Commentary

Is Sweet 16 still a sweet thrill?

Originally Published: March 20, 2012
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

After his team had dispatched of Kansas State, Jim Boeheim met with a small group of reporters in a hallway at the Consol Energy Center.

Eventually, a manager came by to tell the Syracuse coach he had to go. The bus was waiting. Boeheim turned to leave, then stopped to add one more thought.

"By the way, it still matters,'' he said. "Getting to the Sweet 16.''

[+] EnlargeJim Boeheim
Jaime Green/Wichita Eagle/MCTJim Boeheim and Syracuse have moved on to the Sweet 16, but the Orange still carry a heavy burden.

These are the glory days for college basketball, when the fat is trimmed from 68 to 16, and those still standing have left the generic aisle to enter the high-end label department: Sweet 16, Elite Eight, Final Four.

But in a world where only the winners are remembered, is 16 still sweet or just an artificial substitute?

Yes it still matters, as Boeheim said, but does it matter as much? It depends on your point of view.

"I've always thought it's a good thing to get there, to get to the Sweet 16,'' Boeheim said. "The really good thing about it is you still have a chance to go further.''

And therein lies the rub.

For those who have been deprived, a berth in the second weekend remains a cherished nibble on the candy of success; for those who have achieved, there is still something sweeter to achieve.

"I can remember when I was at UCLA, those first 30 games were all exhibition games,'' NC State coach Mark Gottfried said. "Your season begins in March, and sometimes that really is unfair. No matter who you are, it's hard to advance, but in some places it's expected. John Wooden used to always say, 'Don't give 'em too much too early because then they want it all the time.' That's the truth.''

This weekend has always been the line of demarcation in college basketball, but as the pot has thickened with the plot, just what is being separated has changed along with it.

Back before the rise of the mid-major and the official cinching of the gap between the haves and have-nots, the regional semifinal served as a barometer for the underdogs, the low seeds that were good but never expected to knock off the big dogs.

If they made it, they celebrated. Northern Iowa's Ali Farokhmanesh landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated two years ago after leading the Panthers to the Sweet 16. He was there because of the daring of his game winner, there because of the unexpected success of the team, but mostly there because Northern Iowa wasn't supposed to beat Kansas.

Ever.

Now we've grown so accustomed to Cinderella that she's merely another pretty girl walking down the street.

Ohio University is in the Sweet 16, but no one, not even the Bobcats, is hooting and hollering as if the team has just won the lottery.

Why? Because Ohio beat Georgetown in the first round in 2010.

"When we walked off the floor on Friday night [after beating Michigan], D.J. Cooper grabbed a couple of guys and said, 'Hey, act like you've been here before; we're here to get two,'' Ohio University coach John Groce said.

No, the saccharine level of the Sweet 16 no longer depends on who you are; it's about where you're coming from or where you're supposed to be going.

In Raleigh, N.C., Gottfried is a hero today. A year ago, the Wolfpack won a wobbly 15 games, few enough to cost Sidney Lowe his job. Hired after the school's public longing for VCU's Shaka Smart, Gottfried won instant converts by luring a top recruiting class to campus for next season.

This season was his mulligan. The Wolfpack were picked to finish eighth in the ACC.

[+] EnlargeCJ Leslie
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteA berth in the Sweet 16 is a sweet result for C.J. Leslie's Wolfpack.

Instead, Gottfried not only led State to the NCAA tournament for the first time in six seasons but got the Wolfpack into the Sweet 16.

Forget that this is a program with two national championships on its résumé. Six years is an eternity in purgatory, and absence from the tourney made many a heart grow quite fond of Gottfried.

"We had 1,500 people here when we got home [Sunday night],'' he said. "For our program, for our fans, this is a chance to savor the fact that we are taking steps in the right direction, that it is happening.''

A mere 25 miles down the road, there is no joy in Chapel Hill, only hand wringing -- or more accurately, wrist wringing over the injury to point guard Kendall Marshall.

"When you go to the Sweet 16, it's supposed to be a lot more fun than this,'' coach Roy Williams said.

Fun, though, is hard when winning is expected and success has become commonplace.

In November, 338 teams tipped off in Division I basketball, so to be one of the final 16 ought to count for something.

Try selling that line this week in Lexington, where Kentucky fans are itching to end a 14-year dry spell between NCAA titles and the team has a roster loaded with NBA talent and a seemingly gilded path to New Orleans thanks to upsets and injuries everywhere else in the bracket.

Or pitch it in Columbus, where Ohio State has a 92-18 record in the past three seasons, three Sweet 16 banners and nothing else.

"We've got to get past it, it's as simple as that,'' Jared Sullinger said, making the Sweet 16 sound like a root canal performed by a Michigan grad.

Once the barometer for success, the regional semifinals are now as much a measure of failure.

For four months, people lauded Frank Haith for the extraordinary job he did at Missouri. What they'll remember most, though, is that the Tigers lost in the first round to Norfolk State.

Two weeks ago, Syracuse capped the most successful regular-season run in school history, winning its 30th game and putting the bow on a 17-1 record in the Big East. No one had won that many games in the conference before.

And not a single Orange player was naive enough to believe he had accomplished a blessed thing, not after Syracuse survived UNC Asheville and not even after the Orange beat Kansas State.

"We won all of those games, but at the end of the day, we've really won nothing,'' Dion Waiters said. "We had to get out of the first weekend. Otherwise you could have just erased it all.''

Yes, the Sweet 16 does still matter.

It's just not as sweet for everyone as it used to be.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.

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