After a number of stunning first-round results, the opening weekend of the 2012 NCAA tournament weeded out all but one Cinderella and set up a Sweet 16 loaded with national title contenders, traditional powers and challengers riding massive waves of momentum.
Play begins Thursday night with a pair of No. 1 seeds, three of the best big men in the country, a trio of legendary coaches and a title game rematch 50 years in the making. Tonight, the East and West regions will be whittled down to their final two teams as power conference heavyweights collide.
What can you expect to see? Physical matchups, plenty of pace and perhaps a surprise or two. Here’s your guide to all of Thursday’s Sweet 16 action.
EAST REGION — Boston
Quick, name the only school from Ohio to win multiple national championships. Did you guess Cincinnati? Fifty years ago, the Bearcats and Buckeyes combined for three consecutive titles with Cincinnati besting its in-state rival in 1961 and 1962. The rivalry has been dormant ever since, with only one neutral-site matchup in 1962. And while none of the players or coaches were around to witness the great past matchups between the two schools, to expect anything short of a heavyweight fight on Thursday night would be foolish. If you thought Sunday’s nightcap between the Bearcats and Florida State was a slugfest, wait until the first collision between Deshaun Thomas (6-7, 225 pounds) or Jared Sullinger (6-9, 265) and Yancy Gates (6-9, 260) in the paint. The Buckeyes have a distinct size advantage inside with their front-court duo while the Bearcats prefer to go small with a guard heavy lineup. Sophomore guard Sean Kilpatrick has made 5 of 9 three-point attempts in the tournament, and his ability to catch fire from the perimeter helps Cincinnati during its occasional scoring dry spells. For the Buckeyes, Sullinger is the go-to guy in crunch time while Thomas’s versatility makes him a matchup nightmare. It was Thomas who led Ohio State with a career-high 31 points and 12 rebounds against Loyola (Md.) while Sullinger was huge down the stretch against Gonzaga.
WEST REGION — Phoenix
It may not have the star power or tradition of the night’s first three contests, but this nightcap could provide the best basketball of them all. The Gators annihilated Virginia and Norfolk State by a combined 60 points to get here, and appear to be a far more polished unit than the one that dropped four of five heading into the tournament. Florida hit 10 of its 28 three-point attempts against Norfolk State, and Kenny Boynton, Bradley Beal will continue to jack them up against Marquette. But the Golden Eagles have plenty of shooters of their own and like to get after it defensively — especially on the perimeter, where they held Murray State to 4 of 21 shooting in their round-of-32 win. Big East player of the year Jae Crowder is a joy to watch, and his ability to score inside and out, rebound and block shots could make him the X-factor for a Marquette team looking to advance to its first region final since Dwyane Wade led the Golden Eagles to the Final Four in 2003.
Players to watch:
Aaron Craft, Ohio State: The sophomore point guard has 14 assists and six steals through two game, and his ability to hound Cincinnati’s Cashmere Wright in the half-court set could take the Bearcats out of their offensive game. Craft also tied his season-high with 17 points against Gonzaga, and if the Buckeyes can get a similar scoring boost against Cincinnati, they should be headed back to their first regional final since they reached the national championship game in 2007.
Darius Johnson-Odom, Marquette: The other half of the Golden Eagles’ one-two junior college punch, Johnson-Odom is averaging 18.5 points in the tournament while helping to push the pace offensively for a team that loves to run. But against Florida’s prolific perimeter shooting, he’ll need to stay home on the likes of Boynton, Beale and Mike Rosario. The Gators are not gun shy from the outside — they were second in the nation with 841 three-point attempts during the regular season — but if the Golden Eagles force them into contested shots, Marquette will be rewarded with long rebounds and transition opportunities.
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