Thursday, March 24, 2011Posted: 4:45 PM
By Aggrey Sam
This year's NCAA Tournament has already had its share of thrillers--Kentucky's first-round escape over Princeton, Arizona's pair of slim victories (against Texas and Derrick Rose's beloved Memphis Tigers, respectively), Wisconsin outlasting Kansas State (and Chicagoland native Jacob Pullen's valiant effort), San Diego State's double-overtime second-round marathon over Temple, to name a few--but now it's time for the annual event's meat and potatoes, the Sweet 16.
With shockers like Morehead State over Louisville (picked by yours truly in the CSNChicago.com Bracket Challenge) out of the way, the contenders have mostly separated themselves from the pretenders, evidenced by last season's national runner-up, Butler, taking out not only sleeper candidate Old Dominion in the first round, but upsetting top-seeded Pittsburgh in a second-round heartbreaker. Speaking of the Big East, after a tournament-record 11 teams from the conference made the Big Dance, only two--Connecticut and upstart Marquette--are still alive, while Virginia Commonwealth, a school many believed should have been excluded on Selection Sunday, dispatched not only Georgetown, but highly-regarded Purdue, and convincingly so.
Some of the best individual performances thus far have been turned in by the likes of the aforementioned Pullen (the Proviso East High School product scored 38 points in his final collegiate outing), Kentucky freshman Brandon Knight (the latest in the line of John Calipari's star point guards hit the game-winner for his only first-round field goal, then scored a career-high 30 points in the second round), as well as continued excellence by the likes of Kansas' Morris twins (junior forwards Marcus and Markieff). North Carolina star freshmen Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall (the latter's poised playmaking has been the key to the Tar Heels' late-season surge) have also shone, as well as Arizona forward Derrick Williams, Duke guard Nolan Smith, Ohio State freshman big man Jared Sullinger and the two consensus top players in the country, high scoring guards Kemba Walker of Connecticut and Jimmer Fredette of BYU.
Two schools with local ties, Illinois and Notre Dame, each made it past their first-round matchup before falling in the second round. In a season marked by inconsistency, Illinois got by UNLV and one of its former coaches (Lon Kruger) before succumbing to another ex-head coach, Bill Self and top-seeded Kansas. Meanwhile, second-seeded Notre Dame expectedly cruised by Akron in the first round, but was then surprised by 10th-seeded Florida State, unable to deal with the Seminoles' length and rugged defense.
When it comes to the Sweet 16, however, while a lot of people's brackets aren't completely broken (three No. 1 seeds are still playing), the eliminated teams and nature of the games have seemingly put things up for grabs. With no further adieu, here are my predictions:
In the East region, Ohio State's combination of experience and Sullinger's inside dominance should be the difference against a young Kentucky team, while North Carolina's sheer talent should overwhelm undersized Marquette. In the Elite Eight, the Buckeyes' toughness will make life too tough for the Tar Heels, preventing yet another Final Four appearance, as well as the players cashing in on alum, Bulls legend and Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan's pledge of free sneakers.
UConn, riding Walker's season-long hot hand, should have enough to beat San Diego State--the Aztecs have talent, but are new to this territory, despite having a former national championship-winning coach in Steve Fisher--while Duke should also march past youthful Arizona in the West, despite the brilliance of Williams. However, look for UConn's charmed path to continue with an upset of the defending champs in the Elite Eight.
In the Southwest region, Richmond's Cinderella story should end against powerhouse Kansas, but VCU's run should somehow continue against an up-and-down Florida State team with an injured star in Chris Singleton. Kansas, regarded by many as the favorite to win it all, will go to the Final Four after a relatively easy romp through its bracket.
Finally, in the Southeast, Butler's run will end at the hands of a disciplined, well-rounded Wisconsin squad, while Florida evens the score against undersized BYU in a rematch of last season's double-overtime tournament upset. However, the school that produced Joakim Noah will fall to the Bo Ryan-coached Badgers in the Elite Eight.
Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.com's Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.