By Scott Haynes
After six exhilarating days of basketball, the NCAA Tournament field has dropped to 16 participants.
While reaching the Sweet 16 is certainly satisfying, all the teams still alive in the tournament know there is a golden opportunity staring them in the face. Whether they can take advantage is what will make this week’s action so much fun to watch.
In the Midwest bracket, the No. 1, 3, 5 and 7 seeds earned their way into the second week of action. The one given there as the Kentucky Wildcats. With wins over Hampton (79-56) and Cincinnati (64-51), John Calipari’s crew moved into rarified air, marking the first time in NCAA history a team has gone 36-0 to begin a season. West Virginia, the region’s No. 5 seed, is up next for the Wildcats. Bob Huggins is no stranger to this event and has a team that could present some problems for Kentucky, given West Virginia’s propensity for forcing turnovers (it leads the nation in that regard).
The other half of the bracket features No. 3 seed Notre Dame taking on seventh-seeded and tournament darling Wichita State. The Irish haven’t exactly looked sharp in their two tournament games, edging out Northeastern (69-65) and Butler (67-64 in overtime), but Mike Brey’s team, which has struggled in recent tournament play, is still alive and kicking. Notre Dame is a lethal offensive squad, and if the shots start falling, the Irish are as good as any team out there. Of course, they will have to turn things around in a hurry as the Shockers are full of energy after upsetting in-state rival Kansas, the No. 2 seed in the region. Wichita State is no average mid-major with 95 wins over the last three seasons (just the 26th team in NCAA history to do so).
In the West Region, three of the top four seeds have advanced in No. 1 Wisconsin, No. 2 Arizona and No. 4 North Carolina. Third-seeded Baylor fell in second-round action to Georgia State, which then in turn fell to sixth- seeded Xavier. Bo Ryan’s top-seeded Badgers are an impressive 33-3 after disposing of Coastal Carolina (86-72) and Oregon (72-65) in tournament play. They will take on North Carolina, which survived Harvard (67-65) before knocking off Arkansas (87-78). The Tar Heels may be at less than full strength, but Roy Williams’ squad has great depth and athleticism, two traits that could be problematic for Wisconsin.
Arizona is as hot as any team in the tournament not named Kentucky. Sean Miller’s squad swept the Pac-12 regular-season and tournament titles and has made light work of Texas Southern (93-72) and Ohio State (73-58) in consecutive tournament games while improving to 33-3. With a great facilitator and loads of talent along the frontline, Arizona will cause a headache for No. 6 Xavier in the Sweet 16. The Musketeers finished in the middle of the pack in the Big East, but somehow are the one conference representative still around (Villanova, Butler, Providence. St. John’s and Georgetown are all out). Xavier isn’t flashy, but it has looked sharp in tournament wins over Ole Miss (76-57) and Georgia State (75-67).
The East Region has had the most shake-up. Top-seeded Villanova is gone, as is No. 2 seed Virginia. Third-seeded Oklahoma and fourth-seeded Louisville are still around, but obviously nothing is a given in this bracket. North Carolina State is the team that blew up this region as the eighth-seeded Wolfpack got past ninth-seeded LSU (66-65) before sliding past the top-seeded Wildcats. N.C. State will face Louisville, which barely got by UC Irvine (57-55) before disposing of Northern Iowa (66-53). Rick Pitino’s squad is no stranger to postseason runs, but this year’s squad, which has some star power, is vulnerable due to a lack of depth.
Oklahoma has gone about its business quietly this season. The Sooners got by Albany (69-60) and Dayton (72-66) to advance to the Sweet 16 and are very “workman-like” in their approach, very similar to the style of play exhibited by Tom Izzo’s Spartans. Michigan State topped Georgia (70-63) in its first tournament game and then upset Virginia (60-54), beating the Cavaliers at their own game with gritty defensive play.
In the South Region, the top two seeds have advanced and looked great doing it, as No. 1 seed Duke and No. 2 Gonzaga have shown few if any weaknesses along the way. Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils may not have won the ACC regular-season or tournament titles, but they are a dangerous team at both ends of the court, evidenced by their wins over Robert Morris (85-56) and San Diego State (68-49). However, things may get a little tougher with No. 5 seed Utah on deck. The Utes play stellar defense as well and have decent offensive depth. They beat Stephen F. Austin (57-50) and Georgetown (75-64) to advance to their first Sweet 16 in 10 years.
Mark Few’s Gonzaga squad picked up its millionth (slight exaggeration) West Coast Conference crown this season and seem to be peaking at the right time. Gonzaga is an offensive-rich team with great playmakers both inside and out. The Zags have disposed of North Dakota State (86-76) and Iowa (87-68) with relative ease and will take on the lowest-seeded team left in the tournament in No. 11 UCLA, which beat SMU (60-59) and UAB (92-75). The Bruins are an extremely talented offensive team, but that still may not be enough to keep pace with Gonzaga on Friday.
Scott Haynes is the Senior College Basketball Editor at SportsNetwork.com