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March 15, 2007

On Fire & Misfired: Best and worst from Day 1

Rivals.com staff writer Andrew Skwara has been glued to the television set all day. Actually, make that television sets. We gave Skwara the assignment of watching every single second of the NCAA Tournament, or at least as much as possible considering the scheduling conflicts and CBS coverage. Below, Skwara breaks down his thoughts on the best and worst moves of Day 1 in this version of On Fire/Misfired.

On fire: VCU-Duke matchup. Just when it looked like we might have one of the most uneventful opening days in NCAA Tournament history, these two teams gave us an instant classic (and the tourney's first major upset). The Blue Devils looked ready to pull away for good twice, but the Rams erased a 13-point deficit in the first half and then a nine-point edge in the second. VCU's Eric Maynor, who played a tremendous game, added some heroics at the end, pulling up for the game-winning jumper with 1.8 seconds to go. In between, there was some big shots from Duke point guard Greg Paulus, plenty of physical play (at least three players had to leave with bloody cuts) and seven lead changes.

Misfired: Duke's nerves. Not only were the Blue Devils rattled by VCU's constant traps and defensive pressure DeMarcus Nelson and Paulus combined to commit 11 turnovers but they struggled mightily from the free throw line down the stretch. Josh McRoberts, Nelson and Paulus (arguably their top three players) went 5-of-12 (41 percent) from the charity stripe over the final 8:07.

On fire: Michigan State's defense. Anytime you hold someone scoreless for nearly the first 10 minutes of a game Marquette didn't score until 10:20 left in the first half against the Spartans you are doing a remarkable job defensively. When that someone includes Dominic James it's the kind of thing you see maybe once a season. All the Spartans deserve credit, but a little extra goes to point guard Travis Walton. A member of the Big Ten's All-Defensive Team, Walton showed he had the quickness to shadow the explosive James all game long and came up with four steals along the way. His next assignment? The fastest man in college basketball: UNC's Ty Lawson. Should be interesting.

Thursday's Top Performers
Keena Young, BYU, 24 points, 10 rebounds
Tyler Hansbrough, UNC, 21 points, 10 reb.
Greg Oden, Ohio St., 19 points, 10 rebounds
D.J. White, Indiana, 16 points, 10 rebounds
Joseph Jones, Texas A&M, 14 points, 11 reb.
Mike Green, Butler, 14 points, 10 rebounds
Roy Hibbert, G'town, 13 points, 10 rebounds
Ekene Ibekwe, Maryland, 11 points, 10 reb.
Gerald Lee, ODU, 10 points, 11 rebounds
Stephen Curry, Davidson, 30
Tyrese Rice, Boston College, 26
Greg Paulus, Duke, 25
Keena Young, BYU, 24
Justin Doellman, Xavier, 23
Derrick Brown, Xavier, 16
Roy Hibbert, Georgetown, 13
Joseph Jones, Texas A&M, 11
Gerald Lee, Old Dominion, 11
Ekene Ibekwe, Maryland, 10
Greg Oden, Ohio State, 10
Mike Green, Butler, 10
D.J. White, Indiana, 10
Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina, 10
Levance Fields, Pittsburgh, 9
Darren Collison, UCLA, 8
Eric Maynor, Virginia Commonwealth, 8
Jason Richards, Davidson, 7
Ty Lawson, North Carolina, 7
DaShaun Wood, Wright State, 7
Ivory Clark, Washington State, 5 blocks
Josh McRoberts, Duke, 5 blocks
Brandan Wright, North Carolina, 5 blocks
Aaron Gray, Pittsburgh, 4 blocks
Michael Anderson, VCU, 4 steals
Travis Walton, Michigan St., 4 steals
DaShaun Wood, Wright State, 4 steals
On fire: UCLA's rep. Anybody who placed the Bruins deep in their bracket is feeling a little more comfortable with that choice after watching them hammer Weber State. There were some lingering questions surrounding the program that reached last year's national title game after losses to Washington and then California in the quarterfinals of the Pac-10 Tournament. But, the Bruins looked every bit a Final Four contender. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, Arron Afflalo looked every bit the guy who won the Pac-10 Player of the Year award. Afflalo, who was held to a season-low three points against Cal, finished with a game-high 22 points. Darren Collison, who was playing with a sprained ankle, looked like his usual self as well, creating several fast breaks with his great speed while scoring 14 points and dishing out eight assists.

On fire: Xavier guard Drew Lavender. Nobody will be saying the Musketeers lack a go-to guy after their dramatic triumph over BYU. Lavender, who is generously listed at 5 feet 7, hit two tough floaters, snatched a key rebound and hit two free throws in the final two minutes. If the co-Atlantic 10 champs can find a way to stay close with top-seeded Ohio State, Lavender could give them the edge needed to pull off a goliath-sized upset.

On fire: Indiana's hunger. The Hoosiers have transformed into a much better defensive team under first-year coach Kelvin Sampson and nowhere was it more obvious than in their win over Gonzaga. A year after giving up 90 points in a first-round loss to Gonzaga, they limited the Bulldogs to 59. The 'Zags shot just 33 percent (19-of-56) from the field. Yeah, Adam Morrison isn't around anymore, but it's more than just that. Rarely did a Bulldog take a jumper without a hand in his face, and attempts to penetrate were often stopped around the arc. Mike Davis may have gotten a raw deal in Bloomington, but the Hoosiers are tougher and play with more desire under Sampson.

On fire: Tyler Hansbrough's new face mask. It doesn't look like the UNC star's broken nose is going to be an issue after all. After struggling a bit in the ACC Tournament and complaining of vision problems, Hansbrough recently tried a new mask in practice. The big man looked much more comfortable in the Tar Heels' rout of Eastern Kentucky. He hit his first shot, a baseline jumper, and put together a vintage performance, leading the Heels with 21 points and 10 boards.

On fire: Boston College's offense. So much for the popular idea that the BC-Texas Tech matchup would be an old-fashioned, defensive-minded slugfest. After four Eagles finished in double figures and the team shot 52 percent, star Jared Dudley (19 points) said it was the best offensive execution his team had all season. It's tough to disagree. Point guard Tyrese Rice (26 points) penetrated with ease and the Eagles seemed to get a layup or open jump shot on every possession. A similar performance could be enough to knock off second-seeded Georgetown on Saturday.

Misfired: Stanford's preparation. The Cardinal had four days to get ready for Louisville's full-court pressure. It looked like they had five minutes. Yes, they lack good ball handlers, but their inability to handle the Cardinals' pressure which is good, but far from great was embarrassing. Much of the blame must fall on the coaches. Not only did they not seem to have any type of plan to beat the press they failed to make any adjustments either.

On fire: Sixth men. Maryland's Bambale Osby and Washington State's Ivory Clark both came off the bench to play big roles in their team's victories. The energetic Clark was a major force on both sides of the ball, scoring a team-high 19 points (8-of-8 from the free throw line) while blocking five shots and slowing down Oral Roberts star Caleb Green (13 points, seven below his average). Osby, who came to College Park after stops in New Mexico and Paris (Texas) Junior College, took over during one sequence in the second half against Davidson. The big man delivered a 3-point play, scored on a nifty spin move on the ensuing possession, then hustled down court to block a shot out of bounds before firing an assist to frontcourt partner James Gist seconds later.

Misfired: ACC coaches. Players like Davidson's Stephen Curry deserve to be playing on national television a handful of times each season. Unfortunately, most of us will only see him again if the Wildcats get back to the NCAA Tournament. Despite playing his high school ball in Charlotte the heart of ACC country and having an NBA veteran (Dell Curry) as a father, Curry wasn't offered any scholarships by major programs. The baby-faced, 6-foot freshman guard made anyone who passed on him look foolish against Maryland, hitting long-range 3-pointers, making dazzling passes and finishing with a game-high 30 points. If Curry hadn't gotten fatigued in the later stages of the second half, we might be watching him against Butler on Saturday.

Misfired: Old Dominion guards Drew Williamson and Brian Henderson. The Monarchs other three starters scored in double figures, but this backcourt duo struggled mightily. Williamson and Henderson were a combined 2-of-14 from the field against Butler and scored just six points. That was a huge blow to any chances of pulling off an upset considering they combined to average 20.9 points a game coming in.

On fire: Texas A&M guard Dominique Kirk. This little-known junior guard saved one of the best games of his career for the Aggies' first-round matchup with Penn. A defensive specialist, Kirk played with a new-found confidence on the offensive end, scoring 16 points, one short of his season high and nearly 10 more than his average of 6.5 per game. Kirk, usually the fifth option in the Aggies offense, hit 3-of-5 attempts from beyond the arc. If he remains that hot, the Aggies will be even tougher to beat than many thought.

Misfired: George Washington. The Colonials already look like the heavy favorite for title of: Team That Least Deserved To Be In The Tournament. The Colonials were dreadful in nearly every phase of the game against Vanderbilt, but were at their worst on offense. They missed their first six shots and went 11 minutes without a basket in the first half as they fell behind by 29. It was so bad, even a basketball-crazed junkie like myself had to fight the urge to change the channel.

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