BY NEAL MALONE
- Obviously the big story in this region is Kansas failing to make the Sweet 16. They looked shaky against Lehigh in the first round and it certainly continued against Northern Iowa. Although Kansas should be at fault, perhaps not enough credit has been given to Northern Iowa. They have to be one of the most fundamentally sound teams in this tournament. They run their offense efficiently, they play tough defense, and they hit big-time shots. If you didn’t know who UNI guard Ali Farokhmanesh was before the tournament, then you certainly know who he is now…a big-time shooter with ice water in his veins.
- It goes without saying that the biggest first round upset was Ohio’s victory over Georgetown. Ohio, who had a losing record in the Mid-American Conference this year, looked flawless in their win over John Thompson III’s men. Armon Bassett was sensational for the Bobcats with 32 points, stunning the Hoyas. Everyone said Georgetown’s size inside would be hard to beat, but it didn’t take long for that theory to be proven wrong.
- With Kansas and Georgetown out and Michigan State’s star Kalin Lucas likely to miss the Spartan’s Sweet 16 game, the Ohio State Buckeyes have to be the favorite to emerge from the Midwest Region. The Buckeyes will face Tennessee next and I believe that is absolutely a winnable game for Thad Matta and his team. The so-called “region of death” that everyone was talking about all of the sudden got way easier with a few upsets occurring. So I would expect Evan Turner to lead this team to Indianapolis.
- Tom Izzo has proven again that he knows how to win in March. It seems like no matter what team he brings to the tourney, they have success. Nobody expected them to go to the title game last year and the expectations are even less this time around. However, they’re still around thanks to a Korie Lucious last-second three-pointer. It is going to be tough for the Spartans to advance against a red-hot Northern Iowa team, especially with the likely absence of their floor leader, Kalin Lucas. Could Izzo do the unthinkable again?
- Syracuse is for real. You haven’t been able to say that about many teams in the tournament thus far. Many of the higher seeds seem to be getting upset or just barely squeaking by, but not the Orange. Even without star big man, Arinze Onuaku, they have been dominant, especially against a rock-solid Gonzaga team. Their zone defense is smothering and their offense is extremely well-balanced. They will be put to the test in the Sweet 16 against a scrappy Butler team, but if they continue to play like they have been, I would expect them to move onto the next round without any problems.
- 5-seeded Butler and 6-seeded Xavier are quieting their mid-major critics again with Sweet 16 berths. Both teams, more so Butler, are perenially counted out in March. However, these two teams play with great fundamentals, they execute game plans very well, and they play the right way. Hey, it doesn’t matter how you get there, it just matters if you’re there or not…and both of these teams are still alive. Can the cinderella stories continue to unfold? It will be tough. Butler will have to play perfect to beat Syracuse, while Xavier is running into a team almost as hot as the Orange, Kansas State. The way this tournament is going, you never know.
- Two teams I was sad to see go were BYU and Murray St. I love watching BYU play…the clutch shooting of Jimmer Fredette (great name too) and the inside presence of Jonathan Tavernari played huge parts in their success. Murray St…well, they were just a great underdog to root for. The Racers gave it their all against Butler after a great buzzer-beating upset in the first round against Vanderbilt. I would have liked for at least one of their runs to continue, but tough losses are the nature of the beast in March.
- Who said Ivy Leaguers can’t play? The Cornell Big Red cruised, if I may say, into the Sweet 16 with easy wins over higher seeds Temple and Wisconsin. There was speculation when the brackets came out that a 12-seed for Cornell was unfair. Many thought they were worthy of something better. But they took what they were given and ran with it. Sharp-shooting guard Ryan Wittman has this team on cruise control, not to mention the top performances from slasher Louis Dale and 7-footer Jeff Foote. Even though Kentucky is looking great right now, Cornell will push the Wildcats to the limit in the next round.
- There were Kentucky doubters out there, such as myself, but it’s hard to argue against their play so far. The Wildcats have posted convincing wins in both rounds and seem to be the most comfortable winners from the first weekend. It’s been all business for Calipari’s bunch so far, but I would expect that to change against the surprising Cornell Big Red. Obviously, if Kentucky executes well and uses their athleticism, they will have no problem getting by the underdogs. However, Cornell is a team that will make you pay for any slip-ups, so Coach Cal better make sure there aren’t any major ones during the game.
- If any team is showing why it’s important to put stock in performance leading up to the NCAA Tournament, it’s Washington. Everyone counted them out against Marquette in the first round just because the Pac-10 was weak this year. However, maybe people should have looked at how this team was playing going in. They have built on their Pac-1o Tournament championship with two great wins over Marquette and New Mexico. Momentum seems to be a big thing for the Huskies, so it seems like the sky is the limit for this team. West Virginia presents a tall task in the next round, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility for the Huskies to pull off another upset.
- Outside of a potential Syracuse-Kansas St. matchup in the Elite 8, Kentucky-West Virginia is the only other 1-seed/2-seed possibility. Villanova and Kansas have crashed out, leaving the door open for a few unexpected teams to possibly reach the Final Four. I’ll tell you what, though…if Kentucky-West Virginia does indeed happen, it should be an absolute dandy. These two teams are possibly the two most athletic teams around, but there also maybe the two most passionate. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a couple shoving matches and trash-talking sessions taking place if these two teams get together.
- Initially, this region did appear to be pretty weak. However, the four teams still alive right now are anything but weak. Duke is taking care of business in smooth fashion, Purdue seems to be rejuvenated after the initial shock of losing Robbie Hummel, Baylor is staying alive by making shots when they really matter, and St. Mary’s is coming off two solid upsets. For a region that took so much flack earlier, I would say it has been able to produce four really solid Sweet 16 teams.
- Sure, Chris Kramer is a guy you love to hate. He’s a trash talker, sometimes even a dirty player. But he is a winner. Despite not being even close to the best athlete in the gym, Kramer consistently comes up with big plays on both ends of the court. All of this is why I wasn’t surprised he ended up hitting the game-winning shot against Texas A&M in OT yesterday. For a team that was practically counted out before the tournament even started, Purdue is in pretty good shape. A last second shot from their senior leader, Kramer, could just be the catalyst they needed to really start playing well in March.
- For many, Villanova may have been just as much of a disappointment as Kansas. Sure, not many people had them winning the title, but plenty of people had them heading to the Final Four over Duke. I fell into the trap myself…I thought the senior leadership of Scottie Reynolds and their successful run in the tough Big East conference this year would bode well for them come tournament time. They never found their groove, though, and looked uncomfortable from the tipoff against Robert Morris up until the final buzzer against St. Mary’s.
- Dickie V hasn’t been talking about Duke nearly as much this year, which is why you would assume something is wrong. However, there isn’t anything wrong with Duke. In fact, some may argue they have looked just as strong as fellow 1-seeds Kentucky and Syracuse. Sure, there wasn’t the normal amount of national buzz surrounding Coach K’s team, but let me assure you, they are just as good as they’ve been in the past. Without having any big-time NBA prospects, Duke is very explosive. Nolan Smith runs the break well, while Jon Scheyer continues to knock down the outside shot. Role players such as the Plumlee brothers offer the occasional dunk highlights and the hard-nosed interior presence needed to succeed in March. Purdue will be tough because of their defense, but if Duke can shut down a sometimes stagnant Boilermaker offense, they should have no problem heading to the Elite 8.