- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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We can only hope the Sweet 16 is as entertaining as the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
The new favorites: Kentucky and Syracuse
Kansas was the anointed champion because the Jayhawks were the top seed. There was no reason to believe that KU would lose to Northern Iowa. None. Kansas had displayed a type of machinelike demeanor in going through the Big 12 regular season and tournament. But all that seemed to fade fast in the loss to the Panthers, as the Jayhawks played catch-up for most of the game.
Conversely, Kentucky and Syracuse had second-round wins we can only look at in awe. Kentucky was as dominating against Wake Forest as the Wildcats have been at any point this season. That doesn't mean Cornell can't beat UK in the Sweet 16. But at this point, it's undisputable which team left in the field has the most talent. If the Wildcats can play intelligently, convert 3s and rebound as they've been doing, they should advance.
Meanwhile, Syracuse crushed Gonzaga in the second round, making it seem as though the impact of Arinze Onuaku's injury was an overblown story. The Orange were led by Wesley Johnson's 31 points and 14 rebounds, the kind of performance that could be a precursor to Johnson's leading the Orange to a national title.
If Syracuse and Kentucky can get by Butler and Cornell, respectively, possible epic Elite Eight games would await both. This isn't to dismiss Xavier against Kansas State or Washington versus West Virginia. But it's not hard to debate that 1-2 matchups in the West and East would provide the NCAA tournament with the headline matchups it needs heading into Indy.
The convincing: Kansas State, West Virginia and Duke
Let's dismiss the idea that K-State, West Virginia or Duke can't win the national title. Any of them could. The Wildcats toyed with Brigham Young in the second round, never letting the Cougars get close enough to sniff a win. And you can't tell me that Kansas State isn't experiencing a bit of an emotional lift with Kansas out of the bracket. The Wildcats couldn't solve KU in three previous meetings and were on a collision course for a fourth meeting in the national semifinals if they could get past a likely matchup with Syracuse. K-State has much work to do to get to Indianapolis, but the Wildcats would take great pride in being the lone remaining team from the Sunflower State. Could you imagine Kansas State winning the national title and not Kansas? That would be quite a boast for Wildcat Nation.
West Virginia had to lean heavily on Da'Sean Butler to save the Mountaineers multiple times in the Big East tournament. But the Mountaineers dismantled Morgan State, then kept Missouri a few possessions away in the second round. West Virginia showed great poise and balance in advancing to the Sweet 16. Clearly, Butler isn't done with great performances if West Virginia is to advance.
I'm not sure whether I'm alone here, but don't you get the sense that everyone is waiting for Duke to fall? It hasn't been close so far. Of course, Duke put away Arkansas-Pine Bluff in Round 1. Then, the Blue Devils prevented Cal's Jerome Randle from going off on them Sunday. They controlled the game from the outset and never let up.
The Blue Devils have been consistent at home and on neutral courts in the past month. Second-seeded Villanova is out of the South bracket now. Duke will face gritty Purdue on Friday, then would meet either of Sweet 16 rookies Baylor or Saint Mary's in the Elite Eight. The path won't be smooth, but it doesn't look as daunting as it did before the tournament.
The most important player: Evan Turner, Ohio State
No one player will determine whether his team gets to the Final Four more than Turner. Throughout the season, Turner was the catalyst in delivering a share of the Big Ten regular-season title and then the conference tournament title. He wasn't needed to score as much in Ohio State's first-round win over UC Santa Barbara, but he did have 10 boards that compensated for his 2-of-13 shooting. So what did he do against Georgia Tech? He turned around and nearly had a triple-double with 24 points, 9 boards and 9 assists. He did have nine turnovers to match the assists, but he still has to be doing something of note for the Buckeyes to win. If Ohio State gets to the Final Four or claims the NCAA title, it will be because of Turner and no one else.
The player to remember: Ali Farokhmanesh, Northern Iowa
Seriously, has another player of late taken the nation by storm without being a known name by this point in the season? Davidson's Stephen Curry had the regular season to make his mark before the Wildcats' Elite Eight run.
The shots Farokhmanesh made against UNLV and Kansas will go down in highlight reels indefinitely. The collective gasp that probably was heard in the crowd at Oklahoma City was echoed in living rooms, bars and media rooms across the country when Farokhmanesh stood unguarded and launched the decisive 3-pointer against Kansas. It might go down as the defining shot of this tournament, regardless of what occurs the next two weekends. That one 3-pointer essentially changed the entire bracket and possible national title hopes of every other team remaining.
The spokesman: Omar Samhan, Saint Mary's
Samhan was a welcomed addition to the national scene last season, but he didn't have the platform. He does now. I know that every media member in Providence couldn't get enough of Samhan. First off, those watching his game, such as former Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr., were in awe of Samhan's post skills. He dominated the position in a win over Richmond (29 points and 12 rebounds with an efficient 11-of-16 from the field and 7-of-10 on free throws) before being unstoppable against Villanova with 32 points, 7 boards and 13-of-16 shooting, 6-of-8 at the line. Samhan was even more engaging off the court, laughing, throwing zingers at the media and embracing his role as the most quotable player in the field.
The newly defined Cinderella: Purdue
Cinderella doesn't have to be a team from a lower-profile conference. Why can't it be Purdue? The Boilermakers were a fourth seed, but let's be honest here: Outside of Boilermaker Nation, who had the Robbie Hummel-less Boilers going to the Sweet 16? I'm sure plenty of brackets did, but this is quite a story. Purdue hadn't beaten an NCAA tournament team without Hummel on the floor (save the second half at Minnesota in the game he got hurt). Purdue has reconstituted itself into a grittier team. Chris Kramer has taken over as an even gluier, higher productive player, and it just seems as if JaJuan Johnson is even more of a matchup issue. The Boilermakers made plays to beat Siena and did the same in overtime to take out Texas A&M. There's no way Purdue is expected to beat Duke, but it can. And if it does, we will need to acknowledge that this is a new kind of Cinderella story.
The wild card: Washington
Washington has won nine straight games including the Pac-10 tournament. The Huskies were one of the more talented teams in the Pac-10 if not the most talented this season. Well, finally, the Huskies are playing up to their potential. Quincy Pondexter beat Marquette with a bucket in the first round. Then in Round 2, it wasn't close against New Mexico, as Washington ran past the Lobos with ease. The Huskies defended quite well in that game, limiting the Lobos to 64 points.
Pondexter is a senior on a mission. Isaiah Thomas can score with any guard in this tournament. The role players are clicking, too. The Huskies face West Virginia next in the Sweet 16 in Syracuse, N.Y., and I won't be stunned if the Huskies' wild-card run continues if they can get the pace going. They don't seem to show fear.
Cornell is legit. I've said that from the beginning of the season and certainly in advance of the game against Kansas in January. We've talked at length about the difference between this Ivy League team and the 11 previous ones that couldn't win a first-round NCAA game. This Cornell edition has two NCAA tournament games from the past two seasons as experience.
The Big Red have the big man in Jeff Foote and multiple shooters led by Ryan Wittman and a solid point guard in Louis Dale. Still, Cornell versus Kentucky can't be couched as anything but David versus Goliath in the next round. If the Big Red beat the Wildcats, it still would qualify as one of the biggest upsets we've seen because an Ivy League team would reach the Elite Eight. Cornell's players don't receive athletic scholarships, and you can't compare it to Kentucky because of how the two schools approach the importance of sport on their respective campuses and in their communities. The last time an Ivy League team reached the Sweet 16 was in 1979. That was a different era in the sport. Doing it today would be a historic achievement.
The survivors: Butler, Xavier and Tennessee
Butler, Xavier and Tennessee weren't expected to be in the Sweet 16 regardless of seed. There seemed to be a notion that they had nice seasons but weren't elite enough to be in the final 16.
Butler has been nothing but a model of consistency, as it hasn't lost since Dec. 22. The Bulldogs ran past UTEP in the second half of their first-round game, then held on to beat Murray State in the second round. Gordon Hayward made a stellar defensive play by diving on a loose ball to stop a potential tying/winning shot.
Why can't Butler beat Syracuse? The Bulldogs can if they make shots and find a way inside the zone. Butler's defense has been consistently stingy and doesn't give up many transitional buckets.
Xavier is the most consistent program in the A-10 and arguably one of the steadiest in the country. There is such a winning culture at Xavier that it doesn't matter who is coaching. Forget about terming this program a mid-major. It's not true. Xavier consistently makes plays and did so to beat Minnesota and Pitt. The Musketeers got drilled by Kansas State on Dec. 8 in Manhattan, Kan. But toss out that result; the Musketeers are playing at a high level.
Tennessee shouldn't be here, not with everything that happened when four players were arrested and charged with gun possession at a traffic stop on Jan. 1. But the Vols continue to surprise and were helped out by Ohio ousting Georgetown in the first round. Of late, the Vols have won in multiple ways. They beat San Diego State in a grinder of a game, then ran past Ohio in an up-tempo affair.
Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl has done a marvelous job of using his entire roster this season. He keeps his bench players involved and ready to help. That was apparent when Josh Bone made the most of his minutes in the second-round win over the Bobcats. On Friday, Tennessee will face an Ohio State team that will have to deal with some pressure and with the prospect that Wayne Chism will be the best rebounder on the floor.
What I love about Michigan State is the Spartans' ability to find ways to win. They will have to do that without Kalin Lucas. Korie Lucious wasn't consistent when Lucas was out with an ankle injury earlier. He will have to be for Sparty to move on. Although Draymond Green has been a pleasant surprise, Delvon Roe and Raymar Morgan have to play up to potential if MSU is going to continue to advance.
Baylor will be the home team in Houston, but, as with Saint Mary's, this is all new territory. The Bears have the offensive talent to advance, especially on the perimeter with Tweety Carter and LaceDarius Dunn. But one of my new favorite players, Ekpe Udoh, will be the X-factor in whether Baylor advances. He will have to deal with Omar Samhan and either Duke's trio of bigs or Purdue's JaJuan Johnson.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.