West Regional

Ncaa Tournament

March 12, 2007|By KEVIN VAN VALKENBURG

GOING TO ATLANTA

Kansas. The Jayhawks were a sexy pick last season, when plenty of people thought that with so much youth on their team, they would fly under the radar and fly into the Final Four. Instead, Kansas got bounced by Bradley in the first round, the second straight year the Jayhawks didn't even make it to the field of 32. What's different this year? Julian Wright and Brandon Rush are a year older, wiser and better, but the real difference will probably be freshman point guard Sherron Collins, who knows how to use his speed to push the ball and take advantage of Kansas' superior athleticism. He had 20 points in yesterday's overtime victory against Texas in the Big 12 tournament final. Rush nearly jumped to the NBA after his freshman year, and after an up-and-down sophomore season, he needs to make some noise in the tournament if he wants to solidify his status as a top draft pick in the future. Oddly enough, Kansas seems to play its best basketball when Rush plays selfish and takes over games, at least according to his coach, Bill Self. The Jayhawks coach has something to prove, too, after two consecutive first-round exits. He has the talent to win a national championship, and the folks in Lawrence may start to get a bit restless if the Jayhawks don't go far this year. Kansas should face UCLA in the regional final, pitting two teams with speed who also play great defense. Expect Rush and Collins to make the difference.

MOST OVERRATED TEAM

Duke. Typically, people who rage about an alleged Duke bias come off as neurotic and creepy. It's not healthy. But this year, there's no way to look at the Blue Devils' No. 6 seed and not smell something fishy, considering they're 4-7 in their past 11 games. This season's batch of McDonald's All-Americans appears to have been ordered off the Dollar Menu. Coach Mike Krzyzewski has the second-highest winning percentage in NCAA tournament history (.782), but Duke has bowed out to a lower seed three years in a row.

MOST UNDERRATED TEAM

Villanova. When people talk about Southern Illinois being underrated this year, ignore them. The Salukis have made the tournament six years in a row, and were ranked in the Top 25 most of this season. They should expect to make some noise. Instead, we'll take the Wildcats, who have one of the best coaches in the country in Jay Wright, and make free throws at an incredible 78.4 percent clip. Senior point guard Mike Nardi, a Steve Blake clone, has played in some big NCAA tournament games, and might help Villanova give Kansas a scare in round two.

PRIME-TIME PLAYERS

UCLA guards Arron Afflalo and Darren Collison form what is probably the best backcourt in the country. Afflalo averages 16.7 points a game, and Collison hits 45 percent of his three-pointers. Pity the teams that have to try to slow down these two over the next two weeks.

BEST PLAYER YOU'VE NEVER HEARD OF

DeShaun Wood, Wright State. He's only 5 feet 11, but Wood is one of the best players in school history, and he can score. He helped Wright State win the Horizon League title with 27 points and eight rebounds in an upset of No. 17 Butler.

KEEP AN EYE ON

Gonzaga. The Bulldogs didn't get much attention nationally this season except for an embarrassing episode in February when one of their best players, Josh Heytvelt, was suspended after police found marijuana and psychedelic mushrooms in his backpack before a Widespread Panic concert. The Zags, however, always seem to make the most noise in the NCAA tournament when expectations are low. Knocking off Indiana and then UCLA is not out of the question.

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