__Editor’s Note: Graham Williamson’s column was completed prior to the start of last night’s Sweet 16 matchups.__
p. With the first two rounds in the books, this year’s NCAA tournament can be described as anything but mad — in fact, this year’s tournament has been downright predictable. For the first time since 1995, a team seeded in the double digits has not qualified for the Sweet 16. Even more surprisingly, not a single team outside of the top half of the field of 65 still remains. Seventh-seeded University of Nevada-Las Vegas stands as the lowest ranked team remaining. There are no George Masons toppling formidable UConn squads, no University of Alabama-Birmingham teams shocking top-seeded Kentucky Wildcats. Not even VCU, behind the stellar play of Eric Maynor, could ride their wave of momentum into the round of 16. Although grumblings can be heard across the nation about the lack of a “feel good” Cinderella squad to rally behind, both fans and analysts should not be so hasty in voicing their complaints. With the most talented teams in the country still remaining, the Sweet 16 promises to be more competitive and thrilling than ever before.
p. After the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels pulled off arguably the most surprising upset of the tournament by defeating the second-seeded Wisconsin Badgers, the Midwest region is open for Florida’s taking. Look for the Gators to easily cruise past a feisty but outmanned Butler squad. However, the Gators will be challenged in the Elite Eight by Aaron Brooks and the Oregon Ducks. The Ducks will attempt to catch the Gators off guard with their relentless defense and pinpoint shooting from behind the arc. Nevertheless, the inside presence and physical play of center Al Horford and forward Corey Brewer will prove to be too much for Oregon, as the top-seeded Gators will squeak by the Ducks and reach the Final Four for the second consecutive year.
p. Easily the hottest team in the nation, the Kansas Jayhawks stand as the consensus favorite to cruise through the Western region and into the Final Four. However, as the heralded analyst Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast, my friend.” In the round of 16, the spirited Salukis of Southern Illinois will provide the biggest upset of the 2007 tournament. Holding their opponents to a miniscule 49.5 points per game this season, the Salukis play the most stifling defense of any team in the nation. Talented point guard Mario Chalmers will be forced into numerous turnovers by both the pesky press of SIU and the tenacious defense of resilient guard Jamaal Tatum.
p. Meanwhile, look for persistent guard Tony Young to create just enough offense for the Saluki’s to sneak past the heavily-favored Jayhawks and into the Elite Eight. However, that is where the Salukis’ magic carpet ride will come to a screeching halt. Led by Pac-10 player of the year Arron Afflalo, the UCLA Bruins will give the Salukis a dose of their own defensive medicine and advance to the Final Four, hence setting the stage for a rematch of last year’s national title game between UCLA and Florida.
p. With Kevin Durant and the Texas Longhorns out of the way, it would seem as if Tyler Hansbrough and the UNC Tar Heels will easily glide into the Elite Eight. However, the Heels must be sure not to overlook an underrated USC squad. I expect the Trojan post players Taj Gibson and Nick Young to slow down the dominant Hansbrough just enough to pull out a narrow overtime upset. Although the Trojans will be able to shock the Tar Heels, I believe the Trojans will fall short against the balanced attack of the Georgetown Hoyas. Arguably the best post presence in all of college basketball, the massive 7’ 2’’ center Roy Hibbert gives the Hoyas a dominant force looming in the paint. Although Hibbert can own the glass on his own, the Hoyas also possess another beast in the post in oft-overlooked forward, Jeff Green. With his clutch play, Green almost single-handedly lifted the Hoyas past the Boston College Eagles and into the Sweet 16. Look for the triple threat of Hibbert, Green and speedy junior guard Jonathan Wallace to propel the Hoyas into the Final Four for the first time since 1996.
p. After a second-round overtime scare against ninth-seeded Xavier, analysts across the nation jumped off the Ohio State bandwagon, claiming that the Buckeyes lack the experience needed to advance to the Final Four. Although the Buckeye roster is filled with freshmen and the Bucks needed a little luck to escape the second round, many forget that Ohio State is still riding a 19-game winning streak and once in a while even championship teams need to win ugly.
p. Hence, I expect the Bucks to ride the wave of momentum from their narrow victory and extend their winning streak for at least two more games. The Bucks shouldn’t have a problem taking care of Chris Lofton and the Tennessee Volunteers, but the match-up between Ohio State and Texas A&M (if the Aggies can slip by an extremely talented Memphis squad) looks to be one of the most intriguing of the entire tournament. The Aggies undoubtedly possess more experience than the youthful Bucks, but the A&M offense revolves far too much around one person: phenomenal point guard Acie Law IV. Though Law is one of the most versatile and probably the most clutch player in college basketball, the Buckeyes boast a multi-dimensional attack that A&M will not be able to contain. With shot-blocking machine Greg Oden patrolling the paint, the uncanny poise of freshman guard Mike Conley and the late game antics of Ron Lewis, the Bucks will slip by the Aggies to capture a berth in the Final Four.
__Graham Williamson is a columnist for The Flat Hat.__