East Region: No. 3 Marquette vs. No. 4 Syracuse, 4:30 p.m., CBS
How they got here: The Golden Eagles needed some guts — and probably a little luck, too — in their first two rounds, squeaking by Davidson and Butler by a combined three points. But Coach Buzz Williams and Marquette proved they belong in the Sweet 16, rolling past veteran Miami, 71-61, on Thursday at Verizon Center.
Syracuse ran up the score against Montana (81-34), sneaked past No. 12 California (66-60) and made an impressive statement with a 61-50 suffocation of No. 1 Indiana. The Orange forced 19 turnovers and blocked 10 shots during that Sweet 16 win, where Coach Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone defense took center stage.
What’s the story: For Big East fanatics, this matchup is the unexpected dessert after all the this-is-the-end talk centered on the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden. Few expected Marquette to get by Miami, or Syracuse to beat Indiana, and even fewer expected both to meet in the Elite Eight, with a national semifinal berth on the line. What’s more, they’re doing it at Verizon Center, on Georgetown’s floor, with the Hoyas long since bounced from the tournament.
Who to watch: Marquette point guard Vander Blue has been sensational throughout the tournament, averaging 19.7 points through three games on 50 percent shooting (21 for 42). But he’ll also be counted upon to defend Syracuse’s lengthier wing players, and must box out to limit the length of the Orange’s possessions. Still, Blue has been Marquette’s offensive spark plug, and must find a way to break that nasty zone.
Syracuse guard Michael Carter-Williams torched Indiana for 24 points, boosting his NBA draft stock in the process with a dominating performance. He’s vastly improved since committing 14 turnovers and scoring just 14 points in Syracuse’s 74-71 loss at Marquette in February, and has seen his offensive output increase by several magnitudes by each NCAA tournament round (four points vs. Montana, 12 against California, 24 against Indiana). If nothing else, he’s an easy story to root for. Carter-Williams’s childhood home burned down last weekend.
West Region: No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 9 Wichita State, 7:05 p.m., CBS
How they got here: Ohio State has needed a three-pointer in the dying seconds to escape each of its past two games. First, it was Aaron Craft, shaking off a screen and burying a gutsy (read: questionable) three-pointer to send the Buckeyes past Iowa State. Then LaQuinton Ross took the reins against No. 6 Arizona on Thursday, burying the tiebreaking trey with two seconds left. All that came after a comfortable 25-point win over Iona in the first round.
Wichita State, seeded ninth in the West Region, took a more unconventional rout to its first Elite Eight since the tournament field expanded in 1985. Walloping Pittsburgh 73-55 in the opener was surprising enough, but the Shockers took it to No. 1 Gonzaga in the second round, ousting the Zags 76-70. Cap that off with an impressive 14-point rout of La Salle, and Wichita State is looking pretty strong.
What’s the story: Ohio State is the clear-cut favorite, so this is all about Wichita State’s ability to spoil the party and reach the Final Four as a mid-major. The Buckeyes are searching for their 11th Final Four appearance, while the Shockers are one win away from both setting a program record and reaching the national semis for the first time since 1981 — the only time Wichita State has ever made it that far.
Who to watch: Craft makes the headlines for his pesky defense (read: hateability), but Ross has truly excelled over the past two rounds. He dropped 17 points against both the Cyclones and Wildcats, shooting 11 for 18 during that two-game span. Ohio State has no shortage of high-flying weapons, but Ross has been the hot hand.
Malcolm Armstead is a tempting pick, just because he’ll be forced to handle Craft’s relentless on-ball pressure, but look for Carl Hall to continue his recent surge. Hall was a one-man fast break against the Explorers on Thursday, and should be matched up against Deshaun Thomas on the defensive end.
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Photos: Scenes from the tournament
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