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Wednesday, March 27, 2013
The Sweet 16's pressure meter

By Jason King
ESPN.com

Win or lose, you can bet the Oregon Ducks will walk out of Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Friday with their heads held high.

Dana Altman's squad was picked to finish seventh in the Pac-12, so no one -- maybe not even the Ducks themselves -- expected it to be playing in the Sweet 16.

Bottom line: There is no pressure.

Louisville is in a different scenario. The Cardinals basically return last season's entire Final Four squad. They ended the regular season ranked No. 2 in The Associated Press Top 25 poll, and they're the popular pick to win the national championship. Losing in the Sweet 16 to a No. 12 seed won't be accepted in Louisville, and Rick Pitino's team knows it. The stress levels could be immense.

Here's a look at the "pressure meter" hovering over each Sweet 16 team heading into Thursday's and Friday's games.

Midwest Region

Louisville: The Cardinals are generally regarded as the best team in the tournament. Starting point guard Peyton Siva is a veteran senior, while Russ Smith, his backcourt mate, averages 18.4 points per game. They'll have a huge advantage over Oregon's freshman backcourt of Damyean Dotson and Dominic Artis. The Ducks led the Pac-12 in turnovers. Oregon also doesn't have anyone who can match up with forward Chane Behanan. And no remaining team boasts the quality of depth that exists on Louisville's bench. This is the best shot Pitino has had at a national title since he's been with the Cardinals. If Louisville is going to lose, it can't be to an overachieving No. 12 seed. Pressure meter: 10.

Oregon: The Ducks have proved that the No. 12 seed given to them by the NCAA tournament selection committee was a complete joke. They won their opening two games against No. 5 Oklahoma State and No. 4 Saint Louis with ease. This has been a dream season in Eugene, where Oregon finished tied for second in the Pac-12 race before winning the conference tournament title. Altman was named Pac-12 Coach of the Year. Oregon has some nice pieces, including seniors Arsalan Kazemi, E.J. Singler and Tony Woods. But the turnover-prone Ducks won't be able to match up with one of the top defensive teams in America. That's OK. Oregon already has done more than enough to appease its fan base and feel good about its season. Pressure meter: 2

Duke: It's easy to forget that Duke opened the season with 15 straight wins and spent about a month ranked No. 1 in the AP poll. The Blue Devils' nonconference résumé included victories over Louisville, Ohio State, VCU, Temple, Kentucky and Minnesota. Duke dropped four games while forward Ryan Kelly was hurt, but Mike Krzyzewski's team is 5-1 since Kelly's return and has only lost one game all season with a healthy lineup. With national player of the year candidate Mason Plumlee manning the paint, Duke plays much better defense than people realize. Michigan State is an excellent defensive team, too, but the Blue Devils simply have better players. This is a national championship-caliber unit. There should never be any shame in losing to Tom Izzo and Michigan State, but Duke is the better team. Pressure meter: 8.

Michigan State: Izzo has produced another Sweet 16 team that has a chance to reach the Final Four. Should we be surprised? Of course not. Izzo has clearly cemented his status as one of the best in the game. This is an excellent team that has finally jelled after a season filled with nagging injuries and a brutal end-of-season conference slate that saw the Spartans play five of their final seven games against ranked opponents. Still, they managed to finish in a tie for second (one game behind Indiana) in the league standings. In one of the more impressive performances of the NCAA tournament thus far, Michigan State thumped an equally talented Memphis squad 70-48 in a round-of-32 game last weekend. This is a very good team, but not a "special" one like Izzo has had in the past. And the Spartans are playing the top No. 2 seed in the tournament. Pressure meter: 6

West Region

Wichita State: With Gonzaga, New Mexico, Kansas State and Wisconsin all losing, the bracket in the West Region is wide open. That means the No. 9 seed Shockers have the best chance of any underdog remaining in the tournament.to play Cinderella It helps that they're playing another unlikely Sweet 16 team in No. 13 seed La Salle. The Explorers have a handful of very good players, but Wichita State boasts superior depth and is better coached. Gregg Marshall's team also plays better defense, which is crucial at this point in the tournament. Wichita State lost four starters and its top five scorers from last season, so no matter what happens Thursday, the Shockers already have overachieved significantly. But the way the bracket has played out, the expectation is for them to win against this team. Accomplish that feat, and anything else that may happen would be gravy. Pressure meter: 6

La Salle: The Explorers believe wholeheartedly that they can win this game -- and why wouldn't they? La Salle has defeated Big 12 co-champion Kansas State and an Ole Miss team that was high on momentum after winning the SEC tournament before beating No. 5 seed Wisconsin in the round of 64. Talent-wise, Wichita State won't be anything La Salle hasn't seen or conquered. Guard Ramon Galloway is averaging 21.3 points in the NCAA tournament and is as good as any of Wichita State's guards. The Explorers also boast standouts in guards Tyreek Duren and Tyrone Garland and forward Jerrell Wright, along with a defensive specialist in Sam Mills. Still, you've got to think La Salle's good fortune will come to an end at some point. John Giannini's squad may think it can win -- and it can -- but it probably isn't feeling any pressure to do so. Pressure meter: 4

Arizona: All of a sudden, the team that so many people tagged as overrated during the season doesn't seem that way after all. The Wildcats, who opened the season with 14 straight wins, have reached the Sweet 16 and have a strong chance to go to the Elite Eight. Pleased as it is with its accomplishments thus far, Sean Miller's team knows it needs to win this game. Arizona lost in the first round of the NIT last season (to Bucknell, no less), and this season it finished in a three-way tie for second place in the Pac-12 after being picked to finish first. The Wildcats won their first two NCAA tournament contests in dominating fashion, but the opponents (Belmont and Harvard) made the victories have less meaning and impact. Beating Ohio State and advancing to the Elite Eight would provide a huge boost for this program. At that point, Miller's team would be favored to go a step further and make the Final Four. Pressure meter: 7

Ohio State: Surely, the Buckeyes are drooling. Gonzaga has been eliminated. So has New Mexico, Kansas State and Wisconsin. The path to the Final Four doesn't seem all that hazardous for Thad Matta's squad. But Ohio State knows ignoring Arizona -- which owns wins over Florida and Miami -- would be foolish. Arizona's lack of a true point guard gives the Buckeyes a huge advantage in the backcourt with defensive standout Aaron Craft, who could really speed up Mark Lyons and Nick Johnson with his pressure. Small forward DeShaun Thomas will have a tough matchup against Wildcats standout Solomon Hill, but Thomas has proved he can score against anyone. Ohio State has an excellent chance to make the Final Four for the second straight season, something most people wouldn't have expected following the departure of Jared Sullinger. Pressure meter: 9

South Region

Kansas: The Jayhawks' chances at a second straight Final Four berth didn't look all that strong after the graduation of point guard Tyshawn Taylor and the departure of Thomas Robinson to the NBA draft. But with Bill Self -- who has averaged 30 wins in the past 10 years -- on the sideline and four seniors in the starting lineup, it'd be foolish not to give KU a chance. Physically, Kansas is a much tougher team than Michigan and is far superior when it comes to experience. All four of KU's seniors played significant roles in last season's march to the NCAA title game. Kansas' struggles in the backcourt will be a concern against Michigan point guard and national player of the year candidate Trey Burke. But Kansas should have somewhat of a home-court advantage, considering a ton of KU alums live in Dallas, which also is only an eight-hour drive from Lawrence. Pressure meter: 7

Michigan: The Wolverines were ranked No. 1 earlier this season. But John Beilein's squad floundered down the stretch and lost six of its final 10 regular-season games. Michigan isn't nearly as experienced as Kansas, which has won eight NCAA tournament games the past two seasons. And it probably doesn't have an answer for 7-foot shot-swatter Jeff Withey, although forward Mitch McGary -- who has averaged 17 points and 11.5 rebounds in the NCAA tournament -- has been excellent of late. Michigan is hoping that wing Tim Hardaway Jr. can have success against standout KU freshman Ben McLemore, who has struggled recently. McLemore didn't make a field goal in Sunday's win over North Carolina. If that happens again, Michigan will have a strong chance of winning this game. Pressure meter: 6

Florida: This is the season for Florida to make the Final Four. This same group of Gators has been to the Elite Eight in each of the past two seasons, and there's a chance Florida could take a slight step back after this season with the departures of Kenny Boynton, Erik Murphy and Mike Rosario (and possibly Patric Young). One question surrounding the Gators is their mental toughness, as Billy Donovan's squad has developed a knack for losing close games. Florida will have to be headstrong Friday against Florida Gulf Coast, the darling of the NCAA tournament. Losing to the first No. 15 seed to advance to the Sweet 16 would be bad enough, but getting knocked out of the tournament by a No. 15 seed from your home state would be even worse. Pressure meter: 10

Florida Gulf Coast: The Eagles are 13-point underdogs against Florida. Hardly anyone is giving them a chance to win this game. Then again, no one expected Andy Enfield's team to beat Georgetown and San Diego State, either. Yet, here the Eagles are. No matter what happens Friday, Florida Gulf Coast's players will always be hailed as heroes. They've already made their mark in history. There's no reason for them not to go out and play loose against the Gators. Pressure meter: 1

East Region

Syracuse: The Orange won 18 of their first 19 games, thanks in part to their traditionally weak nonconference schedule. But they struggled to develop consistency in the Big East. Syracuse's zone may give Indiana trouble, but if the Hoosiers have success against it, the Orange won't have enough offensive firepower to beat Tom Crean's squad. There certainly wouldn't be any shame in losing to Indiana, which was regarded as the nation's top team for most of the season. Syracuse's 2012-13 campaign, meanwhile, was marred by injuries and distractions. Expectations are always high for the Orange, but they may not be as elevated for this particular team. Pressure meter: 5

Indiana: Hoosiers fans expect a Final Four berth, and understandably so. Indiana boasts a national player of the year candidate in Victor Oladipo, one of the country's top big men in Cody Zeller and battle-tested veterans such as Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls. All of the pieces are there for them to advance to Atlanta. The Big Ten hasn't won an NCAA title since 2000, so Indiana may feel pressure to carry the conference flag. Also, this fan base has been incredibly patient during some brutal rebuilding seasons under Crean, who did a phenomenal job in a nearly impossible situation. Crean has built Indiana back into a national power, and now those fans want postseason results. Losing to a ho-hum Syracuse squad in the Sweet 16 would not be good -- not after the banner season that Indiana has enjoyed and the promise it has shown. Pressure meter: 9

Miami: The Hurricanes entered the season simply hoping to make the NCAA tournament. Now it'll be an upset if they don't advance to the Elite Eight. Part of it is because of the hope Jim Larranaga's squad created by winning the ACC regular-season and tournament titles. And part of it is because Miami is matched against a Sweet 16 opponent in Marquette that has overachieved but labors to score. Miami, meanwhile, is strong on both ends of the court, and its veteran leadership and depth should be a huge factor in this game. Miami announced Tuesday that senior center Reggie Johnson won't play this weekend because of a knee injury, but that shouldn't keep the Hurricanes from defeating Marquette. A loss definitely would be considered an upset. Pressure meter: 8

Marquette: Buzz Williams has led the Golden Eagles to the Sweet 16 for the third consecutive season, but no one saw this one coming. Marquette lost leading scorer Darius Johnson-Odom and Big East Player of the Year Jae Crowder from last season's team and somehow managed to get better. Not many teams in America play as hard on the defensive end as the Golden Eagles, but they are a terrible jump-shooting team that often labors to score. Williams' team has won six games during the past month, and all of the victories have come by single digits. Its first two NCAA tournament wins (against Davidson and Butler) came by a combined three points. Miami is much better than either of those teams. Marquette's good fortune will run out against the Hurricanes, but that shouldn't do anything to tarnish an incredible season that included a share of the Big East championship. Williams did as good a job as any coach in America in 2012-13. Pressure meter: 3