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Buckeyes Still the Favorite
By Ken Davis
So, how’s your bracket holding up? Don’t want to talk about it? I understand. I’d rather not talk about mine either, but I have no credibility without full disclosure.
I filled out half a dozen and they were all about the same, with minor tweaks here and there. Two emerged as my best efforts. On one, I have nine of the Sweet 16 (Kansas, Richmond, Wisconsin, BYU, Ohio State, Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke and San Diego State) correct with three of my Final Four teams (Ohio State, Kansas, Duke) still alive. The other has eight from this round.
Of course, there are those who made their picks based on mascots, celebrity fans, school colors and other important factors. Those people are ahead of me. That’s OK. I hope to finish strong and make a decent showing.
We’ve made that remarkable transition from 68 teams to 16, so now it is time to regroup and evaluate these teams. We offer the Sweet 16 power ratings, based on what we expected last week at this time and how the teams performed in the first week.
1. Ohio State – The Buckeyes were more than impressive. Ohio State took the court against Texas-San Antonio and George Mason and simply took care of business. That should make Buckeye fans confident and Ohio State opponents nervous. The Buckeyes outscored their two opponents 89-47 in first-half play alone. George Mason coach Jim Larranaga said his gameplan was to stop Jared Sullinger and Jon Diebler and then pray no one else got hot. So David Lighty was 7-of-7 on threes and had 21 points. William Buford scored 18. OSU has too many weapons. Kentucky is up next. Ohio State has a big advantage in experience, but this should be a great game. With Syracuse out of this bracket, I think Ohio State is headed to the Final Four.
2. Duke – Kyrie Irving is back. If you didn’t have the Blue Devils going to the Final Four, things have changed. Duke found a way to beat Michigan despite 25 percent shooting from 3-point range. Before heading to Anaheim, the Blue Devils can work on the specific roles of Irving and Nolan Smith, who had 24 against Michigan. Not a bad problem to have at this point in the season. Mike Krzyzewski won his 900th game and he may have started a personal tour of past national championship game opponents with Michigan (1992). Arizona (2001), and possibly Connecticut (1999), are waiting in Anaheim.
3. Kansas – Everyone can start breathing again in Lawrence. The Jayhawks got past the second round on the one-year anniversary of that loss last season to Northern Iowa. The weight of that memory was obvious in victories over Boston University and Illinois. Kansas started slowly in both victories, then executed offensively and dug in defensively for outstanding performances after halftime. Twins Marcus and Markieff Morris (the “Marcus twins” as Marv Albert refers to them) have been outstanding. They helped coach Bill Self put Illinois in the deep past. As long as the Jayhawks get the ball inside first, instead of settling for quick jump shots, they will be hard to beat. The road to Houston has opened up with No. 12 Richmond, No. 11 VCU and No. 10 Florida State joining Kansas in San Antonio.
4. BYU – The Cougars “Jimmered” Gonzaga and that was rather impressive. Jimmer Fredette scored 34 points and BYU made it back to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1981. The Cougars have handled the loss of Brandon Davies better than anyone could imagine. BYU defeated Florida in the first round last year. The Gators are much improved, but can anyone stop Jimmer?
5. San Diego State – The more I watch the Aztecs, the more I’m convinced they could reach the Final Four. Kawhi Leonard is a great athlete who can beat you at both ends of the floor. D.J. Gay is a true leader at the point. But Malcolm Thomas and Billy White have had eye-opening performances for Steve Fisher’s team. They deserve more respect than they will get in a regional with Duke, UConn and Arizona.
6. North Carolina – Freshman Harrison Barnes says the Tar Heels make up for a lack of experience by playing with heart. North Carolina needed a little luck and some free throws to get past a hungry Washington team. With Tyler Zeller and John Henson playing bigger roles, the Tar Heels should beat Marquette and reach the East Final against Ohio State.
7. Florida – Tiny Erving Walker has played big for the Gators. That shouldn’t be a surprise on a team coach by Billy Donovan. The Florida victory over UCLA was impressive. And Walker came through when Kenny Boynton went down with his ankle injury. Chandler Parsons and Vernon Macklin have the Gators back in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2007.
8. Butler – About a month ago it seemed the Bulldogs might not make the field after reaching the Final Four last season. Now Butler is two wins away from a return trip. The victory over Pittsburgh ranks as one of the strangest games in Tournament history. Matt Howard is one of those guys you can’t help but root for. And I’ve run out of words to describe coach Brad Stevens.
9. Connecticut – For the Huskies, this is just a Big East Tournament with days off. No kidding. UConn had to beat Big East member Cincinnati again for the right to play in the Sweet 16. That’s the earliest meeting between two teams from the same conference in NCAA Tournament history. UConn hasn’t shown any signs of being tired after that Big East run. Jim Calhoun loves going West to reach the Final Four, so the trip to Anaheim is no big deal. Oh yeah, Kemba Walker is still driving the bus.
10. Kentucky – John Calipari’s young Wildcats just keep getting better. Kentucky survived two different styles to defeat Princeton and West Virginia. Brandon Knight seems more than comfortable in postseason play. Kentucky is good enough to reach the Final Four, but Ohio State is just too big a roadblock.
11. Arizona – Can’t you just see Arizona coach Sean Miller stepping out of a dugout, walking to the mound and signaling for his closer. That’s what Derrick Williams has become for the surprising Wildcats. Williams blocks shots, grabs rebounds, makes baskets, completes three-point plays. He is Mr. Efficiency. And the Wildcats love having him on their side.
12. Florida State – The return of Chris Singleton couldn’t have come at a better time for the Seminoles. Singleton and Derwin Kitchen are the stars, but Leonard Hamilton’s team is winning with the toughest defense around. If you saw the look on the face of Notre Dame’s Ben Hansbrough, you understand the stifling feeling of going against Florida State right now.
13. Wisconsin – Raise your hand if you had Belmont over Wisconsin in the second round. I did. Coach Bo Ryan didn’t allow that. Then Jordan Taylor and Jon Leuer sent Kansas State packing for home. Butler will be the sentimental pick over Wisconsin, but this should be a game played at a high level.
14. Marquette – Where’s Al McGuire? Marquette is playing North Carolina. Did someone turn the calendar back to 1977? Buzz Williams has done a remarkable job at Marquette. The Golden Eagles may have been the last of the Big East 11 to get into the field but they one of the last two still around (joining UConn). Great story.
15. Richmond – Coach Chris Mooney gets another week of exposure, then interviews and then he will be off to NC State or Georgia Tech or Oklahoma. He’s the best young coach around and already is in high demand. If you haven’t watched Kevin Anderson play, do so before he’s in the NBA. The Spiders may not advance but Kansas is in for a fight.
16. VCU – If you were ranking the hottest teams in the tournament, VCU would be at the top. The Rams crushed — I mean crushed —Purdue. This is what happens when a team gets hot at the right time. Of course, so many felt VCU shouldn’t have been in the tourney. Now more history will be made with the first 10 (Florida State) vs. 11 (VCU) matchup ever. The Rams took down USC, Georgetown and Purdue last week in the NCAA version of what UConn did in the Big East tourney. Coach Shaka Smart has likely found his ticket out of the Colonial. And VCU’s speedy, attacking style is hard for anyone to match.
EARLY ROUND REVIEW
It’s a good thing the NCAA is off until Thursday. I’m bleary-eye. I probably watched a dozen games start to finish in four days, but all together I think I can remember seeing parts of about 44 games.
After this week, I think HBO might be working on a miniseries about John Adams, not the former U.S. president but the NCAA coordinator of men’s basketball officials. And, I definitely, have the N-N-N-N Napa Know How. (Enough already.)
I like the move to four networks. It puts me in control and I can make the switches I want. But I’m lucky to have all four on my cable system. I feel bad for those who don’t have truTV or TNT or TBS. I know people who couldn’t watch their favorite teams. Something has to be worked out.
And I’m disappointed in Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley. They brought nothing to the table. They knew they were going to be on. Study the teams a bit more. Learn something about the players, not just the coaches who are “your friends.” Give me Seth Davis back in a prominent role. I know I can still find Jay Bilas and Hubert Davis after the game, but I can’t any more of The Jet and Sir Charles, especially Barkley’s juvenile attack on the Big East.
How many Big East teams needed to be in the Sweet 16? Eight? Four? What would prove to Barkley that it was the best conference during the regular season? I’m on my way to my 27th consecutive Final Four. I’ve never had anyone stop me right after the championship game and say, “Well that proves [the champion] plays in the best conference.”
How about this perspective: UConn and Marquette tied for ninth in the Big East. They are in the Sweet 16 and they had to beat another Big East team to get there. Sounds like a pretty tough conference to me. The Big East was the toughest. If had 11 good teams, no great teams — and that’s what most of us were saying all season.
MEMORIES AND PREDICTIONS
Best Buzzer Beater: The 3-pointer by Demonte Harper of Morehead State against Louisville.
Biggest Upsets: Morehead State over Louisville; Butler over Pittsburgh; Florida State over Notre Dame.
Biggest Disappointments: Louisville (should have reached Sweet 16); Vanderbilt (when will the Commodores get past their first game?); and Pittsburgh (why can’t the Panthers beat lower seeded teams?).
All-Sympathy Team: Nasir Robinson, Pittsburgh (for that foul against Butler); Jacob Pullen, Kansas State (for playing his heart out and not getting any support); Scoop Jardine, Syracuse (for not stepping into the backcourt to receive that inbounds pass), Venoy Overton, Washington (for that premature 3-point attempt); and Cory Joseph, Texas (five-second call against Arizona).
Regional Championships: Ohio State over North Carolina (East); Duke over San Diego State (West); Kansas over VCU (Southwest); BYU over Butler (Southeast).