After essentially becoming basketball monks over the past little while Franchise and Howland take a look at what games Raps fans should focus on and who to watch for day one of the 2009 NCAA tournament.
We're not going to focus on stars in each contest necessarily, but key match-ups and most importantly, what players Raptors' fans should keep an eye out for.
This is day one of one of our favourite days of the year, so let's get things rolling:
Match-up: Chattanooga (16) vs. UCONN (1)
Player to Watch: It is rare that the 1 vs. 16 match-up is entertaining for more than the first half and this match-up should be no different. UCONN has been a powerhouse in the Big East all season long while Chattanooga, out of the SOCON, was the surprise winner of their Conference tournament. So why watch?
The main reason to watch this game is to see 7'3" in action. For those who don't follow college ball during the year this may be your first opportunity to see UCONN center Hasheem Thabeet. Thabeet, who didn't start playing basketball until the tender age of 16, has been the anchor of the UCONN defense. Thabeet is averaging over 4 blocks a game and his intimidating presence has sometimes kept opposing teams out of the paint all together. In a game again Providence this season he had 15 points, 11 rebounds and 10 blocks. A work in progress Thabeet looks to be a high lottery pick this year but there are varying opinions on his pro prospects. When watching look to see how active Thabeet is on the offensive end and how he gets his points. Is this a guy you could see patrolling the paint for the Raps?
Other Players of Note: AJ Price (UCONN), Stanley Robinson (UCONN)
Match-up: Minnesota (10) vs. Texas (7)
Player to Watch: There is no question when you think of Texas this year the first player that comes to mind is AJ Abrams, but the player to watch is Damion James. The undersized four has had an up and down year and for all his physical attributes outside of his rebounding he often leaves you wanting more. A bubble first round pick if James has a decent tournament he could really help his draft stock but with a potential second round match-up against the Blue Devils it could be a quick exit for the Longhorns.
James is very athletic which allows him to be a force on the glass and although he averages over 15 points per game his offense is far from polished. James is not a "scorer" in the true sense of the word, but more of a hustle player in that many of his buckets come off easy opportunities and hustle plays. James does have a decent jumper and does step outside the arc and shoot the three but you wouldn't want him taking the final shot in a big game. He could be a steal for the Raps in the second round, but now with the recent play of Mensah-Bonsu, he may not be the kind of player the Raps need.
Other Players of Note: AJ Abrams (Texas), Dexter Pittman (Texas)
Match-up: Virginia Commonwealth (11) vs. UCLA (6)
Player to Watch: Even though UCLA lost key members to its squad in last year's NBA draft with the departure of Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook, UCLA still finished second in the Pac 10 this year. Many thought that Darren Collison could have left UCLA last season after winning the MVP of the Pac-10 tournament last year but he has maintained a high draft stock all year long.
Collison is an efficient scorer, distributes the ball well and in most match-ups would be the dominant PG. Unfortunately for UCLA their opponents have a great PG as well in Eric Maynor. Draftexpress breaks down the match-up here.
For a little more flavour we reached out to the HQ Associate, a die hard UCLA fan for his thoughts on Collison. His response?
"Super-quick point guard with long arms that helps him with steals/deflections on the defensive end.
Pass-first point guard who is more than capable of hitting the big shot but looks to get others involved.
Can penetrate and finish near the tin.
If UCLA were Voltron, Collison would be the head."
UCLA will go as far as Collison can take them. I can't think of a situation where the Raps somehow end up with a PG in the upcoming draft but Collison will undoubtedly be making a visit to the ACC at some point next season.
Other Players of Note: Jrue Holiday (UCLA), Eric Maynor (VCU)
Match-Up: Morgan State (15) vs. Oklahoma (2)
Player to Watch: If you are going to keep an eye on one player this tournament why not the consensus number one pick in the upcoming NBA Draft? Blake Griffin has completely dominated NCAA competition this season. Although deserving of the boatloads of praise he has gotten this year he has also had a big target on his back and faced some adversity. On a number of occasions opponents have taken "liberties" with the Sooners PF (including low blows and elbows to the face) and he suffered a concussion just a few short weeks ago.
Despite opponents best attempts to throw Griffin off his game he has met virtually all challenges and has but up some freakish numbers, This season Griffin has averaged almost 22 points and 14 rebounds a game. He is usually good for one highlight a game that leaves you in total awe. If your watching from work and the feed is grainy be sure not to mix him up with his twin brother (Taylor)...it shouldn't be too hard though, as Blake will be the one cementing his status as the first pick in the 2009 NBA Draft. Oh, can you imagine if the Raps won the lottery again....
Other Players of Note: Willie Warren (Oklahoma)
Match-up: Cal State Northridge (15) vs. Memphis (2)
Player to Watch: Tyreke Evans is one of the more intersting players in this tourney. After being heralded as the next freshman sensation following in the footsteps of Derrick Rose, Evans seemed to be a major dissapointment at early on. However Memhphis soon realized that Evans' talents were best used at the point guard spot and since the switch, Evans again has had scouts buzzing. It's hard to say just what position he'll play in the pros, or if he'll even enter the draft this year, but Evans is a do-it all scorer that Raps' fans should be keeping an eye on in this tourney.
Other Players of Note: Robert Dozier and Antonio Anderson (Memphis)
Match-up: Binghamton (15) vs. Duke (2)
Player to Watch: Let's talk a bit about Gerald Henderson here. We've already discussed him at length on the site, and have him on our homepage as a top 5 option for Toronto. However this tourney could really solidify Henderson as not only a top prospect, but also as a legitimate future all-star. Make no mistake about it, two months ago, no one was talking about Henderson in this light. However his body of work in the past 8 weeks has been nothing short of incredible, leading some analysts to say that he's been the most improved college player they've ever seen.
Even as a Duke fanatic I had serious doubts about Gerald originally. I just wasn't sure he was aggressive enough and could translate his other-worldly athletic talents to the NBA. Sure he could leap over tall buildings, but for a club like the Raps, they need someone who can create their own shot, and consistenly attack the basket.
However in the past few months, I've really come around as the kid is simply trying to dunk on everyone in sight. If you saw any of the ACC tournament you bore witness to this and with a jump shot that's really rounding into form, and a handle that improves by day, suddenly he's not only Duke's X-Factor, but also squarely on Toronto's draft radar. Duke can go dormant offensively at times but if Henderson can elevate his level of play in the tourney, the Blue Devils should be around until at least the Sweet 16.
Other Players of Note: Kyle Singler (Duke)
Match-Up: Butler (9) vs. LSU (8)
Player to Watch: Marcus Thornton. Don't expect to see Thornton as a an option for Toronto in the first round but this doesn't mean Raps lovers should shun the 6-4 shooting guard. Thornton can light it up with the likes of Jodie Meeks and Stephen Curry and he's the key to LSU's hopes this year in the tourney. He's not quite a point guard, but has good size and good instincts around the ball. And as mentioned, he's a lethal scorer and someone who'd look great as a change of pace to Jose Calderon. We'll see how far he can carry his Tigers but I fully expect Bryan Colangelo to bring him in for workouts this spring.
Other Players of Note: Chris Johnson (LSU)
Match-Up: Akron (13) vs. Gonzaga (4)
Player to Watch: There's a few teams in this tourney that are complete wildcards. They could go out in the first or second round, or could go right to the final 8. Gonzaga is one of those teams. They're deep, can play the inside-out game, have experience, and have the coaching to get them far in the tourney.
However they've also been the early exit kings in the past few years and have brought tears to the eyes of the likes of Adam Morrison.
So what gives this year? Because they're entering the madness on a hot streak, does that mean they're good to go? I'm not sure, but for Raps fans, it's worth taking a closer look at one of their stars, Austin Daye. Daye was a much-heralded prospect who had NBA written all over him when he committed to the Zags, but since then has been up and down. He's got great length and a soft touch, but hasn't been nearly imposing enough at either end. This tournament is his big chance to shine though so it will be interesting to see if he can carry Gonzaga through to the Sweet 16.
Other Players of Note: Jeremy Pargo and Josh Heytvelt (Gonzaga)