Like many meteorological forecasts, predictions for this season's NCAA tournament have been erratic, at best. Now that we're down to the Sweet 16, it's time to reexamine the paths ahead and look at the updated conditions each team will face on the road to Indianapolis.
The so-called toughest regional pre-tournament has blown up and clearly is there for the taking. Tennessee is not an ideal Sweet 16 matchup, but Ohio State would be strongly favored over either Northern Iowa or a
The Spartans were very inconsistent down the stretch of the season, even with Lucas. It's hard to imagine they can overcome the loss of their leading scorer and assist man on such short notice to beat two very good teams in Saint Louis. If Izzo can pull this off, it would be exceptional.
It's rare that a major-conference team is an unknown, but no one -- not even the team's beat writers or maybe even the players themselves -- really know what this Tennessee team is. The three teams remaining in the region, though, all seem like reasonable fits style-wise. In January, mentioning this team and the Final Four would have been laughable. Now? No one's laughing.
UNI was good enough to beat Michigan State at full strength. They really have a strong chance to handle the Spartans now and make the Elite Eight. Waiting there, though, will be a team that will, for different reasons, be a difficult matchup for the Panthers.
The competition gets steeper for the Cats, who will potentially face two very dangerous offensive teams in Cornell and Washington, or have to overcome West Virginia's extremely physical style. This regional in Syracuse won't be a walkover, but the 'Cats are definitely the most talented team in it.
The Mountaineers will have a distinct physical/style advantage against Washington. The Huskies actually foul shooters more often than WVU does and will struggle to keep the 'Eers off the glass and the line. If WVU can even moderately slow down the UW attack, an Elite Eight trip looks likely. Unless Cornell pulls a Northern Iowa-style shocker, though, it will be Kentucky waiting in the regional final. WVU has the tools to win that game, but won't be favored.
This is a rough Sweet 16 draw for a team that likes to run, and they also could have to get past Kentucky. That's a lot to ask of any team, and despite recent form, Washington is not on the level of either.
If Cornell can execute offensively as well as it did in the first two rounds, and frustrate Kentucky enough with a zone to keep them from running wild, the upset is not impossible. Of course, things could go the other way and be an easy UK win. Even if Cornell does the unthinkable, the Big Red might then have to do it again against an extremely physical West Virginia squad. If Cornell navigates this to make it to Indy, it's probably the greatest Final Four run of the modern era.
Duke had the easiest bracket draw and has taken advantage with strong play. Now they get a break with Purdue nipping Texas A&M in overtime and get either a mid-major or a newbie in the regional final. There's no excuse for Duke not making it to Indy.
A lot of people liked the Bears to make it out of this region and it remains very possible. They should be a much better matchup against Saint Mary's than either of the Gaels first two foes. Taking out Duke will be difficult, but the Bears' length (they are the biggest team in the nation in terms of effective height) and overall athleticism advantage could carry the day in a matchup with the Blue Devils in Houston.
The Boilers should be commended for gritting through two tough games to get here, but the lack of scoring punch will be too much to overcome against two high-quality opponents.
Saint Mary's got what turned out to be two excellent matchups and rode Samhan all the way to Houston. The Gaels are a fun bunch that playfully undersell how good they actually are, but they could have to beat two teams better than they are to make it to Indy. It won't be easy.
Pretty much all season long, the Orange looked like a national title contender. They should be suited to handle Butler. A regional final with Kansas State (or Xavier) won't be easy, but 'Cuse would be favored. If the Orange get a healthy Onuaku back, they should have enough to make it to Indianapolis.
If Kansas State can keep tempo to its liking, it's talented enough to make it to Indy. The 'Cats will have to beat two very capable teams to get there, but it's definitely possible. And now that Kansas has been removed as a roadblock in the national semis, maybe a step or two more should enter their minds.
Syracuse is not a great matchup for a team that doesn't shoot the three exceptionally well and has mid-major size. If they upset the Orange, either Xavier or K-State would create different matchup concerns.
This is a program that has been to this level before, so the stage shouldn't be too big. Beating K-State and then possibly Syracuse, though, is a tall order. Xavier is scrappy, resourceful and has solid star power and depth. They'll have to play extremely well -- and for 40 minutes, twice -- if they want to get to Indy.