March Madness Elite Eight Preview

It’s been an absolutely crazy 2011 NCAA Tournament. After three (technically four under the new First Four rules that no one likes) rounds, several pre-tournament favorites have been eliminated. Taking their place are the likes of Arizona and Butler. Who will win the championship? No one knows but, as we approach the final stretch of the tournament, let’s take a look at the NCAA Elite Eight matchups, how they might turn out, and their effects on the rest of the tournament:

Florida (2) vs. Butler (8)
Before the 2011 NCAA Tournament began, many analysts attacked Florida as overrated and suggested that the Gators deserved a four or five seed. However, the Gators are actually one of the most balanced teams in the whole tournament. They have talent, athleticism, and a superior defense, which are the essential ingredients for a deep tournament run. They have proved their detractors wrong so far and are not looking to stop now.

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On the flip side, Butler is keen to make another deep tournament run as well. Butler’s 2010 team, led by star forward Gordon Heyward, made it all the way to the NCAA Championship where they lost to Duke on a last second miss at the buzzer. This team has less overall talent but is a veteran group with capable leaders in Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack, disciplined defense, and scoring ability. Even though Florida is my pick to win this game and make the NCAA Final Four, it would be foolish to totally count Butler out.

Connecticut (3) vs. Arizona (5)
Many pundits thought Arizona would be upset by Memphis in the first round. Wrong: the Tiger’s defense came up short and Arizona moved on to the Round of 32. There, plenty of observers picked defensive juggernaut Texas. Wrong again. Then, the Wildcats shocked the nation by taking tournament favorite Duke out in the Sweet Sixteen….and it was not even close.

Forward Solomon Hill of the Arizona Wildcats
26 March 2011: Forward Solomon Hill (44) of the Arizona Wildcats during the Elite Eight round of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship vs. UConn Huskies at the Honda Center in Anaheim, CA.

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Now they must face a red-hot Connecticut team that has not come very close to losing since midway through the Big East tournament. No team is hotter than the Huskies right now and their star guard, Kemba Walker, looks ready to will them through the tournament after torching San Diego State for 36 points. Indeed, Connecticut was one of my NCAA Final Four picks and I am sticking with that prediction, even though the Wildcats have the talent and the desire to get to the Final Four as well. In the end we will see what happens but this is the most intriguing matchup of the NCAA Elite Eight.

VCU (11) vs. Florida (2)
VCU is for real. The tournament’s Cinderella continued to impress in the Sweet Sixteen by taking out defensive juggernaut Florida State in overtime. However, beating Florida is a tough ask. The Gators are a very complete team and excel in every facet of the game. That said, VCU crushed a very complete Purdue team so this NCAA Elite Eight matchup should be very interesting.

North Carolina (2) vs. Kentucky (4)
This matchup pits the tournament’s two most talented teams against one another. In fact, there may end up being as many NBA scouts present as regular spectators! On the Kentucky side, guard Brandon Knight, guard Doron Lamb, and forward Terrence Jones should all be future professional players. North Carolina’s list of future NBA stars is even more impressive: forwards Harrison Barnes and John Henson are elite talents and center Tyler Zeller will also have a place in the NBA. If anything, what this matchup shows is the critical importance of talented underclassmen to college basketball; even though they often depart early their impact on the NCAA tournament is colossal.

Forward John Henson of the North Carolina
March 25, 2011: Forward John Henson (31) of the North Carolina and teammates versus the Marquette in their Sweet Sixteen game of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ.

It’s hard to choose between these two teams. Both are young, talented, and maturing as we speak. Ultimately, I think that North Carolina’s combination of elite defensive ability inside with John Henson and Harrison Barnes’ scoring ability will win the day but a Kentucky victory would not surprise anyone in the slightest. Either way, it will be fun to watch.

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