Two wins earns a spot in the Sweet 16. Two more victories finds the Final Four. Then, if all goes well, two triumphs in Indy for the title.
How can something that looks so simple be so difficult?
Coaches and their teams have bunkered down feverishly making plans. They have been and will continue to pour over scouting reports and game tapes looking for answers, looking for weaknesses in their opponent. They will analyze match-ups and lineups seeking the right mix.
For the teams that endure and earn four victories or more, they will likely need a role player to step out of the shadows and take over the game.
Casual fans know Syracuse’s Wes Johnson and Andy Rautins. The two have been the faces of a surprising Orange squad. While many thought SU could not overcome the personnel losses from last year, the Orange proved addition can happen by subtraction.
A big part of Syracuse’s success is sixth man, Kris Joseph. When opponents have keyed on Johnson and Rautins, Joseph has exploited the middle of the floor. He blends size with quickness into a troublesome mixture for opponents. The sophomore forward gives the Orange 11 points and five rebounds off the bench. More than that Joseph brings an attitude. The native of Montreal could start for many teams. Rather than sulk about a diminished role, Joseph relishes it. He comes off the bench with an energy and enthusiasm opposing teams find difficult to counter. Joseph’s role for this weekend increased due to the injury of Arinze Onuaku. When Onuaku returns, watch for Joseph to maintain his contributions to the cause.
Scouting the Duke Blue Devils come down to this: figure out how to stop Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler, and Nolan Smith. The three average almost 54 of Duke’s 78 points per game. Averaging nearly eight three-pointers per game, the Blue Devils stretch out their opponents. Brian Zoubek has taken advantage in the paint. Much maligned for most of his career, the seven-foot senior has found his niche. Zoubek averages over seven boards a game and has some of his biggest outputs against Duke’s toughest opponents: Maryland (17 and 13), Virginia Tech (16), UConn (11), and North Carolina (13). Zoubek has developed a jump hook that he uses sparingly. He averages almost six points a game, but more than that he keeps opponents honest and helps the Blue Devils spacing on the offensive end. With his size Zoubek allows Duke to extend pressure on the defensive end. After problems in the past the senior averages three fouls in nearly 18 minutes of playing time.
Xavier’s Musketeers have won nine NCAA Tournament games over the last six seasons. Twice, the Muskies advanced to the Elite Eight (’08 and ’04). If the X-Men are to return to the Regional finals, the brunt of the responsibility falls on the shoulders of Jordan Crawford. The sophomore transfer leads the way with 19 points. Opponents will also need to limit Jason Love in the paint and slow down Terrell Holloway at the point. But the player who could make the difference for Xavier is power forward Jamel McLean. At 6’8″, McLean takes up plenty of space. Opponents struggle with his athleticism. McLean is a ball-getter who slices through opponents for rebounds. The junior plays his best when the pressure is at its highest. McLean averages seven rebounds a game including seven double-digit nights. He grabbed 10 boards at Wake Forest and 13 at Florida. In a late-season win over Richmond, McLean turned in 13-rebounds and nine points. Opponents will need to focus on Crawford, Love, and Holloway. McLean will take advantage of the opportunity.
If Butler is going to shed the Cinderella dress for the title of contender it will take the three-point mastery of Zach Hahn. Playing just 16 minutes a game, Hahn is second on the Bulldogs roster with 43 three-balls. He hits at a rate of 43 percent. Butler will need that to continue as opponents look to neutralize Gordon Hayward, Matt Howard, and Shelvin Mack.
Coaches often profess that there are no small roles. To win a championship, a team needs each player to accept his role. None do it better than Joseph, Zoubek, McLean, and Hahn.