Even though 14 of the remaining teams in the field hail from the power conferences, this year's Sweet 16 isn't completely devoid of surprises.
There's 11th-seeded NC State, which was one of the final teams to make the field. There's 1oth-seeded Xavier, which sputtered for all of Atlantic 10 play in the wake of its brawl with rival Cincinnati. And there's 13th-seeded Ohio, one of a record four Sweet 16 teams to hail from the Buckeye State.
We'll have plenty of time to examine the Sweet 16 matchups and offer some revised Final Four projections in the next few days. Let's first take a look at some of the best and worst of the NCAA tournament's opening week.
Player who shined in the spotlight: Every once in a while you'll hear an announcer say that a player did everything but mop the floors for his team. Well, Draymond Green did that too. In addition to grabbing a mop to help wipe sweat off the court in the final minute of Michigan State's win over Saint Louis on Sunday, Green also had 16 points, 13 rebounds and six assists against the Billikens to lead the Spartans to the Sweet 16. That performance might have gotten more attention were it not two days after Green notched a triple-double — 24 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists — against LIU-Brooklyn.
Player who shrank from the spotlight: Less than a week removed from scoring 69 points in three Big 12 tournament games and being named the tournament's most outstanding player, Missouri's Kim English struggled badly in Missouri's stunning loss to Norfolk State. The senior guard finished with a season-low two points on 1-for-7 shooting, perhaps his worst performance in an otherwise spectacular bounce-back senior season. "I hurt for Kimmie," coach Frank Haith told reporters afterward. "I really hurt for him. The young man is a warrior. He didn't have it all today. He just wasn't himself."
Conference that has excelled: For all the flack the Big East has taken for underachieving in the early rounds of the NCAA tournament the past few seasons, give it credit for landing four teams in the Sweet 16 in a supposed off year. Top-seeded Syracuse, third-seeded Marquette and fourth-seeded Louisville all avoided upsets, and sixth-seeded Cincinnati ousted Florida State to crash the party. The Big East's four Sweet 16 bids matches the four teams still alive from the Big Ten, which lived up to its reputation as college basketball's premier league this season.
Conference that got exposed: If the Mountain West appeared to pick up the slack for the faltering Pac-12 in the regular season by notching some marquee wins and getting four teams into the NCAA tournament, that trend abruptly stopped in March. None of the Mountain West's four NCAA tournament teams made the Sweet 16 and only New Mexico even managed to win a game. UNLV culminated its late-season slide with a loss to Colorado, Colorado State got throttled by Murray State and San Diego State fell to surging NC State.
Most surprising Sweet 16 team: Glance at Ohio's season-long performance, and you'll find nothing that suggests the Bobcats were capable of beating Michigan and South Florida. Oh sure, they played Louisville close in November and they beat Akron in the MAC title game, but this was a team that finished third in the MAC East in the regular season and didn't defeat anybody better than Marshall all season. Credit Ohio for peaking at the right time. The Bobcats have ridden the play of backcourt mates D.J. Cooper and Walter Offutt to two memorable wins.
Most surprising early exit: Of the two No. 2 seeds stunned in the opening round on Sunday, Missouri's loss was more shocking than Duke's. Analysts have noted all season that the Blue Devils were vulnerable to an early exit because of their suspect perimeter defense and reliance on the 3-point shot. Sure enough, Duke shot 6 of 26 from behind the arc and let Lehigh's C.J. McCollum erupt for 30 points in a 75-70 loss. Far more surprising, however, was the Tigers' exit at the hands of a Norfolk State team that got clobbered two days later by Florida. It was a cruel ending to one of the sweetest regular seasons in Missouri history.
Best game: In an opening weekend with more game-changing lane violations than buzzer-beaters, the best game might have been Indiana's 63-61 come-from-behind victory over VCU. The Hoosiers erased a late five-point deficit and won on Will Sheehey's baseline 12-footer, reaching the Sweet 16 for the first time in a decade and ending the Rams' hopes of a second straight Cinderella Final Four run. Indiana's win also sets up the Sweet 16 game everyone wanted: a rematch with top-seeded Kentucky.
Worst game: Sometimes the problem with upset-heavy opening rounds is they create clunkers in the Round of 32. Case in point: Florida 84, Norfolk State 50. The clock struck midnight on Norfolk State early as Florida parlayed a 25-0 run into a 29-6 lead midway through the first half. From there, the Gators coasted, never letting the game get even remotely competitive.
Team that deserved a higher seed: Pitting high school teammates Harrison Barnes and Doug McDermott against one-another in the Round of 32 was a nice storyline, but the truth is Creighton didn't belong in that game against North Carolina. The Bluejays deserved better than a No. 8 seed and an early exit against one of the tournament's favorites after winning 28 regular-season games and capturing the Missouri Valley tournament title.
Team that didn't belong in the field: Instead of taking advantage of the opportunity from the selection committee to prove it belonged in the field, Cal rolled over and played dead in its First Four matchup with South Florida. The Bears scored just 13 first-half points and were never competitive in the second half, a performance that had to leave jilted bubble teams Drexel and Seton Hall sick to their stomachs. Cal was the Pac-12's best team most of the season, but the Bears faded to the finish line with four losses in their final five games.
Three good moments:
1. Unless you're a Duke or Missouri fan, how could you not enjoy watching No. 15 seeds Lehigh and Norfolk State pull off dueling upsets on Friday? After going more than a decade without a No. 2 seed falling in the first round, two lost within hours of each-other.
2. The ultimate storybook ending for Robbie Hummel would have been for Purdue to pull off an upset over Kansas on Sunday and finally make the Final Four run it was deprived of two years ago, but at least the fifth-year senior played well on a national stage. He had 22 points in the first half alone against the Jayhawks, a brilliant performance from one of college basketball's star-crossed good guys.
3. While Georgetown fans probably didn't enjoy watching their team ousted by a double-digit seed for the fourth year in a row, long-suffering NC State fans deserved this Sweet 16 run. College basketball is better when all the Tobacco Road teams are relevant, and the Wolfpack are moving in that direction in a hurry under Mark Gottfried.
Three bad moments:
1. Beyond the obvious implications for North Carolina's title hopes, Kendall Marshall fracturing his right wrist late in Sunday's victory over Creighton was a crushing moment for a kid who deserves better. Marshall had been in the midst of his best stretch of the season prior to that injury.
2. If reports are true that Kansas State had to hold fifth-year senior Jamar Samuels out of his final college game because his AAU coach wired him $200 to help pay for groceries, then that's truly deplorable. This feels like the NCAA is punishing a kid for something petty because it can't catch those who commit more serious violations.
3. Had Clint Steindl merely inbounded the ball properly in the final minute against Purdue, it would have set up a parade of free throws for one of the most consistent foul-shooting teams in the nation. Instead, the Saint Mary's senior committed a moving violation on the baseline and turned the ball over, enabling the Boilermakers to eke out a three-point win. Gut-wrenching for anybody but especially a senior playing his final college game.
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