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Thursday, March 25, 2010
Three things to watch: South Region

By Eamonn Brennan

Three things to watch is a quick preview of the NCAA tournament's second weekend. It is exactly what it says it is.

Friday's games in Houston: No. 10 St. Mary's vs. No. 3 Baylor, 7:27 p.m. ET and No. 4 Purdue at No. 1 Duke, 9:57 p.m. ET

Omar Samhan
Containing Omar Samhan will be key if Baylor hopes to advance in the tournament.
Thing One: How do you solve a problem like the Sandman? Through two NCAA tournament games -- and an entire regular season before it -- verbose St. Mary's forward Omar Samhan has been pretty much unstoppable. The last team to keep him in check was Gonzaga in the WCC final, a game Gonzaga lost by 19 points. Thus far, stopping Samhan has meant doubling him; few teams have a post defender good enough to stop his diverse array of post moves, which is where Baylor's Ekpe Udoh comes in. Udoh is 6-foot-10, 240 pounds and averages almost four blocks a game. If anyone can stop the smaller, less athletic Samhan, Udoh is the guy.

This would be preferable for Baylor, because the minute you start doubling Samhan is the minute Samhan starts finding Gaels on the perimeter, any of whom can hit 3s from just about anywhere on the court. If you trust your rotation enough to get help defense before these shots can fly, by all means, double down. But Baylor hasn't exactly been the most coherent defensive team in the country this season, and when you have a shot-blocking, never-fouling NBA lottery pick anchoring the middle of your defense, sometimes you're better off keeping it simple.

Thing Two: Purdue versus probability. Let's be real: Robbie Hummel's injury cost the Boilermakers their shot. This is no mystery. It's not a foregone conclusion that Purdue loses this game; weirder things have happened in this tournament. But consider the matchups here: With Hummel, the Boilermakers have someone who can guard Kyle Singler in the post or on the perimeter as well as any defender in the country. They also have someone to help JaJuan Johnson on the boards when Singler and the Plumlee brothers and sudden offensive glass terror Brian Zoubek begin their merciless hunt around the rim. What's more, Purdue has an offensive option outside of the sneakily good E'Twaun Moore and Johnson, someone who can help stretch Duke and force them to play the Boilermakers honestly at every position. That's all gone now. Duke's is a tremendous defense, and the luxury of having not having to worry about Hummel will change the entire complexion of this game. Matt Painter will take zero risks. Duke will be happy to attack. One team will be playing to win. The other will be hoping to keep it close. No disrespect intended to the Boilermakers, who have accomplished much more in their post-Hummel days than anyone thought possible, but a Purdue upset in this game would conceivably be the most surprising of the weekend.

Thing Three: Uh, Mickey McConnell is really good, too. It's been easy to forget about the rest of St. Mary's squad, which I briefly mentioned in the Samhan stuff above, because Samhan has been so tremendous on the court and off. (His calling out of Jay Wright for not doubling him is the exactly the sort of swagger the NCAA tournament needs. That it's coming from a self-described "slow, overweight white guy" is even better.) But it's worth nothing that McConnell, the Gaels' second leading scorer this season, is shooting a rather insane 51.7 percent from behind the arc this season. Yes, you read that right. McConnell's effective field goal percentage is 63.6 percent, good for No. 15 in the country, and especially impressive when you consider that the leaders in that stat tend to skew toward big men who get lots of easy dunks and putbacks around the rim. Unbelievably, McConnell is actually a better shooter outside the arc than inside it. In other words, Baylor, if you do decide to double Omar in the post, be sure the doubler isn't the guy responsible for McConnell. Leaving this man open would be, um, unwise.

Bonus bold Eamonndamus South Region prediction!: Baylor's athleticism proves too much for Samhan and company to handle. After the loss, Omar Samhan is respectful of his opponents, tells reporters his team "gave it 100 percent" and "tried to take every game at a time" but says "you have to give the Baylor Bears a lot of credit." Then Samhan cracks a smile, says "Omar's no punk, we'd beat Baylor nine times out of 10," subsequently challenging Scott Drew to a no-holds-barred cage match on "Monday Night Raw." The Eamonndamus has spoken!

(In other words, I think seeds hold in the South. Baylor-Duke should be a good one.)