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March 24, 2008

March Madness - Ranking the Sweet 16

The problem with going back through your bracket and forcing upsets is that 1) you never force the right ones, and 2) you end up missing out on the actual upsets, costing you twice as many points. The other side effect is that you end up with USC in your Elite 8...

Nevertheless, despite the fact that my
Yahoo! bracket looks like Christmas (too much red with the green...), I stand in decent shape, as seven of my Elite 8 are still alive, as is my entire Final 4. Although, UCLA... if you could just go ahead and win handily from now on, I'd greatly appreciate it. (Side note: Kevin Love... I am a fan.)

In retrospect, the first weekend brought us four overtime games, six others decided by 5 points or less, twelve upsets based on seedings, and of course, the knowledge that we will have a Duke-free remainder of the tournament. But as Mark McGwire would say, I'm not here to talk about the past! It's time to look forward and see what is going to happen in the coming weeks. Who has the best chance? Who should just be happy to be where they are? Let's take a look at the remaining 16 teams and try to sort this out.

16. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers - Sure, this team is a nice story, but the Sweet 16 is where Cinderella usually loses her glass slipper. And by glass slipper, I mean game... The Hilltoppers pulled out a dramatic win over mid-major Drake in round one, then took on fellow underdog San Diego in round two. They have yet to play a major conference team (although they'd most likely beat Illinois - sorry, back to looking forward...) and now go up against top-seeded UCLA. It's been a nice run, but I believe it stops here.

15. Villanova Wildcats - Perhaps the last team to make the tournament, the Wildcats are another example of why you should never go against your first instinct... Originally in my Sweet 16, the Wildcats have indeed made my non-prediction come true. The win over Georgia was solid, and they took care of business against Sienna, but now comes Kansas, who is always apt to choking but still a considerably better team than this Big East hopeful. As a vengeful Illini fan, I will be rooting for them. But truth be told, I can't see them pulling another win out.

14. Davidson Wildcats - I don't necessarily like putting Davidson here, but looking at the rest of the field, I could not select anybody to drop to move the Wildcats up. All 92 pounds of Stephen Curry has been phenomenal thus far. He not only shoots with accuracy, but with great confidence. Late in the second half against Georgetown, he received the ball just above the top of the key and you could just tell he was going to shoot it. Sure enough, the first opening he gets, drains a 3, nothing but net, putting Davidson up 5. I knew right then that the game was over and that this team is not a team I would want to face. I wish I knew this before I filled out my brackets, however, as I had Davidson in my Elite 8, had second thoughts... and then ended up going with the aforementioned USC...

13. Michigan State Spartans - This team confuses me. Their inconsistency has plagued them all season, yet somehow, Tom Izzo always seems to be prepared for the tournament. More power to him, I guess, yet at some point, the weaknesses of this team and the fact that they're still from the Big Ten will come to the surface. Playing a #1 seed is usually a reasonable time for that to happen. Sure, the Spartans beat Pittsburgh, who was the sleeper team of choice for many. But I had Pittsburgh losing to Temple, so that tells you my impression of Pittsburgh. Of course, I had Michigan State falling to Temple as well, so that tells you my impression of Michigan State. And I had Temple in my Sweet 16, so that tells you all you need to know about me...

12. West Virginia Mountaineers - How about that Big East, huh? Eight teams in and only three made it to the Sweet 16. And who would have guessed that the Mountaineers would be one of those still standing? Oh yeah, that's right... me. But defeating an Arizona team that barely squeaked into the field of 65 and an overrated Duke team is more impressive in terms of my gratitude than of accomplishment. I think the Mountaineers have a better shot at reaching the Elite 8 than some of the teams I'm about to get to, but in the grand scheme of things, I think this is where West Virginia lies... solid performance for a 7-seed, but not in the top tier of remaining schools.

11. Xavier Musketeers - Why do I think West Virginia has a good shot at the Elite 8? Primarily because I have not been overly impressed with Xavier. I have Xavier making the next round, so they'll have my rooting interest, but thus far, they defeated Georgia, which had an unprecedented run simply to make the tournament but was still a .500 team, and struggled against Purdue, who is up-and-coming but still too young to see as a major threat in this tournament (and again, that whole Big Ten thing). I don't know what the line is, but I can see the Xavier-West Virginia game going either way, down to the wire, so it makes sense to rank them together as well.

10. Stanford Cardinal - Yes, Brook Lopez was sensational during the second half and overtime, but at some point, he will be slowed down in this tournament and then what? The Cardinal need to find a little better balance if they're going to advance past Texas (who have issues of their own). They also need a coach who doesn't get needlessly ejected in the biggest game of the season... While we're here, how do you think it feels to be the less talented twin brother? Do you go through life just wondering what exactly happened in the womb? I don't think I would ever get over that. Somebody call Harvey Grant and ask him what he thinks...

9. Washington State Cougars - Here is another team that I'd like to rank higher but don't know who else to move down. While their Pac-10 colleagues were eking out last second wins, the Cougars soundly handled Notre Dame on Saturday, a team that I expected to see in the Sweet 16. Of course, a little luster was taken off the win after watching most of the Big East crumble, but it got to the point where I stopped paying attention to the game, something that typically only happens during blowouts. The biggest problem they face now, however, is that whole North Carolina thing that's staring them in the face.

8. Texas Longhorns - I kept looking at the scores in the corner of the screen and saw Texas continually lead Miami for most of the game. Then, suddenly, Miami was just a few points back with the game on the line. My initial thought was "What did Rick Barnes do now?" That's never a good sign. While the Longhorns have talent, essentially a home court in Houston, and that whole Ewing Theory working for them, the chances of them overcoming their coach (who is, to quote my relatives in Texas, "awful") is minimal. When it comes down to crunch time, you want a coach who is going to push all the right buttons... so the Trent Johnson/Rick Barnes chess match should be quite a show...

7. Wisconsin Badgers - I tend to disrespect the Big Ten often, but that's what happens when the conference, shall we say, fails to live up to expectations. While the Badgers were definitely the best of a bad bunch, I am waiting for the shoe to drop and purify this tournament from the plodding that is Big Ten offensive basketball. Nevertheless, I do have to respect Bo Ryan for what he's done with this team. Typically, the Badgers play solid defense and have one go-to guy on offense to carry them when needed. This year, they have the defense once again, but I don't know who will take over in the clutch, and in the month of March, you need that somebody.

6. Memphis Tigers - Before the tournament started, there were two sides to the debate regarding the Memphis Tigers. One side said that their free throw shooting would do them in. The other said that they were talented enough to overcome. I tended to side with the former, having the Tigers bow out in the Elite 8 of my bracket. After watching the end of the Memphis-Mississippi St. matchup, I'm going to stick with my gut and say they will be the first 1-seed eliminated. Conference USA, this is not.

5. Louisville Cardinals - Quite honestly, I did not know what to expect from the Cardinals before this weekend. I saw them reaching the Final 4. I saw them eliminated in the first round. So I settled with the round of 16, and thus far, my prediction is accurate. They have crushed both Boise St. and Oklahoma, although I don't consider either of those as signature wins. Nevertheless, the team is playing well, and you cannot underestimate Rick Pitino come tournament time. They'll be ready for the Volunteers.

4. UCLA Bruins - My pick to win the championship before the tournament, the Bruins put a significant fright in me on Saturday, trailing for nearly the entire game until eventually putting it together against Texas A&M. Looking back through the season, the Bruins have had quite a few scares. However, like good teams do, they have pulled them out, just as they did this weekend. They have the talent and have shown that championship-caliber play throughout the season, so I'm not dropping them too far. But with that being said, they need to get their act together and find something to rely on other than Kevin Love and his 7 blocks... Hopefully, for my bracket's sake, Western Kentucky proves to be the remedy to whatever is ailing this team.

3. Tennessee Volunteers - First off, this is the third 'eers team in the Sweet 16, joining the Mountaineers and the Musketeers. I just found that interesting. Second, it pains me to think that my top three teams are all on my less-preferred list of teams. Regardless, the Volunteers proved something to me with their win over Butler. Sure, they struggled and were forced into overtime, but they managed to knock out a team that was way better than a 7-seed. I don't understand why nobody was talking about how the #10 team in the country got a 7-seed in this tournament. Butler is a solid, underrated team, and the Volunteers took the punch and then punched right back. That will be a great learning experience for this team going forward.

2. Kansas Jayhawks - If this were a list of teams most likely to choke, Kansas would be on top of that list. If this were a list of teams I'd most like to see lose, again, Kansas would claim the top spot. Even in this list, Kansas is right behind the top team, having demonstrated solid and deep talent in this tournament just as they have all season. Now they get a matchup with Villanova, which should be an easy victory, before taking on either Wisconsin or Davidson. If Bill Self doesn't make it to the Final 4 this year, the Kansas fans will be in an uproar. I'm looking forward to that...

1. North Carolina Tar Heels - I think it's safe to say that the Tar Heels have been the most impressive team of the tournament thus far. Two games over 100 points... Not bad, I'd say. So instead of continuing their praises, I will just say that they should watch out in the coming weeks, because seldom does the team playing the best on the first weekend end up cutting down the nets after the third weekend. And I was a little disappointed when CBS changed to the final 10 minutes of the game only to see Tyler Hansbrough complaining about a foul call and his teammates still jacking up 3's, despite the fact that they were up nearly 40 points. It's not good to tempt the fates, my friends...

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