Six sleeper Sweet 16 teams

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source: AP
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We all remember the Cinderella stories from March Madness. The George Masons, Hamptons, and Northern Iowas, these are the teams that can ease a smile out of the most hardened and jaded NCAA antagonist. We love the NCAA tournament because these sleeper squads make the postseason seem democratic.

The selection committee, sequestered in various hotel suites, is the sporting equivalent of the Wizard of Oz, but Cinderellas level the field, and we’ve listed the six teams, all higher than a seven seed, that have the potential to make the tournament’s second weekend.

SOUTH REGION

No. 13 Tulsa (vs. No. 4 UCLA; then either No. 5 VCU/No. 12 Stephen F. Austin): A first-round match-up against UCLA, a team that rendered the vaunted Arizona defense toothless, appears catastrophically poor for Danny Manning’s squad, but the Golden Hurricane is also a sound defensive squad, one that forces turnovers at a pretty rapid rate (20.4 percent). The team also keeps opponents off the glass, and UCLA isn’t known for securing additional possessions. Should Tulsa advance to the round of 32, the team also matches well with either VCU or Stephen F. Austin.

A large percentage of Tulsa’ scoring comes from the free throw line, and the Lumberjacks foul quite frequently (52.5 percent defensive free throw rate). VCU defends ferociously and shoots a fair number of threes, but since the Rams will likely miss guard Melvin Johnson, VCU will be without their most efficient perimeter option (39.5 percent). Tulsa can withstand VCU’s trademark ball pressure because the Golden Hurricane have a sticky handle in the midst of ball hawks (16.6 turnover rate, ranked within Ken Pomeroy’s top sixty).

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No. 14 Western Michigan (vs. No. 3 Syracuse; then either No. 6 Ohio State/No. 11 Dayton): America should be ready to meet Shayne Whittington, Western Michigan’s 6-foot-11 center. The big makes 55.9 percent of his twos, and while WMU hasn’t played Syracuse during the past two seasons, the Broncos have faced a very similar defense. During WMU’s four games against Eastern Michigan, a team coached by ex-Cuse assistant Rob Murphy and one which uses a 2-3 zone, Whittington made 53 percent of his attempts within the arc.

Both of their second round opponents aren’t great at defending the interior — Ohio State and Dayton allow teams to make close to 50 percent of those shots — which is a bonus for a Western Michigan team which is one of the best at converting their twos, ranking twelfth nationally. The other two Broncos who use a high percentage of WMU’s attempts, David Brown and Connar Tava, are efficient up to 19 feet from the basket.

EAST REGION

No. 9 George Washington (vs. No. 8 Memphis; then either No. 1 Virginia/No. 16 Coastal Carolina): Memphis is not a good match-up for the defensive-oriented Colonials. The Tigers turn the ball over on nearly 20 percent of their possessions (that’s bad), don’t get to the free throw line (not great), and are a poor perimeter shooting team (another box checked) — all attributes which are pluses on George Washington’s defensive resume.

Assuming the second round tilt is against Virginia, Tony Bennett’s pack-line defense would be an interesting test for the Colonials. The return of Kethan Savage (and if he can play meaningful minutes) and the emergence of Nemanja Mikic are both crucial for a Sweet 16 birth. Lacking the presence of another perimeter threat, opponents could concentrate solely on Mikic last season, but the addition of Maurice Creek has helped boost Mikic’s clear looks.

No. 10 Saint Joseph’s (vs. No. 7 Connecticut; then either No. 2 Villanova/No. 15 Milwaukee): St. Joe’s Langston Galloway is coming off a torrid shooting performance in the Atlantic 10 tournament, but the team’s frontcourt will be the focus against UConn. Halil Kanacevic, Ronald Roberts, and DeAndre Bembry should take advantage of the foul-prone Husky bigs — DeAndre Daniels is the only forward who plays substantial minutes and does not accumulate more than six or more fouls per 40 minutes (an issue for both Amida Brimah and Philip Nolan). The likelier second-round game will be against Villanova, and the ensuing Holy War rematch, one dominated by the Wildcats earlier this season, could be a classic.

WEST REGION

No. 11 Nebraska (vs. No. 6 Baylor; then either No. 3 Creighton/No. 14 Louisiana-Lafayette): Even though Nebraska isn’t an offensive juggernaut, Baylor’s defense provides large gaps for point production — only one other at-large squad had a worse defensive efficiency rate than Scott Drew’s team (North Carolina State). Even though Elfrid Payton and Shawn Long pose a potential threat, Creighton should emerge from that first-round tilt. Nebraska was embarrassed by the Bluejays earlier this season, but this is a much different Huskers squad (for starters, Deverell Biggs is no longer bogarting shots) and the emergence of Terran Petteway is a match-up problem for CU.

MIDWEST REGION

No. 14 Mercer (vs. No. 3 Duke; then either No. 6 Massachusetts/No. 11 Iowa/No. 11 Tennessee): Mercer is the epitome of a Giant Killer. The Bears shoot a high percentage both within and beyond the arc, and those attempts are spread amongst a handful of players, each of whom either make a plethora of twos or threes (Bud Thomas and Anthony White, however, make both). There is an offensive balance to this team — no one Bear truly dominates touches — which could be an problem for a Duke team possessing some defensive issues.

Duke traditionally defends the three-point arc well, but two-point field goals are easy to achieve. Unfortunately for Mike Krzyzsewski, this is an even weaker defensive team than the one which lost to Lehigh in the 2012 tournament. Iowa and UMass also have suspect defenses, and while Tennessee is defined by their stingy leanings, the Vols don’t force many turnovers. Against a team that doesn’t miss often, a failure to pressure the ball and simply allow them to run their offense could prove disastrous.

Gonzaga passes the title of best program without a Final Four to Xavier in win

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In 1999, Gonzaga was not yet “Gonzaga”.

A No. 10 seed in just their third NCAA tournament, the Zags won three games against high-major competition, coming within a possession of reaching the Final Four in a loss to No. 1 seed UConn.

UConn, at that point, was one of the best programs in the country under Jim Calhoun, but the knock on the Huskies at that point was that they couldn’t win the big one. They had been to three Elite 8s and three more Sweet 16s in the previous eight seasons, but it wasn’t until they knocked off that Gonzaga team that they finally were playing on college basketball’s biggest stage.

For 18 years, Gonzaga tried and failed to get to a Final Four, becoming one of the nation’s premier basketball programs without having the postseason success to legitimize themselves in the eyes of idiots around the country. That ended on Saturday night in San Jose, as No. 1 seed Gonzaga ended No. 11 Xavier’s thrilling run to the Elite 8 and passing on the torch that UConn passed to them.

Xavier can now claim the title of the best basketball program that has yet to make a Final Four, which is both a compliment and a curse.

The Musketeers have been to the NCAA tournament 25 times since the bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985. They’ve been to nine Sweet 16s and three Elite 8s. They had a winning record in NCAA tournament play until Saturday’s loss and now lay claim to the title of the team with the most NCAA tournament wins without an appearance in the Final Four.

Xavier is going to get there eventually. Chris Mack is one of the best coaches in the business. Hell, if Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner both return to school, it could very well be next season that they snap that streak. It’s coming at some point.

I don’t even think it’s an insult to say this about Xavier. I don’t think it’s a shot at the program or the coaches that have come through it. Getting to the Final Four is hard. Bill Self is a lead-pipe lock to be a Hall of Famer, and he’s been to just two Final Fours in his career. He’s 2-7 in the Elite 8, and if Derrick Rose could make his free throws, the discussion of just how good of a coach Self is if he can’t win a title would be raging with the Jayhawks flaming out of the tournament on Saturday night.

But as with Gonzaga and UConn before them, Xavier is going to have that monkey on their back every time they suit up in March.

VIDEO: Tyler Dorsey hits dagger after dagger in upset of Kansas

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Tyler Dorsey is building himself quite the reputation for being a big-shot maker.

He hit the game-winner that got Oregon to the Sweet 16. He hit two threes at the end of the first half to push Oregon’s lead to 11 points over Kansas. And he hit this three, the dagger through the heart of Kansas:

Dorsey finished with 27 points. He’s scored at least 20 points in every game since the NCAA tournament began.

No. 3 Oregon heading to first Final Four in 78 years

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Oregon, the No. 3 seed in the Midwest region, made what looked to be a smooth path to Phoenix into a bumpy road. But after 78 years, the Ducks are going back to the Final Four, defeating No. 1 Kansas, 74-60, in Elite Eight on Friday night in Kansas City.

Everything went right for the Ducks in the first half. Josh Jackson was called for two fouls in the less than three minutes. The Jayhawks were limited in transition. Tyler Dorsey’s two 3-pointers in the final 40 seconds gave them a double-digit lead at halftime. Oregon stretched it to as many as 18 in the second. Kansas couldn’t buy a basket from three (a far cry from the 3-point barrage it put on Purdue two nights earlier). When the Jayhawks drove to the basket, it was Jordan Bell (11 points, 13 rebounds and eight blocks) who either blocked or altered their shots.

However, the Ducks not only left the door open for the Jayhawks, they held it open. Kansas’ comeback attempt was a mix drink that was equal parts KU putting the clamps on defensively, Oregon playing a bit of hero ball, and the Ducks playing not to lose instead of to win. Up six with less than two minutes remaining, and Dorsey (27 points) buried a dagger 3-pointer that all but sealed the win — and a spot in next week’s Final Four — for the Ducks.

Oregon will play the winner of the South region, which will either be No. 1 North Carolina or No. 2 Kentucky on Saturday.

 

VIDEO: Jordan Bell’s spectacular chase-down block

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Oregon big man Jordan Bell has been the best player on the floor for the Ducks against Kansas, totally changing the way that Kansas wants to play with his defense.

As of the time of this posting, he had nine points, 11 boards, seven blocks and three assists, but his impact is not solely limited to the shots he swatted — every Kansas player that gets into the lane is very aware of the fact that Bell is lurking around the rim.

The thought of him changes shots.

The best block he’s had today came midway through the second half, when he snuffed out a dunk attempt from Landen Lucas with an impressive chase-down block:

No. 1 Gonzaga reaches first Final Four with win over No. 11 Xavier

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It took 18 long years, but after Gonzaga exploded onto the national scene with a Cinderella run that came one possession short of the Final Four in 1999, after the program followed up that run with back-to-back trips to the Sweet 16 as a double-digit seed, after 19 straight trips to the NCAA tournament marred by moments of unfathomable heartbreak, the nation’s preeminent mid-major success story is finally headed to the Final Four.

What will the ‘Gonzaga is overrated’ crowd say now?

Armed with a roster that included a pair of blue-chip guards in their back court, a trio of high-major transfers and a McDonald’s All-American and future first round pick coming off the bench, Mark Few knocked off No. 11 seed Xavier, 83-59, on Saturday night to win the West Region and punch his first ticket to the final weekend of the college basketball season. Nigel Williams-Goss led the way with 23 points, eight boards and four assists and Johnathan Williams III, who was named the region’s Most Outstanding Player, added 19 points and nine boards as Gonzaga buried 12 threes and jumped out to an early lead they would never relinquish in a game that never felt like it was in doubt.

And with that, the monkey on Mark Few’s back is now gone.

“It means everything that we could deliver for guys like this,” Mark Few said after the game. Few had been the winningest NCAA tournament coach without a Final Four on his résumé. “They believed in us when they came. This is what we wanted to do and set out to do, and these guys were unbelievable. I could not be happier for all these guys, all our former players and all of Zag Nation.”

Whether or not that monkey was deserved is a fair question to ask. Gonzaga has had an incredible amount of success in the NCAA tournament. They’ve won at least one game in 16 of the 19 NCAA tournaments, including this year, that they’ve been a part of, including five of the six years in which they were a double-digit seed. In 13 of the previous 18 NCAA tournaments they played in, they advanced as far or further than their seed suggested they should have. Only five times did they lose to a team that was seeded lower than them. They’ve won 17 WCC regular season titles and 15 WCC tournament titles during that span.

What they’ve done, the consistency of the success that they’ve had, is not something done easily.

And it’s not something that should be overlooked when you consider where this program was in the early 90s. When Few was hired as an assistant coach in 1990, Gonzaga was thought of as the worst job in the WCC. The program, located in Spokane, Washington, which isn’t exactly a hotbed for recruiting, had never been to an NCAA tournament. The school didn’t even have a weight room for the team.

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“Players would sign out sweats and jerseys at the beginning of every school year and turn them back in nine months later,” wrote Yahoo’s Jeff Eisenberg earlier this week. “Sneakers were the only gear players received new, but obtaining a fresh pair typically required proving the old ones had a hole in the bottom.”

Within five years, Gonzaga was in the NCAA tournament. Within nine years, they had won the league and reached the Elite 8. Within 15 years, the school opened up a sparkling, $25-million, 6,000-seat arena, chartering flights for road games and recruiting trips.

Today, Gonzaga is arguably a top ten program in the sport

It is, quite literally, college basketball’s best rags-to-riches story.

They shouldn’t need this to justify their standing in the sport. Few shouldn’t need this to legitimize himself as something more than a coach feasting on a conference that can’t compete.

“My legacy is I guess built on a lot of other things,” Few said on Friday. “It’s built on the respect my players have for me and how they feel about they were treated and coached and developed and all that.”

“I’m schlepping along right now like vastly far behind my father who is 54 years a Presbyterian minister, man. He’s saved thousands of souls. He’s helped hundreds and thousands of people through all their tough times, you know. And that’s kind of the legacy that I’m looking at.”

But that’s not how our sport works.

March means everything.

If you can’t win on the biggest stage, if you don’t have that level of success when all eyes turn to college basketball, then everything you did during the previous four months is written off.

It’s not fair.

But that’s just how it is.

And now, nearly two decades removed from their introduction into the national consciousness, Gonzaga’s detractors no longer have that leg to stand on.