The NCAA Tournament resumes Thursday night with the Sweet 16 round, which continues Friday. The winners become the Elite 8, meeting over the weekend for the right to go to the Final Four.
The crazy upset season is over. From here on out, all the teams winning games are winning games because they're the real thing. But that doesn't mean there are no surprises.
Two first-round underdogs -- 10 seeds or lower -- survive. Wisconsin-Milwaukee, No. 12 in the Chicago Region, draws the No. 1 seed in the whole Tournament, Illinois, in the late game Thursday. North Carolina State, the 10th seed in the Syracuse Region, plays No. 6 Wisconsin Friday night.
In the 20 years since the Tournament expanded to 64 teams, there have been 44 first-round underdogs in the Sweet 16, an average of more than two a year, so UWM and N.C. State aren't bucking any trends by getting this far. Those surviving underdogs have lost 34 times, but they've won 10. The Panthers beating Illinois would be an upset for the ages. The Wolfpack beating Wisconsin would not.
The last time a double-digit seed won a Sweet 16 game was in 2002, when Kent State, a No. 10, and Missouri, a 12, both won. That was the only time two first-round underdogs reached the Elite 8 in the same year. They both lost their next game.
In fact, all double-digit seeds who've won in the Sweet 16 have lost the next game except the very first one, LSU in 1986. The Tigers, an 11 seed that had been decimated by injury, illness and defection, surprised Georgia Tech in the Sweet 16 round, then stunned top-seed Kentucky in the Elite 8 to become the lowest seed ever to reach the Final Four, where they lost in the semis to Louisville, the eventual champ.
Since Kent State and Missouri, double-digit seeds have lost three straight, Butler and Auburn falling in 2003, Nevada last year. The twin Cinderellas of '02 came on the heels of a 10-year dry spell during which double-digit seeds went 3-18 in the Sweet 16. The all-time champ at reaching this round as a 10-seed or higher, as you might expect, is Gonzaga, which did it three times in a row starting in 1999. The Zags went 1-2 in those Sweet 16 games.
All of this, of course, tells us absolutely nothing about Wisconsin-Milwaukee and North Carolina State. Here's a look at Thursday night's four games.
1) Washington vs. 4) Louisville
7:10 p.m. EST
Watch this game. It should be happening later in the Tournament, but Louisville only got seeded fourth. You think that was a legitimate seeding? Here's Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt's assessment of that thought: "You're absolutely nuts." This was after the Cardinals abused his club in the second round. Louisville has won 11 in a row and 20 out of 21.
Washington, led by lightning-bolt point guard Nate Robinson and his sidekick, Tre Simmons, is one of the highest-scoring teams in the nation. So is Louisville. The Cardinals are led by point forward Francisco Garcia, who's a matchup problem, though the Huskies will try to neutralize him with their pressing defense. Garcia is complemented by scorers Larry O'Bannon and Taquan Dean.
Both teams like to get out and run, and this should be a fun, fast game if the officials let them play at all. Look for a score in the high 80s. Louisville has become a 2-3 zone team, and a good one. If the Cardinals can keep the Huskies from running them out of the gym and make them play in the half court, they should win. That's a big if but my bracket has the Cardinals moving on.
6) Texas Tech vs. 7) West Virginia
9:40 p.m. EST
My bracket has nothing to say about this game and I'm guessing yours doesn't either. This was supposed to be Wake Forest against Gonzaga, but the Red Raiders and Mountaineers had a little something to say about that.
Bob Knight returns to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1994, when he was still at Indiana.
He's still the same old Bob Knight, saying this week that if he hadn't gotten his sorry butt fired at Indiana in 2002 he'd have fired assistant Mike Davis, his successor, at the end of the season. Not that he's bitter or anything. All Davis did was take over amid the chaos Knight left behind and lead the Hoosiers to the Championship Game, which Knight hadn't sniffed in 15 years.
But he's also the same old Knight in the sense that his team runs a motion offense that, with the right players, is tough to defend. And Knight has a couple of very right players in guards Ronald Ross and Jarius Jackson.
They'll meet a West Virginia team that's also tough to defend, as 2-seed Wake learned over the weekend in a double-overtime classic. Guard Mike Gansey carried the Mountaineers in the extra sessions of that game, but what makes them such a problem is their front line, and I don't even mean their leading scorer -- at only 12.6 per game -- wing Tyrone Sally.
West Virginia has two centers who between them make one good center. Kevin Pittsnogle isn't much inside, but he can shoot the three. He's hit 40 percent from beyond the arc during the season, and in the five games of the postseason he's lifted that to 48 percent, 11-for-23, and that's including an 0-for-4 night against Syracuse in the Big East championship game. But he's not much inside.
Pittsnogle took over as the starter from shot-blocker and rebounder D'or Fischer in early February. Fischer had a quiet month and a half after that, but turned in a monster game against Wake: 15 points and 10 rebounds in 25 minutes.
Knight can game-plan with the best of them, but he doesn't have anybody who can match up with those two or exploit Pittsnogle's defensive weakness. He'll need his backcourt to dominate. That's possible, but I'll take West Virginia.
1) Illinois vs. 12) Wisconsin-Milwaukee
7:25 p.m. EST
Wisconsin-Milwaukee has been a great story. Not only have the Panthers pulled upsets over 5-seed Alabama and 4-seed Boston College, they've done it in exciting fashion. You can't ask much more for your entertainment dollar than a quick team with a ton of heart that plays pressure defense and shoots 3-pointers. I mean, you want fireworks, the Panthers provide fireworks.
That's the good news. The bad news for those of you who watch "Hoosiers" annually and never fail to well up when they do that slow building clap thing in the locker room: Not only is Illinois the No. 1 team in the Tournament, it's also remarkably well-suited not to get beat by a quick team with a ton of heart that plays pressure defense and shoots 3-pointers.
Full-court press? No problem. Would you like that broken by Dee Brown or Deron Williams? Would you like Luther Head to shoot the resulting open three or will Brown or Williams do? Perhaps you'd like one more quick pass, inside to James Augustine, who don't look now is suddenly playing like the kind of big-time front-liner who can help that dynamite backcourt win a championship?
I think that, as well as North Carolina is playing, Illinois is still the team to beat in this Tournament. I also think almost half of the teams in the Sweet 16 can beat Illinois on the right night. UWM isn't one of those, but it wouldn't surprise me if the Panthers hung close for a while.
2) Oklahoma State vs. 3) Arizona
9:55 p.m. EST
Here are two teams that can beat Illinois, and I'm not sure Arizona isn't the more likely. My bracket had the Wildcats losing to LSU in a second-round upset -- whoops -- and Oklahoma State going to the Elite 8, but Arizona is kind of the stealth team of the Tournament.
The Wildcats are built for the postseason, with dead-eye shooter Salim Stoudamire -- who can also defend, a bonus -- terrific point-guard Hassan Adams and dominating center Channing Frye. I thought their two late losses to Washington revealed a certain flightiness, but they've played a couple of solid games against dangerous opponents so far, Utah State and Alabama-Birmingham.
Oklahoma State has relied on forward Ivan McFarlin and freshman guard JamesOn Curry in its first Tournament wins, over Southeast Louisiana and Southern Illinois. McFarlin poured in a Tournament-high 31 against the Salukis.
The Cowboys' usual leaders, Joey Graham inside and John Lucas outside, have been subpar, and coach Eddie Sutton has acknowledged that the Cowboys won't get to the Final Four if Graham doesn't get better in a hurry. But even if he does, I don't know that Oklahoma State has anybody who can stop Frye if he's on his game. McFarlin plays bigger than he is, but he's only 6-8. And nobody has anybody who can stop Stoudamire.
This should be a dandy, and it wouldn't surprise me if at times it turns into a bombs-away shooting contest between Stoudamire and Lucas. That would favor the Wildcats. I'm going against my bracket pick and taking Arizona in a close one.
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