BY RYAN BYRNES
Just like that, 68 teams is down to 16. Here are five takeaways from the first six days of the Big Dance.
1. Gangsta’s Paradise: Xavier and Cincinnati still standing. Back on Dec. 10, Xavier’s Tu Holloway informed us that the Musketeers “got a whole lot of gangstas in the locker room.” The words followed an ugly brawl between his team and cross-town rival Cincinnati that seemed to temporarily derail what appeared to be promising seasons for both programs. Xavier was 8-0 after the Crosstown Shootout victory over the Bearcats, but then lost five of its next six. Cincinnati, self-imposed sanctions and all, feasted on some soft non-conference opponents, but then won only seven of its first 12 Big East games. Now, the programs are peaking at the right time, each reaching the final in their conference tournaments and now both advancing to the Sweet 16. Expect the media to bring this up a few times this week. It’s interesting to think of whether things would have been any different had the punishment for the brawl been any harsher (the suspensions handed down by each program were generally viewed as too light). But only 16 locker rooms will be filled this week with teams that have a chance to cut down the nets, and at least two of them will have a whole lot of gangstas in them.
2. Big East reasserts itself. The Big 10’s performance has been the most impressive of any conference in this year’s NCAA Tournament, but the Big East has also experienced an important bounce back. Last year, the conference set a record with 11 of its teams qualifying for the tournament. But criticism was loud when only two of those teams advanced to the second weekend (though one of them – UConn – won the whole thing). The conference was generally perceived as less dominant this year, but the league still had nine teams advancing to the Big Dance. Four of them are still alive, including both regular season champ Syracuse and tournament champ Louisville. If all four can win one more game, Big East fans will have a real treat in the Elite Eight: the Orange would face Cincinnati in the East Regional final, while the Cardinals would challenge Marquette in the West Regional final. In an interesting but less relevant note, the state of Ohio also has four representatives in the Sweet 16 (Ohio State, Ohio, Cincy and Xavier).
3. Lack of mid-majors is a good thing. After Black Friday left brackets in shambles nationwide, there was a serious possibility the Sweet 16 would be marred by a few too many mid-majors and Cindarellas. Luckily, the weekend generally allowed the tournament to correct itself. Upsets are fun early in the Big Dance, but the deeper you get into March Madness, the fewer double-digit seeds you want to see. It makes for better regional finals and Final Four competition. Ohio won’t have to share any of the spotlight this week; when scouring the survivors of the first weekend, they really are the only outlier of the 16 teams remaining. With four teams from both the Big East and Big 10, two apiece from the Big 12, ACC and SEC and A-10 powerhouse Xavier, there are elite players and coaches in all four regions. Ten of the 16 teams began the year ranked in the top 16 of AP’s preseason poll, and virtually all of the Sweet 16 have proven their talent over the course of four months, rather than four days. That might be bad news for the media this week, as it scrambles to fill their “(enter underdog story here)” features. But it is great news for the fans.
4. (Mostly) smiles on Franklin Street. Had Purdue been able to do what they had done for 39 minutes and complete the upset against Kansas, Tar Heel Nation would be feeling even more elated this morning. But they still have to like their Final Four chances, with four days off to prepare for a match-up with Ohio Friday night in St. Louis. Then they’ll likely be pulling for their conference rival N.C. State to knock off the Jayhawks. That would set up a Midwest Regional final the Tar Heels would have to love: they’ve already beaten the Wolfpack twice this year, quite handily each time. Of course, UNC’s biggest hurdle might be within their own locker room: point guard Kendall Marshall fractured his right wrist Sunday, making it difficult to rely on him to contribute too much going forward. But at least Florida State is out. Oh, and Duke lost. To Lehigh.
5. A very Sweet 16. The “fourth” round of the tournament is loaded with great games. Each region has its appeal, but Boston will be the place to be for this weekend’s East Regional. Syracuse will have its hands full against Wisconsin, but the game to see is Ohio State vs. Cincinnati. Yancy Gates vs. Jared Sullinger, for the right to possibly face a Fab Melo-less Syracuse with a trip to the Final Four on the line? Yes, please. There’s also some Buckeye State intrigue here, as Ohio State has traditionally avoided playing the Bearcats regularly during non-conference competition. On the other side of the bracket, Kentucky finds itself with an opportunity to avenge its only regular season loss against Indiana. In the West Region, Tom Izzo vs. Rick Pitino isn’t too bad either.