10 Biggest Lessons We've Learned Heading into the Sweet 16

Thad Novak@@ThadNovakCorrespondent IMarch 25, 2013

10 Biggest Lessons We've Learned Heading into the Sweet 16

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    With the world of March Madness catching its breath before the Sweet 16, it's time to reflect on the games that are in the books. Amid the usual array of buzzer-beaters and Cinderella teams, there are a few conclusions to draw specific to this year’s tournament.

    One thing has become clear in the past week: The pre-tournament grumbling about the selection committee’s treatment of the Pac-12 had a lot of justification behind it. Two convincing wins by 12th-seeded Oregon are just the beginning of the contradictions between the league’s postseason performance and the seeding its teams received.

    Read on for a closer look at the Pac-12’s gripes, along with nine more bits of knowledge gleaned from the early rounds of March Madness 2013.

10. Marquette’s Regular-Season Finale Was Not a Fluke

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    Third-seeded Marquette could easily have dropped to a No. 4 had it finished the regular season with a bad loss against St. John’s.

    Instead, a last-second layup by Vander Blue in overtime saved the Golden Eagles—and, as it turned out, provided a sign of things to come.

    No team has looked sharper in the clutch in the Big Dance than Marquette, whose two wins have come by a combined three points.

    Between Blue’s game-winning encore against Davidson and a late defensive stand against Butler, Buzz Williams’ squad has proved that it will not crumble in high-pressure situations.

9. The Wooden Award Is Still Pretty Much a Toss-Up

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    Although Doug McDermott, Shane Larkin and Otto Porter Jr. all made runs at the top spot, the favorite for national Player of the Year honors over the second half of the season pretty much came down to two names.

    After two NCAA tournament games each, Michigan’s Trey Burke and Indiana’s Victor Oladipo continue to look like equally worthy choices.

    Burke’s Wolverines have had the easier road so far, with blowout wins over South Dakota State and VCU. Oladipo and the Hoosiers, for their part, have routed James Madison and come back to beat Temple.

    Oladipo saved IU with a team-high 16 points in the latter game, but Burke manhandled one of the country’s top defenses against VCU (18 points, seven assists).

    Whichever way the Wooden Award voters’ coin toss lands, the Big Ten star who wins the trophy will certainly deserve it.

8. Kansas Has the Toughest Remaining Road to the Title

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    Of the top title contenders remaining in the tournament field, none faces a more daunting potential schedule than the Kansas Jayhawks.

    It starts with a Sweet 16 showdown with the red-hot Michigan offense, whose best player (Trey Burke) will create substantial matchup problems for KU.

    A win over Michigan likely sets up a date with a Florida squad whose full-court press will attack the Jayhawks’ weakest starter, PG Elijah Johnson.

    If Kansas survives the Gators, it could easily have the dubious privilege of facing both of the leading candidates for the No. 1 overall seed. No team's Final Four prospects are more intimidating than facing Indiana followed by Louisville in the title game.

7. The Power Conferences Aren’t Obsolete Just Yet

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    There’s been a lot of discussion this year about the disappearing gap between the mid-major and major conferences, and how leagues such as the Mountain West or Atlantic 10 have become as deep and impressive as the SEC or Pac-12.

    Those trends are certainly in progress, but don’t discount the power of a power-conference pedigree too easily.

    Of this season’s Sweet 16 teams, 13 come from Power Six conferences. The ballyhooed MWC (No. 1 in the RPI rankings) has seen all of its representatives sent home, while only La Salle remains among five A-10 squads in the field.

    There’s a lot of great basketball being played at mid-major programs, but sometimes the stars a team can recruit with a power-conference name are just too much to overcome.

6. Conference Records Can Be Overvalued

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    When conference play opened, Michigan and Arizona looked like prime national title contenders with their undefeated records. Both teams proceeded to lose six games in league action, though, and both were largely written off as Final Four threats.

    Now, the Wildcats and Wolverines have each earned a pair of blowout wins and are back on track to challenge for a trip to Atlanta.

    Gonzaga, meanwhile, has gone from a 16-0 WCC finish (with two nonconference losses) to an early trip home, courtesy of Wichita State.

5. The First Four Isn’t Such a Bad Place to End Up

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    In the three years that the First Four has existed, it’s sent a team to the round of 32 every season, with La Salle this season joining VCU in reaching the Sweet 16.

    That’s a remarkable record for a set of games supposed to feature the least deserving teams in the tournament field.

    The success of teams coming out of the don’t-call-them-play-in games is partly luck, of course.

    Even so, it stands to reason that a team with the dual advantages of a chip on its shoulder and a clutch win to work off the tournament jitters (while everyone else sits and waits) might do better than the same team coming into the round of 64 cold.

    Even the 16th seeds in the First Four get something out of it, as it provides a far better chance of winning a postseason game than they’ll ever have against a top seed in the second round.

4. The Selection Committee Botched the Pac-12

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    Although the Pac-12 got plenty of NCAA tournament representation this year (as opposed to 2012), the conference still had good reason to feel disrespected.

    None of the league’s five teams received a higher seed than No. 6, and tournament champ Oregon wound up with a mind-boggling 12th seed.

    Despite all those unfavorable seeds, three Pac-12 squads won at least one game (including both of its No. 12 seeds), and both the Ducks and sixth-seeded Arizona are in the Sweet 16.

    As if all that didn’t make the selection committee look bad enough, one of the two highest seeds for the conference went to UCLA—despite Jordan Adams’ injury—and the Bruins proceeded to get pummeled by Minnesota in a second-round loss.

3. Florida Gulf Coast Is Not Your Typical 15th Seed

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    As many mistakes as the selection committee made this year, it’s actually hard to argue with making Florida Gulf Coast a 15th seed.

    The Eagles lost five league games in the tiny Atlantic Sun Conference, and though their strength of schedule was enviable (at VCU, home to Miami, at Duke, at Iowa State), the Hurricanes were the only meaningful win on their ledger.

    However, all that experience against high-level opposition has clearly served FGCU well, and the team has radiated confidence since before it took the court against Georgetown.

    This lineup can also compete equally well on both offense and defense (an asset teams such as Southern and Iona lacked).

    Moreover, while fiery Sherwood Brown is clearly the alpha Eagle, the team has enough weapons that stopping him won’t automatically knock FGCU out of the tournament.

2. Defense Wins Championships—But Not by Itself

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    Among the six biggest upsets of the tournament so far (three No. 12 seeds, a No. 13, a No. 14 and a No. 15 winning in the first round), three have an obvious element in common.

    The favorites who lost to 12th-seeded Ole Miss, 13th-seeded La Salle and 15th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast all came into the Big Dance facing serious questions about their ability to score points.

    Wisconsin, Kansas State and Georgetown all entered the tournament ranked at least 90 spots lower in points scored than in points allowed per game.

    Of that trio, only K-State even managed to make things close in its first-round loss, and the Wildcats were still held eight points below their already unimpressive season average in a 63-61 loss.

1. The Big Ten Really Is That Good

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    No conference had more NCAA tournament teams than the Big Ten, and none faced higher expectations either. After dominating the national rankings all year, the league’s power teams have proved themselves again under the bright lights of March Madness.

    Four Big Ten schools—Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan—have made the Sweet 16. The Big East has three teams still alive, while no other conference has more than two.

    Two more Big Ten squads won their first-round games, with Minnesota becoming the only No. 11 seed to reach the round of 32 and Illinois making a serious run at upsetting streaking Miami.

    There’s no guarantee that a Big Ten team will be national champion, but 1-in-4 odds aren’t half bad.