Four Big East teams advance to the Sweet 16
Last year, people knocked the Big East Conference for only placing two teams in the Sweet 16 after placing nine teams in the field of 68. This year, the conference again placed nine teams in the dance, and four teams (Syracuse, Louisville, Cincinnati and Marquette) advanced to the Sweet 16, tying the Big Ten for most teams remaining.
Syracuse was a trendy Final Four team before sophomore center Fab Melo was ruled out for the duration of the NCAA Tournament. Melo’s absence almost cost the Orange a historic loss to UNC-Asheville in the first round, when the Orange trailed by four at halftime. The Bulldogs were down by just three points with one minute remaining before Syracuse was able to get some separation and eventually win, 72-65.
Syracuse looked more like the team that spent most of the year as the No. 1 team in the country in a 75-59 victory over Kansas State to advance to the Sweet 16. Jim Boeheim earned his 47th win in the NCAA Tournament, tying him with John Wooden for fifth-most all-time.
Louisville stormed through the Big East Championship Tournament, winning four games in four days, but people still believed the Cardinals had something to prove in March. Rick Pitino’s team had lost three consecutive games in the NCAA Tournament before fending off Davidson in the second round and then New Mexico to advance to the Sweet 16.
Perhaps the most unlikely team still playing is Cincinnati. The Bearcats knocked off Syracuse in the Big East Championship Tournament before losing to Louisville in the championship game. Mick Cronin’s team knocked off Texas and Florida State to lead the Bearcats to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2001.
Connecticut’s lackluster season raises questions the future
Connecticut entered the season ranked fourth in the Associated Press Top 25 poll and had more votes for the number one team in the country (2) than Kentucky (0). Many people were looking forward to a matchup between the Huskies and the Wildcats in the third round, but Iowa State made sure that did not happen.
The Cyclones embarrassed Connecticut en route to a 77-64 victory. The defending national champions trailed by as much as 22 points in the first half. The Huskies cut the lead to 58-52 with eight minutes left to play, but the Cyclones never let Connecticut get closer.
Connecticut’s loss is the first time since UCLA in 1996 that a defending national champion lost its first game in the NCAA Tournament. The loss has led to a lot of speculation about what’s next for the Connecticut program.
The Huskies are facing an NCAA Tournament ban next year due to past academic problems. Coach Jim Calhoun will turn 70 in May. The legendary coach has survived cancer three times and missed a large chunk of this season due to a variety of ailments, leading some to speculate that he may not return to the sideline next year.
With those two questions swirling for next year, the core of the team may look into leaving early for the NBA. Sophomore guard Jeremy Lamb has been projected as a lottery pick in the NBA Draft and looks to be a guarantee to take his talents to the Association.
Scouts love the raw talent of freshman center Andre Drummond and junior forward Alex Oriakhi, but neither player put up the numbers that should correlate with their respective talent levels. Freshman guard Ryan Boatright may also consider making a move to the NBA.
Connecticut has been one of the elite programs in college basketball over the last decade, but after a disappointing season, there may be a massive overhaul on the horizon in Storrs, Conn.
Game of the Week
Louisville vs. Michigan St. Thursday (in Phoenix)
The Spartans’ Tom Izzo and Pitino are both in the top five in NCAA Tournament winning percentage among active coaches. However, all eyes will be on Michigan State’s do-everything senior forward Draymond Green, who provides the biggest advantage for the Spartans.
Green is one of four finalists for the Wooden Award, given annually to the top player in college basketball, and notched his second career triple-double in Michigan State’s first game of the tournament. Louisville will need to find a way to limit Green’s impact to advance to the Elite Eight.
Player of the Week
James Southerland, junior forward, Syracuse, #43
15.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, 79 percent field goal percentage
All of the publicity out of Syracuse last week was about the absence of Fab Melo, but it was the man who replaced him that is making headlines this week. Southerland was 5-of-7 from three point range and missed only three of 14 shot attempts in Syracuse’s two victories. Southerland also made his presence felt on the defensive end in a third round win against Kansas State with three blocks.