Tourney upstarts have sweet dreams

It is not that far a leap from here to there. Just two games, 80 minutes of basketball between a season to forget and a lifetime memory. One good break, one big shot, and everything can change. Nobody who gets their name called on Selection Sunday is really that far removed from the Sweet 16.

But it didn’t really seem that way to N.C. State back on Feb. 25, at the end of a 72-69 overtime loss at Clemson. It was the Wolfpack’s fourth straight loss, a tailspin that had started nine days earlier by blowing a 20-point lead at Duke. At that moment, the very notion of making the NCAA tournament seemed like a longshot.

N.C. State hadn’t defeated a top-25 team all season despite a multitude of chances. Its only real accomplishments were beating Texas back in November and sweeping ACC rival Miami, both of whom were on the bubble. With the loss to Clemson, it seemed the Wolfpack were headed off the NCAA cliff.

“We played well enough to win the game. We just didn’t,” said first-year coach Mark Gottfried. “I think after that, we tried to always focus on the positives. We’re not a bad team. We just haven’t won one here in this stretch. At that point, it was like, our backs are now completely against the wall. There is no more room for error. The window is closing on us, and we need to respond.”

The response was evident yesterday, as No. 11 seed N.C. State celebrated a 66-63 victory over No. 3 seed Georgetown to advance to the Midwest Regional semifinals. And in many ways, it is the quintessential Sweet 16 story, the reason teams spend the final weeks of the season fighting for those last few bids. If you can just get in, you’re only two good games away from fulfilling dreams. Who knows what might happen?

“We knew what we had to do,” sophomore forward C.J. Leslie said. “Obviously we heard all the critics and people say we’re not supposed to be here, but we stuck it out and came out swinging. We knew we had nothing to lose.”

For teams like North Carolina, whose point guard Kendall Marshall fractured a bone in his right wrist yesterday against Creighton, making the final 16 isn’t much of a celebration. Marshall, a lefty, may still be able to play. But if his effectiveness is diminished in any way, North Carolina’s chance at a national championship is likely over.

N.C. State, on the other hand, is one of four teams that had plenty of reason to doubt they would still be standing by the NCAA tournament’s second weekend.

Florida, a team that came into the season with high expectations, really had not gotten much done in the SEC, lost its frontcourt depth when Will Yeguete went down to injury and dropped to a No. 7 seed. But the Bracket Gods were on Billy Donovan’s side this year. Florida drew Virginia for its first-round opponent, a team that slid backwards into the tournament. Then when No. 15 seed Norfolk State stunned Missouri in the first round, Florida suddenly had an easy path to the Sweet 16.

Ohio didn’t even win its division of the Mid-American Conference, toppling Akron, 64-63, in the conference tournament finals to earn the automatic bid. Once it got the NCAA tournament, though, Ohio has ridden budding star D.J. Cooper to an upset of No. 4 seed Michigan in the first round and another semi-surprise over No. 12 seed South Florida.

Xavier was a mess after its brawl with Cincinnati on Dec. 10. The Musketeers lost to just about everyone for a month after that. They would’ve missed the NCAAs had Dayton made a layup in the closing seconds in the first round of the Atlantic 10 tournament. But who cares now? Xavier got a beatable Notre Dame team in the first round and won, then cashed in its fourth Sweet 16 in five years against Lehigh, which knocked off Duke.

Traditionally, the upstarts stall out in the Sweet 16 as the favorites assert themselves. That will certainly be the expectation for Ohio, even against an injured North Carolina in the Midwest Regional, and Xavier facing No. 3 seed Baylor in the South Regional. Even if those teams lose, their seasons will be considered successful if not historic.

That will also be true of N.C. State, though this isn’t your typical No. 11 seed. Leslie, a 6-foot-8 combo forward, has long been viewed as a potential first-round draft pick. Shooting guard Lorenzo Brown was a top-30 recruit coming out of high school. Junior forward Scott Wood is a 41 percent 3-point shooter, and big man Richard Howell is starting to realize his immense potential.

It’s a good team that didn’t know how to beat other good teams. Now, after defeating a pair of top-25 opponents in 48 hours in San Diego State and Georgetown, that is no longer the case.

“And the good thing about our team is, they’re a hungry bunch,” Gottfried said. “I don’t see a satisfied group at all in our locker room.”

And that has to be a little bit scary for No. 2 seed Kansas, which will be the Wolfpack’s opponent next week in St. Louis. This is the same Kansas that has lost to VCU and Northern Iowa in the last two NCAA tournaments, but unlike those teams, N.C. State might actually have a more talented overall roster than the Jayhawks. And if the Wolfpack could somehow win another, it might set up a regional final against the rival Tar Heels, whom they took to the final possession in the ACC tournament.

That’s just one of many juicy subplots to look for next week. In Atlanta, No. 1 seed Kentucky will get a chance to avenge one of its two losses this season against Indiana, which is making its first Sweet 16 trip since 2002. The West Regional will include three coaches who have won national titles in Donovan, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and Louisville’s Rick Pitino. The matchup between Florida and Marquette will feature guard-oriented teams that like to play at a fast pace, while the Michigan State-Louisville game will be like a defensive chess match.

And of course, everybody will be watching the East to see if Syracuse can survive the Fab Melo eligibility fiasco against No. 4 seed Wisconsin, then Ohio State or Cincinnati, both of which are Final Four-caliber teams.

For most programs, though, the line of demarcation for a successful season is playing in the Sweet 16. Getting there often seems like a monumental leap. But for teams like Xavier, N.C. State and Ohio, will it be the pinnacle, or is it just a start?