West Reset: Michigan State is still the favorite as Florida surges
It is the West Regional in name only.
When fifth-seeded New Mexico fell to No. 4 Louisville on Saturday night, it assured that no team from the Pacific or Mountain time zones would advance to the Sweet 16.
Of the four teams who will be in Phoenix this week, the campus of third-seeded Marquette is the closest, yet the Golden Eagles still have to fly approximately 1,450 miles to get to The Valley of the Sun. NCAA sites are often referred to as "neutral," and this is one instance when that is 100 percent accurate.
With top-seeded Michigan State still alive, along with Louisville and Marquette, the West held mostly to form. Florida, a No. 7 seed, is the interloper, but it is tough to label the Gators upstarts. Florida is in the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive year, and are only five years removed from back-to-back national championships.
Michigan State is the undisputed favorite, but it wouldn't be a major surprise if the Gators were the West Regional champion, nor it would be considered a shock if Marquette or Louisville, the Big East Tournament champs, advanced to the Final Four.
"It's seeding, draw, who you're playing, bounce of the ball, there are so many things out of your control," Florida coach Billy Donovan said in trying to explain how a team succeeds in the tournament
In other words, anyone can win on any given day, and that is particularly true out West.
Calling one of the hottest teams in the country an underdog is a stretch, but the Cardinals are up against Michigan State, tournament maestro Tom Izzo and Spartans star Draymond Green.
"I've never coached in the last three years groups like this with the character that they have," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "We have a blast together away from the lines. Between the lines, I'm trying to drive them to limits they didn't think they could get to."
Beating Michigan State would be pushing the limits for sure. Peyton Siva and Co. are on a roll, but they also might be a year away from reaching their full potential.
The Gators romped through the first two rounds. They routed seventh-seeded Virginia 71-45, and then smashed 15th-seeded Norfolk State by 34. There are two ways to interpret those performances. Either the Gators benefited from playing two average teams. Or, they are peaking at the right time.
"There are certain guys who want this kind of stage," Donovan said. "In this tournament you have to have players who play fearlessly on both ends of the floor and are not worried about making mistakes and are competitive and are driven to want to be great."
There is no denying that Florida has the talent of a Final Four team, but the Gators didn't play like an elite group for stretches during the regular season. Have Kenny Boynton, Bradley Beal, Patric Young and the other talented Gators figured it out? Or, did they just benefit from a soft draw?
Green did a little of everything in the Spartans' 65-61 victory over St. Louis in the Round of 32 (16 points, 13 rebounds, six assists), including a drive and pass to Keith Appling for a critical three-pointer with 1:34 remaining. Like UConn's Kemba Walker a year ago, Green has the look of a player who simply isn't going to let his team lose.
"I've always been a competitor," Green said. "One thing even when I was a young kid I was a sore loser. I was the type of kid where if I lost I wasn't getting off the court. If it was my basketball, nobody was playing unless I was standing on the court. So I've always really had that, just that will to win."
Florida has the most talent overall, but Marquette has the best player in forward Jae Crowder, the Big East Player of the Year. The Golden Eagles would seem to have the kind of savvy players who won't wilt when facing the Gators' pressing defense, and yet Florida appears to be hitting on all cylinders.
"I think matchups have something to do with [success in the tournament]. I also think your team's mentality in handling these moments and situations is important," said Donovan.
It is a game that seems destined to come down to one moment in the closing minutes, and the winner will be the team that handles the pressure best.
Crowder and stellar guard Darius Johnson-Odom are seniors, and the law of averages suggests that Marquette will take a significant step back next year without them. Marquette isn't like Michigan State, which seems to be in position to make the Elite Eight almost every year. When the Golden Eagles get an opportunity like this, they need to seize it.
That is Florida's record in NCAA tournament games since the 2005-06 season. In other words, it is dangerous to bet against a team coached by Billy Donovan come tournament time.
Nothing has changed for the Spartans from the start of the tournament. They are still the clear favorite. Michigan State will benefit from having had to grind out a victory against a physical St. Louis team in the Round of 32. That was a good wake up call.
Izzo will have his group ready for Louisville, and then the Spartans will sneak past a surging Florida squad in the Elite Eight.