Almost everything written about the Sweet 16 matchups in this region will look back on Dec. 10. That's the day Indiana beat Kentucky in Bloomington and the day Xavier and Cincinnati brawled in the Queen City. Those moments helped shape the rest of those teams' seasons, for better or for worse.
The win against Kentucky announced Indiana's return as a nationally relevant program. The loss to Indiana proved Kentucky's most recent Super Team isn't unstoppable. The teams will enter the Sweet 16 after very different round-of-32 experiences. No. 4 seed Indiana committed 22 turnovers and survived VCU thanks to Will Sheehey's jumper with 12.7 seconds remanding. No. 1 seed Kentucky put the hammer down in the second half and blasted Iowa State.
Meanwhile, the brawl loomed over Xavier for weeks. After starting 8-0, the Musketeers lost five of their next six. When SI.com's Luke Winn checked in on Xavier in early January, the Musketeers seemed to be finding their swagger again. Sunday, Xavier fell behind to Lehigh by 15 in the first half, but the 10th-seeded Musketeers clamped down in the second half, holding the Mountain Hawks to 14.7 percent shooting from the field.
Xavier will advance to face No. 3 seed Baylor, which didn't have a major turning point on Dec. 10. The Bears were busy taking final exams and celebrating with the rest of the Baylor campus as quarterback Robert Griffin III won the Heisman Trophy. After overcoming an early challenge from South Dakota State last Thursday, the Bears and their highlighter-yellow uniforms vanquished former Big 12 rival Colorado on Saturday.
When Musketeers seniors Tu Holloway and Kenny Frease got to Xavier, the Musketeers were coming off an Elite Eight appearance. The pair has reached the Sweet 16 twice but has gone no farther. To finally break that ceiling, Xavier will have to beat Baylor. Xavier can't match Baylor athletically, but the Musketeers have the size and toughness to compete with the Bears. If Holloway (23 ppg in the NCAA tournament) can remain consistent, Xavier could break into the Elite Eight for the first time in coach Chris Mack's tenure.
"We have been to four Sweet 16s in the last five seasons, and it's so doggone awfully difficult to get there, and whether you play your best at the end of the year or whether you have your ups and downs during the middle of the year, you want to be playing as well as you possibly can play down the stretch," Mack said. "And I'm just proud of this group to come together, but we have got more work to do and more basketball to play. We've got some seniors in the locker room that don't want their careers to be over."
Has the development of Marquis Teague eliminated one of Kentucky's few weaknesses?
For most of the season, Teague seemed the weakest link -- relatively speaking -- on a team of all-stars. That has changed in recent weeks. Saturday against Iowa State, Teague played perhaps his best game. He led Kentucky with 24 points, but he still managed to hand out seven assists while committing only two turnovers.
Kentucky coach John Calipari wants Teague to be a distributor first. If Teague can do that and still contribute points, Kentucky's offense will be nearly impossible to stop. "When I watched him play [in high school], I absolutely loved his game. He's the kind of player I love to coach in this regard," Calipari said. "He is a tough. He's a pitbull. Great athleticism but really smart floor game. Now, for us he could score more, but why would you score more on this team as a point guard?"
Brady Heslip, G, Baylor
As we learned Saturday, few can fill it up as quickly as Heslip when he gets hot. The sophomore from Burlington, Ontario, who transferred from Boston College in 2010, torched Colorado with nine three-pointers. If teams choose to take away Baylor's athletic frontcourt, chances are Heslip will get open, and his teammates will find him. "I know how hard he's worked," Baylor forward Quincy Acy said. "When he came in, we knew how good of a shooter he was. Every time I went to the gym at night, I would see him in there sometimes twice a day. He works for it. I know whenever he gets hot, he can outshoot anybody."
Indiana vs. Kentucky
It's a rematch of the Dec. 10 affair at Assembly Hall that ended with Indiana's Christian Watford hitting a three-pointer as time expired to hand Kentucky its only regular-season loss. Anyone who has watched ESPN in the past month has seen the buzzer beater and ensuing court-storming on ad nauseam.
"It goes in every time," Indiana coach Tom Crean said. "And there's still a hand up in front of him. There's still a great pass from Verdell [Jones III], there's still a great screen from Cody Zeller. Every time it goes in."
Calipari said he had a premonition that the Wildcats would see the Hoosiers and his friend, Crean, in Kentucky's corner of Bracketville. "This is two programs that are storied programs, both of them. I can't again tell you what my respect with how [Crean] coaches and preparation," Calipari said. "But, Tommy, if you're watching, I'm putting in new out of bounds plays. I'm going to put in side out of bounds and two new offenses because he will watch every tape and know everything that we're doing except for that stuff. He won't know that stuff."
Baylor soared high in the rankings this season before coming down in Big 12 play, but only one team in this region has been the prohibitive favorite to win the national title since January. That's Kentucky. The Wildcats already were the No. 1 overall seed, but now that North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall has a fractured wrist, they're clearly the most talented team in the tournament. If Kentucky doesn't win the national title under these circumstances, it will be Kentucky's fault.
The number of 2011 Final Four teams Indiana has defeated this season (Kentucky, Butler, VCU). The Hoosiers will try to run their record to 4-0 against last year's Final Four teams when they face Kentucky on Friday.
If the Wildcats play the way they did Saturday against Iowa State, no one in the nation will beat them.