So, does St. Joe's deserve that No. 1 seed after all?
The Hawks took a shot to the chops from Wake Forest early in their Sweet 16 game Thursday night, falling behind 15-6 as the Demon Deacons exploited their biggest weakness by pounding the ball inside. But St. Joe's steadied itself and, thanks mostly to its phenomenal backcourt, rode a strong second half to an 84-80 win.
Proving what? That St. Joe's belongs in the Elite 8, though that's a long way -- a win over Oklahoma State, to be specific -- from the Final Four berth that would justify that top seed and get top critic Billy Packer to eat a little crow.
Oklahoma State, playing on the same East Rutherford floor earlier in the evening, pinned Pittsburgh two out of three falls, surviving 33 minutes' worth of scrum before getting its offense in gear and blowing the Panthers out, 63-51. In the interest of full disclosure I'll tell you that I have gone head over heels for Oklahoma State. It's love, a temporary insanity curable by a bad shooting night. But I don't think it's just the fever talking when I say there's no way the St. Joe's that beat Wake wins against the Oklahoma State that beat Pitt.
The Cowboys just have too many ways to win. They can hold their own by turning the screws defensively and rassling around like pigs in mud the way Pittsburgh likes to. And then they can turn on the offensive juice and run you out of the gym.
St. Joe's counts on the talent of Jameer Nelson and Delonte West to simply overwhelm opponents. Those two have some nice compliments in guys like sixth man Tyrone Barley, who shut down Wake's sensational freshman Chris Paul Thursday, and Pat Carroll, who hit five 3-pointers, but at this level, Nelson and West have to be dazzling for the Hawks to even have a chance at winning. They certainly were dazzling against Wake, both scoring 24, playing good defense and making a few spectacular plays. But let's face it: If the Demon Deacons had some guys who could consistently go inside and score -- I'm thinking here of Tony Allen, Ivan McFarlin and Joey Graham of Oklahoma State -- this column would be a eulogy for the plucky kids from Philly.
Did St. Joe's deserve that No. 1 seed? Well, who cares, at this point. We're down to 12 teams, and any of them can win from here. No. 8 Alabama beat 5-seed Syracuse 80-71 in the Phoenix regional Thursday and it didn't look anything like an upset, though it probably would if the Crimson Tide could find a way Saturday to beat 2-seed Connecticut, which thumped No. 6 Vanderbilt 73-53 and is looking like a serious title contender.
But unless the Hawks kick it up a notch Saturday -- or Oklahoma State has that bad shooting night and breaks my heart like Kansas did last year and Lisa Martinez did in the second grade, not that I'm still bitter or anything -- Billy Packer will have the last laugh.
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Friday's games [PERMALINK]
Here's a look at Friday's Sweet 16 games, in the St. Louis and Atlanta brackets. At both sites, the first game listed begins shortly after 8 p.m. EST, and the second follows a half-hour after the end of the first. Seedings are noted and my picks to win are in bold.
4) Kansas vs. 9) Alabama-Birmingham
The Jayhawks continue their home-crowd march toward the Final Four, having won two games in Kansas City, a commute from campus, and now playing the regionals a three-CD car trip away. That's more of an advantage for Kansas than it might be for some other teams because, the Richmond upset aside, the Jayhawks were unbeatable at home this year, and seven-times beatable on the road.
Kansas has a big-time inside guy in Wayne Simien and a good complement in Jeff Graves, who seems to have rebounded from his seasonlong funk. Those two and the quick, veteran backcourt led by Keith Langford give the Jayhawks enough to beat Alabama-Birmingham's pressing "40 minutes of hell" attack. In fact, it gives them enough to beat just about anybody, but somehow Kansas doesn't look like a Final Four team. They're too inconsistent, too given to playing just well enough, witness their 30 minutes of struggle before separating from Pacific last weekend. And the Blazers are so weird, not to mention so fast, that you can just never quite count them out of any game, as Kentucky learned in the biggest upset of the Tournament. I think Kansas will win this game, but if someone staked me and said I had to bet on one of these two to win the whole thing, I'd put the money on UAB.
3) Georgia Tech vs. 10) Nevada
Speaking of playing down to your opponent, here are the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, ladies and gentlemen. Another team with that nice inside-outside balance that plays well in March, the Jackets can put their backcourt of B.J. Elder and Jarrett Jack up against anyone's, and those two usually get just enough help from Isma'il Muhammad and Luke Schenscher. Usually. Schenscher, who averages 6.4 rebounds a game, has pulled down six in the first two Tournament games, close wins over Northern Iowa and Boston College. And he only scored two points against B.C. Muhammad, who comes off the bench to average better than nine points and four rebounds in 19 minutes, is averaging five and 3.5 in the first two games.
Georgia Tech's going to need better from those two to beat the Wolf Pack. Really. Nevada can play. Remember, the Pack didn't just emerge with their "upset" win over Michigan State in the first round or their drilling of 2-seed Gonzaga in the second. These guys hung with UConn on the road for a while in November and smacked Kansas upside the head in December. Their star, Kirk Snyder, isn't some overachieving small-conference guy. He landed at Nevada only after some early academic problems scared big schools away. If 3-point bomber Todd Okeson's shots are falling and Nick Fazekas is playing well inside, Nevada can't be written off.
Elite 8 winner: Georgia Tech
3) Texas vs. 7) Xavier
Xavier's been playing Tournament games since the beginning of February, when the Musketeers had lost three in a row and five out of six to fall to 10-9. Since then they've won 15 out of 16, losing only to Duquesne, which just had Xavier's number this year. The Musketeers thumped undefeated St. Joe's in the Atlantic 10 tournament, and abused 2-seed Mississippi State last weekend. This is a red-hot team with a fabulous backcourt in Lionel Chalmers and Romain Sato, who average 33 points a game between them. Chalmers poured in 31 against MSU. Xavier is raining threes on its opponents, pouring in a ridiculous 22-of-37, 59 percent, in the two Tournament wins.
But I think Xavier's run will end here. Texas is just too deep. They throw waves of players at you. None of them are as good as Sato and Chalmers, but essentially playing in platoons, they don't have to be, and it's not as though the Longhorns are a bunch of chumps. Texas has eight players who have played at least 25 minutes in its two Tournament wins. Xavier doesn't even have eight players who have played.
1) Duke vs. 5) Illinois
Speaking of red-hot teams, here are Duke and Illinois, ladies and gentlemen. Both underachieved a bit during the regular season, Illinois more than Duke, but they've both put it together for the Tournament, the Illini shooting Cincinnati out of the building in the second round, and the Blue Devils beating a pretty good Seton Hall team by 28. Two more sets of elite guards, but the difference is that Illinois is all backcourt. Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head have to have everything falling for Illinois to beat a good team. Duke's J.J. Redick, Daniel Ewing and Chris Duhon don't. In other words, the difference will be the Blue Devils frontcourt, especially Luol Deng and Shelden Williams, for whom Illinois has no answer.
Elite 8 winner: Duke
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