We’ve trimmed the NCAA field from 68 to 16. As usual, this group is the very definition of sweetness. If you like the big-time programs, there are four Big Ten teams and three from the crumbling and nostalgic Big East. Then you’ve got Wichita State, La Salle and Florida Gulf Coast crashing the party. The list of invitees includes the No. 1 seed (Louisville) and the No. 59 seed (FGCU), with plenty of teams capable of cutting down the nets in Atlanta. Time to rank the survivors – from 1 to 16 – based on their chances of winning the national title. -- Ken Davis
Florida Gulf Coast
Cinderella lives in Fort Myers, Fla. Who knew that a week ago? This has been an exciting story of a No. 15 seed advancing to the Sweet 16 for the first time in the 75-year history of the NCAA tournament. The dunks have been awesome. The pep rallies have been fun, despite the vulgar chant aimed at Florida. Head coach Andy Enfield (pictured, at center) is a great story and everyone – except fans from Georgetown, San Diego State and Florida – seems to be loving the results. This is a good team that is playing loose. But the party is about to end.
The Explorers were grossly overlooked during the regular season and shame on everyone because La Salle clearly deserved more attention. La Salle is a victory over Wichita State away from reaching the Elite Eight. That is certainly possible, but a run from the First Four to the Final Four (like VCU did in 2011) doesn’t seem to be in the crystal ball with Ohio State and Arizona in the same regional. Ramon Galloway (pictured) and Tyrone Garland’s Southwest Philly Floater were unknown nationally until the last few days, but this has been great for Philadelphia basketball. Whenever the season ends, La Salle’s challenge will be to hold on to coach John Giannini.
Ducks coach Dana Altman may seem out of place in the Midwest Regional, surrounded by Rick Pitino, Tom Izzo and Mike Krzyzewski. But don’t forget this is the third team Altman has taken to the NCAA tournament, including Kansas State and Creighton. The guy can coach, and Oregon was clearly insulted by the No. 12 seed handed out by the NCAA selection committee. The Ducks picked up a nice upset of Oklahoma State and eliminated a Saint Louis team that was built for March. Oregon forward Arsalan Kazemi (pictured) and his ability to rebound is the X-factor in the game against Louisville.
Any team in the market for a coach right now probably has Gregg Marshall on a short list of candidates. It won’t be easy to lure him away from Wichita, where he has done an outstanding job with the Shockers. Wichita State destroyed No. 1 Gonzaga with its three-point shooting in a 76-70 win. Can the Shockers duplicate that? Probably not, but Marshall’s team is athletic and does many things well. If senior Carl Hall (pictured) starts scoring, La Salle could be in big trouble.
Buzz Williams (pictured, at left) and Jim Larranaga have turned in two of the most brilliant coaching performances of the season. One will go home and the other will move on to the Elite Eight after Thursday night’s game in Washington. The Golden Eagles got the No. 3 seed, but they were an easy pick to lose to No. 14 Davidson in the second round. When they survived, 59-58, everything changed. Williams is still dancing and his team could be viewed as a team of destiny after that 74-72 win over Butler. Williams must figure out a way for his team to score in the paint against Miami.
Before any critic dismisses this tournament and says it hasn’t been up to par, consider a Michigan State-Duke contest in the Sweet 16. When Tom Izzo and Mike Krzyzewski bring their teams together, it is worthy of Elite Eight or Final Four status, but we get this treat one round early. From that season-opening loss to Connecticut in Germany, Michigan State seemed to be just a tad shy of the rebounding tradition that has been built under Izzo. That has changed for the Spartans against Valparaiso and Memphis. Michigan State has been pounding the offensive glass and playing Izzo-style defense. If Derrick Nix (pictured) asserts himself against Duke’s Mason Plumlee, the Blue Devils will have their hands full.
The Orange simply crushed Montana in the second round and then held on to defeat California 66-60. Syracuse will be an underdog against Indiana, but that has never bothered a Jim Boeheim team in the tournament. The East Regional has been chalk all the way with the four top seeds advancing to Washington. Syracuse doesn’t need to do anything different against the Hoosiers. If C.J. Fair can score and Michael Carter-Williams (pictured) can run the show, Syracuse will be in the game. Then it will be up to Brandon Triche to find a way to score against Victor Oladipo.
The Wolverines may have played their best game of the season in the round of 32 against VCU. So many prognosticators were thrilled by the thought of VCU knocking off No. 1 seed Kansas – again – that they ignored the fact that Michigan could handle the Rams’ havoc defense. Trey Burke (pictured) and his teammates don’t have to worry about beating the press against Kansas. This will be more of an old-fashioned, in-your-shorts defense played by the Jayhawks. But Kansas does it well, and once the Michigan guards get past that they have to make good decisions attacking center Jeff Withey.
Victories over Belmont and Harvard have advanced the Wildcats to the West Regional in Los Angeles. Sean Miller’s team will be the local favorite, playing in Los Angeles along with Wichita State, La Salle and Ohio State. And playing the Buckeyes in the regional semifinal round is the biggest obstacle for Miller’s team. Solomon Hill (pictured) hasn’t gotten enough credit for the work he does for Arizona. But Hill vs. Ohio State’s Deshaun Thomas should be one of the premier head-to-head matchups of this tournament. Watch out for some bone-crushing picks set by both teams.
The key against the Gators may be getting them into a close game, but that hasn’t happened yet. Florida moved past Northwestern State and Minnesota in relatively easy fashion. No disrespect to Cinderella, but that carriage is about to turn into a pumpkin for Florida Gulf Coast. Give Billy Donovan (pictured) a week to prepare and the Gators will find a way to stop Dunk City. After that, it won’t be quite as simple against either Kansas or Michigan.
It’s hard to judge what Duke has done in the tournament to this point. The Blue Devils are always going to be solid – if not sensational – on defense, and they were against Albany and Creighton. The concern for Mike Krzyzewski and Duke fans will always be that off shooting night that the Blue Devils encounter every now and then. That makes the road to Atlanta filled with speed bumps, starting with the Sweet 16 matchup with Michigan State. It should be one of the memorable games from the tournament with Coach K going against Tom Izzo. Ryan Kelly (pictured) must be more involved than he was against Creighton (one point, 0-for-5 FG).
Illinois came close to writing the final chapter in Miami’s season of success but the Hurricanes held on and advanced to Washington, D.C. It’s not unusual for a tournament team to have that type of experience early and then reach the Final Four. Miami can still accomplish that — the Hurricanes are mature and play good defense. Offensively, they have been even more efficient in the postseason, thanks in large part to Shane Larkin (pictured). It’s great to see the way this team has responded to coach Jim Larranaga, who has shown off some nifty dance moves in the locker room.
The Buckeyes received a favorable draw as the No. 2 seed in the West and now the bracket has really opened up for Ohio State. Thad Matta’s team can’t think about that but, the Buckeyes are the team to beat in Los Angeles with No. 6 Arizona, No. 9 Wichita State and No. 13 La Salle all that’s blocking their path to Atlanta. Deshaun Thomas (pictured) is a tough player to prepare for because he can score off screens or in the post. Talk about Aaron Craft and his outstanding defense all you want, but Craft also has the toughness to hit big shots. Just ask Iowa State. Back-to-back Final Four appearances would be very impressive for Matta’s program.
The Hoosiers had a close call against Temple, and that should be a concern for Tom Crean’s team as Indiana looks ahead. The Owls must have studied tape from Indiana’s games with Wisconsin. Bo Ryan’s team held the Hoosiers to 59 and 56 while beating Indiana. Victor Oladipo (pictured) was 7-for-12 from the field against Temple, while the rest of the Indiana starters were 8-for-24. Oladipo is a national player of the year candidate and he will need to prove that against Syracuse. His ability to get in the lane against Syracuse’s 2-3 zone will be critical to Indiana’s success. And there’s a good chance he will defend Syracuse’s Brandon Triche.
The Jayhawks played like a team under incredible stress until the second half of Sunday’s game against North Carolina. Perhaps playing 40 miles from campus as a No. 1 seed does that to a team. Kansas beat the Tar Heels 70-58 despite the fact that leading scorer Ben McLemore went 0-for-9 from the field. Guards Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson can slow Michigan’s offense by playing good on-the-ball defense. And center Jeff Withey (pictured) could be a matchup nightmare for Michigan freshman Mitch McGary. The focus for the Jayhawks should be taking care of the ball, making good passes and scoring off their defense.
Rick Pitino’s Cardinals really didn’t break a sweat on the way to relatively easy victories over North Carolina A&T (79-48) and Colorado State (82-56). In addition to that suffocating style of defense, Louisville is rebounding on both ends of the floor. Oregon has young guards and that’s great news for the Cardinals, who can rattle the Ducks and force turnovers. More bad news for Oregon, as reported by Eric Crawford of WDRB in Louisville: Pitino (pictured) has a 10-0 career record in the round of 16 with an average victory margin of 22 points.