Can the Ohio Bobcats continue their Cinderella run in the Sweet 16?
The Sweet 16 has traditionally been the most celebrated milestone on the road to the Final Four, and with good reason.
The 16 teams that remain have reached the tournament's second weekend by defeating two (or, if they competed in the tournament's opening round, three) high-quality opponents. They have survived intense, pressure-packed environments and battled through the fatigue of a long season. With the bright glare of the national spotlight upon them, they have stood tall and won.
The driving force behind the popularity of the NCAA Tournament is the unpredictability of it. To play Division I basketball, whether it be for a program as renowned as Duke or anonymous as Lehigh, requires special talent. You have to be really, really good to play for either school and, given that parity, upsets like the Mountain Hawks' amazing win over the Blue Devils can happen at any time.
The structure of the NCAA Tournament, with games being played on a neutral court and the limited amount of time to prepare for a specific opponent, creates an environment much more conducive to the upset victory, especially during the opening weekend.
The Sweet 16, however, is where the men are separated from the boys. It is very difficult for a team to sustain a hot streak over a four-day layover between games, especially considering all the travel involved and the element of surprise that comes with a lower seed advancing having worn off. That is why so many Cinderellas see the clock strike midnight in the Sweet 16.
That is not to say that the upset victory is no longer a factor in the drama surrounding these games. For one, higher seeds that would have been victims of an upset in the first weekend see the tables turned and find themselves trying to pull one off, as is the case when a No. 4 seed plays a No. 1 seed. Also, as recent history has shown in the cases of George Mason, Butler and VCU, college basketball's traditionally elite teams and conferences are no longer head-and-shoulders above the rest. David can truly slay Goliath.
With that in mind, here are the five most likely upsets of the Sweet 16.
Jordan Taylor and his Wisconsin teammates are a strong bet to upset Syracuse in Boston on Thursday.
Heading into March, the Syracuse Orange looked like a surefire Final Four team. Carrying the deepest bench in the nation and a wealth of talent both on the perimeter and in the post, few foresaw any possible hiccups for Jim Boeheim's team.
Then came the bombshell that could derail the Orange freight train on its way to New Orleans. Defensive stalwart and starting center Fab Melo, who had been named Big East Defensive Player of the Year, was declared ineligible for the entirety of the NCAA Tournament.
Without their anchor in the middle, the Orange barely avoided becoming the first No. 1 seed in NCAA Tournament history to lose to a No. 16 seed, scraping by against UNC-Asheville with the help of some questionable officiating. The Orange seemed to bounce back from its near disaster with a strong third-round performance against Kansas State, but questions remain regarding their viability as a Final Four contender.
Wisconsin, on the other hand, has played exceptionally well thus far in the Tournament. Opening with a dominating performance against Montana in the second round, then holding off No. 5 seed and trendy Final Four favorite Vanderbilt in the third, Wisconsin has played their brand of basketball, physical and defensively-oriented, to near perfection.
If any team has the ability to stop Syracuse's six-pronged offensive attack, it is the Badgers, whose defensive philosophy revolves around preventing transition baskets and cutting off dribble penetration — two things the Syracuse offense thrives on.
On offense, the Badgers are led by steady senior point guard Jordan Taylor, who has a knack for getting his shooters the ball in positions where they can get open looks at the basket, a skill that will come in handy when attacking Syracuse's signature zone defense. Wisconsin is loaded with strong shooters at every position, which makes their offensive style a difficult matchup for the Orange "D."
While they may not be nearly as deep a team as Syracuse, Wisconsin is equipped to handle everything the Orange brings to the table on both ends of the floor. Given 'Cuse's shaky tournament performance thus far, the Badgers are a strong bet to make Syracuse the first No. 1 seed to fall in the 2012 NCAA Tournament.
C.J. Leslie looks to lead NC State past Kansas.
Based on the numbers alone, NC State had the toughest run to the Sweet 16 of any team still remaining. They ousted No. 6 seed San Diego State in the second round and No. 3 seed Georgetown in the third round. Up next on their hit list is No. 2 seed Kansas.
NC State struggled at times this season, their first under new coach Mark Gottfried, but they have been playing at a different level of late. The Wolfpack, under former head coach Sidney Lowe, always seemed to recruit rather well but the talent never translated to wins. Under the tutelage of Gottfried, the Wolfpack finally seem to be coming together and figuring out how to win.
Look up "balanced attack" in the dictionary and you will find a picture of the Wolfpack. NC State features five players averaging double figures, led by sophomore forward C.J. Leslie, a former 5-star recruit out of Holly Springs, North Carolina. Leslie is long and athletic, can handle the ball on the perimeter, penetrate and attack the basket, shoot from range and, given that he leads the Wolfpack in blocks per game this season, certainly handle his own on the blocks down low.
Leslie is the ring leader of a talented group of players who are unselfish and dynamic in their skill sets. Lorenzo Brown, Richard Howell, C.J. Williams and Scott Wood round out the starting five, each adding a different element to the Wolfpack attack. Howell is NC State's strongest presence on the blocks while Wood is the Pack's three-point specialist. Williams plays the role of slasher, while Brown manages the entire attack, finding and exploiting the biggest mismatch on the floor each time down the court.
This depth and versatility on offense will be difficult for Kansas to defend.
Kansas' best chance to end the Wolfpack's run will be to utilize their size advantage in the paint. With Thomas Robinson, Jeff Withey, Justin Wesley and Kevin Young, the Jayhawks are certainly much larger than the Wolfpack, but the advantages end there.
In order to utilize their size, Kansas would have to slow the game down, which plays nicely into NC State's hands. The Wolfpack are 5-1 in March (their lone loss coming by two points to North Carolina in the ACC conference semifinal), largely because their defense has stepped up big. No team has scored more than 70 on NC State since the month began.
Erving Walker and the Florida Gators will look to shoot past Marquette in the Sweet 16.
The Marquette Golden Eagles have been among the tournament's most impressive teams through their first two games. Displaying an impressive combination of tenacious defense and ultra-quick transition offense, Buzz Williams' squad has become a trendy pick to reach the Final Four.
In order to do that, they must get past Florida first.
The Florida Gators are the nation's leading three-point shooting team in terms of sheer volume. They have made 342 bombs from beyond the arc this season, far more than any other team in college basketball.
Anytime a team is so dangerous from beyond the arc, they are dangerous to pull off an upset. But the Gators do not solely rely on getting hot from the outside. Billy Donovan's squad sports an athletic lineup, one that could match Marquette's speed up and down the floor.
Led by Bradley Beal, Kenny Boynton, Erving Walker and Mike Rosario, the Gators are guard heavy, which should help them in their ability to keep up with Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom.
If the Gators can knock a few shots down early and gain confidence, watch out for an upset.
Yancy Gates has the size and toughness to take on Jared Sullinger.
Cincinnati reached the Sweet 16 on the strength of extremely tough play, holding each of their first two opponents below 60 points.
Ohio State on the other hand, beat two relatively soft teams in their first two games, meaning the Buckeyes are in for a rude awakening when they take on the Bearcats.
Ohio State has had trouble all year when facing teams that can match their physicality. Michigan State and Wisconsin are two notable examples of teams that were able to take the Buckeyes off their game by playing rough.
Cincinnati has emerged as a team with a very physical identity. Since regrouping from their ugly brawl with Xavier in December, the Bearcats have stifled opposing offenses while attacking the rim on offense.
It doesn't make for pretty basketball, but it does make for a rather even matchup between these two teams.
Yancy Gates has the size and toughness to match up well with Jared Sullinger on the low blocks, while Sean Kilpatrick, Dion Dixon and Juquan Parker certainly have the chops to handle Ohio State's perimeter players.
If Cincinnati can get in the Buckeyes' heads early with their physical style of play, this game could turn into an all-out fight for an Elite Eight spot.
Kendall Marshall's absence could trip up the Tar Heels.
It appears, barring some unforeseen miracle, the Tar Heels will be without offensive catalyst Kendall Marshall for their Sweet 16 matchup against Ohio.
While normally this game would almost be a no-brainer, Marshall's value to the Tar Heels is so high that it wouldn't be surprising to see the UNC stumble against an athletic, attacking Ohio team.
Skylar White will step in at Marshall's position, and Tar Heels stars Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller and John Henson will look to pick up the load. If they stumble at all, Ohio stands ready to try and take advantage.
This game will hinge completely on North Carolina's ability to keep their offense moving without its quarterback.