Sixteen story lines
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Teams from 11 conferences are represented in the Sweet 16. Five schools come from outside the Big Six conferences. There are three double-digit seeds. The Ivy League has a team in the second weekend for the first time since 1979. The No. 1 overall seed is gone.
The prediction for the NCAA tournament was for unpredictability and that was about the only prognostication that came true. So here are 16 thoughts as the NCAA tournament prepares to sort the pretenders from the contenders starting Thursday.
1. Big Ten winners
Over the weekend, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo discussed the essential mentality of March: “Survive and advance,” he said. It’s not a new battle cry; it is something that the Big Ten, with a tournament-best three schools (Ohio State, Purdue, Michigan State) still alive, took to heart.
In the end it comes down to making winning plays. Taking the right shot. Hitting the clutch free throw. Not turning the ball over. Getting that rebound. For all the wildness of the tournament, fundamentals still count.
The two final-second plays that advanced MSU and Purdue are the proof. Boilermaker guard Chris Kramer recognized a crease opening in the Texas A&M defense and didn’t hesitate to take it, driving for the game-winning layup with 4.3 seconds left in overtime.
Spartan guard Korie Lucious, meanwhile, took a pass with less than two seconds remaining and State trailing by one point, took his time to step into open space and calmly shot an unforced, yet buzzer-beating shot.
That’s the winning mentality. When Ohio State trailed early, when Purdue lost star Robbie Hummel and when Michigan State was gagging away a lead late, the teams never stopped believing they were going to win.
“I told our team when we were up four, up six, whatever it was, we were going to win this game and it’s going to be one of the greatest wins in the history of Michigan State,” Izzo said.
2. Legend of Yes Iowa
The CBS scoreboard insists on calling Northern Iowa, “No Iowa” rather than UNI, which the school no doubt prefers. Panthers coach Ben Jacobson should call the network and beg to keep it, insult or not. At this point, you don’t want to change a thing.
Northern Iowa is a Final Four contender. In fact, it’s a serious Final Four contender; a team with a legitimate chance and conceivable path to follow George Mason (2006) as a mid-major on the sport’s final weekend.
The Panthers spent most of the season ranked in the top 25 and had an RPI of 17, which means having them as a No. 9 seed in the Midwest was ridiculous. They should’ve been a 4 or 5. Kansas can cry over that.
By definition, any team that defeats the No. 1 overall seed Jayhawks, who spent the entire season in the top three of the national polls, is capable of reaching a Final Four. The way UNI dominated the game – KU’s only lead was 2-0 – is even more impressive.
Then there’s this: Izzo said Michigan State will almost assuredly be without star guard Kalin Lucas for the Sweet 16 game against the Panthers.
3. Why didn’t Kansas press earlier?
The Jayhawks were bigger, stronger, faster and deeper than Northern Iowa. Yet Kansas coach Bill Self didn’t apply a full-court press until the final furious minutes as KU tried to climb back into the game. It worked, UNI kept turning the ball over – and almost did on what turned out to be the game-clinching 3-pointer by Ali Farokhmanesh.
So why did he wait so long? If the press had been going even a couple minutes earlier, it may have been a different outcome. Wasn’t it worth a shot when UNI was threatening to put the game out of reach – leading by double-digits at various points in the second half?
Self said his team was in foul trouble in the first half and pressing took center Cole Aldrich, a base to his offense, out of the game.
“Probably our best lineup was when we were pressuring,” Self said. “Unfortunately, that takes Cole out of the game some. … It’s hard to press a team when you got 16 fouls in the first half and you want to play your big fella and they’re the best free-throw shooting team in the country.”
That explanation probably won’t settle the masses.
4. Volunteers’ resolve
This hasn’t been an easy season for Tennessee. In October, the Volunteers lost forward Emmanuel Negedu to a heart ailment. In December, four players were arrested during a traffic stop causing a mass suspension by coach Bruce Pearl. Star Tyler Smith was dismissed from the team.
Through it all, the Vols have kept finding a way. They upset Kansas using major contributions from walk-ons. They beat Kentucky using waves of emotion and energy. Both of those came in the regular season. They have now won 27 games and are in the Sweet 16 for the third time in four seasons under Pearl. It took every bit of the roster to do it.
“We’re a team, we’re a family, and those guys [walk-ons] got us through,” Pearl said.
It’s not that the Volunteers are satisfied as they head into their game against Ohio State. It’s just that this winds up being a pretty proud season for the program regardless.
5. Ivy offense
Not since Penn made the Final Four in 1979 has an Ivy League team won two games in the NCAA tournament. The perception always has been for an Ivy club to win even one game, it needed to slow the game down, limit its opponent’s athletic advantage and win on some crafty plays down the stretch.
Maybe that’s why few Ivy teams have been successful. Cornell has gone the opposite route, slamming on the gas and daring bigger conference teams to keep up with its efficient, open-shot producing offense.
It’s one thing for Cornell to reach the Sweet 16. It’s entirely another for the Big Red to do it by averaging 82.5 points a game and defeating Temple and Wisconsin by 13 and 18 points, respectively. They may be from the Ivy and they may be a No. 12 seed, but this club has been dominating so far.
6. Kentucky doesn’t break a sweat
It was two games and two easy victories for the Wildcats, who, with Kansas out of the mix, take on the role of tournament favorites. Yes, they are young. Yes, they can get out of control. Yes, there are times when John Calipari looks ready to kill them – and vice versa.
They just took East Tennessee State and Wake Forest to the woodshed by 29 and 30 points respectively. This is how a No. 1 seed is supposed to act. UK’s biggest problem? It’s got Cornell coming up.
7. Clash of cultures
With all due respect to both schools and schools of thought, has there ever been a Sweet 16 game between two universities that view the role of basketball on campus as differently as Kentucky and Cornell? Perhaps it was when Navy and Cleveland State matched up in 1986 – David Robinson vs. Kevin Mackey.
At Kentucky, basketball is the school’s identity. No expense is spared for the finest in facilities, support, housing, travel and coaching salaries. It’s not just that losing isn’t tolerated, not winning enough isn’t either. UK has seven NCAA titles and is desperate to win its first since 1998. This is a program with blind ambition and its honesty in that pursuit is part of what makes the Cats so endearing. They want to win and they shouldn’t apologize for it.
Cornell would like to win. Sort of. Actually, it has a team and if it happens to win some games that’s swell and all. But it’s not like many people actually attend the games. Or anyone thinks anything but bus travel isn’t appropriate. And don’t expect entrance standards to be adjusted. Cornell is in its fifth NCAA tournament and until Friday it had never won a game.
Many of Kentucky’s players are preparing for the NBA, including as many as three one-and-done freshmen. Cornell has eight seniors, none of whom stand a chance of being drafted.
“After this it’s just nothing but babies and memories,” joked Cornell’s Louis Dale.
The beauty of this meeting is that both fan bases and both sets of players will look across the way convinced that their system is best and the other guys are crazy. Only in college hoops.
8. Syracuse crushes
If Kentucky has been the most impressive team thus far, the Orange isn’t very far behind. They blasted Vermont by 23 and Gonzaga by 22.
“This is as well as we played all year,” coach Jim Boeheim said.
There was plenty of speculation that SU was vulnerable due to an injury to Arinze Onuaku. Without him, the Orange is limited to essentially six players. So much for that theory. If Onuaku returns, SU is going to be a handful for anybody; Butler gets the first crack Thursday in Salt Lake City.
9. Hinkle Hoosiers
Butler’s campus is located five miles from Lucas Oil Stadium, site of the Final Four in Indianapolis. Its home gym is the famed Hinkle Fieldhouse, where both the real-life inspiration for and final scenes of the movie “Hoosiers” were filmed.
Ten of Butler’s players and its coach, Brad Stevens, are from Indiana. They tend to shoot like Jimmy Chitwood – although Kentucky native Shelvin Mack may be the hottest of them all right now.
A true hometown Final Four – even better than Michigan State in Detroit – would be incredible for any team in any year. For such a prototypical Indiana basketball club, though, it would be even more special. Butler has work cut out for it (Syracuse first), but it doesn’t lack confidence or shooters.
“I’ve watched them play all year long,” Boeheim said. “They’re one of the best teams I’ve seen all year. I’ve had them in the top 10 in my poll from the very beginning of the year.”
10. Duke’s back
It’s been a tough run of late in the NCAA tournament for Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils. A coach who’s been to 10 Final Fours and used to dominate this event lost twice in the first weekend and was dominated by Villanova in the Sweet 16 a year ago.
Now Duke is back, not just a No. 1 seed but playing like it. It crushed Arkansas-Pine Bluff and then handled a good Cal team that kept mounting challenges. On paper, Duke has a favorable regional (Purdue, Baylor, St. Mary’s) although what’s more important is this is a team that looks (and defends) like Krzyzewski’s more vintage clubs.
“The last few years, those kids achieved as much as they could achieve,” Krzyzewski said. “You know, I hate when somebody compares those teams of the last couple years with our national championship teams, and they say they underachieved. Are you kidding me? They won 30, 29 games. But they were limited teams, and they couldn’t play the defense that this team can play because we have big guys.
“That’s the difference. We’re a better team this year. I don’t know if we’ll go any further, but this is a better team because it can play total defense.”
11. Coach’s personality
Frank Martin is an intense dude. Real intense. The Kansas State coach is a hulking, albeit well-dressed presence on the sideline, his eyes all but popping out of his head when he gets angry. Earlier this year, he even had contact with one of his players, an act for which he immediately apologized.
If you’ve seen Kansas State play in this tournament, none of the above is a surprise. There may not be a team in the country that takes on their coach’s personality more than the Wildcats. There was limited screwing around in blasting North Texas 82-62. Then after falling behind to BYU, Martin went nuts and his players came out and just swallowed up the Cougars, 84-72. BYU star Jimmer Fredette, after dropping 37 on Florida, was held to 21.
“It’s a special group of kids,” Martin said. “I talk to them all the time about embracing being a good team. It’s a big responsibility to be a good team. It’s easy to lose. It’s easy to give in. It’s hard to fight. They fight.”
Kansas State may or may not be capable of winning the national championship. What’s clear is no one wants to play these guys. You’ll have to drive a stake through their (and their coach’s) heart to beat them.
12. March’s program
Xavier is a small, academically-challenging Catholic school in Cincinnati. It doesn’t have a big football team. It plays in the Atlantic 10. It makes all its kids take school seriously and graduate.
That isn’t the recipe for a perennial NCAA contender, but the Musketeers have reached the tournament nine times in the last decade, a run that has come under four coaches – Skip Prosser, Thad Matta, Sean Miller and now Chris Mack. Matta and Miller took the program to the Elite Eight. Mack is now one win away for that … and who knows how much more.
“I think Xavier is always overlooked,” guard Jordan Crawford said. “We just play with a chip on our shoulders.”
They’ve had great players there and Crawford is the latest. He got famous for dunking on LeBron James last summer but should now be better known for delivering 27 points in the 71-68 victory over Pitt on Sunday. It put Xavier back where it seems to always be – the tourney’s second weekend. It joins Michigan State as the only schools to make the Sweet 16 the past three seasons.
13. Underdog Huskies
So there’s a No. 11 seed in the Sweet 16. It’s from a conference that was mocked all season for its supposed lack of strength and had to all but beg to get a second team into the tourney.
Meet the upstart Washington Huskies. They started the season nationally-ranked and much-hyped, so no one is falling for this one. Washington can play; it just took awhile for Lorenzo Romar’s team to get itself going. (At one point it lost five of seven games.) Now that it has, well, this is one scary 11 seed. They just dominated third-seeded New Mexico to win a matchup with West Virginia.
“We talked to our team about [how], ‘We can go one of two ways, we can be mediocre, or we can be a special team,’ ” Romar said. “It took a while for us to come to the realization that if we bought in and no one cared who got the credit we could get some things accomplished.”
14. Old school Huggins
Bob Huggins’ best teams at Cincinnati featured a number of gifted offensive players who first bought into playing defense. That’s probably because Huggins would sit them otherwise. He’s always liked big, tough, aggressive defenders and right now his West Virginia team is doing all of it.
The Syracuse Regional features WVU opponent Washington as well as Kentucky and Cornell. Those three teams are averaging 86.1 points a game in the tourney.
“They’re going to see a pretty good defensive team,” Huggins promised, after his guys held Morgan State and Missouri in the 50s.
So it’s defense against offense and Huggins will take his chances in Syracuse. After a weekend in Buffalo, he said he’s enjoying the State of New York. His only complaint: He didn’t get to eat many Buffalo wings.
“Last time I was here for an extended period of time … we spent a lot of time at the Anchor Bar eating those wings. This time we had too much to do.”
In Syracuse, try Dinosaur Bar-B-Que.
15. The sleeper
Baylor, being Baylor, didn’t find itself in the feature game or broadcast to large swaths of the country. If you can be laying low in the Sweet 16, Scott Drew’s team is doing it after relatively quiet victories over Sam Houston State and Old Dominion. After the latter victory, the Bear players were asked about Kansas losing, not just Baylor winning.
“That’s Kansas,” guard Tweety Carter said. “You know, we Baylor.”
Don’t think Carter and the rest of the program didn’t mean it. Here’s the thing about Baylor, which pretty much no one thought would make the Final Four when the year began. It gets St. Mary’s in the Sweet 16, a difficult challenge, but the game is in Houston, an easy drive from its campus in Waco.
After that, it could be Duke, which traditionally has had trouble with athletic teams. And Baylor is nothing if not athletic.
16. Omar Samhan
St. Mary’s is a heck of a story and an even better team – Villanova coach Jay Wright said there was no question they could contend for a Big East title. There’s a whole bunch of players that are responsible for it, but the big guy with the big personality is becoming the big star of this tournament.
What’s not to like about a guy who, after scoring 32 points to lead St. Mary’s to its first Sweet 16, declares himself “a slow white guy” and “overweight.” Then he mocked Wright for not double-teaming him “after I kill you in the first half, what are you waiting for. I don’t know what he wanted. Did he want me to have 40?”
He’s full of trash talk, only with a huge smile on his face. His sense of humor and comedic timing is uncanny. And there is something endearing about a low-profile mid-major player doing the yapping – especially at a Final Four coach and big-publicity opponents.
Samhan and the Gaels take on Baylor and the way St. Mary’s is playing, it doesn’t look done with this run. Samhan needs a few more press conferences anyway.