Wow, the East Regional has lived up to its billing, with the top four seeds advancing to the Sweet 16. The two games this week should be intriguing.
PITTSBURGH (1) VS. XAVIER (4)
The Panthers have been pushed in their first two tournament games. Against East Tennessee State, 18 turnovers hurt, and the Bucs had 20 offensive rebounds, challenging DeJuan Blair and company.
Oklahoma State put up 49 points in the first half against the Panthers, the most scored in one half against Pittsburgh this season. It was not vintage Pittsburgh defense. Blair came on strong in the second half and made some big plays.
Sam Young is underappreciated on the national scene. He is so tough; go ask Jim Calhoun. Young totaled 56 points in two games against Connecticut this season, and he was brilliant against the Cowboys, scoring 32 big points.
Pittsburgh needs to turn it up and be more consistent for 40 minutes. It must play its style of basketball, executing offensively with defensive intensity and limited turnovers.
Blair has to be a dominant force inside to take advantage of a matchup edge.
Xavier has talent on the perimeter with B.J. Raymond. I also like Derrick Brown and C.J. Anderson. This trio has to shoot better than it did against the defensive-minded Wisconsin Badgers (8-for-27). The Musketeers cannot afford to miss free throws (15 in the first two games of the tourney) plus hold their own on the glass against Blair. Xavier was plus-20 on the boards in the first two games.
I look at this being a special contest for Sean Miller. The Xavier coach, a rising star in the profession, played high school ball at Blackhawk High School in Beaver Falls, Pa. That is the same town that produced a pretty good football player named Joe Namath, who knows a thing about motivation! Miller also played guard at Pittsburgh, so this should be an emotional challenge.
This will be a tough, tough game but we should see the real Pittsburgh. The Panthers last made it to the Elite Eight in 1974, when NC State and David Thompson scored a blowout city knockout. It is time to go beyond the Sweet 16 and move a step closer to the Final Four.
DUKE (2) VS. VILLANOVA (3)
When you look at this showdown between the Big East and ACC, my top two conferences this season, you expect to see great guard play.
Jay Wright's Wildcats are loaded with guards. Scottie Reynolds can be explosive, though he hasn't scored as well so far in the tournament (19 total points). Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes, along with wing player Dwayne Anderson, are solid perimeter players.
This Villanova team has balance. Six players scored in double figures in the impressive win over UCLA in the second round. The Wildcats have also taken advantage of second-chance opportunities in the tournament.
Dante Cunningham gives Villanova an inside-outside presence, shooting well in the tournament while averaging over 20 ppg. He can step out and make shots.
This team's versatility makes them the most dangerous of the teams seeded third and down remaining in the field. Wright is a star in the coaching profession. He knows how to get the most out of his people.
In basketball today, you have to be able to execute on the perimeter and Villanova excels at it.
Duke has a lot of talent on the perimeter as well. Jon Scheyer is an effective shooter and has been a leader since moving to the point guard slot. There is Gerald Henderson's ability to penetrate and also score from long range on the wing. Nolan Smith has been a factor off the bench, averaging 12 points in the first two tourney games. The Blue Devils are shooting just under 50 percent (16-of-34) on trifectas in the tourney.
Henderson has to be magnificent in this game for Duke to win. Kyle Singler is a very special player inside and outside.
There are so many multitalented, multidimensional players in this game.
It is hard to believe that Duke hasn't been in the Elite Eight since 2004.
This is the most intriguing matchup in the Sweet 16. It has the potential to be really special. It is going to be a classic. Villanova rotates so many players on the perimeter.
I see this as a Maalox Masher, a tough battle. I give the slightest edge to Villanova.