If the first weekend of March Madness is where Cinderella sees if her slipper fits, the second weekend is where Cinderella goes to die.
As much as we love to mythologize the Madness — see: 11-seed George Mason making the Final Four in 2006, 11-seed VCU making the Final Four in 2011 — history bears out that the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight are all about chalk. This is the when quality wins out.
In the 28 years since the NCAA expanded the field to 64 teams, there have been 112 teams in the Final Four. Forty-seven of those teams — an astounding 42 percent — have been one-seeds. And 25 of those Final Four teams have been two-seeds. Only seven times has a seed higher than a six-seed made the Final Four.
So we’re sorry, 13-seed La Salle. Our sincerest apologies, 12-seed Oregon. And we hardly knew you, 15-seed Florida Gulf Coast. You all owned the first weekend, especially FGCU, with your Dunk City videos, your enthralling storyline, your fun-loving, devil-may-care attitude. America will be rooting for you on Friday night against three-seed Florida. America will be sad to see you go.
Especially after Florida stomps you by 20 points.
Because the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight mark when the Madness ends and sanity rules.
That’s one important thing to remember going into the Sweet Sixteen, which begins tonight in Washington, DC, and Los Angeles.
Here are 15 more:
Reggie Johnson’s weight outweighs his statistics. If you look at Reggie Johnson’s stat line for the two-seed Miami Hurricanes — averaging 21 minutes, 6.7 points and 7.0 rebounds — you might think it’ll be a cinch for Miami to replace his production after having surgery this week to repair a minor meniscus issue. Wrong. While the big man has been less of a force this year than he was for Miami the past two years, you simply can’t replace a 6-foot-10, 300-pound beast on the fly. “I don't think it's going to come from one guy, the amount of production that Reggie was giving us and the presence he has in the paint,” said Julian Gamble, one of the Miami big men who’ll be especially relied upon as Miami faces three-seed Marquette. “We have to do it by committee, every guy doing more than they were before, just help fill that void. Not having him with us is a blow for us, psychologically.” Especially when the Canes are going up against a deep, physical Marquette team that knows how to rebound.
The coaching carousel will continue to spin, even as the biggest names have spurned the temptation of bigger and supposedly better jobs to stay just where they are. Jamie Dixon, a top candidate for the open USC job, signed a 10-year extension with Pitt this week. Shaka Smart, who’d been courted by UCLA and Minnesota, decided to stay where he has it made at VCU. These coaches spurning the supposed better opportunities is an interesting twist on the typical “climb-the-ladder” approach we associate with college hoops coaches — and might be an indication that the parity on the court affects coach’s job decisions. But don’t be surprised if representatives from UCLA, Minnesota and USC are haunting the halls of the Staples Center in Los Angeles this week, where hot coaching commodities Gregg Marshall of Wichita State and Dr. John Giannini of La Salle face each other Thursday night.
Florida Gulf Coast might see its dreams shattered in the Sweet 16, but it doesn’t matter. They’re still the story of this tournament. When you think of the 2013 tournament, you won’t think of the national champion — you’ll think of Dunk City. So once more, for old times’ sake, the dunk of this tourney.
The Ohio State-Arizona game will come down to one matchup: Arizona’s brilliant but streaky guard, Mark Lyons, vs. Ohio State’s perimeter defense machine, Aaron Craft. When two equal but opposite forces face each other, always, always, always expect that defense wins out, even if Lyons is on fire (23 points in his first tournament game, 27 points in his second). Remember those huge games came against Belmont and Harvard, not against the top defensive player in college hoops.
Has there been a hotel room in Indianapolis this week where the four coaches from the Midwest regional sat down together and shot the crap for an hour? The quartet of coaching legends out there might be one of the most remarkable regional groupings in NCAA history. Just look at the numbers: Mike Krzyzewski of Duke is the all-time leader in wins with 956. Louisville’s Rick Pitino, the only coach to take three different schools to the Final Four, has 660 college wins. Michigan State’s Tom Izzo has 437 wins, seemingly 95 percent of which have come in March. And Oregon’s Dana Altman has 483. When these men talk, you listen.
There’s still a chance of an epic, all-Big-Ten Final Four. But it’s not very good. Stathead Ken Pomeroy of KenPom.com crunched the numbers and came up with this: The Big Ten’s shot at winning a national title this year is about 29 percent — but the conference’s chance of becoming the first conference to take all four spots in the Final Four is a miniscule 1 in 156. This happens to be a much better chance than Pomeroy gives FGCU of winning it all. He gives Dunk City a 1 in 14,504 chance of becoming Title Town.
Louisville’s first big test this tournament won’t come until the Elite Eight. Sorry, Oregon. Great season and all. You showed the NCAA tournament selection committee what you were made of, which was most definitely not 12-seed cloth. But Friday night in Los Angeles is where your madness will end. It’s not some complicated equation here: You have a starting backcourt made up of two talented freshmen; Louisville’s pressure-oriented defense is historically good. Its 81.1 adjusted defensive efficiency rating isn’t just No. 1 in the country — it’s the top rating since Pomeroy started tracking the statistic in 2003. Prepare the migraine medication for Dominic Artis and Damyean Dotson, because Louisville will give them headaches like they’ve never felt before.
The Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. will have the distinct flavor of 1987 on Thursday night. Bust out the Bon Jovi, the Michael Jackson and the Prince. Indiana vs. Syracuse will make us all think of the 1987 national title game and Keith Smart’s game-winning shot from the corner that broke Syracuse’s heart. “When you lose a game like that, you really almost never get over it,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said Wednesday. “I got over it in 2003 (when Syracuse won its first national title). That's when I really — I probably thought about it for those 26 years most of the time. I never think about it anymore.” Ignore Boeheim’s mathematical issues. The point is, the most heartbreaking of March Madness losses can give coaches nightmares for decades.
We might have that man-on-fire performance of the tourney yet — even though the deeper we get into March, the tighter coaches tend to play. In the first weekend of March Madness, nobody really caught fire. Nate Wolters of South Dakota State didn’t reprise his 53-point performance from earlier in the year. Doug McDermott of Creighton played like a player-of-the-year candidate, scoring 27 points then 21, but these weren’t eye-popping performances. The most dominant offensive performance of the first weekend came from Khalif Wyatt, whose 31 points in Temple’s admirable 58-52 loss to one-seed Indiana gave him 62 points on the tournament, accounting for nearly half of his team’s total points. Who could give us that man-on-fire performance? Duke’s Ryan Kelly, Syracuse’s James Southerland, Louisville’s Russ Smith or Arizona’s Mark Lyons are all possibilities.
If there’s less than a minute remaining and its game is close, Marquette has an endless supply of March Magic. Marquette’s two tournament wins, over 14-seed Davidson and six-seed Butler, were by a total of three points. That’s what Marquette does. Buzz Williams may not like to point to himself as some sort of tactical genius, but when your teams consistently pulls out end-of-game miracles, the coach has something to do with it. “We're probably going to be in a one- or two-possession game, so an out-of-bounds play at 19:40 on the clock in the first half is just as important as the out-of-bounds play with 2.7 seconds left,” Williams said Wednesday. “You can point to culture. What is your culture, what is your culture not in March — you can't just wait till March. It has to be (that) your work is done in the silence, and that's what's so hard, because nobody sees it and nobody hears it.”
This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Gregg Marshall’s Wichita State. Its 15-man roster had nine new players. From last season it lost five seniors who were its five leading scorers. Then the Shockers nearly won their conference — despite injury problems all season — and are in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2006. How? “We just got all our guys back at the right time, and we started clicking at the right time,” Wichita State forward Carl Hall said Wednesday. “It's just you've got to have your team clicking at the right time of the year, and it just so happens we got all our guys back, and we're kind of playing good defense and getting stops. Then we've got a deep bench, so that helps too.” Sounds simple enough.
Speaking of Wichita, Kan., that’s where the strangest memento of this season’s tournament comes from. Carl Hall once had the most recognizable haircut in mid-major basketball — and at some point between the Missouri Valley Conference tournament and the NCAA tournament, he cut off those dreadlocks. “Sent it to his mom in a box,” Hall’s coach said Wednesday. “Carl is six-foot-eight. Once he cut his hair, he may be more like six-foot-five-and-a-half.” Let’s hope the lost height doesn’t affect his ability in the post.
Ohio State’s Aaron Craft will be the player you love or hate for the rest of this tournament — for the opposite reason that Marshall Henderson of Ole Miss was the player you loved or hated in the tournament’s first week. Arizona coach Sean Miller called Craft college basketball’s version of Tim Tebow: “the leadership he provided, the competitive spirit he embodied ... Craft does the same thing for Ohio State.” You shouldn’t hate Craft. Every parent should hope their son grows up to be like him: a team-first basketball player, a humble kid, pre-med student who is close to a 4.0 GPA and who talks about studying for his organic chemistry test minutes after hitting the tournament’s most exciting buzzer-beater of the first weekend. If you hate him, it’s because you’re jealous.
Kansas looks to be the most vulnerable of the three remaining one-seeds, especially after its first two games contained exactly one inspired half of basketball. Now it faces the most inspired team in this tournament in Michigan, a four-seed which stumbled toward the end of its regular season but won its first two games by an average of 20 points. Kansas’ problems aren’t just because it’ll be facing the most talented point guard in college hoops in Trey Burke. It’s because Kansas’ star scorer, Ben McLemore, continued his March struggles with an 0-for-9 shooting performance against North Carolina. It’s because Kansas still doesn’t have a true point guard. It’s because Kansas allows opponents to take a lot of 3-pointers, and Michigan is a team that likes to shoot a lot of 3-pointers, ranking 52nd in the country in 3-point field goals per game with 7.5. Never count out Kansas, because its defense is one of the best in the country (fifth in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com), Bill Self is one of college hoops’ most brilliant minds and Jeff Withey’s post presence can change games. But to win, you need to score, and scoring 21 points in the first half against an eighth-seeded North Carolina team did not look like the inspired performances that lead to deep runs in March.
OK, fine. Nobody can get enough of Dunk City. Florida Gulf Coast hasn’t followed the rules all tournament (see: shaking hands with the television announcers before the buzzer sounded in their Georgetown upset, or playing free-spirited, fun basketball, or having a beach next to the new residence halls on campus). Why should they start to follow them now? If there’s ever going to be a magical, mythical place where a 15-seed makes a Final Four, that place is Dunk City.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.