WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The nation’s capital is John Marinatto’s happy place. The Big East commissioner can cozy into a seat here, confident that at least one of his Chosen 11 will advance to the Sweet 16. Three of the four spots here have been secured by the bid-hogging conference.
Those are some good Sweet 16 odds.
What to watch: The boards. Butler was able to defeat Old Dominion in part because the Bulldogs were able to beat the Monarchs at their own game: out-rebounding the nation’s fourth best rebounding team. Their reward is a matchup against Pittsburgh, a team that averages 50 rebounds a game -- second in the nation.
Who to watch: Andrew Smith for Butler will be a key against Pitt just as he was against ODU. The one-time passive sophomore, who had to be urged to take over by his teammates, had 11 points and six rebounds and the critical tip to set up Matt Howard for the winner. He’ll have to be every bit as active against a very physical Pittsburgh team.
For the same reason, Pitt’s Gary McGhee will be every bit as critical for the Panthers. The big man deserves far more credit than he ever receives but he could get his due here. McGhee’s ability to control the inside against Howard and Smith, plus work the boards, will be a huge key for the Panthers. He averages 7.7 rebounds and 6.9 points.
Why to watch: En route to their Final Four run a year ago, Butler knocked off a No. 1 seed from the Big East. It was a different round (Sweet 16) and a different team (Syracuse), but the parallels are nice.
More than the unrelated history, of course, is the fact these are two similar teams. Both like to defend. Both like to rebound and both refuse to cede an inch on the toughness meter.
This has been billed as a terrific game and should play that way.
What they’re saying: "They’re definitely similar to us. They’re a spitting image, almost. Both teams are very tough, play very good defense and rebound.’’ Ashton Gibbs on Butler.
“It’s great to still be going, but my mindset this morning when I woke up, I was thinking about breakfast. That was about it. I moved on.’’ Howard on whether he took time to enjoy his game-winning shot against Old Dominion.
Of note: Butler has had a first-round draft pick more recently than Pittsburgh. Gordon Hayward went ninth last year to the Utah Jazz. The last Panther? Vonteego Cummings in 1999. McGhee and Howard played in the same conference on rival teams growing up in Indiana. Howard played for Connersville and McGhee at Highland Senior. Gibbs and Shelvin Mack played together and for Jamie Dixon on the Under-19 USA Team at the FIBA Championships this summer.
What to watch: Contrasting styles at work in this game. Connecticut relies on its backcourt -- wisely, I might add -- while Cincinnati’s strength lies on the inside. UConn is much happier getting out on the break and Cincy prefers to bang bodies and play more physically.
The Huskies have decent, if not dominant, players on the inside and the Bearcats have good, if not Kembaesque, guards.
Who to watch: Alex Oriakhi will have to stand his ground against the immovable force that can be Yancy Gates. The sophomore needs to control Gates when the Bearcats have the ball and somehow clear some space for Kemba Walker & Co. to work on the offensive end. When the two teams met during the regular season, Oriakhi was an ineffective 1-for-5 while Gates had 14 points. The Huskies won, however.
Cashmere Wright and Dion Dixon will have the unenviable task of containing Walker, but also will have to look out for Jeremy Lamb, who has been sensational in the past six games. The freshman is averaging 14.5 points per game. Wright and Dixon are quick enough to keep up with Walker and Lamb but need to be disciplined.
Why to watch: Familiarity is a rare commodity in the NCAA tournament. Most coaches spend the day between games frantically cramming about their upcoming, and usually unknown, opponent.
These two teams know each other quite well.
Typically the selection committee tries to avoid league matchups until the regional finals, but with 11 Big East teams in the bracket, the committee clearly threw its hands up in exasperation early. Hence, the Bearcats and the Huskies meet in the first weekend.
What they’re saying: "We know we’re in for a tough grind. They’re the type of team that’s bothered us this season because of their physicality." -- UConn coach Jim Calhoun on Cincinnati’s contrasting style.
"When I was with Coach Huggins, we had great teams but the question was always, Cincinnati is good but how good are they because they play in Conference USA. You don’t have to worry about that any more. They say a bullet tells the truth. The Big East Conference tells the truth." -- UC coach Mick Cronin
Of note: In the only meeting between the two teams this season, Connecticut won 67-59 on the road. Calhoun apologized for insinuating that Mick Cronin was the Big East coach who did not vote Walker conference Player of the Year. “It’s all cleared up. We had a good conversation. I said maybe they didn’t vote for him or something and I shouldn’t have said that and I did. So I called Mick to just let him know that."