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
It’s hard to imagine a program dealing with more distractions in a single season, and the latest — Fab Melo’s exclusion from Syracuse’s tournament roster for eligibility issues — had many picking the Orange to go home early. But Jim Boeheim and company are two wins away from another Final Four. After a scare against 16th-seeded UNC-Asheville
Wilmington, Dion Waiters, Scoop Jardine and the Orange found their stride in the second half against Kansas State. The Badgers epitomize Big Ten basketball with their defensive, physical and sometimes-hard-to-watch style. But by dictating the pace, they can force their opponents out of their comfort zones while limiting a more up-tempo team’s transition opportunities. Wisconsin averages the fewest number of possessions per game in the country (59.2), and against a team as quick in the open court as the Orange, staying in that range will be critical for Bo Ryan’s squad. Much of the onus falls on the shoulders of senior point guard Jordan Taylor, who leads the team in scoring and has nine assists to only two turnovers in two tournament games. With length throughout its lineup, Syracuse’s vaunted 2-3 zone will force the Badgers to play outside-in. But so far, that hasn’t been a problem from Wisconsin, which is making 38 percent (20 of 52) of its three-point attempts in the tournament.
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
The best matchup in this contest is not at point guard or power forward but between head coaching legends Tom Izzo and Rick Pitino. In one corner you have Izzo, the guy who has led every single four-year player during his tenure to at least one Final Four. In the other, Pitino, the guy who boasts a pristine 9-0 record in Sweet 16 games. Both know how to get the most out of their players in March, as evidenced by the recent play of their stars. Senior forward Draymond Green followed up his round-of-64 triple-double with a 16-point, 13-rebound, six-assist game against St. Louis and his versatility makes him an impossible matchup for any one player in Louisville’s lineup. For the Cardinals, it’s the re-energized play of junior point guard Peyton Siva that sparked their current six-game winning streak. Siva likes to push the tempo and Louisville is a dangerous team when it can get out and run. Spartans’ sophomore point guard Keith Appling broke out of his shooting slump with 19 points against Saint Louis, but is still only hitting 25 percent of his three-pointers this season. If he can re-calibrate from the perimeter, it should give Green enough of a boost to lead the Spartans onward to a third region final in four seasons.
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.
More tournament coverage from Washington Post Sports: