ELITE EIGHT PREVIEW | Saturday's Games
WEST REGION: (1) Arizona vs. (2) Kansas
There's no question, this game has a national-championship flavor. Hall of Famer Lute Olson and future Hall of Famer Roy Williams are going head-to-head, baby -- each designing a game plan to get his team to the Final Four in New Orleans.
This matchup features experienced seniors galore, a virtual All-America team. Arizona has Jason Gardner and Luke Walton, while Kansas has Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison.
Hinrich had a poor shooting game in Kansas' 69-65 win over Duke on Thursday, but he played great defense on diaper dandy J.J. Redick (who shot 2-of-16).
On Thursday, Collison had the best performance of the tournament so far, with 33 points and 19 rebounds while playing the entire 40 minutes. For Kansas to defeat Arizona, Mr. Collison must have bring his "Duke" game, baby! And Hinrich must bounce back and knock down his J.
In Arizona's Sweet 16 win over Notre Dame on Thursday -- an 88-71 thumping -- the 'Cats showed why they were everybody's choice as the preseason No. 1. They displayed balance, ball movement, tough D and rebounding. They were efficient on offense and clicked in all facets of the game.
These teams played once this season, with the Wildcats winning 91-74 on Jan. 25 at Kansas' Allen Field House. The Jayhawks jumped out to a 20-point lead only to get blown out in the second half. Gardner (23 points) and Salim Stoudamire (32) combined for 55 points, with Stoudamire going crazy from 3-point range (6-of-9).
This will be a special, special showdown -- and I feel that the 'Cats will advance to New Orleans in a real barn-burner, baby!
MIDWEST REGION: (1) Kentucky vs. (3) Marquette
Marquette's physical play has helped the Golden Eagles advance -- along with the sensational play of Dwyane Wade. The junior superstar scored 22 points Thursday (20 in the second half) in a 77-74 Sweet 16 win over Pittsburgh.
Wade's running mate, point guard Travis Diener, has made a name for himself in the NCAA Tournament. And coach Tom Crean has become a rising star in the coaching fraternity. He did a magnificent job guiding Marquette past Putt, and as a reward he gets to play Kentucky, baby! So Crean, the new kid on the block, now faces established coaching star Tubby Smith, who already has a national title on his resume.
Kentucky is so versatile and punishing on defense. The big question facing coach Tubby Smith's Wildcats is this: Will senior guard Keith Bogans be healthy and available to play? He sprained his ankle in the first half of Thursday's game vs. Wisconsin and didn't return.
Kentucky is deep and has the personnel to step in for Bogans, but when you lose a player of his caliber and leadership, it has to hurt. Still, if there's a team that can withstand the loss of a key player, it's Kentucky, with guys like Cliff Hawkins, Jules Camara and Antwain Barbour coming off the bench. If Bogans isn't at full strength, his teammates will need to step up.
In Thursday's 63-57 win over Wisconsin, the 'Cats got brilliant play from Marquis Estill (28 points). Somebody different always seems to come through for Kentucky, which is the mark of a great team.
Kentucky must shut down the 3-point game of Marquette freshman forward Steve Novak, who hit 3-of-5 trifectas vs. Pitt. On the inside, senior forward Robert Jackson (16 points vs. Pitt) must stay out of foul trouble and give Marquette a post presence.
My gut feeling is that the 'Cats will not be denied and will find a way to win their 27th straight game (since losing to Louisville in December -- that's right, baby, the 'Cats have yet to lose in 2003). And with one more win, they'll be in the Final Four.