A first look at the Sweet 16 field
Rewind nine days. Think about where we were: agonizing over the bubble, anxious about seeds, worried the NCAA tournament selection committee would make some massive, season-altering structural mistake.
Or go back a week, just after the field was released, when we scanned our brackets and pined for those glorious first two days of blissful free-for-all tourney action. (These are national holidays, whether or not the government and/or your employer chooses to recognize them.)
Or take it back five days, to Wednesday, when the First Four was wrapping up and the 64-team field held unlimited promise. You had your upsets pegged, your favorites locked and you were sure -- absolutely, positively, 100 percent sure -- that John Beilein's Michigan Wolverines would make a run, that this was (finally!) Belmont's breakthrough year, that Florida State would emerge from a wide-open East Region and that Duke and Missouri had just the right dash of guard play to get to the Final Four.
It feels like forever ago, right?
So it goes in March, when four days is more than enough time to radically reconfigure our expectations. Now, after 96 manic hours, we are afforded the opportunity to slow down, breathe deep and reset. Sixty-eight has become 16, with nothing more than three days' rest and one more 96-hour block standing in the way of four.
What can we expect from the coming week's action? What fresh spectacle awaits? Let's take advantage of this much-needed hoops respite to size up, group and analyze the 16 teams left standing.
By this time next week, who knows what we'll be talking about? But for now, here's what we know about 2012's chosen, accomplished few:
The wounded giant
North Carolina Tar Heels: You know the story by now. Kendall Marshall's seemingly innocuous plunge in Sunday's win over Creighton turned out to be the exact opposite of innocuous. In fact, it was devastating: Marshall broke a scaphoid bone in his right wrist, leaving his status up in the air for the rest of the NCAA tournament. There's a chance Marshall could play, but it's just that: a chance. Even if Marshall does take the floor this week, he'll obviously be hampered by the injury.
That is, of course, a major blow to UNC's attack. There are more productive players, and superior talents, in the tournament field (and, for that matter, in UNC's own lineup), but perhaps no player is as singularly and psychically important to his team as Marshall is to the Tar Heels. Who flings those pinpoint fast-break passes? Who controls the tempo? Who facilitates Carolina's loaded front line -- which, it should be noted, remains loaded -- especially given earlier injuries to Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald?
How this plays out -- whether Marshall can play, and how effective he can be if he does -- was Sunday's biggest story. It will remain the great question looming over the rest of the tournament, until UNC either proves its mettle without him or the Tar Heels lose. Combined with Henson's own wrist injury, North Carolina now fairly resembles a video-game final boss: The injury damage keeps piling up, but the giant still staggers and lurches forward. How long can it go on?
Kentucky Wildcats: If you picked Kentucky as your bracket's national champion, you played it safe: The Wildcats entered the tournament as the favorite and everyone knew it, and honestly, this probably wasn't the best game-theory-oriented strategy. (You don't want to pick the obvious favorite, because it makes the rest of the bracket so much more important, and well, it's too late now. Never mind.) But boy does it look good on the court. The Big Blue machine steamrolled through its first two tournament games, the latter of which, an 87-71 win over Iowa State, came thanks to a 49-point second-half offensive outburst. That performance -- accompanied by one of the loudest (and given the Louisville location, least surprising) crowds in tournament history -- accomplished two things:
• It quelled any doubts about freshman point guard Marquis Teague being this team's lone vulnerability. Teague dropped a 24-point, seven-assist, four-rebound smoke show Saturday, and he did it against an above-average Big 12 defense that had played admirably well against the likes of Kansas, Baylor and Missouri this season. If Teague, the nation's No. 1 point guard recruit in 2011, is playing like that -- even if he's merely playing solid, turnover-averse, facilitative basketball -- the Cats go from heavy favorite to national title virtual lock. They will have no weaknesses. For everyone else in the bracket, that is an entirely horrifying thought.
• It may have finally, mercifully forced everyone to get on board with one simple fact: For as good as the UK defense has been this season, its offense is frequently better.
John Calipari's team is now off to what its rabid fans have long dubbed "Catlanta." All that stands in the way of a Final Four -- now that No. 2 seed Duke is out of the picture -- is revenge against Indiana and a matchup with either Baylor or Xavier. The tournament is full of shocks, and it's still UK against the field, but would you bet against the Wildcats after the weekend we saw?
If so, you must have been watching reruns of "Lizard Lick Towing." Common mistake.
Syracuse Orange: Speaking of quelling doubts, no No. 1 seed of recent vintage has done quite so much to make its fans a collective nervous wreck in just seven days' time. First, Syracuse center and Big East Defensive Player of the Year Fab Melo was ruled ineligible. Then, the Orange opened with a win that was nearly a disastrous loss to No. 16 seed UNC-Asheville. Barring a few big plays down the stretch -- and a questionable call or two from the officials -- Jim Boeheim's team would have made ignominious history.
Instead, Syracuse advanced, pulled away from an upset-minded but hampered Kansas State team (senior forward Jamar Samuels missed the game thanks to his own eligibility issue) and appeared to get back on track. For one half, at least, Syracuse proved it can still explode with the best of 'em.
But the Orange may have found their kryptonite in their Sweet 16 foe. SU thrives on turnovers, and the Wisconsin Badgers -- led by senior point guard Jordan Taylor -- hardly ever commit them. Should be a fascinating matchup in Boston.
Michigan State Spartans: How versatile is Draymond Green? In Friday's win over LIU Brooklyn, he recorded just the eighth triple-double in the history of the NCAA tournament. In Sunday's hard-fought win over a well-coached and very prepared Saint Louis squad, Green posted 16 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and two steals. He made all the key plays down the stretch, including one sequence when he hit an 18-foot pull-up jumper, then recovered on a ball screen to block a shot at the rim, then crossed over and dished to Derrick Nix, grabbed a defensive rebound over three Billikens, then made a downright brilliant assist on a seemingly dead drive -- Green had to elevate, twist his body and fling the ball on a rope across the court -- that landed perfectly in the hands of point guard Keith Appling, who promptly drained the key 3-pointer.
After all that, Green even grabbed one of those weird circular mops arena ball boys use to dry wet spots on the floor. In one fell swoop, the Artist Known as Day-Day took his team to the Sweet 16, pitched in on the game's cleanliness efforts and made every attending writer's job immensely easy. The "Draymond Green does everything!" lede practically wrote itself. Short of showing up to the postgame media room with pizza and Red Bull, Green did, well, everything -- and his Spartans are on the fast track to the Final Four as a result.
Kansas Jayhawks: On Sunday night, when Purdue guard Ryne Smith's last-second prayer banked off the front iron (with shades of Gordon Hayward), Kansas coach Bill Self went through three emotional stages in three seconds flat. The first, characterized by a smile and a "Wooo," was relief. The second was the realization of joy: Self pumped his fist and let loose with a "Yeah!" The third was lament: As he walked to midcourt to shake Purdue coach Matt Painter's hand, Self's first words were, "What a game."
He was right. It was a shame someone had to lose, because Painter had coached a brilliant game and Purdue senior Robbie Hummel -- in his final shot at tournament glory after recovering from two straight ACL tears -- couldn't possibly have played better. But KU survived, and the result was as clear a shot at the Final Four as any top-two team in the bracket.
The Jayhawks get streaking 11-seed NC State first, and the other side of the Midwest Region contains 13-seed Ohio and a North Carolina group that will either have no Kendall Marshall or a limited Kendall Marshall. Kansas is an overachieving team that has somehow remained slightly underrated -- despite winning its eighth straight Big 12 regular-season title and featuring player of the year candidate (and human highlight reel) Thomas Robinson. Nothing's easy at this point in the tournament, but things couldn't have worked out much better for Kansas on Sunday.
Don't get it twisted: The Buckeyes belong among the national title favorites. This team entered the tournament as one of the nation's more undervalued bracket picks, and the laptops of the world -- i.e., the advanced college hoops rankings systems that bring tempo-free order to this chaotic world -- maintain their infatuation: Oh-SU ranks No. 2 overall in both the KenPom and LRMC rankings, thanks primarily to a defense that continues to stifle and stonewall opponents with alarming consistency. If Aaron Craft and William Buford are making shots -- and they are, far more so than in Ohio State's late-season losses to Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin -- this team remains a very real contender.
But it was far too tempting to include the Buckeyes alongside their Buckeye State brethren. That group includes, if you can believe it, three other Ohioan outfits: Xavier, Cincinnati and Ohio. The Bobcats are the first 13-seed in the Sweet 16 since Bradley in 2006 thanks to their impressive ability to find good looks against a South Florida defense that dominated Temple in Friday's first round.
And what about Xavier and Cincy? The last time these two teams were mentioned in the same breath, they were knocking each other around in Dec. 10's ugly Crosstown Shootout brawl, a mess that threatened both schools' reputations and both teams' seasons. Xavier took the most time to recover, and it needed a late-February/early-March rally to ensure an NCAA tournament bid. Now here, led by preseason All-American candidate Tu Holloway, X made the most out of its unlikely resurrection (and ended a near-miraculous Sweet 16 bid from 15-seed Lehigh and C.J. McCollum in the process).
Anyway, stand tall and proud, denizens of Ohio. The college hoops season has whittled its national title contestants to just 16 teams, and your great state -- whatever the reason: local talent, water-filtration quality or good, old-fashioned coincidence -- can lay claim to a full 25 percent. How cool is that?
The expected second-tier contenders
Baylor Bears: By the time Baylor guard Brady Heslip had finished torching the Colorado Buffaloes on Saturday night, he had notched 27 points on nine 3s, tallying another stellar performance to a four-game spell (dating back to the Big 12 tournament semifinal win over Kansas) in which he's made 22 of 36 from beyond the arc. And so the point was again reinforced: Baylor is far from perfect -- the Bears struggle to rebound at times, and their defense can be suspect -- but this team has as many, if not more, offensive weapons (Perry Jones III, Quincy Miller, Pierre Jackson, Quincy Acy) as any team in the country this side of Kentucky. Almost quietly, Scott Drew has another team in the Sweet 16, and this time one gets the impression these talented Bears mean to make the most of the opportunity.
Florida Gators: Did you give up on Florida a month ago? Two months ago? You can be forgiven. Sure, the Gators were dangerous on offense, but their ongoing shot-selection woes and merely mediocre defense seemed destined to prevent them from reaching the outer limits of their enormous potential. But UF shook the life from the darling Norfolk State Spartans on Sunday, winning 84-50. In two NCAA tournament games to date, Florida has outscored its opponents by a combined 70 points and 0.47 points per possession. If that keeps up against Marquette, the Gators might just get to this Final Four after all. Even so, that matchup -- guard-oriented, up-and-down, characterized by quickness and speed and perimeter play from Darius Johnson-Odom and Kenny Boynton -- could be a classic in the making.
Louisville Cardinals: Rick Pitino versus Tom Izzo in the NCAA tournament? We've seen this movie before -- when Izzo's team knocked out Pitino's top-seeded Cardinals in the 2009 Elite Eight -- but that doesn't mean we didn't want a sequel. Peyton Siva and Russ Smith (last seen joyfully giving Pitino "bunny ears" on national television) present a challenging, herky-jerky guard combo, Kyle Kuric's 3-point shooting remains a threat and center Gorgui Dieng's rebounding and interior defense have helped compensate for the Cardinals' often uninspiring offense. It won't be easy getting past Michigan State, but Louisville has won six games in a row since the start of the Big East tournament. Clearly, something is going right.
Marquette Golden Eagles: Few, if any, tournament games were as fast-paced and hard-fought and entertaining as Marquette's third-round win over Murray State on Saturday; it was the kind of game after which both teams should join at half court and take a collective, well-deserved bow. But Marquette and its brilliant, detail-oriented coach, Buzz Williams -- now in his second straight season in the Sweet 16 -- have much larger goals in mind. Thanks to Norfolk State's win over Missouri, the Eagles will match up exceedingly well against their Sweet 16 opponent, Florida.
Wisconsin Badgers In two NCAA tournament wins, the Badgers have done what the Badgers do: wind the clock, take care of the ball, make key plays down the stretch and win in relatively ugly fashion. That was especially the case in their third-round win over Vanderbilt, and so now the question is this: Is Wisconsin's style enough to negate the immense athletic advantage posed by Syracuse? Can Jordan Taylor's heady play keep the turnover count low enough to erase much of the Orange's steal-based attack? Can UW guard Boeheim's multipronged team into a slow, deliberate, half-court game? If so, the Badgers may well be the perfect antidote to Syracuse's style, and nearer to a Final Four appearance -- or at least an Elite Eight matchup with Big Ten foe Ohio State -- than most would have predicted.
Indiana Hoosiers: On Saturday, Indiana nearly drowned in VCU's "Havoc" press, which forced the Hoosiers into a season-high 22 turnovers. For much of the game, IU stubbornly stuck to its high-ball-screen offense despite VCU's perfectly game-planned strategy -- which saw two defenders rush at undersized and overwhelmed point guard Jordan Hulls, forcing Hulls into hurried decisions and turnovers and even an apparently willful backcourt violation, when he just flat-out ran out of room. The Hoosiers' vaunted offense had been fully erased, and surely VCU and coach Shaka Smart were on the way to another big tournament run.
Instead, the Hoosiers got a huge lift from Christian Watford, key late buckets from Cody Zeller and stops on 14 of their last 16 defensive possessions -- many of which, including the final one, were the result of VCU's poor outside shooting -- and survived to tell the tale of the time "Havoc" nearly ended their season. Close call.
Indiana's next task? Taking down the behemoth that is the Kentucky Wildcats. No easy feat, that. But for IU fans desperate for some measure of basketball glory -- for the return to prominence that has defined this season -- finding themselves just two games from the Final Four, no matter how difficult those games may appear, is a victory unto itself.
Still, like Ohio State, we can cross-categorize Indiana (in this case, in the second-tier contenders field). The Hoosiers boast one of the nation's best offenses, and if things go perfectly against UK -- a team it has already beaten once this season, albeit at home in December -- IU might just shock the world. It would be crazy, but hey, this is March.
North Carolina State Wolfpack: The story is much the same for NC State, but with an added twist of surprise. Unlike the Hoosiers, which had no problem getting in the tournament, the Wolfpack were a big-time bubble team, one that practically threw a party when it discovered its name was indeed the last one called on the selection show.
After two upsets, the Wolfpack are really partying now. Mark Gottfried's team took down 6-seed San Diego State on Friday and held off 3-seed Georgetown on Sunday thanks in large part to the continued development of talented forward C.J. Leslie. Speaking of fan bases craving some measure of success: After five years in the tournament hole, NC State fans were just happy to be back in the field. Now they're contemplating the possibility of a win over second-seeded Kansas -- and a crack at their hated rival, No. 1 seed North Carolina, in a rematch of UNC's hotly disputed ACC semifinal win. As revival acts go, Gottfried is putting on one for the ages.