North Carolina's position is far more precarious. The Tar Heels, whose brilliant freshman class from a year ago returned after losing in the regional final to Kentucky, were severely diminished midway through the second half of Sunday's 87--73 win over Creighton when sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall took a hard foul and broke a bone in his right (nonshooting) wrist. Marshall had surgery on the wrist on Monday in an attempt to be able play in the next round. The Tar Heels' postgame locker room was as somber as after a defeat. "I've never had a serious injury before," Marshall said. "I twisted my ankle once my junior year in high school and played through that."
If Marshall can't play, which seems likely, coach Roy Williams has few options. Former starter Larry Drew II quit a year ago when Marshall became the primary floor general. Dexter Strickland's season ended with a torn right ACL in January. (Leslie McDonald had already been lost last summer to a torn right ACL.) Freshman Stilman White, a late signee who was reportedly recruited by only Brigham Young and Utah State, could be one option as the emergency replacement for Marshall, but he has played only 4.3 minutes a game and dished out just 19 assists, total. "When you go to the Sweet 16," said Williams, "it's supposed to be a lot more fun than this."
Other teams are having plenty of fun. There are four representatives each from the Big Ten and the Big East, and an unprecedented foursome from one state (Ohio, Ohio State, Cincinnati and Xavier, the latter two having come all the way back from their embarrassing intracity brawl on Dec. 10, an event that neither team discusses much with the media), 13 former national champions (only Baylor, Ohio and Xavier have not claimed titles) and three double-digit seeds. It's not quite as wild as in 2011, when No. 11 seed Virginia Commonwealth and No. 8 Butler reached the Final Four. But then again, there's still a week to go.
Perhaps it will be Ohio that follows in the footsteps of Butler, which played in—and lost—consecutive national championship games, an absurd accomplishment for a mid-major program. Ohio coach John Groce overlapped with Bulldogs coach Brad Stevens for a season at Butler in 2000--01 (Stevens was then the director of basketball operations) and two years ago led the No. 14 Bobcats to a first-round blowout upset of Georgetown behind then freshman guard D.J. Cooper's 23 points.
Now the 5'11" Cooper remains the backbone of Ohio's attack, in tandem with 6'3" junior Walter Offutt, a transfer from Ohio State who scored 21 points on Sunday in a 62--56 victory over South Florida. While Groce coached, his wife, Allison, sat in the stands with their son, Conner, 6, on her lap, hiding her face behind the boy when the Bobcats shot important free throws. Conner, who wore a green RULE THE COURT Ohio T-shirt, was just a year old at his last Sweet 16, in 2007, when Groce was an assistant at Ohio State. The Bobcats will be at the Midwest Regional in St. Louis, where they will face a potentially diminished North Carolina.
In the opposite half of the Midwest bracket lies another of the surviving surprise teams: North Carolina State, which sat precariously on the bubble on Selection Sunday and advanced by knocking off No. 6 seed San Diego State and No. 3 Georgetown. In the 66--63 win over the Hoyas, 6'5" guard C.J. Williams, the only senior starter for first-year coach Mark Gottfried, had 14 points, including a key first-half tip-in and a three-point basket as the Wolfpack took the lead. Williams's performance came after he talked with his father, Wendell, on Friday night at the team hotel in Columbus after C.J. scored just six points against San Diego State. "We were with my mom, and he pulled me off to the side," C.J. said on Sunday. "We talked about things me and him saw in the gym late at night, when other people were sleeping. He said to stay confident in your game." The Wolfpack will play No. 2 seed Kansas (left), which rallied very late to beat Purdue and end the five-year, injury-marred career of Purdue senior Robbie Hummel, who scored 26 points.
In the West Regional at Phoenix, Michigan State's path back to New Orleans is blocked first by Louisville and junior point guard Peyton Siva, who could play a role similar to that of the brilliant Kemba Walker of UConn a year ago. Like the Huskies, who bowed to Iowa State in the first round, Louisville stockpiled momentum by winning the Big East tournament, and like Walker, Siva has become better later in the season.
The 6-foot guard, who was MVP of the conference tournament and is one of three Cards who practice with MMA-style protective helmets after suffering concussions, benefited from a session earlier this month with coach Rick Pitino in which they screened footage of Steve Nash. "[Coach Pitino] showed me how to maneuver and not be so out of control," said Siva over the weekend. "It really helped me see the court better." Siva, who is of Samoan heritage and was raised in Seattle, estimates that he had 50 friends in attendance at the subregional in Portland. The Cardinals' Sweet 16 matchup with Michigan State, like Kentucky's with Indiana, will provide an opportunity for payback; the Spartans knocked Louisville out of the 2009 tournament in the Elite Eight.
Opposite that matchup in Phoenix, No. 7 Florida will run into the muscular force that is Marquette and 6'6", 235-pound senior forward Jae Crowder, the Big East player of the year. On his way to the Golden Eagles from Villa Rica, Ga., Crowder stopped at two junior colleges, transforming himself from what his father, onetime Jazz and Spurs forward Corey Crowder, calls "a little fat kid" into a chiseled, relentless forward who can defend every position. "I am so happy that he took the journey and the path that he did," says Corey of his son. "Had he come out and been labeled a McDonald's All-American and everyone just glad-handed him, he wouldn't have been worth a hill of beans. Get me a kid that's been beaten down, that's been overlooked, that's been underappreciated, and you'll get me somebody that's gonna be successful in the end."
There's little to underappreciate at the East Regional in Boston. Three of the top four seeds (Syracuse, No. 2 Ohio State and No. 4 Wisconsin) will be there along with No. 6 Cincinnati, which sent Florida State home on Sunday with a rugged 62--56 victory.