*Syracuse—The Orange’s win over Gonzaga has the looks of a team who finally came out with a vengeance and started looking like the best in the land again. The frontcourt is big, tough and deep. They can both score and rebound. Wesley Johnson is the lead man at power forward, but Arinze Onaku can make things happen, and Kris Joseph is a difference-maker off the bench. The wild-card’s always been the backcourt of Andy Rautins and Brandon Triche. If they avoid turnovers, the Orange are okay. When they avoid turnovers and hit shots, Syracuse is unstoppable by anyone left in this field.
*Butler—As a midmajor whose star has been on the rise for a few years, the Bulldogs get out and play people. Not always effectively, as they lost to Minnesota, Clemson and Georgetown in December. But they won’t be caught off guard by the pace of the game against the bigger programs. They rely on swingman Gordon Hayward and guard Shelvin Mack for their points, but they really need more help from the big guys if they are going to match up with Syracuse.
*Xavier—Similar to Butler in that they are respected midmajor program that gets out and tests themselves, not always with great success. They lost at Kansas State earlier this year, 71-56, and also fell to Marquette, Baylor and Wake Forest, though the latter game went overtime. The talent is here—Jordan Crawford’s spectacular play on opening weekend wasn’t a fluke. He’s 20ppg scorer all year long, and post man Jason Love will give Kansas State all it can handle. This should be a good one.
*Kansas State—I won’t say Jacob Pullen’s been as a good all year as he was on Sunday, when he torched BYU for 34 points. But he and running mate Denis Clemente have been an underrated backcourt throughout the season. The Wildcats’ key has always been getting them help inside. Dominique Sutton is the most likely candidate to do so, but he has a tendency to come and go. K-State won’t have to be great to beat Xavier, but they’ll need all hands on deck if a Sunday game with the Orangemen is in their immediate future.
Pick: I opened with Pitt beating Syracuse in the Final Four, but Xavier took out the Panthers. Suitably humbled, I’m just going to play the chalk this weekend and take Syracuse to face Kansas State on Sunday and Jim Boeheim making his fourth Final Four, and first since the national championship year of 2003.
Sweet 16 games of lore…
1989: UNLV 68 Arizona 67—Arizona was the #1 seed and holding a two-point lead. The Rebels hit an open three-pointer to win it, after a Wildcat guard backed off defensively and tried to draw a charge. The defender? Kenny Lofton, who would go on to a long career as a major league centerfielder.
1996: Syracuse 83 Georgia 81—Syracuse was in a big hole late and ultimately won on a John Wallace three-pointer. In watching CBS tourney clips, you occasionally see one of the late Al McGuire dancing with Orange players. This is that game.
1999: Gonzaga 73 Florida 72: The game that put the Zags on the map, when Casey Calvary (what a name for a player at a Jesuit school) tipped one in before the buzzer.
2006: UCLA 73 Gonzaga 71: Now the Zags were on the other end of the spectrum, unable to meet expectations with one of their best teams, the final year of the Adam Morrison era. UCLA scores the final eleven points to get the win.
The two best West finals…
1979: DePaul 95 UCLA 91: A shootout that got DePaul’s legendary Ray Meyer to his first and only Final Four.
1983: N.C. State 63 Virginia 62: Perhaps the greatest regional ever played, including the more heralded Duke-Kentucky game of 1992. Ralph Sampson’s career at Virginia ends in frustration when he doesn’t get the ball on the fatal final possession.
In 2005… Louisville 93 West Virginia 85 (OT): Louisville was in a deep second half hole, as West Virginia gunned away from three-point land. But the Cards launched a huge rally, forced overtime and then won it. It marked the third school Rick Pitino had put in the Final Four.
Tomorrow it’s time for the Midwest bracket. And please visit The Baseball Notebook, where the Mets were previewed today.