Stars take teams from Sweet to Elite


Reaching the Sweet 16 has shelf life for about a year, maybe two.

Making it to the Elite Eight lasts a lot longer.

Earning a trip to the Final Four? Well, that lasts a lifetime.

So how do the 16 teams still playing this week take that next step in becoming among 2004's Elite? How does any team, whether it may be UAB or UConn, win the right to play for a spot in the Final Four?

The better question: Why have so many entered the second week of the NCAA Tournament, only to fail to get out of the Sweet 16?

Four words: Lack of a star. Consider the difference between the last two years' Cinderella stories.

Last year, 12th-seeded Butler was the darling of the Sweet 16 after upsets of No. 5 seed Mississippi State and fourth-seeded Louisville. But Butler didn't get past Oklahoma in large part because it lacked one great player.

A year earlier, however, Kent State reached the Elite Eight as a No. 10 seed because Trevor Huffman wasn't just the Golden Flashes' best player, but the best player on the court for three nights.

While Huffman had a brief stint with the Phoenix Suns last season, we're not talking about the need for NBA-caliber players. Instead, a team needs its best players to elevate their games for 40 minutes at a time.

"Your best player has to show up," Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson said of winning in the Sweet 16. "That's a best player's game. You can't survive without him."

Hollis Price was the guy who stepped up for the Sooners the past two seasons, as Oklahoma reached consecutive Elite Eights and earned a trip to the Final Four behind Price in 2002. Dwyane Wade was that player for Marquette last season. He all but beat Pittsburgh by himself in the Sweet 16 and then was the deciding factor in the Golden Eagles' victory over top-seeded Kentucky in the regional final.

"He took over that second half (against Pittsburgh)," Marquette coach Tom Crean said. "We ran the same play for him four times and he scored twice and assisted on two other plays. We wouldn't have been in the Sweet 16 without Travis Diener's play, but Dwayne got us to the Elite Eight and the Final Four."

Getting to the Sweet 16 isn't as difficult as it may seem, at least for high seeds who play up to their potential. Duke is in its seventh straight Sweet 16, but beat Alabama State and a sixth-place Big East team (Seton Hall) to get there. Connecticut took out Vermont and a overmatched DePaul, while Kansas and Wake Forest haven't beaten a team seeded higher than 11 to reach the Sweet 16.

Winning this week, though, won't be quite as routine. Alabama coach Mark Gottfried played in three Sweet 16 for the Tide, but couldn't get to the Elite Eight.

"I couldn't do it," Gottfried said. "Our school has never gotten past the Sweet 16. Never. This would be a huge step for our program. We need to take a step like this."

In addition to a big-time player stepping up (look for the survivor of Alabama-Syracuse to come down to who dominates Friday's game -- Alabama's Kennedy Winston and/or Earnest Shelton or Syracuse's Hakim Warrick and/or Gerry McNamara), teams must also focus on the game in front of it this week. It can't think about the two it just won to get here, or the one that gets it to San Antonio.

This week's big-time players must take a certain mentality into Thursday's and Friday's games. Sampson said he made sure Price understood it was his time to take over games. Coaches get their teams this far, but Sampson says players win the Sweet 16 game.

"Carmelo Anthony, guys like that, they win these Sweet 16 games," Sampson said.

Players such as Connecticut's Emeka Okafor or Ben Gordon, or Vanderbilt's Matt Freije, have taken charge of their teams all season. But each now must make his teammates better over the few days before the Sweet 16 game. They also must welcome the added attention the week brings.

"The stars have to grab onto the sense of urgency this week," Crean said. "The teams with the stars are likely to advance now. The teams that are left have to believe that they belong here. So much of March is about attitude and confidence.

"If those players embrace it, they can win the Sweet 16 game."

But, coaches agree, it's also easy for players to get wrapped up into thinking they are two games away from the Final Four. Come the Elite Eight, it's a no-brainer to start looking at the Final Four being just 40 minutes away. But losing focus over the next four days before Thursday or Friday will make those next 40 minutes moot.

"Once you get to the Sweet 16, everyone thinks they have a shot to win the national title," said Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli, coaching in his second Sweet 16. "But the players can get confused into thinking they need to win four games. They need to win one. But the senses are all on edge because that's what everyone is talking about once you get to the second weekend. You've got to block that out."

The attention that shifts to those 16 of 326 teams still playing this week is intense. Suddenly, everyone wants to know about Nevada and the Boys from Birmingham. Each are national stories, there are four or five days of interviews, instead of the quick turnaround from winning that first-round game and upsetting a No. 1 or No. 2 seed to get to the Sweet 16.

It's easy to see why UAB coach Mike Anderson would be a bit overwhelmed. Sunday night, he was talking about how getting to the Sweet 16 meant so much to his program and his players. But then, just as quickly, he caught himself. And almost in an attempt to justify his Blazers being in the same story lines as Duke, Texas or Pittsburgh, he said his Blazers could win the national title. Going so far as to say cutting down the nets in San Antonio was UAB's unstated goal at the beginning of the season.

Nevada coach Trent Johnson remained stoic Sunday, trying to foster the one-game-at-a-time coachspeak. He said he doesn't concern himself with the added attention. But let's be real. Johnson knows all too well the national spotlight could become a distraction if the Wolf Pack is enamored with its newfound fame.

Martelli isn't ducking any national attention. Then again, his Hawks have been on the minds of college basketball fans all season.

He did admit Sunday that there was overwhelming joy, and to some extent relief, in the locker room Saturday after beating Texas Tech to advance to East Rutherford, N.J., this week. But now the trick is to ensure that getting to the Sweet 16 isn't the final step. The next 72 hours will be the hardest prep time he has had this season. He knows Wake Forest is suddenly feeling great about itself and has four days to break down the Hawks.

"I did say to myself that if we didn't get to the Sweet 16 that our record would be questioned," Martelli said. "I know that's unfair, and I'm not sure the players felt that. This whole season has been surreal but what happens now is that it's almost like we're floating on a cloud. There are only 16 teams left playing.

"This tournament gets to 32 teams so quickly that you don't have time to digest it, but you do once it gets to 16. This is a different weekend."

But nothing compared to the one awaiting four Sweet 16 teams who go from Elite this week to San Antonio next week.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.