*Kentucky—There’s no doubting the Wildcats have talent and that they are complete. John Wall is an exquisite point guard. DeMarcus Cousins is an elite post player. Patrick Patterson is solid, if inconsistent down low. Eric Bledsoe can hit the three-ball, as can Darius Miller, who did just that in the second round against Wake Forest. The only problems are experience—three starters in an environment where one shaky game ends the dream. And competition—UK didn’t play that much this year in the SEC, and there were questions—at least from me—about what would happen against other top competition. The hammering of Wake showed that Kentucky was much better than a decent ACC team, which suggests they are a legitimate elite squad.
*Cornell—Forward Ryan Wittman is the go-to guy here, averaging 17 ppg and outdoing himself against Temple & Wisconsin. The Big Red’s post is manned ably by Jeff Foote who goes to the glass. Keys to success will be guards Louis Dale and Chris Wroblewski, who were productive this past weekend. Cornell has tested itself against #1-seed competition this year—they lost to Syracuse decisively and narrowly to Kansas, both on the road. Now they get a third try, this time on a neutral floor.
*Washington—Huskie forward Quincy Pondexter is one of the outstanding players left in this tournament, even if you haven’t heard of him. To get the sport’s biggest stage in Indianapolis, he’ll have to be more than a match for De’Sean Butler tonight and potentially Cousins on Saturday. Guard Isaiah Thomas has been solid in the first two games and needs to be so again. And Washington needs one or two unexpected players to stand up and be counted.
*West Virginia—I mentioned Butler already, who is one component of a team that’s tough up front, without having one dominant post man. Devin Ebanks is a potent contributor as well. This team has the toughness of head coach Bob Huggins, as they demonstrated in winning the Big East tourney. Where they can be had is in the backcourt, and by Huggins’ own past history in games like these, which haven’t been kind to a talented coach.
Sweet 16 history in the East…
1981: BYU 51 Notre Dame 50: Today Danny Ainge is GM of the Celtics. In the past he was a starter on Boston’s NBA championship teams in 1984 & 1986, as well as a Toronto Blue Jay third baseman for a brief time. On this night he went coast-to-coast, beating all five Notre Dame players, two of them twice, to hit a layup at the buzzer. 1984: Indiana 72 North Carolina 68: UNC was the top seed and with Michael Jordan was supposed to be one of the great teams of all time. Fourth-seeded Indiana wasn’t one of Bob Knight’s great teams and he assigned slow Dan Dakich to ground Air Jordan. Dakich did just that, holding the start to 13 points, while Steve Alford had a big game on the other end and IU pulled one of the tournament’s legendary upsets.
1986: Navy 71 Cleveland State 70: I thought this one was appropriate in the year of the mid-majors. CSU was a #14 seed that had upset Indiana in the first round. Navy had future NBA star David Robinson and pulled it out at the end. Navy would lose the final to Duke, in Coach K’s first run to the Final Four.
1990: UConn 71 Clemson 70: UConn’s Tate George caught a full-court pass hit a quick turnaround with one second left to stun Clemson.
Regional final lore...
No region has had drama like the East, but even so, picking the best two was easy. Christian Laettner is the story. In 1990, he took the ACC’s revenge on UConn, with a buzzer beater to pull out a 74-73 overtime win. Another overtime game in 1992 against Kentucky is one of the most storied games in NCAA lore. Trailing by a point, Laettner caught a full-court pass at the foul line, turned around a buried a jumper to win in overtime, and send Duke on to their second straight NCAA title. They remain the only team to go back-to-back in the post-Wooden era.
The spirit of 2005…
North Carolina 88 Wisconsin 82: The only game in this fabled year that didn’t go overtime and come down to the wire. But when a game where a feisty underdog challenges the #1 seed and eventual national champ, leads into the second half before losing a close one, is your worst game of a historic year.
Everyone enjoy the games tonight. Baseball fans stop over at The Baseball Notebook, where the defending NL champ Phillies were previewed today, and the Red Sox, Cubs and Yanks are up next. We’ll see you here tomorrow took recap Thursday’s games.