The first two rounds of the 2011 NCAA Tournament—or three if you're keeping with the NCAA's insanity—are in the books, and the field gave viewers a more exciting first weekend than I can ever remember. The bracket used one thrilling finish after another to whittle itself down to a Sweet 16, which is where we stand now.
This year's Sweet 16 features seeds eight or lower in five of its spots due to some wild and unexpected upsets. Indeed, the upsets have been rampant with a No. 1 seed (Pitt) falling, a No. 2 going down (Notre Dame), two No. 3's (Syracuse and Purdue) and two No. 4's (Texas and Louisville). That's six of the top 16 seeds gone in the first weekend.
What's left is a collection of Cinderellas, powerhouses and hopefuls heading into the regionals. No team, even the remaining top seeds, are safe from a shocking upset at this point.
With that said, it's time to power rank the Sweet 16 based on what we've seen in each team's play through two games.
One of the last games of the opening weekend was among the most dramatic in a sea of narrow finishes. Marquette and the Syracuse Orange had an old-fashioned Big East slug fest as the No. 11 and No. 3 seeds in the East Region.
After upsetting Xavier relatively easily in a game they probably should have been favored in, Marquette moved on to face Syracuse, who was not tested in the opening round.
The seeds said Marquette was a big underdog against its familiar conference foe, but there's no way that Marquette is as inferior to Syracuse as No. 11 seeds are supposed to be against a No. 3. In the Big East it is impossible to distinguish the elite from the good, mediocre and just plain bad. Marquette beat Syracuse in their only meeting during the season, just one of many Big East games that served to confuse the postseason picture.
My reasons for putting Marquette at the bottom of this Sweet 16 is threefold:
- Their Cinderella status is a misnomer. They are a strong Big East team that always seems to be underrated in the tournament and should have been more like a No. 7 or No. 8 seed.
- The road wasn't really that hard to travel. Xavier deserved their No. 6 seed, but was not good enough to be favored against any team in the top half of the Big East. Once you get to Syracuse, you can throw the seeding and records out the door because it just becomes another Big East game that can go either way. The fact that Buzz Williams' team got to play a team from their conference in Round 2 was to their benefit.
- They have to face North Carolina's rugged frontcourt. When your leading rebounder is 6'6" and everyone in your rotation is 6'7" or under and you have to face John Henson and Tyler Zeller, you're in for a long night down low.
These days, nobody from the spunky Atlantic-10 should be taken lightly, even the league's third best team.
Richmond earned this spot with an upset of Vanderbilt in the Southwest's first (sorry, second) round, then avoided a tough date with Louisville by No. 13 Morehead State's upset of the Cardinals.
Richmond breezed by Morehead State into the Sweet 16, cementing its Cinderella candidacy. Now, they face a tall task in toppling No. 1 seed Kansas.
This is where the road ends for the Spiders. The Jayhawks struggled for long periods of time in each of their first two games, but started to look scary as they figured things out late against Illinois.
Cinderella's glass slipper doesn't quite fit Richmond this year, which is no discredit to their work in the 2011 Big Dance.
This is where things get really difficult. The conventional names for this spot are Butler, Virginia Commonwealth and Florida State. None of them deserve to be a mere 14th in these power rankings.
What to do?
The team that was brought back from the dead, the Arizona Wildcats of the West Region, falls to this spot. Initiate numbered list for the reasons:
- They haven't beaten Memphis or Texas convincingly. It's more like they escaped narrowly in games that could have bounced against them just as easily.
- They would be out of the tournament if Texas hadn't handed them Sunday night's game on a silver platter. All they had to do was walk through the door their opponent opened for them.
- They have to play Duke now, and will have zero distinct advantages.
The Cats have a couple things going for them entering the Sweet 16 against vaunted Duke. One, they're playing more of a home game than their opponent. Lots of kids from Southern California attend the Arizona schools, so the alumni and student fan base should be strong for the regional at Anaheim's Honda Center.
Two, they have the best player in the NCAA, Derrick Williams, wearing their jersey. Williams has been brilliant over the last few weeks, failing to score 20 points just once while approaching double-double territory every time.
More importantly than his numbers is his clutch ability. He rose to the occasion when his team turned to him, scoring the game-winning layup off a pick and roll against Texas. If Arizona keeps it close against Duke on Thursday, look for the imprint that Williams leaves on the last few minutes of the game.
VCU has made an impressive run in the most messed up bracket of the four. Their dominance of No. 6 Georgetown and No. 3 Purdue is perplexing; there isn't a game decided by less than 18 points among them.
I don't know VCU's formula for toppling major conference teams with ease. I do know that having four players average double figures is something that only Ohio State, Kentucky, San Diego State and Florida can claim among remaining teams.
They are composed and able to put away teams that are supposed to be better than them, which is the utmost fatal flaw of teams that exit the tournament early. Knowing how to put away an opponent in this tournament is vital, but few teams know how to do it.
It pains me to put them down here, especially in a Sweet 16 matchup against a No. 10 seed, but there's only room for one foot in Cinderella's glass slipper, and I already know whose foot belongs in it.
You might think this is low for a No. 4 seed.
Sorry. I don't like Kentucky moving forward.
To me, they've been unconvincing, and that's unacceptable for a team heading into a battle with the top overall seed who has been steamrolling teams.
The near upset to Princeton in the second round is inexcusable. There's no way a team with as much elite talent like Coach Cal's should struggle with the likes of Princeton. The Round 2 game with West Virginia was a great game to watch, and the eight point outcome is deceiving. A few bounces the other way with about 10 minutes remaining and West Virginia could have been on the other side of that score.
The outstanding freshman trio, Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, are the team's three leading scorers and keep them above water most of the time. However, with Knight and Jones ready to jump for the NBA the minute after being eliminated, I'm not sure that this team is, well, a team. I'm not convinced that, instead of making teammates better and sacrificing for the success of the team, Knight and Jones won't try to showcase their games to improve their draft stock as scouts look on.
Something doesn't feel right to me about this team even though they've made it this far. Maybe the case would be different if they weren't playing Ohio State. The reality is, Ohio State is hitting on all cylinders right now and will be difficult to stop.
Butler is quickly developing a reputation as a giant-killer in the NCAA Tournament. Brad Stevens might be a top five coach in all of college basketball right now, and his team is now 7-1 in the NCAA Tournament in the last two years.
In what was my favorite game of the first weekend (again, this is saying a lot), Butler drew up the perfect play to get a layup with under five seconds.
Shelvin Mack, the team's star, then committed a bonehead foul on a loose inbound pass near half court, giving top-ranked Pittsburgh the chance to escape.
Before I could recover from that blunder, Pitt's Nasir Robinson was making a counter-blunder, inexplicably fouling Matt Howard 82 feet away from the basket off a missed free throw in a tie game with under one second left.
Butler escaped with a one point win after Howard sunk the first free throw to send them into the Sweet 16 with two wins by a basket or less.
Now, I love Butler and am certain that they have the experience and moxie to keep moving, which they have more than proven.
However, they're clearly not the same team as last year's national runner-up without superstar Gordon Hayward, and the two close wins worry me. How long can they continue winning like this? When will their luck run out?
They face the Wisconsin Badgers, the No. 4 seed in the region, on Thursday in New Orleans. Bo Ryan's team can match or exceed the experience level of Butler and will not be allowed to take their opponent lightly.
For Wisconsin, the hunger for a Final Four is overpowering after a slew of disappointing early tournament exits.
For Butler, it's hard to be Cinderella twice.
Jimmer Fredette is swell, but his college career is soon coming to end.
Somehow, BYU drew two wayward opponents on its way to the Sweet 16 while other top seeds were scratching and clawing against capable underdogs around the bracket.
This point is belabored, but it bears repeating once more before the Sweet 16: the Cougars haven't played a ranked team all season long not named San Diego State.
Yes, the 32-4 mark and No. 3 are gaudy numbers, but what will benefit BYU once it plays a squad that is better than them, like the Florida Gators on Thursday in New Orleans?
Great individual players have traditionally been able to shoulder their teams all the way to the Final Four, but not without unsung help. Jimmer doesn't have a lot of that since Brandon Davies' sexual foray got him suspended for the rest of the season.
BYU's relative lack of athleticism will have them in trouble early on against Florida's surplus of it. They'll need Jimmer's shooting to hold them up, but one bad shooting game for him and it's lights out for the Cougars.
Did I really pick this team to beat Pittsburgh and go to the Final Four?
Yes, I did, and white basketball fans around the country just cheered and nodded along with this white guy.
There are several things I like about Wisconsin. I like their six seniors. I like their size. I like that they played Ohio State twice and beat them once. I like the hard-fought win against Kansas State in their last game. I like that most of the players are from Wisconsin and Minnesota. I like Jordan Taylor's contrast, both in skin color and athleticism. I like Jon Leuer's leadership and consistency.
They might struggle when they face a really athletic team like Florida, but they did just take down Kansas State, which is definitely comparable athletically. They match up well with Matt Howard inside and Shelvin Mack on the outside for Butler, and the steady plodding that they take toward the Final Four will frustrate the Bulldogs.
I wanted to drop SDSU out of the top 10, but I feared that the backlash from you, the reader, would be too much to handle.
What is there to like about the Aztecs?
The possibility of two home games in the regional at Anaheim, seven straight wins, great success in close games and Kawhi Leonard and Malcolm Thomas.
What is there to dislike about the Aztecs?
A horrific schedule, the inability to beat a good team until breaking through against BYU at the MWC Tournament, a clogged toilet on offense (as seen in the Temple game), Coach Steve Fisher and average rebounding.
The fact that a Southern California native isn't buying what the Aztecs are selling should be telling. They are unproven, both over the last few years and within 2010-2011, which is not a good quality to have when taking on a perennial titan like UConn.
If the players can't decide this game on their own, then Jim Calhoun will most definitely outcoach Steve Fisher, famous for losing twice in the National Championship with Michigan's Fab Five.
Leonard Hamilton's Noles came out of nowhere to orchestrate a pair of upsets over Texas A&M (no surprise) and Notre Dame (major surprise).
The trademark of this team is its suffocating defense. They clamped down to allow only 50 points to the Aggies, then an unbelievable 57 points to Notre Dame on Sunday. The Seminoles don't score a lot, but when you're giving up mid-60s every game, you don't have to.
As I wrote this, I was searching for some trend, some stat, anything that I could attribute Florida State's success to. There has to be something to identify them by, but I can't find anything distinguished about them.
What I do know is that they spread everything around, from minutes to scoring. 10 players average over 10 minutes per game and only two score in double figures. As coaches shorten their rotations to six to eight players whom they trust, it's a rare gift to be able to trot out nine or 10 to share the burden and ensure rest.
Florida State is staring down an imminently possible move to the Elite Eight with one more win over VCU.
My Cinderella team has the makeup, defense and toughness to make it theirs, even though I can't for the life of me tell you why.
The Gators flew under the radar to a No. 2 seed, and I couldn't exactly see why.
Then, I saw them play against UCLA and was floored by their athleticism and well-roundedness. They have two great scoring guards, strong rebounders, a Swiss-army knife in Chandler Parsons and seven guys who play 17 minutes or more.
The team is battle-tested this season as Billy Donovan deftly scheduled non-conference dates with Ohio State, Kansas State and Florida State.
Florida gets its best matchup of the Dance against nonathletic BYU. If the Gators can frustrate Jimmer Fredette into tough shots, they will certainly be able to clean the boards and fast break on the Cougars.
Billy Donovan's title experience will allow him to get the maximum out of his team in the regional as it hopes for the Final Four.
The Tar Heels won a knockdown, drag out battle with Washington that was a joy to watch. The up-and-down fast breaking and great three-point shooting stood out as hallmarks of the North Carolina attack.
The top rebounding team in the nation was actually outdone on the glass by the surprising Huskies, but its defense allowed it to separate in the final minutes. Trailing 76-73 with 5:32 to play, North Carolina stepped up to protect the rim, holding Washington scoreless for over two minutes while going on a 6-0 run. They would not relinquish the lead.
The Heels have a lot going for them: incredible versatility and athleticism, shot-blocking and rebounding, explosive scoring and a coach with a ton of experience in March.
Their fatal flaw could be their defense. Sometimes, they focus so much on scoring that they forget to defend. The Long Island Blackbirds managed 87 points as a No. 15 seed in the second round.
The Heels are looking strong heading into the Sweet 16, but eventually, they'll find themselves in a game that they have to win with defense, not just offense.
The Huskies played that rugged Big East schedule to an above average record, then ripped off wins on five consecutive days to win the Big East Tournament.
The Huskies are the hottest team in the college basketball right now, but have already played nine games since March 2nd. That's nine games in 17 days.
The bunch of games hasn't bothered star point guard Kemba Walker, who has led the Huskies to seven straight wins while scoring less than 24 points just twice. Indeed, down the stretch against conference foe Cincinnati, it was the Kemba Show, in which the star of the show finished with 33 points, six rebounds and five assists.
Connecticut could quietly run all the way to the Final Four. They have experience, length, great coaching, momentum and star power.
The matchup with San Diego State should be fantastic in a clash of two similarly athletic teams. Will the experienced and battle-tested Huskies prevail, or will the young and lightly-tested Aztecs upstage the favorites?
We've reached the No 1 seeds, beginning with the Jayhawks. They are playing in San Antonio for the Southeast regional and have won 10 straight games.
However, Bill Self's guys struggled mightily to get going against Boston in the opening game before pulling away. The same went for their game against Illinois in Sunday night.
They won both games going away, but the disturbing trend of letting a team hang around will cost them the deeper they go in the Tournament.
The Morris twins are a pair of dominant forces, and Tyshawn Taylor is great on the perimeter. The Jayhawks have a core that has played together for two to three years, so they know how to help each other to the betterment of the team. They are experienced and deep, sending 10 players out for at least 10 minutes per game.
With a decimated bracket that has only double-digit seeds around the top seed, Kansas could breeze to the Final Four a lot easier than they thought.
The Devils moved through to the Sweet 16 after a shaky win against Michigan. Being a Duke fan, I watched every second of this game and came away confused.
On one hand, I thought Nolan Smith, Kyrie Irving and co. played like a National title favorite for a lot of the game. They scored at will, played physical inside and controlled the pace.
On the other hand, they looked imminently beatable for a long stretch in each half. Michigan stymied the Blue Devils when they went to their patented 1-3-1 half-court trap. It was amazing to watch Duke, having scored easily all game, not even be able to find a good shot for several minutes. As they glanced around at each other during Michigan's rally from a 13-point deficit, Duke lacked confidence and looked like they might go down.
In the end, though, the defending champs righted the ship, made the adjustment and never relinquished the lead. This is the mark of the championship contender: weather the storm of the rally and finish off teams you should beat.
It wasn't pretty, but the experience and poise of Coach K's squad got them through to the next round. As Arizona looms, the Devils are happy to be where they are, but know they have to play a full 40 minutes to advance from now on.
The chances of that are as good as any other remaining team.
Let's play with some numbers: 16-26 from the three-point line, 61 percent from the field and 23 assists.
These are the totals that No. 1 overall seed Ohio State racked up on its way to a blowout in the third round. While other high seeds were struggling, Ohio State was taking the drama out of the broadcast and the air out of upstart George Mason.
I keep trying to tell myself that Ohio State can't win the National Championship because they really only have one good player, but that's not true. Thad Matta's seven-deep rotation features a slew of contributors, three of whom shoot over 43.5 percent from long range. Jared Sullinger, the freshman phenom, is a top five player in the tournament and is unfazed by the bright lights of March.
A hallmark of success for any contender is the ability to stay in games when shots aren't falling. Ohio State is the third-best shooting team in the country in part because they have so many capable scorers and several threats on the perimeter if Sullinger isn't going well.
They may not have the most talent or athleticism or experience, but Ohio State has a system set up with great role players that works very well.
For this, and their impressive blowouts thus far, Ohio State tops the Sweet 16 Power Rankings.