Eight teams remain. Just like that, the field has been cut in half again. After an up-and-down second round filled with blowouts and surprises, the Sweet Sixteen proved to be just as exciting, producing the Tournament’s first overtime game. Are these the best eight teams in the country? Maybe, maybe not. But they’re the best eight in this tournament.
Tournament Teams (4)- Duke, Miami, North Carolina, North Carolina State
Remaining Tournament Teams (1)- Duke
Verdict- Miami just couldn’t take care of business. Forget that Reggie Johnson couldn’t play due to injury, this is a team that scored only 16-points in the first half of Thursday’s loss against Marquette. That’s a not a winning formula. Now they must seek to replace departing seniors Julian Gamble, Kenny Kadji, Garrius Adams, Trey McKinney-Jones, Durand Scott and Johnson, while dealing with the real possibility that star sophomore point guard Shane Larkin still has time to enter the NBA Draft. Looking at the team’s roster, that’s just about every single player who got significant minutes this season. They just didn’t capitalize on the rare experience that they had, and the opportunity to do so has passed. Duke, on the hand, is leaning hard on its veterans to great success, as five out the seven players in Duke’s tight rotation are upperclassmen. Led by senior wingman Seth Curry, the Blue Devils looked confident in their first win against Power-Six competition this tournament. Say what you will about Duke always receiving favorable seeding (and they do, just look at the 2010 Championship cakewalk), but they don’t often lose to teams that they shouldn’t, and they have the ability to overachieve when they need to. Next up is a strong Louisville team, which will be a preview of future ACC matchups when the Cardinals officially join the conference in 2014. With powerful scorers on both sides, look for this to be the most exciting game of Sunday’s lineup.
Tournament Teams (5)- Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Iowa State, Oklahoma, Kansas
Remaining Tournament Teams (0)-
Verdict- With just three minutes left in the Jayhawks’ game against Michigan, it looked like the boys from Lawrence were going to walk their way into the next round of the Big Dance. A healthy lead, and a favorable clock, were only two of the factors working in their favor. But then they worked against themselves. They got lazy. They got content. That’s when Trey Burke took over. After a scoreless first half, he exploded in the second half, and made a capped off Michigan’s unlikely run when he made a three-pointer to tie the game with 4.3 seconds left. The Big 12 has now been eliminated from the NCAA Tournament. It’s easy to think that the ceiling for this Kansas team was higher, but they lost focus when it counted the most. And it cost them their season.
Tournament Teams (8)- Louisville, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Villanova, Georgetown, Syracuse, Marquette
Remaining Tournament Teams (3)- Louisville, Syracuse, Marquette
Verdict- Suddenly, the Big East has gone from an afterthought, to a real threat in this tournament (if you ignore the fact that Louisville and Syracuse are now ACC teams). Marquette didn’t just hang on in this round, as they had against Davidson and Butler, they destroyed a hapless Miami team that fell to the inconsistency that has plagued them all season. Louisville and Syracuse looked strong in wins over tough competition, with the Orange taking out the second number one seed, the Indian Hoosiers. In the Elite Eight, the Big East will face a problem that it often encounters this time of year- Syracuse and Marquette are playing each other, which means that only two Big East teams can advance to the Final Four. With a tough matchup against a veteran Duke team, the Louisville Cardinals must stay focused if they want to make it to Atlanta too.
Tournament Teams (7)- Michigan State, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan, Minnesota, Indiana, Illinois
Remaining Tournament Teams (2)- Ohio State, Michigan
Verdict- For the first time since the Fab Five, Michigan will be in the Elite Eight. Think about that for a minute. That’s twenty years. Where have they been? It’s hard not to be impressed with the program that John Beilein is building in Ann Arbor though, especially after an unlikely comeback against a dominant Kansas team. A once proud program, the Wolverines now carry the banner for the conference with their longtime rivals, the Ohio State Buckeyes. While Big Ten fans will still point to their league’s dominance this year, their tournament success has now been eclipsed by the resurgent Big East, which has three teams still dancing. In order to defend the title of “best conference” bestowed on them this season, the Big Ten must come out strong in the Elite Eight. A favorable matchup against a well-coached Wichita State team could have Ohio State looking ahead at the wrong time, while Michigan needs to stay focused in order to not fall prey to their own success.
Tournament Teams (5)- Oregon, Arizona, UCLA, California, Colorado
Remaining Tournament Teams (0)-
Verdict- Much like the Big 12, the Pac-12 is now without a representative in the Big Dance. Neither loss was surprising, as both schools lost to higher-seeded teams. Yet, while Oregon can hang their heads high after a surprising run in the Tournament, Arizona probably can’t help but think that the opportunity to advance got away from them. Long before LaQuinton Ross’ last-second shot, an early 11-point lead quickly became only a four-point lead at halftime. The killer instinct seen in the first few minutes of the game, was replaced by a frantic effort to keep up, and the Wildcats just couldn’t hang on. While the conference might have had a better-than-expected tournament, it has to be disappointing nevertheless.
Tournament Teams (3) - Missouri, Ole Miss, Florida, Kentucky
Remaining Tournament Teams (1)- Florida
Verdict- Florida is now the bad guy. After taking out Tournament-darling, and pseudo in-state rival Florida Gulf Coast, the Gators now have a target on their back. Everyone loves a Cinderella. No one likes the team that beats them. In order to advance to the Final Four, Florida must embrace this role and run with it. They face a Michigan team that just completed a surprising run of its own; the unexpected Cinderella of the third round. If they can use their position as a strength, it would not be surprising to see the Gators in Atlanta next weekend.
It’s hard to believe that it took this long to get an overtime game in the Tournament. While there have been numerous buzzer-beaters, an all-out, grind-fest hasn’t been seen until now. Here’s to hoping that the Elite Eight can reach the bar that has just been set.