As always, the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament offers something for everyone.
If you like a little Madness in your March, this year's grand prize is Florida Gulf Coast – the first No. 15 seed to advance this far. The Eagles were the saviors of a first weekend that was a little light on drama, plot twists and talking points (beyond ripping the refs, that is).
The toast of a 75-year-old sporting event is a basketball program that wasn't created until the 21st century, and brings with it the insouciance of youth. This tournament's One Shining Moment to date is the ridiculously brazen alley-oop FGCU point guard Brett Comer tossed to Chase Fieler with less than two minutes left in the monstrous upset of Georgetown Friday night.
In dismantling the Hoyas and San Diego State with a succession of audacious dunks, fast breaks and YOLO passes from Comer, the Eagles have been so entertaining and improbable that they have muted the buzzfeed-ish backstory of the head coach's supermodel wife. Their actual play has been the thing. For a team that was swept this year by Lipscomb and did not win the regular-season title in the Atlantic Sun Conference, that's a miracle.
If you are a fan of tradition, that's covered, too. Thirteen of the 16 remaining teams have at least one national title trophy somewhere on campus – the three that don't are FGCU (of course), Wichita State and Miami. Six coaches with national title rings remain in the Big Dance, and nine with Final Four experience.
If you prefer a more orderly bracket – most likely for office-pool purposes – then the Sweet 16 provides for you as well. Three of the top four seeds advanced in the murderous Midwest and the South, while all four remain alive in the East. The only No. 1 seed to lose is the one everyone suspected would lose first: Gonzaga, which was excessively rewarded for rolling through the mediocre West Coast Conference. The only No. 2 seed to lose is the program that always loses early: Georgetown, beaten by a double-digit seed for the fifth consecutive time in the Big Dance.
Of course, there is always one region that is an uncontained wildfire – this year it is the West, which has No. 2 seed Ohio State in Los Angeles with party crashers Wichita State (No. 9), La Salle (No. 13) and Arizona (No. 6). The Wildcats are living right, first getting a No. 14 seed from the Ivy League (Harvard) in the round of 32 and now getting a geographically friendly draw against a team whose fans do not travel in overwhelming numbers. That would be Ohio State, which sent a sparse contingent to last year's Final Four in New Orleans.
But even Arizona has to be impressed by the draw La Salle has had. The Explorers did have to win in Dayton in the First Four against Boise State, then turn around and beat No. 4 seed Kansas State two days later – but that was followed by a round-of-32 game against No. 12 Mississippi, and now a Sweet 16 game against Wichita State. For a No. 13 seed to potentially wind up in the Elite Eight without having to beat anyone seeded higher than fourth is a pretty fortunate path.
La Salle is trying to follow the trail blazed by VCU two years ago, from First Four to Final Four. But whereas the Rams were dominant most of the way on that run, the Explorers have won three games by a total of 13 points – the last two by a total of four, and the last one coming courtesy of a drive in the final seconds that guard Tyrone Garland dubbed "The Southwest Philly Floater." Garland's hoop allows La Salle to float into its first Sweet 16 since 1955.
But as tight as it's been for La Salle, that's nothing compared to the white-knuckle ride for Marquette. The Golden Eagles needed a driving basket by Vander Blue on Thursday to beat Davidson by a point, then survived two Butler game-winning attempts in the final six seconds to escape by two points Saturday. The star of those two games, scoring a combined 45 points, was Blue – an appropriate surname for a guy playing in Rupp Arena.
The other team to emerge from Rupp did so in opposite fashion from Marquette. Louisville played the way the No. 1 overall seed is supposed to perform, totally dismantling North Carolina A&T and Colorado State by a combined 57 points.
"That's as impressive a team as I've been against," CSU coach Larry Eustachy said, and he wasn't talking about this year. He was talking about his entire career.
The Cardinals only enhanced their billing as the team to beat, and coach Rick Pitino only enhanced his billing as a guy Kentucky fans would like to forget ever won them a national title. He made a comment after the CSU game that was not taken particularly well by the Big Blue base.
"You know, I don't think this [team] is going to be who's who in the lottery draft, but that's not why we play the game," Pitino said. "We don't play the game for the lottery draft. We play the game for Louisville and then our guys move on and they're very successful people in and out of basketball."
This was said in the building where the home coach (John Calipari) has built the entire program around the lottery draft. Or draft lottery, if you will. And while that approach worked extremely well the first three seasons, it produced a one-and-done NIT season this time around.
So Kentucky fans are now solidly in the corner of Oregon, Louisville's Sweet 16 opponent. The Ducks represent the one great failing of the NCAA selection committee, having incomprehensibly been given a No. 12 seed. Oregon played its way out of that rather impressively, dispatching Oklahoma State and trendy team Saint Louis in authoritative fashion and looking more like a No. 4 seed along the way.
But that matchup is only half the reason why the Midwest Region is the place to be this week. The other game pits Michigan State against Duke, a matchup that is both blueblood and hard hat. Half of those six coaches with national titles will be in Indianapolis this week, a true heavyweight gathering.
Speaking of heavyweights: if you didn't love Jim Larranaga's Ali Shuffle in the Miami locker room after the Hurricanes advanced, you have no joy in your soul. The sight of the 63-year-old coach throwing jabs and showing off his footwork was the March Gladness moment of the day Sunday. If Larranaga gets the Hurricanes to the Final Four as a second act after doing it with No. 11 seed George Mason in 2006, you can finalize his Hall of Fame papers.
But it won't be easy. Even if the 'Canes beat Marquette, there would be a regional final battle with either Indiana or Syracuse. The Hoosiers were on upset alert most of the game against Temple on Sunday before pulling through, and the Orange had to work to subdue No. 12 seed California. Last time Indiana and Syracuse met in the NCAA tournament, Keith Smart made something of a name for himself.
The other 1-4 seeding matchup of the Sweet 16 pits Kansas against Michigan in Arlington. The Wolverines were awesome in rolling over VCU, whereas the Jayhawks have only played one strong half out of four so far. The Wolverines are one-fourth of Jim Delany's master plan, which remains in play: the Big Ten winning every region. If it can get Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan and Indiana all to the Final Four to win its first national title since 2000, it would be the greatest conference achievement in college basketball history. But don't overlook the game opposite Kansas-Michigan. That's the Sunshine State duel between rivals Florida and Florida Gulf Coast.
OK, they're not rivals at all. But maybe this is the start of something big in a state known far more for football. Florida has three of the 16 teams remaining for the first time ever, including the biggest underdog (by seeding) ever.
For an NCAA tournament first weekend that needed a signature moment and a signature Cinderella, Florida Gulf Coast and its audacious alley-oop will do nicely.
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