Thursday, March 26, 2009

Oh, how Sweet it is

We’ve reached the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament. The Eastern region consists of all chalk—the top seeds: top seeded Pittsburgh, second seeded Duke, third seeded Villanova, and fourth seeded Xavier. The teams are set to face off Thursday night in Boston; Pittsburgh against Xavier and Duke against Villanova, with the winners squaring off against each other. The teams held open practices at TD Banknorth Garden Wednesday afternoon, each for 50 minutes with 10 minutes in-between. I was able to catch Pittsburgh and Duke prepare for their next round matchups.

Pittsburgh had a light practice, mainly a shootaround. The bigs worked on posting up and then popping out. DeJuan Blair, a candidate for the Naismith Player of the Year award, used this drill to work on his range, popping out and nailing quite a few 3-pointers. Don’t expect to see him shoot from that far out in the game against Xavier though; in his two years at Pitt he has never attempted a 3-point shot in a game. Blair also took it to the rim frequently during drills and free shooting. He is a powerful player and every time he slammed it home, he tried to take the backboard down with him, like Shaquille O’Neal in his heyday.

The Panthers worked on free-throws, and during shooting, an impromptu jumping contest broke out, where redshirt sophomore Gilbert Brown and senior Sam Young impressed with their leaping abilities, wowing the crowd by continually reaching higher than the box on the glass. Young even almost hit his head on the rim.

Every player on Pittsburgh then took one half court shot, in case they ever needed a desperation heave in the tournament. Senior guard Levance Fields was the last player to shoot and the only one to make one. The Panthers ended their light workout five minutes early.

Duke took advantage of Pitt’s early exit and took to the court 10 minutes early. It was clear from the beginning that Duke meant business. Their practice jerseys were tucked in, and, unlike Pittsburgh, began the practice with a few end-line to end-line jogs, stretching, and even jumping rope. Surprisingly, Duke held a legitimate practice. I’ve never been to a Blue Devil practice before, but I can imagine this was a relatively close representation. Rather than just a shootaround, they actually went through different shooting and shuffling drills. Everything the Duke players did, they seemed to do with a great sense of urgency. It was all business—that is until they went to layup lines and junior Gerald Henderson and freshman Elliot Williams started having their own dunk contest, Henderson leading the way with a 360 and a windmill.

The team then went into 5 v. 5 full court drills, utilizing the shot clock. Another difference between Duke’s and Pittsburgh’s practice was the defensive chatter. The Panthers’ practice was relatively quiet, but the Duke players talked and yelled out defensive calls, even during the shuffling drills.

Then they split into bigs and guards and wings, but it was still a workout. The assistant working with the post players had a pad that he would actually hit the players with, to mimic the force from an opposing player. They actually took a water break, another difference between the two practices, and finished with a shootaround.

The two practices were vastly different, but they both did some unique things that I liked. Practicing the half court shots was a good idea by the Pitt coaches. You never know when you’re going to find yourself in that kind of predicament in the tournament, and it can’t hurt to work on it, especially at practice the day before your biggest game of the season to date. For Duke, I liked the intensity and urgency they brought. Most teams go through a light workout in these kinds of practices, but for Duke, they treated it as if it were business as usual. The practice wasn’t necessarily taxing, but they worked hard and showed why they are not only one of the elite programs in the ACC, but all of college basketball as well.

Both teams will be ready to go tomorrow night. Anticipate some good basketball from all teams, Xavier and Villanova included. It will be a dogfight to see which of the four earns the right to take a trip to Detroit and a chance at the national championship.

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