If this year'sAcademy Awards marked the return of the big-studio epic, a chance forold-fashioned star power to crush the cuddly Little Miss Sunshines of theworld, then the 2007 NCAA tournament was a fitting sequel last week--evenbefore the games had started. As star vehicles go, the bus that ferriedtop-ranked Ohio State from Columbus to Lexington, Ky., was doubly blessed,featuring transcendent freshmen in the aisles and The Departed on the TVscreens. "Best movie of the year," pronounced center Greg Oden, abudding film critic who owns more than 600 DVDs. "The thing I loved aboutit was that everybody died. Usually in movies maybe one or two people die, buteverybody got killed."
In that case theonly plot twist in Week 1 of the NCAAs was a doozy: Almost none of the bignames perished. Not Ohio State, which rallied from nine points down in thefinal three minutes to sink Xavier 78--71 in overtime. Not fellow No. 1 seedNorth Carolina, which came from behind in the second half to beat MichiganState 81--67. And, for that matter, not any of the tournament's top sevencontenders, all of whom reached this week's round of 16. A year after11th-seeded George Mason hijacked the script all the way to the Final Four, theempire struck back. Never in the 64-team tournament era (which dates to 1985)had only two double-digit seeds pulled off first-round upsets, and both ofthose upstarts (11 seeds Virginia Commonwealth and Winthrop) were gone bySunday.
At least there werea few saving graces for drama-seeking college hoops fans. For starters, the twofirst-round upset victims happened to be the most vilified college programs inthe land: Notre Dame, which fell 74--64 to Winthrop, and Duke, a 79--77 loserto VCU. (One Tar Heels fan at the North Carolina game in Winston-Salem had tobe treated for a separated shoulder after cheering too hard at the news ofDuke's demise.) What's more, the bracket's massive chalk deposits producedcompetitive (and exhilarating) second-round games--including four overtimes and10 single-digit outcomes--and, best of all, some of the most mouthwateringSweet 16 matchups in years.
If this week'sregional semifinals are any indication, opposites don't always attract. Sobrace yourself for one disciplined, defensive-minded team rebuilt by coach BenHowland (UCLA) meeting another (Pittsburgh, now coached by Howland's formerassistant Jamie Dixon, page 42). And get ready for one outfit running revved-upelements of the Princeton-style offense (Georgetown) taking on another(Vanderbilt). Yet the bracket presents fascinating contrasts, too. If onedeliberate but dangerous mid-major (fifth-seeded Butler) can't slay a streakingNo. 1 seed (Florida), can another (No. 4 seed Southern Illinois) upsettop-seeded Kansas? Likewise, can a team with a 6'4" power forward(Tennessee's Dane Bradshaw) overcome a foe with a 7-foot Godzilla (Ohio State'sOden)?
All season long theprevailing story line in college basketball has been the Year of the Freshman,a result of the NBA's new age-minimum rule, which forced pro prospects likeOden, Texas' Kevin Durant and North Carolina's Brandan Wright to play incollege for at least one season. Yet while that trio thrived between Novemberand February--Durant will almost certainly become the first freshman to benamed national Player of the Year--there was always a lingering question: Howwill the game's callow powerhouses fare against more seasoned competition inMarch? Now we'll find out. Although Durant's fourth-seeded Longhorns werebounced by No. 5 seed USC 87--68 on Sunday, three of the four regional finalscould pit youth against experience from a larger-than-usual collection ofchampionship-caliber teams.
In the East regionthe Tar Heels' three freshman starters (forward Wright and guards Ty Lawson andWayne Ellington) got their first taste of March last week--at least when theyweren't acting their age and fighting over popsicles between games. "Thelevel [in the NCAA tournament] is raised 10 times more than the regularseason," marveled Wright, who'll need to be more assertive against USCfreshman forward Taj Gibson than he was in a quiet three-point performanceagainst the Spartans. So inexperienced is Carolina that sophomore forward TylerHansbrough is viewed as some sort of graybeard. "But I'm still youngtoo," says Psycho T, who poured in 33 points to sink Michigan State."I've never been to the Sweet 16, so I don't know what to expect."
The Tar Heels' toprival in the East, No. 2 seed Georgetown, knows exactly what awaits this week,having nearly beaten Florida in the round of 16 last year. In the Hoyas' 62--55win against No. 7 seed Boston College last Saturday, junior stars Jeff Greenand Roy Hibbert refused to panic despite trailing by eight points in the secondhalf. "When you've played in tough games like we had against Florida [lastyear], that experience kicks in," said Green afterward. "AgainstFlorida we kind of quit, but today we grinded it out and kept getting reboundsand stops." And points, too. During crunch time the 7'2" Hibbert showedremarkable poise, scoring two baskets and assisting on another, each time inthe last five seconds of the shot clock.
For his part, Odenwas so delightfully clueless about the tournament schedule that he askedBuckeyes coach Thad Matta if having a day off between games meant they would beplaying on Monday and Wednesday this week. "I guess I didn't watch the NCAAtournament a lot," deadpanned Oden, who observed his team's miraculousrally against Xavier from the bench after fouling out. Like Hibbert, Oden willtower over his competition this week, but don't expect him to attempt atakeover of the South Regional despite his growing confidence in his surgicallyrepaired right wrist. "I'm still not going to try and do way too muchoffensively," Oden says. "If I force it, it might mess up the rest ofthe team."
While Ohio Statedoes have a sharpshooting senior--guard Ron Lewis, whose last-secondthree-pointer sent the Xavier game into overtime--the most lethal gunslinger inSan Antonio will be senior point guard Acie Law IV of No. 3 seed Texas A&M.Law's clutch baskets have become so commonplace (he scored 26 points and hit 13of 15 free throws in the Aggies' 72--69 win over Louisville last Saturday) thatit took Cardinals freshman Edgar Sosa's errant crunch-time three-pointer tocast Law's steady brilliance in sharp relief. "In the first half Louisvillegot off to a great start, and Acie said, 'Coach, we're gonna be fine,'"said A&M coach Billy Gillispie. "He has a calming effect, and you havegreat confidence in what he tells you." As a result the Aggies may just bethe favorite in friendly San Antonio, even though they're only thethird-highest seed at the regional.
Fellow Big 12 powerKansas won't have a home court advantage at the West Regional in San Jose--No.2 seed UCLA will instead--but the freshman- and sophomore-dominated Jayhawksare better-equipped to handle the challenge than it might appear. Of course, ithelps when your best players are skilled and unselfish at both ends of thecourt, none more so than sophomore guard Brandon Rush, who hit six of seventhree-pointers in an easy 88--76 win against eighth-seeded Kentucky on Sunday."The most important thing about Brandon is that he lets the game come tohim," says junior point guard Russell Robinson. "He doesn't force upshots, and when he's playing well, everybody else plays well."
Still, if theJayhawks do advance by beating Southern Illinois, they'll be at a distinctdisadvantage in experience against either potential regional final opponent,whether it's No. 3 seed Pittsburgh or, more likely, Pac-10 champion UCLA. TheBruins didn't score any style points on their way to the national title game ayear ago--and they certainly didn't after shooting 7 for 26 in the first halfof their 54--49 win over Indiana last Saturday--but every player in the UCLArotation, aside from sophomore guard Josh Shipp (who was injured last season),logged significant postseason minutes in 2006. "It's like when you have atest," says sophomore forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. "If you knowwhat to study and how to study, you're going to do better on the test."
As for the reigningchamps from Florida, their road to the Final Four--with only No. 5 seed Butlerand No. 3 seed Oregon or No. 7 seed UNLV in their way in the Midwest Regionalin St. Louis--is by far the easiest facing any of the top seeds. But theyaren't taking that for granted. "I don't think experience means anything inthis tournament," says junior forward Joakim Noah, whose Gators put awayNo. 9 seed Purdue 74--67 on Sunday after enduring more resistance (a four-pointsecond-half deficit) than anyone had expected. O.K., so what about maturity?Surely that counts for something. "Maturity means that you realize on anygiven day someone could beat you," says Noah. Good point, which is exactlywhy Florida seems destined to reach Atlanta in its quest to become the secondrepeat champion (after Duke in 1991--92) since John Wooden's 1972 and '73 UCLAteams.
In the end therewere so few upsets last week because seven genuine title contenders haveseparated themselves from the field--and it figures to be just as hard for anoutsider to unseat any of the Super Seven in Week 2. But it won't beimpossible, especially if the right Mr. Clutch performs when it matters most.Junior guard Chris Lofton of fifth-seeded Tennessee has made a career ofhitting big shots: a buzzer-beating three to drop Winthrop in last year's NCAAtournament, a 30-footer over Durant in the final seconds of regulation to setup an overtime win over Texas in December and six straight free throws in thefinal 19 seconds of Sunday's 77--74 victory over No. 4 seed Virginia.
Yet Lofton is stillhaunted by one shot that he missed: the front end of a one-and-one in the lastseconds of a game at Ohio State on Jan. 13 that allowed Lewis (the Buckeyes'own Mr. Clutch) to hit a game-winner. "We've been calling [Lofton] Buckeyeall season," jokes Volunteers coach Bruce Pearl, and when Tennessee meetsOhio State in a rematch in San Antonio on Thursday, Lofton will finally havethe chance to shut up his coach.
All sorts ofcrunch-time shooters will be lurking in wait this week. Senior guard AaronBrooks of third-seeded Oregon has scored the game-winning or -tying points inthe final minute or in overtime six times this season--and may be called onagain if the Ducks are to trump UNLV on Friday in St. Louis. Junior guard NickYoung is the Mr. Clutch who could help USC spring an upset of North Carolina inEast Rutherford, N.J. ("Nick has no fear," says Trojans coach TimFloyd.) And sophomore guard Chris Douglas-Roberts of No. 2 seed Memphis canstill remember all the details of his first clutch shot at age 12--agame-winning three in a tiny gym at an African Methodist Episcopal Church threeblocks from his home in Detroit--although he'll have to add new memories onThursday for the Tigers to beat Texas A&M.
All thingsconsidered, though, SI will stick with its pretournament Final Four picks. Inthe Midwest, Florida's combination of talent, pedigree and a relativelypain-free path should send the Gators to Atlanta. In the East, look forGeorgetown's experience from last year (and the gigantic Hibbert) to make thedifference against North Carolina. In the South, Texas A&M's teamwidetoughness and home court support should be enough to dispatch Ohio State.Meanwhile, the hardest pick is out West, where Kansas is the most mature of theyoung contenders and has a slight enough advantage down low to break thebackcourt stalemate with UCLA.
By Sunday the Sweet16--and the Super Seven--will be culled to a final quartet of nominees. Allhail the big-studio epic. All hail the Undeparted.
Read Grant Wahl's "Five Things We Learned" andSeth Davis's tournament breakdown after each day's action.
ONLY AT SI.COM
The second round of the women's NCAA tournament wasplayed after this issue went to press. For complete coverage, including acloser look at Oklahoma's Courtney Paris (above), photo galleries and analysisfrom SI experts, go to SI.com/basketball/ncaa.