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March 18, 2007

Stars take dead aim on Sweet 16

Today's first four NCAA Tournament games couldn't match the excitement Saturday produced. There wasn't any overtime. Or any last-second, game-winning jumpers. That's just fine with Rivals.com's Andrew Skwara. Skwara has seen more than his share of drama after being asked to watch every single second of the first and second rounds, or at least as much as humanly possible. Below, he breaks down the best and worst moves of Day 4.

On fire: Chris Lofton's nerves. If given the chance to pick any player to take a free throw with a game on the line I'll take Lofton. Virginia did everything that a team trailing in the final minute of a tight game is supposed to, fouling quickly, drawing fouls themselves and double-teaming the opponents' best free-throw shooter (Lofton). But, the junior who is best known for his 3-point bombs still found a way to keep getting the ball. He made three pressure-packed trips to the free throw line each with the Vols up by one or two points and calmly hit all six of his attempts, squashing any chance for a Cavaliers comeback.

Misfired: Injury bug. Even Tennessee fans must feel some sympathy for the Cavaliers and their star guard J.R. Reynolds. Late in the first half, Reynolds twisted an ankle. At the time, UVa was clinging to a small lead and Reynolds was ridiculously hot, having already scored 22 points. He made just 2 of 6 shots afterwards, and the Cavaliers quickly lost their lead in the second half. Would the outcome have changed if Reynolds hadn't gotten hurt? Probably so.

On fire: Tennessee forward Dane Bradshaw. How many players do you know with a 16:1 assist-to-turnover ratio? Bradshaw might pose that question to a few of his teammates this week. The clever senior has racked up 16 assists (11 coming in the Vols' 121-point outburst against Long Beach State) while making just one turnover in the first two rounds. He finished the 2006 NCAA Tournament with five assists and one turnover, giving him a 10.5:1 assist-to-turnover ratio in tourney play. You can bet point guards from coast-to-coast are jealous.

On fire: Florida power forward Al Horford and his go-to move. The Gators had much more size than Purdue, and Horford took full advantage. The 6-foot-10 junior, who was guarded by the 6-6 Carl Landry, used the same move to score three baskets in the final minutes, grabbing good position on the left block, backing Landry down with a dribble, and then spinning to his left while laying the ball off the glass. By the time Horford finished his third move, the defending national champs had sealed another trip to the Sweet 16.

Sunday's Top Performers
Double-doubles
Taj Gibson, USC, 17 points, 11 rebounds
Carl Landry, Purdue, 18 points, 10 rebounds
Antonio Anderson, Memphis, 14 points, 10 rebounds
Randal Falker, Southern Illinois, 10 points, 12 rebounds
Scoring
Kevin Durant, Texas, 30
J.R. Reynolds, Virginia, 26
Kammron Taylor, Wisconsin, 24
Wendell White, UNLV, 22
Jamaal Tatum, Southern Illinois, 21
Julian Wright, Kansas, 21
Bobby Perry, Kentucky, 21
Rebounding
Randal Falker, Southern Illinois, 12
Taj Gibson, USC, 11
Antonio Anderson, Memphis, 10
Carl Landry, Purdue, 10
Assists
Mario Chalmers, Kansas, 8
Kevin Kruger, UNLV, 7
Dane Bradshaw, Tennessee, 5
Sean Singletary, Virginia, 5
Ramon Sessions, Nevada, 5
Blocks/Steals
Mario Chalmers, 4 steals
Chris Kramer, Purdue, 4 steals
JaJuan Smith, Tennessee, 3 steals
Carl Landry, Purdue, 4 steals
Randal Falker, Southern Illinois, 3 blocks, 3 steals
On fire: UNLV guard Kevin Kruger's persistence. The best shooters will keep firing away even when cold. If Kruger, a savvy senior and the son of UNLV coach Lon Kruger, hadn't followed that train of thinking versus Wisconsin the Rebels would probably be making plans for spring break, instead of the Midwest Regional semifinals in St. Louis. Kruger missed all eight of his shots from the field in the first round and made just one of his first seven attempts against the Badgers. But, Kruger didn't hesitate to pull the trigger the next time he was open from beyond the arc. Kruger ended up hitting that shot to tie the game with 7:32 to play. The veteran floor general went on to make his next two attempts from 3-point land, allowing the Rebels to pull away for arguably the biggest upset of the tourney so far. He added seven assists and six rebounds.

Misfired: Winthrop's game plan. The Eagles were doomed by some ugly shooting in their lopsided loss to Oregon they missed 16 consecutive 3-pointers during one stretch but they should feel guilty for not getting their best player more touches. Center Craig Bradshaw, who is getting scouted by NBA teams, only took six shots and scored 10 points, his lowest total in more than a month. A great passer and a big matchup problem, Bradshaw usually makes good things happen when the ball lands in his hands. The Eagles coaches and guards must be held responsible for not making him a bigger factor in such an important game.

On fire: UNLV forward Wendell White. Did anyone outside of the Las Vegas area know who White was before the tourney? Be honest. Every year it seems like some player comes out of nowhere and uses the tourney to make a big splash on a national stage. This year, White is that player. After scoring 19 points and grabbing eight rebounds against Georgia Tech, the under-the-radar forward battled past sore ribs to score 22 on Wisconsin. He has an impressive game that includes a soft touch around the basket and a solid array of post moves. That's all bad news for Oregon big man Maarty Leunen, who must guard White in the next round.

Misfired: Virginia Tech's focus. What happened to the team that knocked off North Carolina twice in the regular season? Virginia Tech reached the second round, but played much worse than many of the teams who fell victim to a first-round exit. Illinois (who outplayed the Hokies for 35 minutes only to fall apart down the stretch) and Southern Illinois both forced the Hokies into their style of play. The methodical Salukis dominated the second half, erasing any chance for another last-minute escape. Much of the blame must fall on first-team All-ACC guard Zabian Dowdell, who scored 15 points in the tourney. Dowdell averages 17 points a game.

On fire: Kansas. So much for those first-round problems. Nobody has been more impressive than the Jayhawks. They're shooting 55 percent from the field and 60 percent from 3-point range in the tourney. Keep up those kind of gaudy numbers and the national title will be heading back to Lawrence, Kan. The only fear left now of course is that they have peaked too early.

Misfired: Kentucky minus Randolph Morris. The Jayhawks exposed Kentucky's biggest weakness a giant lack of frontcourt depth. With the Wildcats trailing 41-38, Morris was called for his third foul and headed to the bench with 17:46 to go. The Jayhawks quickly took control, going on a 13-2 run. The Wildcats never got back into the game. Beyond Morris, the Jayhawks lack an SEC-caliber post player, an inexcusable void at a program with Kentucky's rich history and tradition. It's been that way for two years in Lexington. Blame the subpar recruiting efforts of Tubby Smith and his staff, who lag behind the top programs when it comes to reeling in elite prospects.

On fire: Memphis from the free throw line. From the time the field was announced up until the first tip-off on Thursday at least five people told tell me not to pick the Tigers very far in my bracket because they can't make free throws. Coach John Calipari and his players, who entered the NCAA Tournament shooting 61 percent from the free throw line, spent much of their time leading up to the tourney answering questions about how would they overcome their woes at the charity stripe. Then, they went out and made 26 of 34 free throws (76 percent) in their win over Nevada. Go figure.

On fire: USC freshmen. Kevin Durant's college career may have an ironic ending if he chooses to enter the NBA draft. A pair of freshmen who haven't combined to generate half as much pub as Durant carried the Trojans past the Longhorns. Guard Daniel Hackett, who graduated from high school a year early so the team would have a replacement for the late Ryan Francis (the former USC point guard who was shot to death in the offseason), played his best game of the season, scoring 20 points, 15 above his average. The Longhorns didn't have anyone who could guard center Taj Gibson or box him out. Gibson put together a double-double, scoring 17 points and grabbing 14 rebounds.

On fire: USC guard Gabe Pruitt's defense. Pruitt managed to do what no one else could: Shut down D.J. Augustin. Durant's sidekick, who had played so brilliantly and with such poise all season long, looked like a confused freshman playing in his second NCAA Tournament game with Pruitt hounding him. Augustin played his worst game of the season, shooting 1-of-8 from the field and scoring six points. He finished with more turnovers (six) than assists (five).

Misfired: A Sweet Sixteen minus Kevin Durant. Everybody wants to see the next George Mason, but star players are what really drive the NCAA Tournament and there is no bigger star than Durant. Many believed the freshman phenom could single-handedly beat North Carolina. Even more wanted to see him try. Texas' loss means a dip for CBS' ratings, but even worse it means that we have likely seen the last of Durant at the college level.

Andrew Skwara will be back with more On Fire & Misfired after Thursday's games.


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