North Carolina and Oklahoma -- the top two seeds in the NCAA tournament's South Regional -- left little doubt in their semifinal games Friday night at FedExForum in downtown Memphis. With the Tar Heels' 98-77 win over Gonzaga and the Sooners' 84-71 victory over Syracuse, the country will get the matchup CBS wanted most: 2008 Player of the Year Tyler Hansbrough vs. (presumptive) 2009 Player of the Year Blake Griffin. Tip-off will be 4:05 pm central on Sunday.
-- FedExForum was packed with an announced crowd of 17,103 guests from three of the country's four time zones. Quadrants of the lower bowl were shaded distinctly with crimson, powder blue, orange, and red. Until the NBA's Grizzlies return to the playoffs, this was the largest crowd the arena will see absent the Memphis Tigers.
A unique element to watching a regional semifinal with neutral combatants is that -- despite the full house -- the noise level remains modest. Because the crowd never cheers as one. For every play that lifts, say, the orange section, another section -- on Friday night, crimson -- stays in its collective seat. When the game is back and forth (which was rare in both contests Friday), the sound is the sports-arena equivalent of changing the balance of your stereo speakers. A roar from your left for one play ... followed by screams from your right for another. It's the kind of crowd that makes a wave impossible. Which, of course, is a virtue.
-- Oklahoma's star would be, to say the least, an asset to the Memphis Grizzlies. Already equipped with the body of an NBA power forward (6'10", 250 pounds), Griffin seems to thrive on contact, even with the ball in his hands. He converted 12 of 15 field-goal attempts against the Orange for 30 points while grabbing 14 rebounds. He now has 488 rebounds for the season, the most by any NCAA player in 25 years. And the man hit his head on the backboard as he delivered a tomahawk dunk with three minutes to the play in the game. The 2010 NBA Rookie of the Year trophy is his to lose.
-- Syracuse crosses up many of its Big East brethren with a 2-3 zone that seems anachronistic in the modern, man-up world of college basketball. Oklahoma exposed the zone with the most old-fashioned one-two punch in the game: outside shooting from Tony Crocker (who made six of 11 three-pointers on his way to a career-high 28 points) and the inside work of Griffin. After the game, coach Jeff Capel acknowledged that his team's ball movement was critical against the zone defense. As for Crocker, he said simply, "They gave us lots of open spots to get our shots."
-- One of the most courageous performances of the night came from an athlete wearing a skirt. The Gonzaga cheerleader holding the 'A' card -- part of a "ZAGS" routine -- fell from the shoulders of her anchor during a timeout late in the first half. After an audible gasp from the crowd, she bounced up -- smiling, mind you -- and finished the cheer. She then ran off the floor to the baseline with the rest of her team. They make 'em tough in Spokane.
-- I spoke briefly with CBS analyst Clark Kellogg on Thursday and asked him how point guard Ty Lawson's toe injury might impact the Tar Heels. "A toe injury is nothing to snicker at," said Kellogg. "Especially our big toe; that's where all the weight goes. Lawson's health is critical." Having not so much as removed his sweatshirt during Thursday's open practice, the ACC Player of the Year scored 15 points in the game's first 15 minutes in staking North Carolina to a 10-point lead it would never relinquish. His coach, Roy Williams, said after-the-game soaking Lawson's foot in ice water has been his greatest salve, and with tomorrow's day of rest, the star point guard should be ready for more action Sunday.
-- Basketball games are won and lost with scoring spurts. Oklahoma beat Syracuse with a 28-9 run over eight minutes that bridged halftime of their game. North Carolina put the Bulldogs under their heel with a 13-3 run to start the second half and another 9-0 run that wiped out Gonzaga's own 12-2 spurt. If Griffin stays out of foul trouble and Lawson is healthy Sunday, it's hard to envision either club suffering the kind of drought that allows an opponent's game-winning spurt. All of which suggests the South Regional championship will be a clash to remember.
Tyler Hansbrough is an easy player to dislike if you don't wear Carolina blue. The animated body language, the facial contortions, the "Psycho T" eyes. But he's been great for college basketball. Earlier this month, Hansbrough became the first player since an acclaimed trio that played a quarter-century ago (Oklahoma's Wayman Tisdale, Georgetown's Patrick Ewing, and Memphis State's Keith Lee) to earn first-team All-America honors by the USBWA three consecutive years. The achievement says as much about the rarity of college stars staying in school these days as it does about Hansbrough's singular talent. But a rare breed is a rare breed, however the qualifiers might apply. He had an unceremonious 24 points and 10 rebounds Friday night.
-- Griffin was asked after his game if a potential matchup with Hansbrough would be added motivation. "I'm not going to get into a personal battle with Tyler Hansbrough," he responded. "I have no beef with him. If we do play them, it's not going to be him against me. It's going to be Oklahoma against North Carolina."
-- One stat to consider between now and Sunday afternoon: Oklahoma is now 11-0 this season against nonconference opponents with 20 wins.