Deron Williams, Illinois 22 points (8-15 FG, 5-9 3FG), 9 assists, 3 rebounds, 1 steal
Williams has put himself firmly in the running for the MVP of the tournament so far with the way he has played over the past two games. Today he was absolutely spectacular on both ends of the court, bringing his team back from 15 points down with 4 minutes to go and helping his draft stock tremendously in the process with his poise and clutch play. Both teams came out today looking very anxious, but Deron did a great job settling his squad down and did an absolutely magnificent job with the ball in his hands. His decision making was about as close to perfect as you can get, his ball-handling was superb, and he controlled the tempo of the game wonderfully, moving the ball around extremely well to get everyone involved and then taking the game on his shoulders when his team needed him the most. An athletic play to finish an alley-oop pass from Luther Head showed that he is no slouch when it comes to getting up off the floor. His deceptively good foot speed to break down Arizona's athletic guards also left no doubt that he has what it takes to make a fine PG in the NBA. Williams not only played a nearly flawless game offensively, especially down the stretch, but he also was a terror on the other end of the ball, shutting down Salim Stoudamire like no else has been capable of doing all year, getting in his grill all night, frustrating him and not giving him an inch to breathe. A huge Williams three pointer to tie the game with 40 seconds to go and then two more clutch three pointers in overtime were most likely the difference in this game tonight. Williams will probably be the man asked to take the responsibility of shutting down Lousiville's best player, Francisco Garcia, in the Final Four, a matchup that all college basketball junkies are especially looking forward to.
Dee Brown and Luther Head, Illinois 15 points (6-14 FG, 3-8 3FG), 8 assists, 5 rebounds, 2 steals; 20 points (7-18 FG, 5-12 3FG), 2 rebounds, 2 assists, 4 steals, 1 block
Deron Williams may have been the MVP of the Arizona game tonight, but he could not have gotten it done without his backcourt mates. Both played incredible defense, especially down the stretch, and were absolutely fantastic in transition with their incredible athletic ability. You won't find a selfish bone in any of these excellent backcourt players, with Brown and Head combining for 10 assists and 35 points on 8-20 from behind the arc. It was their work in the passing lanes and cool heads down the stretch that got it done tonight, though, and they all played a role in wearing down Arizona's backcourt and igniting the amazing comeback. Head especially really showed us something with the type of passion he displayed tonight, especially the block on Stoudamire at the end of regulation. We're especially looking forward to seeing how he plays in Portsmouth in two weeks (he has already accepted his invite) and we'll most likely have another full season to evaluate Dee Brown's PG skills when he takes the helm next year with Deron Williams and Head moving on to the NBA. Rumor has it that Brandon Rush is strongly considering joining him in the backcourt next year, so Illini fans might have a lot more fast-breaks to be looking forward to.
Hassan Adams, Arizona 21 points (9-15 FG), 10 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals
Adams has helped himself out tremendously with an amazing tournament performance these past few weeks. He played the best basketball we've seen from him in his three year career so far, but came up a little bit short by trying to do a little too much and making a poor decision at the end.
First the good part, though, because that's really what people should take away from this game. He played some incredible defense, showing the ability to lock down anyone from the 1-4 positions, getting in the passing lanes, intimidating with his shot-blocking, skying for rebounds and pulling them down ferociously and being extremely aggressive throughout the game. What's so big about the way Adams played in this tournament in regards to his draft stock is that he really showed some huge progress in the two biggest weaknesses of his game: his ball-handling and perimeter shooting. Today against Illinois he looked excellent with the ball in his hands, using his strength and outstanding first step to slash his way to the basket, and either finishing strong or getting to the line (or both) or finding the open man with his creative passing skills. He managed to break down his man a couple of times with a strong crossover dribble and finished like a man possessed when he got to the basket. His 5 points in overtime were the only thing that kept the Wildcats in the game, so it's a little bit hard to blame him too much for the terrible decision he made at the end of overtime by ignoring Stoudamire and taking a horribly contested shot that didn't even touch the rim. Speaking of perimeter shooting, that's the other area where he showed a ton of progress this month, he knocked down a number of huge threes in this tournament, after only hitting 8 three pointers in the entire regular season.
A side note: we were told today that Greg Doyel from Sportsline.com took what we said Thursday about how Adams has been thinking about declaring for the NBA draft (according to reputable sources in Tucson) without an agent all season long, and published it as if it was already a done deal, without naming a source, as if to get the scoop or something petty like that. That's very poor journalism on his part, but not a surprise considering the source. People need to realize that everyone (over 120,000 this month alone so far) in the business reads this site, and taking direct quotes from here and/or paraphrasing without citing reflects poorly on everyone. Seriously, enough is enough.
Larry O'Bannon, Louisville 24 points (6-10 FG, 2-5 3FG, 10-11 FT), 4 assists, 3 rebounds, 1 block
O'Bannon didn't even have one point when Louisville went to the locker room at halftime down by 13 points, but he finished the game with 21 points. With Francisco Garcia fouled out on the bench and Taquan Dean limping around with an injury, the Cardinals needed someone to step up for them, and the senior O'Bannon was their man. He would simply not be denied, tying the game up with a huge basket with 38 seconds to go, and even diving fearlessly head first to the floor to come up with a loose ball at one point. His clutch freethrows and smart, but ballsy play were the difference tonight. Rick Pitino has been hyping him up as a second round pick lately, and while we find that hard to believe considering that he's a 6-3 SG/SF, O'Bannon may have at least gotten himself some looks with the way he has played for Louisville lately.
Channing Frye, Arizona 24 points (11-15 FG), 12 rebounds, 4 blocks
Arizona's big man will probably be disappointed with the outcome of his last NCAA game, but he has nothing to be ashamed of as he left everything he has out there on the court tonight. He looked very confident in his skills, taking the ball up strong to the basket and finishing with a soft touch, hitting some gorgeous shots from mid-range, being aggressive in both the defensive and offensive rebounding departments with some big tip-ins, intimidating inside the paint, passing well and even hitting a three pointer. He showed off some of his weaknesses as well, being pushed around the paint a bit at times, struggling to finish after taking a hit and settling for some junk, but all in all Frye helped himself big time tonight with the way he played. It's a shame that Arizona decided to go away from him towards the end, as he had to drift out to the perimeter or get his points off offensive rebounds in the last 10 minutes of regulation to get himself involved. They once again went back to him in the first minute and a half of overtime and Frye responded with 4 points, but that was all the touches he got from that point on, and you have to wonder why the Wildcats didn't even think about throwing the ball down low when Salim was cold and they needed someone to score in the last possession of the game.
Taquan Dean, Louisville 23 points (8-20 FG, 7-17 3FG), 6 rebounds, 2 assists
Dean showed that he might have the biggest heart of any player in the NCAA tournament today, playing with a leg injury that hampered him last game, but refusing to make that an excuse as he limped all around the court and simply refused to be denied. Right now he's not much more than just an excellent shooter and athlete as far as the NBA is concerned, but he has been playing the point all year (with mixed results) and has another season to keep improving his playmaking skills. He started off slow today (2-7 from outside) but came back strong and was a huge part in Lousiville's comeback. Dean should be Louisville's leader next year, much like Garcia this season, and they'll be a very fun team to watch.
Kevin Pittsnogle, West Virginia 25 points (9-15 FG, 6-9 3FG), 5 rebounds, 1 assist
The player with the best last name in the NCAA has delivered one of the best shooting displays in recent memory seen from a big man in an NCAA tournament, hitting 13 treys in 21 attempts over four games. Pittsnogle didn't show much in terms of big man skills when it comes to rebounding, scoring with his back to the basket or playing any type of defense, but he might just find himself a place in the league with that sweet stroke of his. They'll be an interesting team to follow next season in a very strong Big East conference.
Salim Stoudamire, Arizona 9 points (2-13 FG, 1-7 3FG, 4-4 FT), 5 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 steals
Stoudamire's outside shooting abandoned him at the worst time possible as far as his team is concerned, and he struggled mightily to create any type of offense for himself against the bigger and stronger Deron Williams tonight. He did an okay job finding the open man, possibly conceding the fact that his shot just wasn't there tonight and instead looking to get others involved, but his extremely shaky ball-handling skills (not just tonight, but in general) have to make you wonder if he has what it takes to play the point at the next level. His incredibly poor decision to just lob an inbounds pass in the general vicinity of one of his teammates against Illinois' pressure was a backbreaker for Arizona, and he did not do a good job demanding the ball at the end of the game to try and win it for his team either. He had no answer for Deron Williams tonight defensively, and this is probably not the way Stoudamire wanted to finish his college career. His draft stock is still in good shape, but he has got his work cut out for himself this summer if he wants to show that he can be more than just a hired gun, as one scout called him, in the NBA.
Francisco Garcia, Louisville 13 points (5-6 FG, 1-2 3FG), 4 rebounds, 8 assists, 1 block
Garcia probably would have ended up in the stock up department had he only managed to stay on the floor at the end of the game and continue the momentum he had when he was sat down. Foul trouble has been a problem for him all year, and a ticky-tack foul with 4 minutes to go in regulation left him on the bench while his team continued their heroic comeback from 20 points down, along with the last 5 minutes of the ensuing overtime. When he was on the floor he was his typical self, pulling in the defense and finding the open man, hitting clutch shots to help spark a huge comeback before he fouled out and bothering people defensively with his length. He was a little bit passive at times, especially in the second half, but he did a great job passing the ball to make up for it. He was just starting to get going with two huge baskets before he fouled out, but nothing will take away from what he has accomplished in this tournament so far. He also showed great sportsmanship by helping Mike Gansey off the floor and giving him a big hug after taking him down by the basket, as well as by delivering some animated cheerleading once he found the courage to watch what was happening on the floor after fouling out. A huge and highly anticipated matchup with Illinois' backcourt awaits in the Final Four.