Then There Were 16

The NCAA tournament moves into the regional phase this week, so a look back and a look ahead is in order.

Shocking upsets where a low seed, like a #14, #13, #12, or a 15th seeded entry knocking off a #2 didn’t happen. There were a couple of 11th seeded teams, like Xavier, USC and Only the Musketeers advanced to the Sweet 16. The real shockers were the stunning losses by defending national champion Villanova and the Duke Blue Devils, who came into the tourney hot as blazes.

Without picking an ultimate champion in last week’s edition, we specifically mentioned three schools in particular, not counting my alma mater, Syracuse, which got snubbed by the NCAA and wound up losing to Ole Miss at the Carrier Dome in the second round of the NIT.

We thought Duke might be a fan’s favorite because of their hot play, which included capturing the ACC tournament. There have been countless instances where a good team, playing their best ball of the year, got derailed in the NCAA. Sometimes teams begin to lose steam. They run into a bad matchup. Thus, they’re knocked out. That happened to Duke. The only momentum that means anything is the six-game tournament run.

The same misfortune befell Villanova, last year’s champs, who were beaten by Wisconsin Saturday. I wasn’t surprised. I felt the Wildcats were a tired bunch going into the Big East tournament, which they won. They were ripe for defeat. It is extremely difficult to repeat in the NCAA championship. In fact, the only schools who have managed to do it since the Nineties are Duke and Florida.

Remember, when UCLA under the great John Wooden thoroughly dominated, when the field was only 25 or 32 teams and schools remained in their own region? This doesn’t diminish what the Bruins achieved, but when you had to win only four games to win the title and played teams like Long Beach State, it was a far cry from the way it is now. UCLA did what it had to do and did it better than anyone ever did before or will do in the future. Much of their success hinged on our recent podcast guest Bill Walton. Listen to that episode here.

There were some phenomenal battles over the weekend: the come-from-behind victory by Michigan over #2 seed Louisville, and Kentucky’s down-the-stretch defensive play to thwart an upset bid by underrated Wichita State. Last week we noted that no one would want to play the 10th-seeded Shockers and I’m sure Kentucky didn’t either. They wound up beating a team that was much, much better than their seed.

But the real drama came late Sunday when Coach K’s Duke Blue Devils were sent home by South Carolina. There were so many games in which an upset-minded school failed to complete the job because they would either commit a critical turnover, rush a long-range shot, or fail to defend on a crucial possession. Not South Carolina. The Gamecocks’ physical play and overall energy outlasted Duke, sending South Carolina to their first Sweet 16 since the bracket expanded.

However, in our opinion, the classic game of the tournament so far was the Villanova-Wisconsin battle Saturday. Why? It was kind of a throwback game between two schools who have shown great class, played intensely, working the ball inside, not relying solely on the three-point shot, coached by two outstanding leaders, and without the histrionics and on-the-court gestures that mark many games these days. Wisconsin and Villanova are two proud, successful and high-level basketball programs, and it was a pleasure to watch them play.

So, what now? The East Regional, to be played in New York’s Madison Square Garden, figured to feature the great showdown between Villanova and Duke. Now, it’s a regional with a mostly southern or southwest accent: Baylor vs. South Carolina and Florida against Wisconsin. Baylor-Florida would make an interesting regional final. I have to think North Carolina playing Kentucky would have a touch of past tournament greats if they square off in the South Regional final. I think the test the Tar Heels received from Arkansas will be to their benefit in their bid to reach another Final Four.

Arizona appears too strong for Xavier in one of the West Regional matchups. In the other game, Gonzaga and West Virginia should be a battle royal. Michigan’s dream should end against Oregon, another school who should benefit by the tough game they played against Rhode Island.

I believe the strongest team remaining in the NCAA is Kansas. The Jayhawks look powerful, confident and determined. I know, the minute I go out on this limb, strange things happen.

I’ll leave it at that, and simply implore everyone to enjoy the Sweet 16, and witness the great play that will lead us to the Final Four.


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