Day 4: A Mid-Major Summit in Indy?
Cornell's Louis Dale had 26 of the Big Red's 87 points in Sunday's upset of Wisconsin. (Bill Frakes/SI)
MILWAUKEE -- What we learned on second-round Sunday of the NCAA tournament ...
1. I spent part of Sunday afternoon watching another Cornell clinic from afar -- this time on the flat-screens at the Bradley Center, where on the court, Ohio State was having its way with Georgia Tech -- and came to a conclusion. If your bracket is busted, and your team has been bounced, you might as well root for something historic: an All Mid-Major Final Four. This wasn't even possible in 2006, despite it being declared "The Year of the Mid Major" after an upset-filled first weekend and George Mason's breakthrough to the national semifinals. The Patriots were the first Cinderella to reach the Final Four since Indiana State and Penn did it in 1979 -- but to get there, Mason had to commit mid-on-mid violence against Wichita State in the Sweet 16. The lone other Cinderella, Bradley, lost its Sweet 16 game to Memphis.
But with Northern Iowa, Butler, Cornell and St. Mary's spread out one-to-each-regional* in 2010's Sweet 16, there's at least a slim chance of it happening. Seeing Panthers-Bulldogs and Big Red-Gaels back-to-back on Final Four Saturday would be glorious -- to me, at least. Plenty of people would hate it, among them CBS, the NCAA folks negotiating the tourney's new TV deal, and ticket scalpers. Whatever. I'll always prefer Davids to dollars.
(* I'm aware that Xavier is in the West Region, too, but Xavier hates being called a mid-major.)
2. The numerical odds of a mid-major quartet convening in Indy -- the same city where Mason went big-time -- are probably less than two percent, but here's the rationale for picking each team to survive next weekend:
Midwest: If Northern Iowa can beat Kansas, then the Panthers can beat Michigan State without its point guard, Kalin Lucas, who may have torn his Achilles tendon on Sunday. And if the Panthers can keep the Jayhawks' Sherron Collins and Xavier Henry from lighting them up, they at least have a shot to contain Ohio State's Evan Turner and Jon Diebler. One also gets the sense that the bracket isn't done getting Farokhmaneshed.
West: Butler is the hottest team in the whole field, on a 22-game winning streak, and it differs from Gonzaga, the non-BCS school that Syracuse just blitzed, in a key way: Brad Stevens' Bulldogs are a top-10 defensive team that has held all of its opponents since Feb. 6 (Wright State) to less than one point per possession. Butler is also too big for Kansas State or Xavier. (Yo.)
East: Cornell is playing an hour away from its Ithaca, N.Y., campus, in Syracuse, and the Big Red's offense has been running in such a high gear that even Kentucky or West Virginia might not be able to stop it. In its upset of Wisconsin on Sunday, Cornell scored 1.436 points per possession -- an unheard-of figure against a top-20 defense. For comparison, when the Badgers beat Duke in December, the Blue Devils scored 1.090 points per possession, and when UW lost to Ohio State in January, the Buckeyes scored 1.061 points per possession. The Big Red also start four seniors (compared to Kentucky's zero, Washington's one and WVU's two) and have played two No. 1 seeds close on the road. As senior forward Jon Jacques said, "I hope the country rallies around us. But at the same time, they should know that we're not your normal underdog."
South: In video-blogger Omar Samhan, St. Mary's has a better offensive center than anyone else in the region. Villanova felt his wrath in the second round, and also were burned by a Gaels backcourt duo -- Mickey McConnell and Matthew Dellavedova -- who proved to be more clutch scorers than Scottie Reynolds or Corey Fisher. Baylor isn't a particularly good matchup for St. Mary's, but the Bears played sloppy enough in the first round to let Sam Houston State lead at halftime, and the Gaels are no Sam Houston State. They're a lot better. If St. Mary's makes it to the Elite Eight, and McConnell's rainmakers are falling against Duke, anything is possible.
3. The four-basket exchange that closed Michigan State's win over Maryland in Spokane was the best 38 seconds I've seen in this tournament that didn't involve Northern Iowa. In that stretch, the game turned on a Grevis Vasquez runner (81-80, Maryland), a Draymond Green jumper (82-81, Spartans), a Vasquez driving bank-shot (83-82, Maryland) and finally, Korie Lucious' buzzer-beating three to win it (85-83, Spartans). There was no way to adhere to press-room decorum in Milwaukee (Lucious' hometown) and not shout when it splashed through the net.
In a normal tournament, it might have been the best shot of the first weekend. In this tournament, I'd only rank it as No. 4, just ahead of Ish Smith's Texas-beating leaner from Thursday, and just behind this trio:
• No. 3: The "Nation, Meet Mr. Farokhmanesh" bomb that Ali used to beat UNLV in overtime on Thursday -- because it was launched from deeper.
• No. 2: The Murray State Miracle from Danero Thomas on Thursday -- not because it was a tougher shot (it wasn't), but because it sealed a 13-over-4 upset of Vanderbilt. Going to the Sweet 16 isn't all that big of a deal for Michigan State; knocking off Vandy in the first round is a huge deal for Murray State.
• No. 1: Ali's Down-Goes-Kansas Dagger from Saturday -- because it was the ballsiest and most monumental shot of the dance. It was so wrong from a strategic standpoint, yet so right from an emotional one.
(Best shot, non-game-winner category, goes to Xavier's Jordan Crawford, for his reclined finger-roll against Minnesota. The finger-roll isn't a new thing for Crawford: His dad told me on Sunday that Jordan's nickname in Detroit AAU ball was "Ice," in reference to his ability to emulate George Gervin's famed move.)
4. Purdue's trip to the Sweet 16 isn't going to be celebrated as much as, say, Cornell's, because of the Boilers' seed (No. 4) and conference affiliation (Big Ten). But Matt Painter's boys deserve some serious cred for getting their act together following their Big Ten tournament debacle against Minnesota. There was a reason most bracketeers were picking Purdue to lose in either the first or second round: it looked horrible after Robbie Hummel's season-ending knee injury. Yet the Boilers fended off Siena on Friday, and on Sunday, beat a Texas A&M team that was thought to be a lock for Houston. Chris Kramer's driving layup to win it in overtime was a gutsy, gutsy play from a guy who's spent his whole career being regarded as a defensive, not offensive, specialist. Now he'll be able to give Jon Scheyer hell in the Sweet 16.
5. The blog should also salute Cornell's Louis Dale, who on Sunday carried on his team's (very brief) tradition of inside jokes at press conferences. After the Big Red watched Friday Night Lights on Saturday, and Dale was ordered to work a movie quote into his remarks at the dais. He wedged the "babies and memories" line into the first question that came his way:
Q: For Ryan and Lou, can you just address the next game with Kentucky, and do you feel like you can continue to run your offense at such a high level against a team with such great athleticism?Way to summon your inner Brian Chavez, Lou.
LOUIS DALE: You know, watching Kentucky on TV, they're a great team. You can tell that from the beginning. They like to push it, and I think we just want to stay within ourselves and do what we can do and do the things that we can control.
We've got eight seniors on this team, and we want to take this ride as long as we can because after this it's just nothing but babies and memories, so we'll just keep going. (Laughter).