UCLA has a great killer instinct. The Bruins need it, because they keep letting inferior teams hang around or, as was the case Thursday night in the West regional semifinal, rally to make a game close long after it should have been put away.
Western Kentucky, a 12-seed that looked more like a 5 or 6 in the three rounds it lasted in the NCAA Tournament, turned a blowout into a nail-biter late in the second half before falling short.
Down 41-20 at the half and 56-38 with 12 minutes to go, the Hilltoppers launched a furious, thrilling comeback behind the shooting and slashing of Tyrone Brazelton. He scored 12 points in the next five minutes as Western Kentucky outscored UCLA 19-5 and closed to within 61-57.
About two and a half minutes later a Josh Shipp 3-pointer reestablished a nine-point lead for UCLA and that was the end of the threat, and while the comeback can't just be blamed on UCLA getting sloppy -- Brazelton and his teammates, playing brilliantly for a stretch, had more than a little to do with it -- UCLA did, in fact, get sloppy.
The Bruins beat Western Kentucky 88-78 to move along to the Elite 8, the regional finals, against No. 3 Xavier, which beat No. 7 West Virginia 79-75 in a whiz-bang overtime game. In the East region, the Sweet 16 consisted of a couple of routs: Top-seed North Carolina handled Washington State easily, 68-47, and No. 3 Louisville used a strong second half to drill the wobbly second seed, Tennessee, 79-60.
West Virginia looked like it had a shot at a comeback win, but the Mountaineers couldn't score on a key three-rebound possession late, and they missed free throws down the stretch. Three 3-pointers in overtime by B.J. Raymond sealed the win for Xavier.
UCLA has been playing with fire throughout this Tournament. Xavier will be the first team it plays that's clearly good enough to make sure it gets burned. The Bruins can fall back on center Kevin Love to bail them out of trouble, as they've done in two straight games now, but a great player bailing out a floundering team that's not playing as well as it can is not a formula for a championship.
The other No. 1 seed that played Thursday, North Carolina, has no such issue. The Tar Heels, who entered the Tournament as the favorite, haven't done anything to indicate they don't deserve that status. They beat Washington State at its own game Thursday, turning the screws on the Cougars defensively.
If North Carolina, which is widely thought to have come this far despite its defensive shortcomings, is going to play like that, it's going to make the oddsmakers look smart.
But the Tar Heels don't have a clear path to San Antonio and the Final Four. Louisville, their foe in the regional final, may be the hottest team in the Tournament. The Cardinals also played a great defensive game, frustrating the Volunteers, who were off their feed for the third straight time.
The difference is that Louisville is known for its defense. Saturday's game sets up as a classic, a clash of styles between two very good teams that are both rolling. Tennessee's win over Memphis in February has been called the Game of the Year, but Tennessee's gone now. There are still several possible matchups that are candidates to be Game of the Year -- Memphis-Texas, or any of the potential 1-vs.-1 games in the Final Four -- but if you're looking for one to bet on, North Carolina-Louisville's not a bad choice.
North Carolina will have a virtual home-court advantage in Charlotte. The Tar Heels are going to need it.
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Friday's Sweet 16 games [PERMALINK]
(3) Wisconsin vs. (10) Davidson, Midwest region, 7:10 p.m. EDT
Davidson has come this far on the back of two spectacular performances by Stephen Curry, who scored 40 and 30 points in the first two rounds. The Wildcats aren't a one-man team, but at least in the Tournament, they go as Curry goes.
And Curry's really going to have to go because Davidson's up against what might be the best defense in the country. Wisconsin isn't a lot of fun to watch, and the Badgers sometimes have trouble with guard-oriented teams, but they should be able to clamp down enough to escape the Davidson upset trail.
(2) Texas vs. (3) Stanford, South region, 7:27 p.m. EDT
Two efficient teams that take care of the ball and play solid on-ball defense. The Cardinal rely on the twin Lopez towers, the Longhorns on point guard D.J. Augustin, one of the best in the nation.
Stanford will win if the Cardinal can dominate on the offensive boards and get second and third chances, which is something that can happen against Texas. They can also win if the Longhorns don't shoot, because Texas isn't going to get much inside. Augustin and backcourt mate A.J. Abrams should be up to the task.
(1) Kansas vs. (12) Villanova, Midwest, second game
Villanova is the second of two 12-seeds to get this far, having come from behind to stun No. 5 Clemson and then cruised past No. 13 Siena, another first-round upset winner.
Kansas, my pick to win the Tournament, shouldn't have much of a problem with the Wildcats unless the Jayhawks look past them to the Wisconsin-Davidson winner. Villanova is shooting the lights out in the Tournament, which is nice, but the Wildcats aren't really a great shooting team, so they're due for a little regression.
(1) Memphis vs. (5) Michigan State, South, second game
The idea against Memphis is to keep the game close and try to leverage the free-throw-shooting advantage you have. You being just about any team on the planet.
Memphis is 33-1, so obviously that's easier said than done. The Tigers play an up-tempo, driving style and force turnovers on defense, an area in which the Spartans are vulnerable. Drew Neitzel and Raymar Morgan have to hit a bunch of shots for even a very good Michigan State team to keep it close.
Previous column: NCAA's Big Lie exposed -- by NCAA
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