Moments after his team staved off a frantic comeback from third-seeded Pittsburgh to advance to the Sweet 16, Xavier center Jason Love bristled when a reporter referred to the perennially formidable Musketeers as a mid-major program.
"I don't know a lot of mid-majors that make three consecutive Sweet 16s," Love said. "So you can throw that out the door right now."
In honor of Love's request, the Musketeers will not be included in this look at which of the mid-majors still alive in the NCAA tournament have the best chance to pull a George Mason and advance to the Final Four. Let's instead examine the chances of a Butler team making its third Sweet 16 appearance in eight years and three newcomers to the second week of the NCAA tournament, Saint Mary's, Northern Iowa and Cornell.Northern Iowa (30-5)
How they got here: Beat UNLV, 69-66, and Kansas, 69-67
Up next: Fifth-seeded Michigan State on Friday in St. Louis
Why they're Final Four-bound: The ninth-seeded Panthers will not face a better opponent this week than the top-seeded Kansas team they just beat. Even better, they'll be playing in the same city where they won their conference tournament the past two years and their Sweet 16 opponent, Michigan State, will be without star guard Kalin Lucas as a result of a torn Achilles tendon suffered Sunday. Northern Iowa's defense was among the best in the nation this season and it has a white-hot shooter in Ali Farokhmanesh.
Why they aren't: Northern Iowa hadn't won an NCAA tournament game in almost two decades, so it's a little tough to envision the Panthers winning four straight no matter how impressive they looked against Kansas. Michigan State and potential Elite Eight opponent Ohio State are Big Ten teams used to grind-it-out defensive struggles, while Northern Iowa's other potential Elite Eight adversary, Tennessee, has the depth and athleticism to press the Panthers the way Kansas probably should have.
How they got here: Beat Richmond, 80-71, and Villanova, 75-68
Up next: Third-seeded Baylor on Friday in Houston
Why they're Final Four-bound: Unlike most mid-majors, Saint Mary's runs its offense through the low post. Leading scorer Omar Samhan has 62 points and 19 rebounds in the Gaels' first two victories, drawing enough double-teams to free up his shooters on the perimeter. Many figured Saint Mary's might struggle with Villanova's quick guards in the second round, but the Gaels did a good job getting back in transition and keeping them out of the lane, which bodes well against the likes of Baylor's Tweety Carter and LaceDarius Dunn in the next round.
Why they aren't: Whereas Richmond and Villanova were guard-oriented teams that lacked size down low, Baylor has 6-foot-10 defensive ace Ekpe Udoh and potential Elite Eight opponent Duke has a handful of big men capable of guarding the paint. If Udoh can handle Omar Samhan one-on-one defensively, Baylor can extend its 2-3 zone out to the 3-point arc and make it difficult for Saint Mary's shooters to get free for open looks. Duke's extended man-to-man defense would pose many of the same problems.
Final Four odds: 7 to 1Cornell (29-4)
How they got here: Beat Temple, 78-65, and Wisconsin, 87-69
Up next: Top-seeded Kentucky on Thursday in Syracuse
Why they're Final Four-bound: The way Cornell eviscerated two of the better defensive programs in the nation last week is the most impressive accomplishment of the tournament so far. The Big Red shot 53.3 percent against Temple's stingy match-up zone and 61 percent against Wisconsin's rugged man-to-man, getting production from 7-footer Jeff Foote in the post, point guard Louis Dale off the dribble and Ryan Wittman behind the 3-point arc. The Carrier Dome is less than an hour from Ithaca, meaning Cornell should have plenty of fan support this week.
Why they aren't: Cornell can probably score on Kentucky if it shoots as well as it did last week, but the Wildcats have a vastly superior offense than either Wisconsin or Temple. Although the Big Red is by no means your typical undersized, plodding Ivy League team, how are they going to contain both DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson in the post or John Wall and Eric Bledsoe in transition? As if that's not enough, either potential Elite Eight opponent - surging Washington or rugged West Virginia - would certainly pose a formidable challenge should Cornell pull the monumental upset.
Final Four odds: 8 to 1Butler (30-4)
How they got here: Beat UTEP, 77-59, and Murray State, 54-52
Up next: Top-seeded Syracuse on Thursday in Salt Lake City
Why they're Final Four-bound: The Bulldogs entered the NCAA tournament as the nation's highest-seeded mid-major for a reason: They've won 22 straight and they boast wins over fellow Sweet 16 teams Xavier and Ohio State earlier this season. A streaky perimeter shooter like Butler guard Shelvin Mack could feast on Syracuse's trademark 2-3 zone, while the Bulldogs' methodical pace and stingy defense has kept any opponent from scoring more than 70 points during their win streak.
Why they aren't: Aside from a brilliant second half against UTEP in the first round, Butler actually hasn't played all that well in its first two games. Forward Gordon Hayward has struggled with his shooting, undersized big man Matt Howard can't stay on the floor and Murray State of all teams punished the Bulldogs on the glass. Even if Butler improves in all those areas, Syracuse's size, length and transition game will pose a formidable challenge.
Final Four odds: 10 to 1
- Northern Iowa
- Michigan State
- NCAA tournament