The first night of the Sweet 16 saw one No. 1 seed fall, another narrowly survive in the tournament’s best game yet, a national title rematch 50 years in the making and one bracket-buster continue to plow through higher-seeded opponents.
Thursday featured a riveting contest between Syracuse and Wisconsin, Rick Pitino continuing his region semifinal mastery, Florida extending its hot streak and a barrage of three-pointers. Friday brings a rematch of one of the regular season’s most memorable finishes, the last remaining Cinderella and the most talked about wrist in all of sports.
Tonight, the South and Midwest regions will be whittled down to their final two teams as power conference heavyweights and a trio of double-digit seeds collide.
As the father of a certain North Carolina point guard so eloquently put it earlier this week in a text message to CBS Sports.com’s Jeff Goodman, “hang onto your seatbelt.”
Here’s your guide to all of Friday’s Sweet 16 action.
SOUTH REGION — Atlanta
Scott Drew’s resurrection project in Waco has the Bears one win away from a second straight region final, a stunning development considering the 2003 scandal that nearly swallowed the program. In Perry Jones III, Quincy Acy and Quincy Miller, Baylor boasts a trio of talented forwards who will be hard for Xavier to handle. Fresh off his 25-point, 12-rebound performance against Lehigh, 7-foot senior center Kenny Frease will be tasked with battling all three of on the backboards. And to do so, he must remain on the floor and out of foul trouble. Senior guard Tu Holloway is shooting 50 percent from three-point range (6 of 12) in the tournament, and his ability to dictate tempo and hit clutch shots could propel the Musketeers to their first region final since 2008. But the real X-factor could once again be sophomore guard Brady Heslip who hit nine three-pointers to turn a round-of-32 nail-biter against Colorado into a rout in the blink of an eye. Heslip has been lights-out in the postseason — he made 24 of 43 three-point attempts — and Xavier must keep a body on him all night to keep him in check.
There had to be more than a few wry smiles in the room when the selection committee seeded the South to allow a possible Sweet 16 clash between the Hoosiers and Wildcats. Not only are Indiana and Kentucky two of college basketball’s most storied programs, but they also produced one of the best games of the 2011-12 regular season. If you missed Christian Watford’s buzzer-beating three-pointer that knocked Kentucky from the ranks of the unbeaten back in January, you’ve seen the highlight countless times since. So have the Wildcats, and they’ve had just about enough of it. Freshmen Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist have grown up a lot since that game — and Kentucky has only lost once since. The Wildcats cruised into the Sweet 16 after falling in the SEC tournament final to Vanderbilt, and look every bit the part of the favorite to cut down the nets in New Orleans. The Hoosiers showed some serious moxie to edge an underseeded VCU team in the round-of-32, but they’ll be hard pressed to repeat their result against the Wildcats. Freshman forward Cody Zeller has a plethora of post skills, but with Davis patrolling the lane, Indiana must be on point from the perimeter. Watford and Jordan Hulls combined for seven of Indiana’s nine three-pointers in the first meeting, but Davis only played 24 minutes due to foul trouble.
MIDWEST REGION — St. Louis
Will he or won’t he? Kendall Marshall’s status after having surgery on his right wrist was the story of the week. As of Friday morning, the top-seeded Tar Heels were still preparing to play without their sophomore point guard. And for a team that is already without two of its top backcourt players, North Carolina’s depth will be tested more than ever. Freshman Stilman White has managed to avoid turnovers in sparse minutes with Marshall on the bench this season, but if Marshall is out, White will be front and center for a team that relies on its point guard to set a breakneck pace and get the ball in the hands of one of the top frontcourts in the country. As North Carolina coach Roy Williams has said, White does not need to be Marshall, but he does need to make good decisions and take care of the basketball. No one in Ohio’s regular rotation is taller than 6-foot-8, which could lead to a field day for 7-foot ACC player of the year Tyler Zeller (16 points, 9 rebounds per game) and 6-foot-11 John Henson (14 points, 10 rebounds). But the Bobcats are led by a pair of speedy guards in Walter Offutt and D.J. Cooper who can catch fire from the perimeter — an area the Tar Heels struggle to defend. If Ohio’s guards can fluster White and swingman Justin Watts and force turnovers with pressure, the last remaining Cinderella has a chance to pull the upset. If North Carolina’s big men dominate the glass the way they have all season and/or Marshall pulls a Willis Reed, the Tar Heels will roll.
The last time N.C. State advanced to a region final, Jim Valvano was the coach, the Wolfpack were still basking in the glory of their 1984 national championship, and the team’s current players were not even a twinkle in their mothers’ eyes. The year was 1986 — and the opponent, Kansas. Now, after barely making the tournament field, the Pack are back in the spotlight following a pair of upset wins over San Diego State and Georgetown. Sophomore C.J. Leslie’s versatility and tenacity on both ends typifies the spirit of a resilient N.C. State squad that is peaking at the perfect time. But the Jayhawks also have come a long way after losing four starters including the Morris twins, who left early for the NBA. But forward Thomas Robinson and guard Tyshawn Taylor have evolved into game-changers, and junior guard Elijah Johnson helped turn the tide in Kansas’s comeback win over Purdue. Although they start only one senior, the Jayhawks have a significant postseason experience edge on N.C. State — and a sizeable chip on their shoulders after losing to Cinderella VCU in the region finals last March.
Players to watch
Darius Miller, Kentucky — As one of just two seniors on a roster loaded with baby-faced future NBA lottery picks, Miller is the oft-overlooked old man. But the 6-8 guard was a big factor against Iowa State, tying his season-high with 19 points and six rebounds. Miller doesn’t need to put up big numbers for the Wildcats to get past Indiana, but if he’s scoring, it gives Kentucky yet another weapon in an already loaded arsenal. He had eight points in the first matchup with Indiana, but could be called on to play a bigger role Friday night.
Lorenzo Brown, N.C. State — At 6-foot-5, Brown is not your typical point guard, but his steady hand and defensive prowess made him one of the top floor generals in the ACC this season. Long and athletic, he can get in passing lanes and is an unusually strong rebounder for his position. But Brown’s distribution could be his biggest asset against Kansas. In five postseason games, the sophomore is averaging 7.4 assists per contest, and his ability to get the ball to Leslie and lethal sharpshooter Scott Wood will be key as the Wolfpack try to keep pace with the Jayhawks.
“As long as their heart is not beating so fast that they pass out before they get to the court, I think we’ll still have five guys out there starting.” — UNC Coach Roy Williams on Stilman White and Justin Watts filling in for the injured Kendall Marshall
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