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East Regional favorites Pittsburgh and Duke are capable of stumbling

Pittsburgh had struggles in Big East Conference tournament, while Duke has issues on the road. UCLA's first-round opponent Virginia Commonwealth has ability to surprise.

March 16, 2009|Sam Farmer


The favorites: Pittsburgh (28-4) -- The Panthers had an excellent season, winning every home game and knocking off some tough opponents on the road. They're capable of a down night, though, as they showed Thursday in losing to West Virginia in a semifinal of the Big East Conference tournament. In that game, Pitt went seven minutes without a field goal.

Duke (28-6) -- The Blue Devils on Sunday won their eighth Atlantic Coast Conference title in 11 years. So does that mean they're on their way to bigger and better things? Not necessarily. The last four times Duke won its conference crown, it was knocked out in the Sweet 16. The school has struggled on the road at times this season, going 6-5 away from home.

Cinderella search: Virginia Commonwealth (24-9) -- The Rams, who play UCLA and are led by guard Eric Maynor, have some experience when it comes to upsets. Two years ago, Maynor hit a 17-foot jumper with less than two seconds remaining to shock Duke in the first round. In the next round, VCU nearly knocked off Pittsburgh before losing by five in overtime.


Must see: No. 6 UCLA (25-8) vs. No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth -- With three consecutive Final Four appearances, UCLA is rich in experience. But the Bruins need to rekindle the defensive intensity that has been the hallmark of Ben Howland's success. UCLA needs its senior leaders -- Darren Collison, Alfred Aboya and Josh Shipp -- to step up in a big way.

Pittsburgh vs. Florida State -- These teams are on a Sweet 16 collision course. Although Pitt is a better team, the Panthers would have to guard against an upset. Florida State, which hasn't been in the tournament, has the potential to topple some good teams -- as North Carolina learned Saturday.

Must skip: No. 3 Villanova vs. No. 14 American University -- While its District of Columbia neighbors Georgetown and George Mason wait for NIT bids, American is headed to the Big Dance. But it isn't likely to stay long. Villanova is a far better team, and it's playing in front of a home crowd in Philadelphia. This is a blowout in the making.


On the outside: Duke G Jon Scheyer -- A sharpshooting junior for the Blue Devils, Scheyer is coming off a 29-point performance against Florida State in the ACC championship game. That earned him tournament most-valuable-player honors.

UCLA G Darren Collison -- The big stage shouldn't faze Collison, who is heading into his 17th March Madness game. What could slow him is a sore tailbone from a hard fall against Oregon in his final Pacific 10 Conference regular-season game.

On the inside: Pittsburgh C DeJuan Blair -- Although he's short for his position at 6 feet 7, Blair can out-rebound and outmuscle just about any opponent he faces.

Villanova F Dante Cunningham -- Voted the Big East's most-improved player, Cunningham leads the Wildcats in scoring (16.0) and rebounding (7.2). He's not only good in the paint, but he has a nice mid-range shooting touch.

Rim shots

Pittsburgh would do well to keep Blair out of foul trouble. The Panthers are 0-3 in games in which the co-Big East player of the year fouled out.

After East Tennessee State's Courtney Pigram was held to two points in consecutive games, fans organized an e-mail campaign to lift his spirits. It worked: The guard scored 16, 38, 15 and 30 points in his next four games.

Good things come in small packages. Just ask the Portland State Vikings, who are led by the 5-6 Jeremiah Dominguez. The All-Big Sky guard finished with 22 points, four assists and three steals in a victory over Montana State in the conference championship game. That earned him tournament most-valuable player honors.



1. Pittsburgh (28-4)

2. Duke (28-6)

3. Villanova (26-7)

4. Xavier (25-7)

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