In all honesty, the Musketeers caught a break when they didn’t have to play No. 3 seed Baylor in the West Regional. They reached the Sweet 16 with victories over Ole Miss, which had to play through the First Four, and Georgia State, the “Cinderella on a Scooter” team that shocked Baylor in the second round. Facing Arizona in Los Angeles now will be a major upgrade in competition since Sean Miller’s Wildcats are one of the prime contenders for the national championship. Senior center Matt Stainbrook averages 12.1 points and 6.9 rebounds. He also is a decent passer with 2.4 assists per game. Reserves Jalen Reynolds and Myles Davis combined for 38 points in the win over Georgia State. Point guard Dee Davis is averaging 16 points in the tourney. Coach Chris Mack has taken Xavier to the Sweet 16 three times in six seasons.
The little team that created so much controversy for being included in the original field has survived to the Sweet 16. The Bruins continue to carry some luggage following that goaltending call against SMU, but Steve Alford’s team cruised past UAB in the third round. People remember the way the Bruins played against Kentucky early in the season and other struggles in Westwood. But teams can grow during a season and discover some chemistry at the right time. With five players averaging in double figures, the Bruins are dangerous from every area of the court. Bryce Alford had nine 3-pointers and 27 points against SMU. Big man Tony Parker was a load with 28 points against UAB. Norman Powell hasn’t really been heard from yet. There will be some West Coast pride involved as the Bruins meet Gonzaga -- in Houston, of course.
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A matchup between Louisville and North Carolina State is almost perfect for NCAA tournament history buffs. Both programs have rich tournament traditions and, in the case of Louisville, the constant is the man on the bench. Coach Rick Pitino has a way of squeezing the best out of his players in March, and reaching the Sweet 16 this season has taken extraordinary leadership. Pitino didn’t know whether this group would exit early or reach the Final Four. But he was certain that the Cardinals played their best game of the season in a 66-53 win over Northern Iowa. And Louisville has Terry Rozier, who scored or assisted on 65.2 percent of the Cardinals’ points against UNI, best of any player in this year’s tourney. He had 25 points and seven assists to lift the Cardinals to their fourth straight Sweet 16 appearance.
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North Carolina State
The Wolfpack accomplished something in the first weekend of play that no other team has on its Sweet 16 resume. North Carolina State’s victory over No. 1 seed Villanova didn’t receive the sensational treatment that went to Georgia State or UAB, but it may be the biggest upset so far. Coach Mark Gottfried’s team was on the bubble in February but this is a group with impressive credentials. The Wolfpack defeated Duke and North Carolina during the regular season. And the last time N.C. State defeated Duke, North Carolina and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, it went on to win the national championship. That was 1982-83, when Jim Valvano’s team shocked the world and helped elevate the popularity of the NCAA tournament.
No one expected the Pac-12 to have three teams in the Sweet 16. Utah isn’t as big a surprise as UCLA, yet the Utes aren’t getting much respect. As the No. 5 seed in the South, Utah defeated Stephen F. Austin and then impressively turned back Georgetown to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2005. That means Utah will be challenged with playing Duke in Houston. Delon Wright is attracting a lot of attention from defenses in the tournament. That means Brandon Taylor and Jakob Poelti must be ready to pick up the slack offensively. Utah’s bench produced against Georgetown, outscoring the Hoyas reserves by 21 points. Dakaral Tucker had 11 points off the bench and center Dallin Bachynski was back with nine points after missing the opening tournament game with an ankle injury.
It has been a trying season for coach Roy Williams. North Carolina’s academic fraud case has hung over the program all season. The death of Dean Smith, Williams’ mentor, came in the midst of the ACC season. But an underachieving team has found its way in the postseason, and the Tar Heels are playing more like a Roy Williams team. Marcus Paige has found his game. Unfortunately for UNC, it appears starting center Kennedy Meeks (left knee) will not be able to play Thursday against Wisconsin. He hasn’t been ruled out, but if Meeks can’t play, it will be a blow to North Carolina’s effort to stop Wisconsin center Frank Kaminsky.
The fact that Wichita State was given a No. 7 seed by the NCAA selection committee was absolutely absurd. The Shockers are better than that. But it worked out well for Gregg Marshall’s team. Wichita State got the emotional benefit of playing No. 2 Kansas in the third round and turning it into a quest for respect. Now that the Shockers have crowned themselves Kings of Kansas, they must refocus and prepare for Notre Dame in the round of 16. If their defense can contain Notre Dame’s offense, they could get a rematch with Kentucky, the team that ended their undefeated run in the Round of 32 last season. Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker are familiar names now. Evan Wessel and Tekele Cotton came up big against the Jayhawks.
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After beating Maryland to reach the Sweet 16 and play Kentucky, coach Bob Huggins said, “I wish I could sit here and tell you we’re definitely going to win. I can’t do that. But I can tell you we’re not going to be scared.” If you know Huggins, you know that is true. West Virginia beat No. 1 seed Kentucky in the 2010 Elite Eight in Syracuse. This time the game will be held in Cleveland. The Mountaineers will be underdogs, but West Virginia’s style of play could rub Kentucky the wrong way. West Virginia leads the nation in personal fouls per game, and that can be irritating when the Mountaineers are coming at you constantly with defensive pressure. Senior point guard Juwan Staten is cocky, confident and capable. Devin Williams had 16 points and 10 rebounds against Maryland. The Mountaineers won’t back down.
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There was a point in the regular season when Lon Kruger was a strong candidate for Big 12 coach of the year. He didn’t get the vote of either conference coaches or media. But now, after victories over Albany and Dayton, the Sooners are headed to the wide-open East Regional in Syracuse. And Kruger is the first coach in NCAA history to take four different schools (Kansas State, Florida, UNLV), to the Sweet 16. This Oklahoma team might be capable of taking Kruger even further. The Sooners can score in transition, they rebound, play good defense and can shoot the 3. Buddy Hield, versatile and athletic, is one of the best players in the nation. He just doesn’t get much publicity.
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Notre Dame had to fight with everything it had to get past Butler, 67-64, in overtime during one of the best games of the season. Then Irish coach Mike Brey made it even more dramatic, revealing that his mother, Betty Brey, had died of a heart attack that morning. Steve Vasturia had 20 points. Jerian Grant, a POY candidate, had 16. But the Irish were truly inspired by senior guard Pat Connaughton. With the game on the line in regulation, Connaughton slammed Kellen Dunham’s shot to the ground and shouted “not tonight.” Connaughton also gave Notre Dame a 62-59 lead with a 3-pointer and huddled his teammates to keep them focused when things were falling apart around them. This is a very efficient offensive team that might be able to battle Kentucky’s length on defense. Wichita State stands in the way first.
When Magic Johnson speaks in the Michigan State locker room, you can understand that old saying about being able to hear a pin drop. Sunday, coach Tom Izzo asked Magic to say a few words, and he told the Spartans it was “beautiful to watch” Michigan State defeat No. 2 seed Virginia, 60-54. That has to be worth something in our power rankings. Then he told the Michigan State seniors that this is the time for them to step up their games. That must have been music to Izzo’s ears because he has built his success by keeping players around and allowing them to grow. Travis Trice showed how that works with his fast start against Virginia. Trice scored 13 of the Spartans’ first 15 points and finished with a team-high 23. The East Regional is wide open in Syracuse. Could a No. 7 seed win it all? Just ask the 2014 UConn Huskies.
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The Zags know they have their doubters. Even now, with Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2009, there aren’t many who believe this is the year to keep moving. Gonzaga catches a break, at least on paper, with a game against No. 11 seed UCLA in Houston. But the Bruins clearly have improved late in the season, and Gonzaga must call on its experienced players in this type of situation. Kyle Wiltjer is on a mission to reach the Final Four, and backcourt mates Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. have been waiting for this opportunity since they arrived at Gonzaga. Coach Mark Few has brought this team together. Now it is time for the ultimate push.
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The way the Blue Devils handled San Diego State in the round of 32, it would be easy to build a case for Duke as No. 1, 2 or 3 on this list. When freshman big man Jahlil Okafor scores 26 points it is clear that Duke could give Kentucky a run for its money. The top seed in the South Regional doesn’t have a cakewalk to the Final Four. No. 5 seed Utah is up next. If Duke beats the Utes, Gonzaga or UCLA will be waiting in the Elite Eight. Coach Mike Krzyzewski says his young team is getting older through experience and that’s exactly the way it is supposed to work at this level. The Blue Devils won’t have any trouble scoring against their opponents. Duke averaged 1.11 points per possession against San Diego State, the third-most allowed by the Aztecs this season. The concern is defense.
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Wisconsin has the tool box to end Kentucky’s perfect season. The West Regional is so difficult, however, that the Badgers must defeat North Carolina and possibly Arizona just to have that opportunity. That won’t be easy, but Bo Ryan’s team wants another chance after losing to Kentucky at the 2014 Final Four. Wisconsin survived a tough battle from Oregon on Sunday. Player of the Year favorite Frank Kaminsky scored 16 points but didn’t tear it up the way he normally does. Sam Dekker led the Badgers with 17 points. The key to beating Oregon, however, was contesting shots -- something Wisconsin does so well. The Badgers contested 41 of Oregon’s 59 attempts (69 percent), and the Ducks made just 31.7 percent. Wisconsin isn’t in awe of the Final Four anymore. The Badgers just want to win it all.
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We wrote last week about Arizona’s outstanding starting lineup -- and Gabe York. Guess who came through again in the 73-58 victory over Ohio State? It was York, of course. He played 29 minutes, scored 19 points and was 5-for-9 from 3-point range. That was more than enough to make up for Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson combining on 4-for-12 shooting. It’s great to see the relationship between coach Sean Miller and point guard T.J. McConnell, who had 19 points, six assists, six rebounds and five steals. McConnell simply makes all of his teammates better. Now Miller goes against Xavier, where he was head coach from 2004-09. And the anticipation is building for a rematch of last year’s regional final with Wisconsin. Both deserve to be in the Final Four, but there’s only room for one.
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There’s no mystery in playing Cincinnati. The top-ranked Wildcats knew they would be pushed around by the Bearcats and that it was important to respond with their own physical approach. Kentucky passed the test. The 64-51 final score might not be impressive if you are expecting routs from the Wildcats in their quest to achieve perfection, especially when you consider UK’s 37 percent shooting. But Kentucky adapts to every situation. “You can miss most of them,” coach John Calipari said, “and you can still win games if you defend, you rebound and you play that way, make your free throws, and they did.” Calipari’s bench is starting to shrink. That should tell you he is serious about going all the way.