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Monday, March 19, 2012
At the Watercooler: Sweet 16 and beyond

By Eamonn Brennan and John Gasaway

Editor's Note: And the wild ride continues into the Sweet 16. ESPN.com writer Eamonn Brennan and Insider’s John Gasaway had a chat about what’s transpired in the past four days. They also look ahead to what’s in store for this weekend.

Eamonn Brennan: Wait a second … that's not Myron Medcalf. That's … that's John Gasaway's music! No! Noooo! John, thanks for filling in for Myron [Medcalf] on the ol' WaterCooler chat. Clearly, Myron was so embarrassed for picking Wisconsin to lose to Montana in the first round he couldn't bring himself to show his face at the cooler today. (That, or he's busy taping ESPNU's “The Experts.” Either/or.) So, sir, let's talk about the past four days, shall we? You cool with that?

Norfolk State celebration
Norfolk State's win over No. 2 seed Missouri was just the first of two stunning upsets of the tournament.
John Gasaway: Myron picked Wisconsin? Really? I can't imagine anything so embarrassing. … That is unless it's picking Temple to beat Cal when the actual occurrence was South Florida beating Cal -- and Temple. But let's not wallow. Yes, what a four days. I guess you don't need buzzer-beaters to have fun after all, huh? Seriously, was there even one? Did I miss it somehow?

EB: There was not one buzzer-beater. Not one. There were plenty of tries from plenty of likely suspects -- Ryne Smith, John Jenkins, Jason Clark, Rob Brandenberg, Phil Pressey, Rob Jones, and on down the line -- and none of them fell. It's remarkable that a first weekend with zero such heart-stopping shots could have been so fantastic, but that's what happens when you get two No. 15-seeds knocking off two No. 2s and a host of double-digit seeds wreaking havoc, all in the same day.

If you had to pick, which was the weekend's most exciting game?

JG: Norfolk State over Missouri. What a ride that was. The Tigers scored just like they always do -- amazingly often -- but Kyle O'Quinn, Chris McEachin, and Pendarvis Williams had an answer for every run from the big scary No. 2 seed. When something hasn't happened in 11 years and you draw closer to it by the minute, the tension just builds. It was amazing. Of course at the time we couldn't know it would happen again in just a few minutes with that whole Lehigh over Duke thing. That was a special Friday. What about you? What jumps out?

EB: Kentucky. Kentucky jumps out.

On a weekend when two No. 2 seeds lost, Syracuse was taken to the wire by UNC Asheville and UNC lost Kendall Marshall, Kentucky just looked downright scary-good. You've been pleading for a month for people to recognize how good this offense is. I'd say that second half against Iowa State just about did the trick.

But speaking of UNC -- where do you stand on the whole where-do-they-go-from-here thing, assuming [Kendall] Marshall can't play or is limited the rest of the tournament? Is everyone overreacting?

JG: I do think everyone overreacted initially to the Marshall news, simply because it was such big news. He really is a key part of the offense for a No. 1 seed, and he really did get hurt during the NCAA tournament. But as I said in my piece on Carolina Insider for Insider, UNC has a couple of things going for them even in this dark hour. First, they play great defense and Marshall's absence, frankly, isn't going to change that. Second, their next game is against the opponent that probably ranks No. 16 in this field of 16 remaining teams, and I say that with all due respect to the Ohio Bobcats. What do you think? Maybe I'm under-reacting …

EB: No, I think their next opponent being Ohio is a huge plus, obviously. And I agree with you about the defense. I'm not sure if UNC's defense will get better (the way it surely would have if Dexter Strickland were still available, because Marshall is a comparatively weak on-ball defender).

Creighton vs UNC
How will the Tar Heels play if Kendall Marshall cannot come back from his wrist injury?
But I do think it's a really major blow to the team's offense. Marshall is far and away his team's leader in minutes percentage (he's on the floor 82.9 percent of the time this season, and even more since Strickland was injured) and the way he controls everything for North Carolina from the beginning of the possession to its end is absolutely impossible to replace. Forget the brilliant long-range passing -- the controlling of tempo, the initiation of the offense, the entry passes to Tyler Zeller and John Henson, the ability to get Harrison Barnes shots where he likes them -- all of that stuff will be missing now. Which is not to say that UNC's offense is suddenly going to resemble South Florida's. It's just that it changes them, almost certainly for the worse.

Not to mention the whole intangible adjustment involved with losing your teammate and best ballhandler in the midst of the tournament. That's not easy, either.

JG: Exactly. The key will be not only how well a replacement like Stilman White plays but also, and much more unpredictably, the extent to which the other four guys do or do not freak out because Marshall is suddenly not on the floor. If Marshall's replacement can simply hit the 50th percentile in terms of Division I point guard performance, I maintain that a team with this defense and this front line can still be dangerous. You heard it here first.

Marshall was their Eli Manning. All they need now is a Trent Dilfer. Someone who won't hurt them.

EB: No, I think that's about right. Anything else that surprised you this weekend? Besides Ohio having four teams in the Sweet 16, that is? What are they putting in the Buckeye State's water filtration systems?

JG: The state's flagship institution, Ohio State, does not surprise me by being here. Pretty much everyone thought coming into the weekend the Buckeyes could beat Loyola (Md.) and Gonzaga. Everyone was proven right. But those other three -- comeback kids every one of them! Cincinnati started out 5-4 in the Big East. Xavier went 13-12 between their brawl with the Bearcats and the NCAA tournament. And this time last month Ohio was sitting at 7-4 in the MAC East. My theory is that they put good old American stick-to-itiveness in the drinking water in that cradle of hoops called Ohio. Do you have a better theory?

EB:: I got nothing. My cap is officially tipped.

We should probably wrap this up, lest we spend all day digesting the 68 teams that were, so let's briefly look ahead. We picked the same Final Four, all four of which remain alive: Michigan State, Ohio State, Kentucky, and Kansas. But before we get there -- and we will get there! -- we'll have to carve out an Elite Eight. Any bold predictions for the first round of this coming weekend's games?

JG: [Warning, what I'm about to say may hurt a Hoosier fan …]

Eamonn, I like a focused and vengeful Kentucky to score a lot of points against an IU defense that during Big Ten play was not always the last word in stingy. I also look forward to a really fun and ferocious game between Marquette and Florida, one where Buzz Williams will wear a shirt last seen sported by Huggy Bear on "Strasky and Hutch," and also one where Big East POY Jae Crowder makes the difference at the end. And I think the combination of all that Baylor length plus a character named Brady Heslip (who hasn't missed an attempted 3-pointer since January 2010) is just going to be too much for the Musketeers. While I'm at it I'll take Cuse over Wisconsin and, as we've said, UNC over Ohio. What's your crystal ball showing you?
Doh. Starsky and Hutch.

EB:: I prefer Strasky and Hutch. It sounds just a little more like a sports-talk-radio show in Chicago.

JG:: Indeed.

EB:: My crystal ball is going roughly the same way. In addition, I think Kansas will struggle with NC State but find a way to get it done in the end -- with Tyshawn Taylor and Jeff Withey in the starring roles. Ohio State should win the battle of Ohio with Cincinnati, but Yancy Gates will provide a worthy foil to Jared Sullinger. Baylor's offensive weapons will overwhelm Xavier … and Michigan State will hold on, just barely, against Louisville. With the exception of IU-UK I'm not willing to say any of these games will be anything other than close, nail-biting affairs. And I'm hugely intrigued by what Wisconsin's turnover-averse attack can do to minimize the impact of Syracuse's turnover-forcing ways. Fascinating matchup, fascinating weekend, fascinating tournament. Same as it always was, eh?

JG:: Same as always, exactly. This 2012 tournament has been a wild ride, and we're only down to 16 teams. Still 15 more to push into the offseason. Here's to more buzzer-beaters and fewer lane violations.

EB: Hear hear.