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Monday, March 25, 2013
Parting shots from opening weekend

By ESPN.com staff

The opening weekend of the NCAA tournament is in the books. Our writers share their lasting impressions from each site.

Auburn Hills, Mich.

1. Michigan and Michigan State are championship contenders. The Spartans and Wolverines won both their games by double digits and looked impressive in the process. Michigan looked like the team that started the season winning its first 16 games with major contributions from its entire rotation. Michigan State appeared to be a vintage Tom Izzo squad in March, crushing teams with rebounding and toughness. Don't be surprised if both Michigan schools end up in Atlanta in two weeks, although the Spartans have the tougher road with top overall seed Louisville in their region. Both teams, though, are playing their best basketball of the season in this tournament.

Adreian Payne
Adreian Payne is raising his game at just the right time for Michigan State.

2. Adreian Payne is becoming a star. The Michigan State junior forward continued his breakout play in the first weekend of the tournament, often as the best player on the floor. He averaged 10.5 points and seven rebounds over two games and blocked five shots against Memphis, and his offensive and defensive games will cause matchup problems for any opponent the rest of the way. Seeing him potentially matched up against Ryan Kelly in a Sweet 16 contest will be one of the more entertaining pairs of the tournament.

3. Memphis could be elite next season. Josh Pastner finally picked up his first NCAA tournament win, and although the Tigers were blown out by Michigan State in the round of 32, they have a chance to be real contenders next season. Memphis loses D.J. Stephens, but if sophomore Adonis Thomas and juniors Joe Jackson and Tarik Black return along with the rest of its team and four top ESPN 100 recruits coming in, the Tigers will be one of the most talented teams in the country.

--Mike Rothstein

Austin, Texas

1. Miami might have struggled scoring and rebounding against Illinois, but the Hurricanes appear to have all the necessary tools to make a deep run. Shane Larkin, who might have been a question mark because he is just a sophomore, stepped up and made a huge 3 to clinch the round-of-32 game. That shot should give him the confidence to pull the trigger in any other tight game Miami encounters. Now that Miami has this game on tape, it can show its interior players what they need to do to be successful not just in calling for the ball but also in following up shots. Nothing teaches like tape, and the Miami bigs need to be shown that they must be more active under the rim.

2. Any team that wants to beat Florida needs to jump on the Gators early. Florida plays an aggressive style and likes to dictate the pace from the get-go. If the Gators are to be beaten or even challenged, the opponent not only needs to weather their first punch but also must be ready to counterpunch. Otherwise, Florida will build a quick double-digit lead and use its athleticism to hold off the opponent. Two players for opponents to key on are Mike Rosario and Erik Murphy. If they are allowed to get going from the outside, it could be an early curtain call for anyone who lines up against Florida.

3. Andre Hollins' team didn't advance, but the Minnesota guard will be one to watch closely in the future. The sophomore scored 53 points in two games, more than any other player in the Austin Regional. Hollins was incredibly proficient in how he scored, shooting 55 percent from the field and hitting back-to-back clutch 3s to help the Gophers pull away from UCLA in their round-of-64 win.

--Carter Strickland

Dayton, Ohio

1. Indiana can play, and win, ugly. For as much as Temple guard Khalif Wyatt's big, swaggering swing at the Hoosiers caught my attention Sunday, the upshot for the Hoosiers shouldn't go unmentioned: They played, and won, a very ugly elimination game. That's important for the No. 1-seeded Hoosiers because even the most efficient offense in the country can't play pretty, flowing basketball all the time, particularly when the game slows down in the NCAA tournament -- eventually, you have to grind things out. It never fails. As ugly as Indiana's offense was against the A-10's eighth-best per-possession defense Sunday (and some of that credit must go to Temple, which slowed the game to its pace and made all the right rotations), and for as good as Wyatt was, the Hoosiers were able to adjust late in the second half and grind out a third-round victory. With athletically challenging Syracuse on deck, that skill might soon be more important than ever.

Hoiberg
Give Fred Hoiberg credit. He is making Iowa State relevant again.

2. Aaron Craft is never scared. If there was any time for Craft to feel even an ounce of self-doubt, it was in the second half of the Buckeyes' 78-75 win over Iowa State on Sunday. That's when the OSU point guard went through one of the nerviest, least composed stretches of his career -- two turnovers, two missed free throws and one missed layup -- at the same time Iowa State made its expected but still unstoppable late-second-half run. But even after the Cyclones' hot offense turned Ohio State's 66-53 lead into a 72-71 deficit, Craft was almost weirdly composed. On the next play, he drove into the lane, got fouled, finished and gave his team the universal "we're good" gesture; then he took the game-changing (albeit questionably called) charge on defense; and he ended up looking off Deshaun Thomas on the final possession just in time to drain a game-winning 3 over 6-foot-7 ISU forward Georges Niang. It's hard to talk about that kind of composure without resorting to clichés, but sometimes those clichés exist for a reason. Aaron Craft is that sometimes.

3. Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg is really good at his job. There already have been plenty of reasons to think highly of Hoiberg in the three years since he took over at ISU: his ability to coalesce a roster full of transfers (and to take advantage of college basketball's highly active transfer market in the first place) into a real team; his ability to get complicated Royce White to put up the best year of basketball in his life; his highly impressive per-possession statistics, including post-timeout points per possession, a statistic in which his team led the nation in 2011-12. But if you weren't already impressed, Sunday should have helped you along. The Cyclones not only were one of the best 10 offensive teams in the country this season but also were one of the most entertaining, playing a five-out style that was as thrilling as it was effective. On Sunday, they took one of the best (and hottest) teams in the country to the wire, and had Craft not made the first 3 he attempted all game at the buzzer, they would have had a chance to win the game in overtime. The Cyclones are more than relevant again, and Hoiberg is very methodically -- and calmly -- making it so.

--Eamonn Brennan

Kansas City, Mo.

1. Kansas' toughness is its greatest asset. And I'm not just talking about physical toughness, although that's certainly a strong suit for a team that leads the nation in defensive field goal percentage. I'm referring more to mental toughness. The Jayhawks found ways to win and advance on nights when they weren't playing at a high level. KU shot just 7.7 percent outside the paint against Western Kentucky on Friday but gutted out a 64-57 victory. Bill Self's team was dreadful in the first half of Sunday's round-of-32 win over North Carolina but regrouped in the locker room thanks to some fiery words from seniors Jeff Withey and Travis Releford. In the second half, Kansas dominated against a UNC squad that starts five McDonald's All Americans. KU is talented, too, but intangibles are what set the Jayhawks apart.

2. La Salle didn't get lucky. The Explorers advanced to the Sweet 16 by defeating No. 4 seed Kansas State (in Kansas City, no less) and No. 12 seed Ole Miss. But there wasn't a glaring talent difference between La Salle and its opponents. Ramon Galloway, who is averaging 21.3 points in the tournament, is one of the better guards in the country. Forward Jerrell Wright had his way with K-State's frontcourt, and guard Tyrone Garland blew by Ole Miss defenders in the waning seconds Sunday and scored the game winner over shot-blocker extraordinaire Reginald Buckner. Don't be fooled by La Salle's No. 13 seed. What it has done thus far isn't all that surprising considering the personnel. If the Explorers beat No. 9 seed Wichita State and advance to the Elite Eight, it won't be considered a massive upset. Or at least it shouldn't be.

3. Marshall Henderson -- not coach Andy Kennedy -- is running the show at Ole Miss. Seriously, do the Rebels have any rules for their shooting guard? Last week, Henderson called other SEC coaches "losers." He trash-talks opposing fans; he flipped off the crowd at the Sprint Center after Ole Miss' loss to La Salle on Sunday; and he has to have an "escort" sit with him during interviews to make sure he doesn't mouth off. A lot of good that's doing. Kennedy, though, hardly seems bothered. On Friday, just hours after Ole Miss defeated Wisconsin, Henderson was photographed at a sports bar across the street from the arena. The pictures spread like wildfire on Twitter. There were 31 other teams that won round-of-64 games. How many of their players were photographed in similar situations? When asked about Henderson's postgame activities, Kennedy noted that Henderson was 22 years old and said he didn't make the player "recite his ABCs backwards" when he returned to the hotel, also noting that Henderson was attentive in a 10 p.m. meeting. The comment made Kennedy look foolish. Other coaches and administrators in Kansas City were laughing at him behind his back. Henderson (who averaged 20.1 points per game) might have saved Kennedy's job, but he's damaging his reputation.

--Jason King

Lexington, Ky.

1. If you haven't witnessed what Louisville can do to a team, you can't fully understand how impressive the swarm can become in a matter of minutes. I saw it in the second half against Syracuse in the Big East tournament and in two games in Lexington. The Cardinals can change the entire tempo of a game in moments. The intensity with which the Cardinals envelop a team and force the turnovers and tempo makes them the favorite. They have the look of last season's Kentucky team. The Cards aren't as intimidating or unbeatable as Kentucky was, but they can be as dominating in stretches. I felt bad for Colorado State. The Rams had a gritty team but were in the wrong matchup. Put the experienced Rams in another bracket, and they could have been playing next weekend.

2. Marquette and Butler played so much on the edge this season that it was no surprise their game came down to one possession. If you watch these teams over and over again, you understand how they continue to find ways to win. They have sneaky good talent. I love the future for Butler's Kam Woods, whose length and athleticism could change Butler next season. Marquette's Vander Blue finds a way to get his shot, even if he isn't as consistent throughout the game. Blue is a winner.

3. Teams really need to work on end-of-game situations. The Davidson-Marquette and Butler-Marquette games came down to simple mistakes, a grueling way for a game -- and season -- to end. But they were minor miscues that had major implications. Davidson was the better team for 39 minutes but couldn't finish off Marquette when it easily could have been another double-digit seed advancing to the Sweet 16 like Florida Gulf Coast. All the Wildcats had to do was get the ball inbounds or come up with one stop.

--Andy Katz

Philadelphia

Brown
The good times roll on for Sherwood Brown and Florida Gulf Coast.

1. Maybe everyone needs to lighten up a little bit. The absolute joy and confidence that Florida Gulf Coast plays with is directly attributable to the relatively long leash Andy Enfield gives his players. The Eagles aren't constantly looking over their shoulders and worrying; instead, they're just playing. College basketball is a million-dollar business with inherent pressures, and to pretend otherwise is to be foolish. Still, it is also a game -- a sport -- meant to be enjoyed.

2. Seth Curry is Duke's MVP. After all the lauding of Mason Plumlee and the fretting over Ryan Kelly, this team is about Curry. He is the Blue Devils' best and most consistent player, the one who not only scores but also scores the critical points. And he started his career at Liberty.

3. Whatever Doug McDermott's future might hold, we are all lucky to have watched him play. He is old-school wonderful, a guy who can score from anywhere but does it without offending a soul. People like to get caught up in level of opponent and mid-major tags, but some things are crystal clear: like a truly great player. McDermott is that.

--Dana O'Neil

Salt Lake City

1. Think there are a lot of people saying "I told you so" about Gonzaga now? The controversially top-seeded Zags didn't just lose another tournament game when they fell to ninth-seeded Wichita State on Saturday or even just fail to make the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2009. With the easiest path of the 1-seeds and Nos. 3, 4, 5 and 8 in the wild West already having fallen, they lost a legitimate chance at the Final Four, something that doesn't come around that often for WCC schools, even those as accomplished as the Zags. The top-ranked team in the nation was the most polarizing team in this field; you either believed in the don't-call-me-Cinderella-anymore mid-major, or you didn't. In the end, the Zags proved the doubters right.

2. You've seen Mark Lyons here before, but not quite like this. Arizona's senior point guard -- who previously played in the Sweet 16 twice as a Xavier shooting guard -- has been on a roll in his first two games, averaging 25 points. He says it feels different this time around, being the team's ball handler and leader. But there's also a greater sense of urgency, because this is it: his final opportunity to make a regional final and beyond. You get the sense that this team, playing its best since it was still undefeated in January, will go as far as Lyons takes it.

3. It will be fun to keep watching Siyani Chambers the next few years. Harvard's freshman point guard left part of his tooth -- and heart -- on the court in this tournament, propelling the 14th-seeded Crimson to their first NCAA tournament win, over New Mexico, before they were rolled by Arizona on Saturday. The 6-foot playmaker was pushed into the starting role early, at the beginning of the season, and became the leader on a team many wrote off after two starters withdrew from school because of an academic scandal. Now that he has a taste (albeit a chipped one) for winning in March, expect him to propel his team back for more.

--Robbi Pickeral

San Jose, Calif.

1. Yeah, the selection committee blew it with Oregon. It was seeded 12th in the Midwest, you might have heard. That meant the Ducks were supposed to be one-and-done against Oklahoma State. UO not only won out and advanced to the Sweet 16 but also dominated. The Ducks are deep, balanced and fast. They rebound like men possessed and play tough defense. A 12-seed? No, the Ducks are a dangerous team for top-seeded Louisville to face.

2. This is a special season for Syracuse's 2-3 zone. When you talk about the Orange and Jim Boeheim, the 2-3 zone always comes up. That's because the 2-3 zone is Syracuse basketball. Throughout the years, there have been critics. Elite teams, after all, like to play man-to-man. Elite teams like to match athlete on athlete and see who prevails. But there's little to criticize with this iteration of the Cuse zone. The Orange have the length and athleticism to push shooters back and cut off passing lanes at the same time. That zone completely dominated Montana, and it shut down Pac-12 Player of the Year Allen Crabbe of Cal. That alone makes Syracuse a dangerous team. Now, about that free throw shooting …

3. San Jose was the no-drama region. The average margin of victory in the six games was 17.7 points. Sure, that is skewed a bit by Syracuse's 47-point win over Montana, but four of the six games were decided by double digits. Further, the two "close" games really weren't. Cal was up seven with less than a minute left against UNLV when it decided to make just four of its next 10 free throws, including missing the front end of two 1-and-1s, making things slightly interesting. The Bears also trailed Syracuse most of the second half by double digits and never closed within six points. In both Cal games, poor free throw shooting made the final scores seem tenser than they really were.

--Ted Miller