Sweet 16 Regional Reset: Indiana continues to be clear favorite in East
In a tournament headlined by three double-digit seeds breaking through to the second weekend and the early toppling of the nation's No. 1 team, the East regional is where the favorites held serve. All four top seeds -- Indiana, Miami, Marquette and Syracuse, respectively -- won their subregional pods to advance to Washington, D.C., none better encapsulating the not-in-this-bracket snuffing of upsets than third-seeded Marquette. The Golden Eagles followed up their erasure of a five-point deficit in the final 30 seconds against Davidson by holding off a last-second rally from perennial tourney darling Butler. (It should be noted, however, that Marquette would undoubtedly dispute its status as a favorite for anything; more on that in a moment.)
The Hoosiers too let an Atlantic 10 team flirt with advancement before carrying on the status quo, putting Temple away in the game's closing minute after weathering Khalif Wyatt's 31-point barrage. Miami did not put away 7th-seeded Illinois until late, and even then benefited from a highly disputed out-of-bounds call in its favor.
The city and arena to which this quartet advances is of varying significance as well. For Syracuse, the Verizon Center was the site of its season's nadir, a completely flat regular-season finale against rival Georgetown on March 9 in which the Orange mustered just 39 points and lost by 22. To Indiana star guard Victor Oladipo, it is a homecoming; he will be playing a half-hour drive from his hometown of Upper Marlboro, Md., and a 20-minute ride from DeMatha Catholic High, for which he won two city championships. And it is the very floor on which Miami coach Jim Larranaga led 11th-seeded George Mason to a new standard of bracket-busting in 2006, beating Wichita State and UConn to become the lowest seeded team to ever reach a Final Four.
If Larranaga's George Mason run represented the NCAA tournament at its upheaving best, the regional to which he returns with the Hurricanes could come to represent the upside of the opposite. These four teams confirmed what was implicit in their seeding by advancing as would be expected, and the games they play this weekend may be the better for it.
Marquette. This is the Golden Eagles' third straight Sweet 16 appearance, though only last season's, to which they were led by a pair of NBA draft picks in Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom, did not feel like much of a surprise. In 2011 they did it as a No. 11 seed, and this season they were pegged for seventh in their league in the preseason after Crowder's and Johnson-Odom's graduations, a slight they wore like a badge of honor during their run to a three-way split of the Big East regular-season title with Louisville and Georgetown.
The Golden Eagles have gotten a lot of mileage out of fostering the mentality of an underdog, from coach Buzz Williams (a heart-on-his-sleeve Texan whose story of clawing his way up the coaching ranks has been well-told) on down to his players, who eat up every instance they are informed of a pundit picking against them. It is shooting guard Vander Blue, a five-star recruit once labeled a bust as a freshman who has worked his way into leading-man status as a junior, who has appeared most openly in tune with this mindset; as he said Saturday night, "It's just waking up everyday and facing the battle." This was after his team had advanced to yet another second weekend, a distinction likely to curry praise beyond the locker room walls, and so Blue was quick with a pre-emptive addendum: "I still don't want people to jump on our bandwagon."
Has Syracuse put it back together? For most of the Big East tournament, the sputtering that was the home stretch of the Orange's regular season schedule appeared to give way to a revival. The offense clicked again as reinstated wing James Southerland caught fire from long range and Michael Carter-Williams piled up assists, helping Syracuse win three straight to reach the conference final. There the Orange took a 13-point lead over Louisville into halftime only to return to the court for the most disastrous 20 minutes of their season. The Cardinals pressed and sped-up Syracuse into oblivion, Gorgui Dieng picked its 2-3 zone apart from its middle with deft passing, and Louisville ran away with a 17-point victory. The funk was back, at least for a half, and the results were ugly and decisive.
They are here, having won their first two tournament games, after a mixed bag of an opening weekend. The Orange dominated Montana by a score of 81-34 and then dispatched Cal 66-60 in front of a partisan San Jose crowd, but even in that game there was cause for concern. The Orange went 12 minutes without a field goal, making just six of their 17 attempts in the second half, and Carter-Williams turned the ball over five times to give him 23 in his last five games. To beat Indiana on Thursday, Syracuse will need its A game, which will include not only making shots and taking care of the ball to keep up with the Hoosiers' offense but also preventing Cody Zeller from perching in their zone's underbelly and dishing to his stable of sharpshooting teammates on the perimeter. Indiana is too good for Syracuse to get by without a complete performance.
Victor Oladipo. It has been a steady three years of growth for the 6-5- guard, a lock-down perimeter defender and highly efficient scorer from all over the floor who came to Bloomington as a relatively unheralded three-star recruit. He is a natural showman who seized the NCAA tournament spotlight Sunday afternoon with a game-sealing three against Temple (complete with a hand held high after the release for added effect). Playing in his backyard in what will be the biggest game of his career thus far, Oladipo has the stage set for him to put on his best show yet.
No. 2 Miami vs. No. 3 Marquette. Both teams' coaches can endear with emotion -- see Larranaga's emphasis on positive visualization techniques, or Williams' heartfelt soliloquies -- and draw up a brilliant game plan with meticulous scouting aided by advanced statistics (even if Williams bemoaned the second perception after the Butler win by saying, "I don't want to be tactical, I want to be tough"). How this shows up on the court: neither team will blink or back down when the other lands a blow or two, and both will be thoroughly prepared to deny the other's strengths. This has the makings of a game where neither team can shake the other loose and the difference comes down to one or two decisive plays in the final minute.
Indiana. The narrative that has played out over the last two seasons, during which Tom Crean's Hoosiers suddenly turned the corner from three straight losing campaigns to legitimate national contenders, is that Indiana is back after a decade of dormancy and Bloomington has resumed its rightful place in the basketball universe. And while a second straight Sweet 16 after nine seasons that peaked with consecutive second-round exits in 2006 and '07 is indeed welcome, Indiana is a program measured by its trips to the Final Four (eight) and national championships (five); it has been 11 years since it last reached the former and 26 since it won the latter. With Oladipo and Zeller, the nation's best teammate tandem, and a deep array of other weapons in the fold, the Hoosiers are facing expectations that are sky high. This is the only team in the region for whom an exit before Atlanta could be considered a legitimate disappointment. This is the kind of team built to hang banners.
0. The number of NCAA tournament games players on Miami's roster had played before last week. The Hurricanes are a veteran team -- the average age of their top six rotation players, as noted in the Luke Winn story linked above, is 22.5 -- but when it comes to the postseason, let alone its second weekend, they are all novices.
Indiana. In the tournament's most by-the-book region, the smart money is on the top dog, the group's most complete team and as authentic a championship contender as they come.