*Michigan State—Tom Izzo always finds a way to work some March magic, and he’s at it again. Not only does he manage to win two games, but he avoids Kansas in this round. But the importance of Kalin Lucas to this club has been transparently obvious throughout the season. With him, Michigan State was running away with the Big Ten. When he missed a few games with an ankle injury they gave the lead away and ended up in a three-way tie. With him, they were blowing out Maryland last Sunday. When he exited with a bad calf, they ended up needing a heroic buzzer-beater to survive. He’s very uncertain at best for tonight, and that means Northern Iowa is no pushover.
*Northern Iowa—The Panthers are the classic mid-major team that America falls in love with. There’s no real star, the way St. Mary’s has Omar Samhan or Xavier has Jordan Crawford. What they do have is a lot of experience and chemistry and unbeknownst to most, a track record of success. They won 30 games this year and have been a leader in the competitive Missouri Valley Conference for several years.
*Ohio State—Thad Matta’s club is playing very well right now and has the horses to go all the way. Evan Turner, the best player left on the board, gives them a chance against anyone. The keys around him are Jon Diebler, who is the main three-point shooter and Dallas Lauderdale, who is the key rebounder. This isn’t a particularly tough draw this weekend, with the #1 (Kansas), the #3 (Georgetown), the #4 (Maryland) all out, and the #5 (Michigan State) having its best player gravely questionable. Turner may be enough to push them through to the Final Four without a lot of help.
*Tennessee—Center Wayne Chism is a microcosm of this team. He’s a nice player, but hasn’t always been able to find that level against really good competition. The one exception—and it’s not exactly insignificant—is a big home win over Kentucky. That’s what the Vols need to come up with one time tonight. If they make it through Ohio State, a manageable regional final awaits them. The backcourt of Scotty Hopson and J.P. Prince is respectable and Bruce Pearl’s a good coach. They’re a good team, but to be a Final Four one they need a few bracket breaks. Fortunately for them, those breaks have already happened.
Prediction: Ohio State-Northern Iowa: I like the Panthers experience against Lucas-less Michigan State. In either case, I believe Ohio State-Tennessee tonight is the de facto regional final game.
Sweet 16 games of lore…
1977: Marquette 67 Kansas State 66: Marquette was down six with fewer than two minutes left. In an age with no three-point line and no shot clock, that was imposing. They rallied and win and continued on to Al McGuire’s only national championship in his final season.
1983: Wake Forest 73 DePaul 71 (OT)—Another legendary Midwestern Jesuit school coach’s swan song didn’t go as well. Ray Meyer coached top-seeded DePaul, but they were upset, when Danny Young drove the left side for a game-winning layup at the end.1997: This one was so good it counts twice. It was the only time since 1976 that a regional has seen both its semi-final games go into OT. Talk about fans getting their money's worth. Top seed Minnesota gave up a game-tying shot at the end of regulation and then needed to score the final six points of the first overtime to stay alive. Finally they prevailed in the second session. #2 seed UCLA, coached by current ESPN analyst Steve Lavin, was down by a point before a coast-to-coast drive pulled the game out of the fire.
The best regional finals…
1979: Indiana State 73 Arkansas 71: It was the year of Larry Bird, and history remembers his final showdown with Magic Johnson and Michigan State, one that foreshadowed the Laker-Celtic battles they would fight. This one foreshadowed too. Sidney Moncreif, soon to be with the Milwaukee Bucks, led a Razorback squad that gave the top-ranked Sycamores all they could handle, before a late tip-in won it for Bird’s team. It would foreshadow the Bucks’ frustration against Boston throughout the 1980s.
1987: Indiana 77 LSU 76—Like the above game, this one was in Cincinnati, and is remembered for the #1 seed Hoosiers falling into a 13-point second half hole against their 10th-seed opponent. LSU was looking for its second straight Final Four appearance, both as a double-digit seed. Bob Knight drew a technical foul, pounded a telephone by the NCAA bench, that cameras caught going straight up in the air. Indiana rallied, and like the game above, won on a last-second put-back. They went on to win Knight’s third and final national title.
The spirit of 2005…
Illinois 90 Arizona 89 (OT)—One of the most stunning comebacks in NCAA history, Illinois trailed by 15 with less than four minutes left. Deron Williams, currently the quarterback for the Utah Jazz, led up a ferocious rally that tied it and eventually won it in front of a partisan crowd at the Rosemont Horizon in Illinois. It marked a unique Final Four run for Illinois, at least by modern standards—they played their tourney games in Indianapolis, Chicago and St. Louis, meaning they never got on a plane.
Back later today with the East. And over at The Baseball Notebook, the Dodger preview went up yesterday with the Phils due later today.