BY NEAL MALONE
Moving to the South, where the Dukies are feelin’ fine. That’s right…perhaps the biggest story of all is how easy Duke’s road to the Final Four could be. This comes as a surprise to everyone, seeing as Duke was supposed to be the lowest-rated #1 seed. If you look at the South region, you would really think Kansas should be the one involved.
Nonetheless, there is plenty of talent in this region, starting with Coach K’s bunch. The Blue Devils have played solid all year, especially near the end when they won 12 of their final 13 games. Jon Scheyer, Nolan Smith, and Kyle Singler represent a huge percentage of the team’s points, but don’t let that fool you. Duke has a great group of role players that help round out a very versatile squad. If Duke can get by their second round opponent (California or Louisville), they shouldn’t have a problem at least getting to the Elite Eight.
About that second round opponent…If Louisville can fight off Pac-10 regular season champs, Cal, in the first round then I think they could be a scary proposition for Duke. Behind the experience of Rick Pitino and the senior leadership of Edgar Sosa, Louisville is very dangerous when they play their own game. If this becomes the case, a win by Louisville over Duke will quickly quiet the people who were so critical of this region to begin with.
The Purdue-Siena matchup represents the most intriguing 4-13 game in the entire tournament. Siena is perennially one of those “Bracket Buster” teams that everyone should look out for…and rightfully so. They’ve reached the 2nd round the past two years with wins over Vanderbilt and Ohio St. respectively. As for Purdue, this is a team that was ranked in the top 5 nationally just a few weeks ago. The injury to star forward Robbie Hummel has been devastating, though, and it’s led to a few really disappointing results on their part. Everyone is picking this game as an upset in favor of Siena. However, I would argue that this game is “even-steven” and picking a winner won’t be easy.
Another interesting game is the Old Dominion/Notre Dame matchup. Notre Dame blossomed late in the season and into the Big East tournament. How about this for a run? The Irish beat Pittsburgh (twice), Georgetown, Connecticut, Marquette, and Seton Hall before losing by only two to West Virginia in the Big East tournament. This is a team full of confidence, which is a shame for Old Dominion, their first round opponent. Old Dominion is a pretty decent mid-major who was good enough to beat Georgetown on the road this year. However, I love Notre Dame in this game, especially with Luke Harangody back from injury.
The 7-10 matchup in the South is fantastic. In my opinion, Richmond and Saint Mary’s are virtually even in skill, but this is another matchup where location matters. Saint Mary’s has to make the trip to Providence all the way from the west coast, whereas Richmond has just a short jaunt up north. I like Richmond in this game, but Saint Mary’s possesses a balanced attack. Omar Samhan can be dominant at times inside, while Ben Allen and Mickey McConnell have the ability to make big shots from the outside. Whoever emerges is sure to give limping Villanova a test.
Let’s talk about Villanova, though. They’ve won just 2 of their last 7 games, but they also have the ability to beat anybody when they’re on top of their game. If Villanova continues to struggle, they’re going to make it awfully easy on Duke and others. However, I believe Villanova will come into their own during the tournament. Scottie Reynolds is unbelievable at the point guard position, while the likes of Fisher, Stokes, Redding, Pena, King, and Yarou make up a very strong supporting cast. I like Villanova to emerge from this region. I’m a big believer in experience during the season, and playing well in the Big East like Villanova did is huge.