Sweet 16 Regional Reset: Indiana continues to be clear favorite in East
In a tournament headlined by three double-digit seeds breaking through to the second weekend and the early toppling of the nation's No. 1 team, the East regional is where the favorites held serve. All four top seeds -- Indiana, Miami, Marquette and Syracuse, respectively -- won their subregional pods to advance to Washington, D.C., none better encapsulating the not-in-this-bracket snuffing of upsets than third-seeded Marquette. The Golden Eagles followed up their erasure of a five-point deficit in the final 30 seconds against Davidson by holding off a last-second rally from perennial tourney darling Butler. (It should be noted, however, that Marquette would undoubtedly dispute its status as a favorite for anything; more on that in a moment.)
The Hoosiers too let an Atlantic 10 team flirt with advancement before carrying on the status quo, putting Temple away in the game's closing minute after weathering Khalif Wyatt's 31-point barrage. Miami did not put away 7th-seeded Illinois until late, and even then benefited from a highly disputed out-of-bounds call in its favor.
The city and arena to which this quartet advances is of varying significance as well. For Syracuse, the Verizon Center was the site of its season's nadir, a completely flat regular-season finale against rival Georgetown on March 9 in which the Orange mustered just 39 points and lost by 22. To Indiana star guard Victor Oladipo, it is a homecoming; he will be playing a half-hour drive from his hometown of Upper Marlboro, Md., and a 20-minute ride from DeMatha Catholic High, for which he won two city championships. And it is the very floor on which Miami coach Jim Larranaga led 11th-seeded George Mason to a new standard of bracket-busting in 2006, beating Wichita State and UConn to become the lowest seeded team to ever reach a Final Four.
If Larranaga's George Mason run represented the NCAA tournament at its upheaving best, the regional to which he returns with the Hurricanes could come to represent the upside of the opposite. These four teams confirmed what was implicit in their seeding by advancing as would be expected, and the games they play this weekend may be the better for it.
The Golden Eagles have gotten a lot of mileage out of fostering the mentality of an underdog, from coach Buzz Williams (a heart-on-his-sleeve Texan whose story of clawing his way up the coaching ranks has been well-told) on down to his players, who eat up every instance they are informed of a pundit picking against them. It is shooting guard Vander Blue, a five-star recruit once labeled a bust as a freshman who has worked his way into leading-man status as a junior, who has appeared most openly in tune with this mindset; as he said Saturday night, "It's just waking up everyday and facing the battle." This was after his team had advanced to yet another second weekend, a distinction likely to curry praise beyond the locker room walls, and so Blue was quick with a pre-emptive addendum: "I still don't want people to jump on our bandwagon."
They are here, having won their first two tournament games, after a mixed bag of an opening weekend. The Orange dominated Montana by a score of 81-34 and then dispatched Cal 66-60 in front of a partisan San Jose crowd, but even in that game there was cause for concern. The Orange went 12 minutes without a field goal, making just six of their 17 attempts in the second half, and Carter-Williams turned the ball over five times to give him 23 in his last five games. To beat Indiana on Thursday, Syracuse will need its A game, which will include not only making shots and taking care of the ball to keep up with the Hoosiers' offense but also preventing Cody Zeller from perching in their zone's underbelly and dishing to his stable of sharpshooting teammates on the perimeter. Indiana is too good for Syracuse to get by without a complete performance.
Team with the Most at Stake
Number to Ponder