Commentary

Sneak peek at the Sweet 16

Originally Published: March 24, 2008
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

EAST REGIONAL (CHARLOTTE, N.C.)


No. 1 NORTH CAROLINA vs. No. 4 WASHINGTON STATE, Thursday, 7:27 ET
Was this expected? Of course, given that the Tar Heels were the top seed in the tournament and there didn't seem to be a movement to go with Indiana or Arkansas in a second-round upset. Not reaching the Sweet 16 for this North Carolina team would have been deemed a major disappointment.

How did they get here? UNC scorched its first two opponents, tossing up 100-plus points in both games. The offense is clicking at its best pace this season. The Tar Heels made 50 percent of their 3s and 67.7 percent of their shots in running away from Arkansas.

What does this mean for the program? More than anything, it just validates the Tar Heels. Clearly, getting back to the Sweet 16 isn't an easy chore (just ask Georgetown). But clearing this hurdle for this group was a must after last season's disappointing Elite Eight loss to Georgetown in New Jersey. Getting to the Sweet 16 two years in a row -- especially when its chief rival, Duke, gets bounced in the first weekend both times -- never hurts in any rivalry boasting.

Drama factor so far? None. Nada. Boring. Unlike UCLA, another favorite for the title, the Tar Heels haven't had their gut-check moment to date. Who knows? Maybe they won't need one.

Was this expected? That's debatable. Sure, the Cougars were projected to be here as the No. 4 seed. But Washington State hadn't been a model of consistency so far this season. And the Cougars hadn't been this far since 1941, when they finished second in the tournament. History might not apply to this group, but having faith that the Cougars would be playing in the second weekend probably wasn't a widespread phenomenon outside the greater Spokane-Pullman metropolitan area.

How did they get here? By playing some of the best basketball they've played this season. Washington State held Winthrop to 40 points, 11 in the second half. The Cougars then dismantled Notre Dame, holding the once-offensively-powerful Irish to 41. Neither Winthrop nor Notre Dame shot better than 31 percent against Washington State. The Cougars' offense wasn't too shabby, either, with everyone getting into the act, including Caleb Forrest, who put in four key points in the win over the Irish.

What does this mean for the program? This is a monumental bar for the Cougs to hurdle. Getting to the Sweet 16 seems to legitimize and validate everything the Bennett family has done in Pullman. Fair or not, the Cougs and everyone else are judged by March. Washington State turned from a cute little story in the Northwest to a serious player. Although the Cougs might slide back a bit next season with the graduation of Robbie Cowgill, Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver, they'll be taken much more seriously on the recruiting trail.

Drama factor so far? Amazingly, not much for a team that usually plays games close. The only drama for Washington State so far was being tied with Winthrop at the half. Since then, the Cougs have outscored their two opponents 103-52.

No. 3 LOUISVILLE vs. No. 2 TENNESSEE, Thursday 9:57 ET
Was this expected? Yes. Louisville was the chic pick to get into the Sweet 16. Even though the Cards lost to Georgetown in the Big East regular-season finale and fell to Pitt in the conference tournament, there was something about this squad that said it probably was going further than most of the Big East entrants. Being bumped earlier than the second weekend (see: Georgetown) would have been a disappointment.

How did they get here? It's been rather easy. The Cards weren't truly pushed by Boise State or Oklahoma in the first two rounds. The Cards are making 3s (12 against Boise State and nine against Oklahoma) and limiting their opponents' 3s (4 of 17 for the Broncos and 5 of 18 for the Sooners). The Cards are playing remarkably consistently on offense, with balance and a deep rotation that is keeping this team surprisingly fresh going into the second weekend.

What does this mean for the program? Getting to the Sweet 16 is yet another notch for Rick Pitino on his endless belt of achievements. This was a team that seemed lost earlier in the season when injuries appeared to have crushed this crew. But the year turned quickly with David Padgett's recovery, and talk of whether the Cards would make the tournament turned quickly to how far they would go -- something that continues to be updated.

Drama factor so far? Not yet. The Cards are making this a rather vanilla run through the tournament so far. The odds are unlikely that will continue against Tennessee.

Was this expected? Of course. The Vols weren't supposed to get tripped up by American and/or Butler, but they certainly made it look interesting. Tennessee had a right to lodge a complaint for not being a No. 1 seed and for being put in North Carolina's bracket as a No. 2. So, falling short of the Sweet 16 would have been a crushing ending for the SEC champs.

How did they get here? Well, let's just say by surviving in each round. Tennessee let American hang around way too long in the 72-57 victory and went into overtime with Butler on Sunday before winning 76-71. The Vols appear rudderless at times with a revolving point guard situation. The Vols didn't help themselves by shooting 5-of-19 on 3s against Butler, with Chris Lofton going 3-of-11 overall from the field. Committing 20 turnovers against the Bulldogs was also a no-no if they wanted an easier win.

What does this mean for the program? A huge sigh of relief because Tennessee wants to establish itself as a premier program in the SEC. Tennessee had to get to the Sweet 16 to do that because teams in this role of late, such as Kentucky and Florida, made some regular stops in the Sweet 16 during their respective runs.

Drama factor so far? Tennessee's games against American and Butler were on-demand viewing as drama unfolded in the middle of the second half. With Louisville looming and a possible date with UNC next, expect the drama factor for Tennessee to be at a high as long as the Vols stay in the field.


MIDWEST REGIONAL (Detroit)


No. 3 WISCONSIN vs. No. 10 DAVIDSON, Friday, 7:10 ET
Was this expected? Depends whom you ask. The Badgers were a trendy pick to be upset in the second round against USC or Kansas State. Not even close. USC couldn't get by the Wildcats, and Kansas State turned out to be tame as Wisconsin rolled to a 72-55 win. The Badgers have been the afterthought throughout the Big Ten season. Yet by the end, they had won the regular-season title outright and survived to win the conference tournament.

How did they get here? The defense was solid, limiting the opponents to 56 (Cal State Fullerton) and 55 points (Kansas State). K-State whiffed on all 13 of its 3-point attempts against the Badgers. No one outside of Bill Walker and Michael Beasley reached double figures for the Wildcats. Meanwhile, the Badgers were guard-oriented, with Trevon Hughes and Michael Flowers dominating the position against K-State with 25 and 15 points, respectively.

What does this mean for the program? Yet again, the Badgers prove to be, with this Sweet 16 appearance, a model of consistency. Wisconsin needs to be viewed as an elite top-10 or top-15 program every season with its ability to shuffle the talent deck and continue to be in the thick of the Big Ten title and a deeper run in the NCAAs.

Drama factor so far? Once again, who would have projected that the Badgers would have coasted to the Sweet 16? Wisconsin hasn't been pushed much at all save for a few moments for Fullerton in the first half when the Badgers were ahead by a mere two.

Was this expected? It's probably a safe assumption that outside of the Davidson locker room and its devoted fan base, few had the Wildcats in the Sweet 16. Projecting a win over Gonzaga wasn't a reach, but duplicating that with a comeback win over Georgetown wasn't the mainstream projection. Davidson isn't the most unlikely Sweet 16 team (that might go to Western Kentucky) because of its unblemished mark in the Southern Conference this season, but getting through this portion of the bracket makes it a close second to the Hilltoppers.

How did they get here? Two words: Stephen Curry. Curry went for 40 against Gonzaga and 30 against Georgetown. But look deeper at this team and you'll see Andrew Lovedale grabbing 13 key boards in the win over the Zags and Jason Richards scoring 20 against the Hoyas. Timely buckets and outworking opponents in key situations led to the Sweet 16 appearance.

What does this mean for the program? It certainly puts Davidson and Curry on the national scene. Those who follow the game closely knew about the job Bob McKillop has done over the years and how special a player Curry was at this small, private school in the Charlotte area. But the mainstream public probably didn't have a clue as to how good both were, and a Sweet 16 appearance validates all the hard work they -- and everyone else associated with the program -- have put into making Davidson relevant.

Drama factor so far? It's off the charts. The win over Gonzaga and the comeback over Georgetown put the Wildcats probably at No. 1 for overall drama so far through two rounds.

No. 1 KANSAS vs. No. 12 VILLANOVA, Friday, 9:40 ET
Was this expected? Shouldn't even ask this rhetorical question because falling short of the Sweet 16 at the very least would have been deemed a major disappointment by the faithful Jayhawk nation. Kansas struggled a tad on the road in the middle of the Big 12 slate. But that's about it this season. Kansas resurfaced in the final weeks to be the premier team in the Big 12 and earned a No. 1 seed. KU is a title contender. Getting to the Sweet 16 wasn't even a question.

How did they get here? Overall, Kansas handled the first two rounds rather easily, with double-digit wins over Portland State and UNLV. The Runnin' Rebels shot a season-low 27 percent against Kansas. The balance from the Jayhawks was par for the course, with everyone getting into the act -- from Brandon Rush to Mario Chalmers to Russell Robinson to Sherron Collins to Darrell Arthur to Darnell Jackson. The knock that there isn't one go-to guy doesn't have much merit when Kansas continues to have multiple scoring options.

What does this mean for the program? A huge sigh of relief because the Jayhawks experienced the low of losing in the first round in two consecutive seasons before last season's Elite Eight. Getting to the Sweet 16 is a norm for Kansas, even though it is clearly not such an easy task (see early exits by Georgetown and Duke). But the standard at KU is a Final Four appearance, so there is more work to be done.

Drama factor so far? Not much. But did you really think there would be?

Was this expected? Ah, no. Villanova was one of the last teams in the field and drew a deserved 12 seed. But to expect that Villanova would beat Clemson and what was supposed to be Vanderbilt might have been wishful thinking. Seriously, who had Nova in the Sweet 16 when the Wildcats were mired in mediocrity in February?

How did they get here? Villanova pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in the regular season, coming from 21 points down to beat LSU by one in the final eight minutes in the SEC-Big East Invitational in Philadelphia. So, coming back from 16 points to beat Clemson in the first round shouldn't come as a shock. Pulling away from Siena in Round 2 isn't a surprise, either. Leaning on Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher is the norm, too.

What does this mean for the program? There are three Big East teams left in the Sweet 16, and Villanova is one of them. The Wildcats have surged toward being a consistent upper-division team in the Big East under Jay Wright. Getting to the Sweet 16 cements that even further.

Drama factor so far? There wasn't much against Siena. But the Wildcats had their share of drama in coming back against Clemson, then keeping the Tigers at bay. A 12 seed in the Sweet 16 should have played at least one game that was must-see viewing.


SOUTH REGIONAL (Houston)


No. 3 STANFORD vs. No. 2 TEXAS, Friday, 7:27 ET
Was this expected? Well, if you're going to get a No. 3 seed and finish just out of first place in the Pac-10, you'd better make it to at least the second weekend of the tournament, right? Stanford had what appeared to be a favorable draw with Cornell up first, then either Marquette or Kentucky, two teams that lacked a post presence to compete with the Lopez twins. But, ah, nothing is as it seems in this tournament.

How did they get here? Brook Lopez. Did you see how hard an angle Lopez had on the winning shot to beat Marquette in overtime? Wow. Lopez used his size and strength to get the shot off and knew the angles well enough to see that shot through. But let's not dismiss Brook's twin, Robin, who combined with Brook's 30 to give the Cardinal 48 of the team's 82 points Saturday in Anaheim, Calif. Point guard Mitch Johnson had a stellar performance with 16 assists and one turnover against the pressure-oriented Golden Eagles.

What does this mean for the program? Well, after last season's floundering first-round performance against Louisville, this comes as a huge relief. The Cardinal played as if they were one of the 16 best programs this season, and getting to the second weekend validates the year the Lopez twins and players such as Johnson, Taj Finger, Anthony Goods and Lawrence Hill had in the Pac-10.

Drama factor so far? Pretty, pretty high, and it all came in the second-round win over Marquette. The end-of-game situation to push it to overtime and the final frenetic possessions to beat Marquette made for classic March Madness viewing.

Was this expected? Yes. When the bracket came out, the Longhorns probably had one of the easier rides to the Sweet 16 of the No. 2 seeds. Texas earned that with regular-season wins over UCLA, Tennessee and Kansas. Texas had little trouble with Austin Peay, but had to survive a gritty Miami to advance.

How did they get here? Texas did what it does best in beating Austin Peay, and that's lean on its guards (A.J. Abrams had 26 points, and the team shot 56.6 percent on 3s). The trend continued in the win over Miami: shooting 57.1 percent, Abrams putting up 26 again, and D.J. Augustin having a decent floor game with eight assists and three turnovers. The Longhorns didn't help themselves by missing 10 free throws, but still were able to make enough plays when it mattered to advance.

What does this mean for the program? Texas has clearly established itself as one of the premier programs in the country. Getting to the Sweet 16 the year after Kevin Durant -- the best freshman and national POY contender -- leaves is yet another accomplishment for coach Rick Barnes. Texas has become one of the top jobs in the country under Barnes and a Sweet 16, as hard as it is to achieve, proves the Longhorns are elite.

Drama factor so far? It got a little dicey in the final minute against Miami. But credit the Hurricanes for pushing Texas to make free throws. Texas had the game under control for most of it but needed to get a little anxiety sweat going before heading to Houston.

No. 1 MEMPHIS vs. No. 5 MICHIGAN STATE, Friday, 9:57 ET
Was this expected? Had this team, maybe more so than any other No. 1 seed, not reached the Sweet 16, there would have been plenty of jabs thrown toward Memphis. Coach John Calipari has a right to feel as though the Tigers are watched differently than other No. 1 seeds. Memphis didn't play in one of the tougher leagues this season, so there is a perception that the Tigers weren't tested enough in conference play. Not getting to the Sweet 16 would have led to a pile-on mentality with Memphis despite its one-loss season so far.

How did they get here? The Tigers had to earn the second-round win over Mississippi State in North Little Rock, Ark. Mississippi State was able to be the aggressor at times, with Jamont Gordon and Ben Hansbrough finding ways to score in a variety of ways. Memphis' defense wasn't as tight as it has been, and the Tigers had to rely on the creativity of Chris Douglas-Roberts to get to the bucket and bail them out late in the game. Joey Dorsey played huge in this game with 13 points and 12 boards to go along with six blocks as he asserted himself when the Tigers needed him most.

What does this mean for the program? Memphis is in rare company with three straight 30-win seasons (UCLA also has done this) and three straight Sweet 16 appearances, which wasn't the norm before Calipari's arrival. But the Tigers are focused on getting to the Final Four with a shot at the title. So, this is a rubber stamp hurdle the Tigers had to have this season.

Drama factor so far? Memphis had a bit of it Sunday with MSU deciding to stay in this game for the long haul. The score was within three with 19 seconds remaining, but the Bulldogs weren't able to tie it. So, for a Memphis team that hasn't had many close calls, this at least pushed it toward feeling as if it has been tested in the tourney.

Was this expected? Depends whom you ask. Michigan State was a popular pick either to be upset in the first round against Temple or to flame out against Pitt. The Spartans have been a model of inconsistency this season. So getting to the second weekend is a solid achievement.

How did they get here? Defense. Michigan State locked up Mark Tyndale and Dionte Christmas in the win over Temple, limiting the pair to a combined two points in the first half and 7-of-26 shooting overall. For Pitt, Ronald Ramon went 1-of-9 and Levance Fields shot 1-of-5 on 3s. Getting Drew Neitzel shooting well in the win over Pitt essentially put Sparty over the top and into the Sweet 16. Having Goran Suton as a reliable post finisher (14 points on an efficient 7-of-11 shooting night) helped, too.

What does this mean for the program? Tom Izzo has been to seven Sweet 16s in 13 seasons as head coach. That's not too shabby. MSU is one of the elite programs in the country, one of the best in the past decade. This is yet another example.

Drama factor so far? Surprisingly, not that much except for the first half against Pitt on Saturday night in Denver. The Spartans handled Temple rather easily and pulled away from Pitt in the second half.


WEST REGIONAL (Phoenix)


No. 7 WEST VIRGINIA vs. No. 3 XAVIER, Thursday, 7:10 ET
Was this expected? Don't think so, not with West Virginia's being a bubble team for the at-large pool in the final few weeks of the season. But when the bracket was announced, the Mountaineers had oodles of potential against an Arizona team staring at them in Round 1. Once the Wildcats were dispatched, all that awaited West Virginia was a wounded but seemingly determined Duke squad after the Blue Devils narrowly escaped with a one-point win over Belmont. Still, West Virginia reached the Sweet 16. That's impressive.

How did they get here? The Mountaineers became an offensive machine with balance as Alex Ruoff, Da'Sean Butler, Darris Nichols and Joe Alexander all made major contributions. Alexander was a big-time, NBA-draft talent in the win over Duke. But the stud of the game was backup point guard Joe Mazzulla, who came off the bench to score 13 points, grab 11 boards and dish out eight assists. The Blue Devils struggled on 3s against West Virginia, making just 5 of 22, and got hammered on the boards in a 45-19 advantage, including giving up 18 offensive rebounds.

What does this mean for the program? It's absolutely huge. There's no way to downplay the significance. John Beilein took the Mountaineers to the Sweet 16 with a special group led by Mike Gansey and Kevin Pittsnogle. Having alumnus Bob Huggins take West Virginia to the Sweet 16 in his first season will do wonders for recruiting and Huggins' stature in the state. The run probably eases a little bit of the sting from the Rich Rodriguez departure to Michigan, too.

Drama factor so far? The Mountaineers didn't have to beat Arizona or Duke in the final possessions. But both games had a high-level feel to them, and clearly the Mountaineers are playing intense ball from the opening tip.

Was this expected? Quite frankly, yes. Xavier had been the class of the Atlantic 10 all season long. The No. 3 seed was justified. The Musketeers were one of the top 16 teams in the country all season long. So, Xavier should have earned a berth to the second weekend.

How did they get here? Well, that part wasn't so easy. Xavier drew America's team in Georgia, fresh off a stunning SEC tournament title. Playing Georgia as a No. 14 seed wouldn't be the norm for a No. 3 seed. No. 14 seeds usually don't beat four top-50 programs to earn an automatic berth. The Musketeers withstood a furious punch early and often from the Bulldogs but were able to prevail as Derrick Brown scored 19 points, grabbed 10 boards and picked up three steals. The game with Purdue in the second round was just as intense. Xavier was more efficient offensively as Drew Lavender, C.J. Anderson and Josh Duncan were more assertive than their Boilermakers counterparts. Shooting 54 percent was an indicator of how fluid the offense was for the Musketeers.

What does this mean for the program? It's hard to say that a Sweet 16 can be the difference between a good and a great season for Xavier. But the Musketeers probably would have been pretty disappointed to go home early after having such a dominant run in the A-10. The conference was desperate to have Xavier make it to the second weekend after Saint Joe's and Temple were bounced in Round 1.

Drama factor so far? The Musketeers didn't win either game on the last possession, but the games were entertaining throughout.

No. 1 UCLA vs. No. 12 WESTERN KENTUCKY, Thursday, 9:40 ET
Was this expected? Of course. UCLA had to be in the Sweet 16 with the core of its team back from two Final Four appearances, the Pac-10 Player and Freshman of the Year in Kevin Love, one of the top point guards in Darren Collison, and plenty of good karma this season in close wins. The national championship is the stated goal, so reaching the Sweet 16 was a necessary hurdle.

How did they get here? Let's not even discuss the Mississippi Valley State game. That was just unfair. The win over Texas A&M matched every other ending, save Western Kentucky-Drake. UCLA was the hometown favorite in Anaheim, and the Bruins were a bit tight at halftime, trailing 29-26. The comeback over the Aggies, in one of the more dramatic finishes so far in the field, was quite something. The Pond seemed to be shaking, at least through the television screen. Collison made the go-ahead basket with a layup with 9.5 seconds remaining. But UCLA coach Ben Howland said Sunday night that Love deserves the credit for the turnaround. Love took over the game with 19 points, 11 rebounds and seven blocks. The Bruins have had plenty of scares of late: against Stanford (twice), Cal (once) and USC (once) in the past few weeks. So, needing every second against Texas A&M shouldn't have come as a surprise.

What does this mean for the program? Well, the goal was the Final Four first and the title second, so getting to the Sweet 16 is a must for a program that puts only national championship banners above Pauley Pavilion court. UCLA is 7-1 against the current Sweet 16 field (losing only to Texas).

Drama factor so far? Note to self, don't ask this question for UCLA or Western Kentucky. The end-of-game situations for both were quite something.

Was this expected? Not even close. The Hilltoppers won the Sun Belt Conference tournament; they would have been an at-large candidate without the title but probably wouldn't have gotten a bid. Losing to South Alabama twice in the regular season probably would have negated WKU's success. So, like George Mason two years ago, the Hilltoppers entered the tourney as an afterthought yet provided some of the best drama so far.

How did they get here? Tyrone Brazelton had an unbelievable outing against Drake with 33 points, but the moment belonged to Ty Rogers and his buzzer-beating, hand-in-your face 3-pointer to win the game, 101-99, in overtime. The second-round affair wasn't even close in anxiety, being a rather pedestrian 72-63 win over fellow first-round shocker San Diego, the No. 13 seed.

What does this mean for the program? How about everything? Western Kentucky is and will always be the little brother to in-state powers Kentucky and Louisville. So, for the WKU program to get the major ink for a week of the NCAA tournament is publicity this program hasn't seen in or out of the state in years. Louisville is still alive in the field, but Western's run is far more entertaining. Getting to the Sweet 16 is a huge boost for Darrin Horn's career, too. He was doing a great job at Western this season, but this will make sure everyone in the biz notices.

Drama factor so far? Rogers' shot is the shot of the tournament. You want drama factor? This is No. 1 by far.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com