A Sweet 16 for the Sweet 16 as college basketball goes roaring into the second week of the NCAA tournament.
1. Rock Chalk (Jayhawks included)
No double digit seeds survived the second round and only two – Winthrop and Virginia Commonwealth, both 11 seeds – won in the first round. Winthrop was a legit upset in beating Notre Dame, even if the Eagles had won 28 games heading into the tournament. VCU, however, beat a Duke team that was seeded sixth seemingly on name alone.
So it was a (mostly) good weekend for the chalk picks – all four No. 1s, three No. 2s and three No. 3s. A few teams, such as Kansas, North Carolina, Memphis and Georgetown, were only moderately tested and didn't have to deal with any true, heart-pumping finishes.
The bad news was a lack of thrilling endings – there were some, but not the normal amount. The good news is the best teams will match up from here on out. This is a heck of a final 16, with perhaps a majority of the teams still realistically believing they can clip the nets in Atlanta.
2. The ACC Fade
Whereas my prediction that only North Carolina would survive the first weekend, meaning six other ACC entrants would lose, was outrageously bold and whereas I endured at least 500 emails from ACC fans decrying said prediction and my mental stability and where it came through because this league was just a lot of slightly above average clubs beating up on each other, you bet I am going to bring this up.
The league is usually as good as it gets in college hoops but it was so watered-down this year that Virginia won a share of the league title. The ACC sports information bureau in Bristol, Conn., can go on and on and on all it wants, but this NCAA crash was bound to happen.
The good news is Carolina looked quite capable of winning the national title.
3. The SEC Steady
In fairness, I also predicted the SEC was Florida and not much else, which turned out wrong. Arkansas and Kentucky were predictably vanquished but three other teams are still alive.
UF is fine, doing just what you'd expect them to do. Tennessee is a scoring machine (198 points in two games). Of course, it also got to play UVA, but the Vols seem to be hitting on all cylinders. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt played far better than I anticipated and is just the kind of excellent perimeter shooting team that can negate Georgetown's size advantage in the Sweet 16.
4. The Big Ten Tumble
I don't believe the people who write the graphics at CBS really watch the tournament because some of the stuff they throw up there is absurd. Of course, the announcers often go right along with it. For awhile this weekend they were trumping Big Ten dominance because the league went 5-1 in the first round.
Well, sure, that was the record but no one could have been feeling great about it. In the first round Ohio State and Indiana did fine. Michigan State beat an injured Marquette team and Purdue beat an Arizona team so inconsistent you wouldn't blame Lute Olson if he just retired. Meanwhile, Wisconsin almost crumbled to a 15-seed and Illinois gagged one away.
By the end of the weekend only Ohio State, which needed a blown free throw and a miracle three to survive Xavier, was still around. The Big Ten is now 6-5.
How long until Commissioner Jim Delany posts an "open letter" on the league website ripping all these tall, fast guys who beat his teams for being dumb and not fit socially for the Big Ten?
5. The Next George Mason?
The sooner this comparison ends the better. In fact, from here on out we are banning the term from this space along with ("bubble" and "Big Dance") which are only mentioned when discussing the banned phrases.
Anyway, the candidates are Southern Illinois and Butler, but as good as George Mason was last year, they were a shooting star compared to these two.
SIU is making its sixth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, which includes two Sweet 16s. Since 2001, they are the seventh winningest program in the country. Butler, meanwhile, is in its second Sweet 16 in four years.
These are two extremely solid programs, located in the basketball heartland of the Midwest. Neither might ever make the Final Four but in a lot of ways they are what George Mason wants to become.
6. Kevin Durant
The latest rumored deal I heard concerning Nike and Kevin Durant is $50 million. He'd get about at least another $15 million in guaranteed NBA money as either the first or second pick in June's draft. If you want to tell a kid to turn down $65 million to return to a program that couldn't get to the second weekend even with the best player in the country then you need to have your head examined.
Spare me the "education" talk, the kid has skinny legs and is one collision from it all going away. This is the Shaun Livingston principle in action. While the University of Texas will never close should he want to return to school post-basketball, his window of NBA opportunity can slam shut in a second.
If he and his family want him to return to Austin then good for them, it's their decision. He'll be fun to watch.
But if anything this collapse by the Longhorns – a punch-to-the-gut blown opportunity that will haunt Rick Barnes – can't help. Southern California just controlled the game defensively and Durant couldn't get shots in the spots he wanted (that he scored 30 anyway is a testament to his game). After that his teammates couldn't do much of anything. Not good.
7. Home Sweet Dome
The South Region's No. 1 seed is Ohio State. Its No. 2 is Memphis. But it is third-seed Texas A&M that will have the overwhelming number of fans in San Antonio, which is just under 200 miles from College Station (an around-the-corner drive by Texas standards).
The funny part is, before Billy Gillispie came to town, you might not have gotten 500 Aggie fans to drive to San Antonio for a basketball game. At least unless there was a "yell practice" at halftime.
8. Runnin' Again
UNLV hadn't won a NCAA tournament game since it ran Jerry Tarkanian out of town back in the early 1990s. Now thanks to father and son Kruger, it won two, including a huge victory over No. 2 seed Wisconsin. The Rebels played terrific over the weekend and set up what could be a land speed record game with Oregon in the Midwest regional.
Tark, meanwhile, is crowing about Rebel Pride and is as happy as ever that UNLV is finally back on the map.
9. The Not Really That Interesting Story That Will Be Told Ad Nausea
Pitt coach Jamie Dixon and UCLA coach Ben Howland call each other best friends. Dixon used to be Howland's assistant for nine years at Northern Arizona and Pitt. When Howland left the Panthers, Dixon succeeded him. They play similar styles. They are both proud of each other.
I'm thinking you might hear a little about this in the coming days.
In the long history of talkative promoters in college basketball, I'm not sure there has ever been a regional final that could compare to the possible John Calipari (Memphis) and Bruce Pearl (Tennessee) matchup in San Antonio. These two talk like teenage girls and fight for the spotlight like American Idol contestants.
Earlier this year Pearl painted his chest to cheer on the UT women's team. Just Sunday Calipari delivered a soliloquy on the proper way he shows his players he loves them
"I kiss them at times," he told reporters. "Oh, I kiss their sweaty faces. I won't kiss them on the lips, because that's a little bit too much. But I'll kiss them on the face or on the forehead. Especially if I really ram them (yell at them). I'll walk over and say, 'You know I still love you.'"
Yeah, that pregame press conference would be fun.
11. Fight On
Here is what makes USC so dangerous in this tournament: it plays defense like the postgame meal depends on it yet has an insane amount of offensive firepower. Coach Tim Floyd was mocked plenty for his NBA record (particularly with the Chicago Bulls) but he has always been an exceptional coach at the college level.
Now armed with great athletes at SC, he has been able add an up-tempo offense to go with the strong defensive style that he learned as an assistant under UTEP Hall of Famer Don Haskins. It is just the kind of combination that you need to beat UNC, which even when contained is still going to get out in transition and score some points.
12. A Moment
If you know anything about the history of the SEC, you know that Vanderbilt, with its great academics, annually gets mauled in football, the sport everyone but Kentucky cares most about. The Commodores have their moments, but they never contend for the title. Basketball is better, but not much.
So finally, Vandy fans have something to shout about other than "it's all right, it's OK, you'll all work for us someday."
13. Quality of Play
A week ago the annual campaign to expand the 65-team NCAA tournament field was in full force. This is usually driven by coaches who are wary of losing their jobs or at least missing out on their bonus for getting into the tourney.
But anyone who watched the first round of the tournament saw too many instances of dreadful play by dreadful teams. And not just from the little 16 seeds. If anything, the tournament should be constricted because there weren't 65 good teams this season.
14. A Prelude
In 1995, UCLA needed a last-second driving lay-up by Tyus Edney to avoid a disastrous second-round defeat to Missouri. The Bruins went on to win the NCAA title. In 2001, Florida needed a buzzer-beating shot in the first round to beat Butler and then wound up in the title game. There are a dozen other examples of teams miraculously surviving early only to turn it on and streak to the Final Four.
So Ohio State has that going for it after sneaking by Xavier. The Buckeyes needed about 15 different things – good plays by them, bad plays by XU, coaching decisions, referee calls, you name it – to pull that game out.
Every single one of them happened. Maybe Ohio State is good; maybe it is lucky; maybe it is destined.
15. Tubby's Time
Kentucky's 88-76 loss to Kansas looks a lot better on paper than it did during the game – the Jayhawks were in firm control throughout. So the question remains whether Tubby Smith will return (or will even want to) for an 11th season in Lexington. I wrote this last week, but to lay down blanket criticism of Kentucky fans for growing restless is disingenuous.
They give more financially and emotionally than any other fan base in the country – Kentucky's success is based solely on its fan commitment, not on proximity to talent or major media markets. It is quite reasonable for them to expect a return on that investment. And Smith hasn't provided it with 25 losses in the last two years, few good recruits and nearly 20 transfers under his watch.
The program isn't what it should be. Smith is a tremendous game coach and defensive strategist but sometimes that isn't enough. It's doubtful UK fires him, but he may walk. And if not, he better find some recruits.
16. The New Predictions
Final Eight: Florida, UNLV, Kansas, UCLA, USC, Georgetown, Tennessee, Texas A&M.
Final Four: Florida, UCLA, Georgetown, Texas A&M.
Final: UCLA over Texas A&M.