Taj Gibson, 6-9, Freshman, PF/C, USC
16 points, 12 rebounds, 4 blocks, 0 assists, 4 turnovers , 7-12 FG, 2-3 FT
North Carolina ended up squeezing it out, but no one should soon forget the clinic that Gibson put on them in the first 28 minutes of the game. He attacked UNCs future lottery picks with supreme aggression, putting the ball on the floor numerous times and blowing by Tyler Hansbrough thanks to his superb quickness. He also established great position on him in the post and showed some nice moves finishing, as well as absolutely cleaning up on the offensive glass.
Defensively, Gibson was just as active, denying Hansbrough the type of position hes been accustomed to getting his entire career, and instead forcing him to settle for mid-range jumpers rather than using his typical tenacity around the rim. Gibson also did a magnificent job as a rebounder, using his quickness and aggressiveness to neutralize UNCs height and talent advantage in the frontcourt, and showing excellent toughness and hands coming down with some very strong boards.
With 12:25 to go, Gibson had 16 points and 11 rebounds and looked to be on the verge of a breakout performance on the national level to go along with an incredible upset over arguably the most talented team in America. A quick foul on Tyler Hansbrough in the post sent him to the bench with 4 fouls, though, and Gibson only had 1 rebound to show for his effort over the next 12 minutes, along with the loss. He looked completely exhausted in the minutes he was on the floor down the stretch, and its hard to blame him considering how hard he played matching up with two phenomenal talents in Wright and Hansbrough. Gibsons fifth foul, a moving screen violation, caused his head coach Tim Floyd to lose his mind and throw his cards on the court for no particular reason, which essentially lost his team the game.
Only a freshman, well surely be hearing plenty more of him next season in the Pac-10, playing next to O.J. Mayo. There is surely a place in the NBA for a big man with his mindset, but hell probably have to round out his offensive game a bit more first, which he surely has the talent to do.
Al Horford, 6-10, Junior, PF/C, Florida
16 points, 7 rebounds, 4 blocks, 2 assists, 3 turnovers, 4-5 FG, 8-10 FT
Although his numbers wont blow anyone away, Al Horford has steadily emerging as the favorite for Regional MVP with the way hes been playing in the tournament so far. He had yet another excellent outing against Butler, doing everything his team needed to come away with the win.
Billy Donovans plan was to pound the ball inside the paint all game long and force Butlers undersized defenders to deal with his pair of lottery big men. His #1 option in that plan was Al Horford, and he delivered for him all evening long, scoring 16 points on only 5 attempts from the field. He got Butlers entire front-court in foul trouble almost by himself by establishing position deep in the paint and using his terrific strength to dig in the trenches, and then confidently marched to the free throw line to knock down 8 of his 10 attempts.
This has been the story of the tournament so far for Al Horfordhis newfound confidence in his offensive game. Hes always been considered a highly mechanical guy in the post, and while his fluidity wont exactly get Kevin Garnett jealous, its been very effective as an added bonus for a player who is already a superb defender and rebounder. That part of his game was there as well at it almost always is, particularly his shot-blocking ability, which forced Butler to rely largely on 3-point attempts to stay close.
All in all this was an ugly game that Florida had to work extremely hard for in order to win, and their best player as of late played a huge part in getting the job done.
Brandan Wright, 6-9, Freshman, Power Forward, North Carolina
21 points, 9 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 turnovers, 1 block, 9-15 FG, 3-4 FT
Wright started off this game quite slow, like most of the Tar Heels, only hitting his first field goal with about 10 minutes to go in the first half. Wright has lacked some focus in the NCAA tournament so far, and it was slightly worrying to see him running up and down the court looking pretty dazed in the first quarter of the game.
Eventually, he started picking it up first and foremost on the offensive glass, and that got his entire game going as North Carolina made an outstanding run to close out the game in the second half. Wright pulled down 5 offensive rebounds on the night, and managed to score off every single one of them. Once with a terrific put-back jam, another time with a tip in off the glass, and in others just collecting the board over USCs undersized frontcourt and slamming it home with the greatest of ease.
In terms of evaluating his face-up game, tonight was a step back for North Carolinas talented freshman. He struggled putting the ball on the floor effectively and hitting any of his attempts from outside of the paint, missing a mid-range jumper from around the free throw line and on another occasion not even hitting the rim on another attempt. He contributed in other ways, though, running the floor extremely well as always and getting the job done with his beautiful jump-hook. Late in the game he showed a glimpse of why so many people have him pegged as a sure-fire top 5 pick in this years draft, scoring on an extremely tough one-handed attempt by just elevating off the floor and throwing the ball in the basket at the apex of his jump from a tough angle with incredible touch and feel. With so many other of the top prospects having strong performances in one game or another so far in this tournament, it was nice to see Brandan Wright get into the mix as well, although he could have done a lot more despite scoring 21 points. Still, you cant ignore the upside he shows, and thats why hes so highly regarded himself.
Taurean Green, 6-1, Junior, Point Guard, Florida
17 points, 1 assist, 0 turnovers, 1 rebound, 5-8 FG, 5-8 3P, 2-3 FT
Green got off to another shaky start, his third straight in the NCAAs so far, but unlike in the other games, it didnt take him that long to settle in and get back on track. Green and Florida understood what they needed to do in order to win this game, and he kept going back to it time after time until the final horn sounded. With Butler not having anywhere near the size needed to compete with Floridas frontline, they quickly realized that pounding it inside was going to give them the best chance to win.
Green got his team into their sets very well, and got the ball to Al Horford primarily to let him go to work. Horfords method of backing his man down slowly and methodically to draw fouls or get as close as he possibly could to the basket was never going to reap many assists for his point guard, so some context is needed on why Greens assist numbers came out so low. Driving and dishing was not something that Butler was going to allow to happen tonight, so Green didnt try to force the issue like his teammate Corey Brewer did, and therefore didnt turn the ball over even once.
He just followed Billy Donovans game-plan to perfection, and knocked down his 3-pointers when the shot-clock was running down or the ball was swung to him in the rhythm of the offense. Hes shooting 39% on the season, so its no secret that the guy can shoot, in a variety of ways too. The biggest one he hit came off the dribble while the first half came to an end, putting Florida up by 6 and giving them great momentum going into the lockerroom. The Gators will need more steady performances like this from their point guard if they are to advance to the Final Four on Sunday.
Gabe Pruitt, 6-4, Junior, Point Guard, USC
13 points, 4 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 turnovers, 5 steals, 1 block, 5-15 FG, 1-6 3P, 2-2 FT
In terms of the point guard battle, it wouldnt be a stretch to say that Pruitt outplayed the more highly regarded Ty Lawson for the most part tonight. He got torched by his first step on a number of occasions like almost everyone who tries to stay in front of him does, but countered by giving him a bit of his own medicine as well thanks to his own terrific ball-handling skills and quickness. Pruitt is a very flashy guy in terms of type of moves he can execute with the ball in his hands, but he also has a nice array of fakes and hesitation moves he can go to to open up the defense and find teammates on the drive and dish.
Pruitt did a very solid job running USCs half-court offense tonight, particularly with the way he executed on the pick and roll with Taj Gibson and Nick Young. He delivered crisp, unselfish passes to his teammates exactly where they wanted the ball, but unfortunately the Trojans could not knock down their shots in the 2nd half to finish off the game. Pruitt played a part in that as well, going 1-6 from behind the 3-point line and getting too passive down the stretch when his team needed him most. Fatigue seemed to play an issue here.
Beyond being well on his way to making a successful transformation from the shooting guard position to the lead guard role, Pruitt has also made some big strides defensively under Tim Floyd. Texas D.J. Augustin would surely agree with that statement after the way he was shut down in the 2nd round, and Pruitt made a number of big plays against the Tar Heels as well. Two terrific steals on UNC in-bounds plays after a Trojan made basket were the highlights here, showing outstanding anticipation and smarts to go along with his excellent wingspan and quickness.
Pruitt is far from a finished product at this point, still needing to improve his ability to control tempo and become more aggressive at slashing to the rim and getting to the free throw line. His shot selection could also stand to improve, and hes not quite as consistent as youd hope on a game to game basis. Pruitt is expected to test the waters this year and will get his share of looks in the late first round due to his upside, but in our estimation, hed be well served to use his senior year to continue to develop his all-around game.