on the resume, as well as a general lack of impressive wins in the nonconference schedule, the Gamecocks will have to fight for their lives come March. Count on them losing that fight.

Best of the Rest - Contenders:
Memphis, Gonzaga

John Calipari pushes all the right buttons. After losing a majority of his National Championship-losing team, including invaluable guards Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts, many were unsure how the Tigers would fair this year. Then Calipari scored a commitment from superstar Tyreke Evans, and all was good in Memphis yet again. While he's no Rose, Evans has been more than effective in his freshman campaign, averaging 16.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 3.7 assists a game. Meanwhile, National Championship game holdovers Robert Dozier, Antonio Anderson, and Shawn Taggert have provided the complementary scoring and defense that has Memphis in a good position to make a decent run again this
 time around. Gonzaga has long been America's darlings, making it to the tournament and garnering adoration, only to fall short time and time again. However, Mark Few feels incredibly confident about his current crew, and he has good reason. With big man Josh Heytvelt avoiding the psychedelics, his senior leadership and production has led the way for the likes of Austin Daye and Matt Bouldin to register equally impressive seasons. However, for the Bulldogs to get over the tournament hump and win the title, Jeremy Pargo needs to find his stroke and run the show like a senior point guard has to do. If this happens, look for Gonzaga in the Elite 8, with a possible deeper run in the cards. *

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