College Basketball Coverage: Sweet 16 Report

Syracuse is still sitting as a #4 seed in the updated NCAA Tournament projections of ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, but the Orange have to be vulnerable to slipping out of the Sweet 16. Jim Boeheim’s team had lost three consecutive games to the powers-that-be in the Big East. After losses to Georgetown and Marquette took them out of a conference race that will be settled on an exciting Saturday finish tomorrow, the Orange then fell to Louisville last week. Two of these three losses came at home, and while a 78-57 win over DePaul earlier this week at least restored some order, it can’t erase the stench of what’s been a bad finish.

Of course the nature of college basketball is that the finish is just beginning. Syracuse gets a chance to redeem itself when they go to Georgetown on Saturday, then there’s next week’s Big East tournament, followed by March Madness. Perhaps Brandon Triche, who shot just 2-for-11 in the Louisville loss last weekend, can get his stroke back in time for tomorrow. However you slice it, Syracuse needs to stop this slide quickly or they’re going to move into the 5-6 seed range that usually means you’re paired up with a power conference at-large team.

TheSportsNotebook’s college basketball coverage since the Super Bowl has focused on a narrow look at the nation’s Sweet 16—as defined by Lunardi’s projections—each Friday. The goal is not to quibble with seedings, which are based on the overall body of work, but to get a feel for which of the national championship contenders are really playing their best basketball right now. Obviously, Syracuse is not. At least not yet. Here’s the rundown on everyone else, starting with the 4-line and ascending upward…

#4 SEEDS: Syracuse, UNLV, Marquette, Kansas State: UNLV is rising in the way Syracuse is falling. The Runnin’ Rebs got a tough 68-64 win against Boise State earlier in the week, thanks to forcing 17 turnovers. UNLV has now won six of their last seven and four of those wins have come against fellow NCAA contenders—New Mexico, Colorado State, San Diego State and now Boise. The only nit to pick is that all four big wins were at home, but there’s no question that UNLV is coming on strong.

Marquette shredded Notre Dame’s defense last Saturday, with a 60 percent shooting performance, en route to a 72-64 win. That might not be repeatable, but the balanced lineup the Golden Eagles used in taking down their Midwestern Catholic rival surely said something good. And even though MU did not play well at Rutgers on Wednesday, they escaped with a win thanks to 22 points from Vander Blue.

Kansas State’s in position to claim a share of the Big 12 title with Kansas, but the Wildcats’ week left a bit to be desired. They needed a buzzer-beater three to win at Baylor 64-61 last Saturday. On the one hand, Baylor is collapsing and lost to a terrible Texas team two days later. On the other hand, the Bears do have the talent and it’s not K-State’s fault that maybe Saturday was a day Baylor decided to make an attempt at fulfilling their potential.

What I think is troublesome is that the Wildcats were outrebounded—that’s not a surprise, because Baylor is bigger. But it’s troublesome, because it underscores a problem Kansas State is going to have. And there’s no denying their defense was lackluster in a 79-68 win over TCU, where the Horned Frogs shot 50 percent. It’s going to take a much better effort to beat Oklahoma State on Saturday, and I don’t believe K-State is going to do it.

#3 SEEDS: Ohio State, Michigan State, New Mexico, Miami—All it took was for me to anoint the Hurricanes as my team to beat nationally and suddenly they start collapsing. Before you get too hard on them though, keep in mind that they outrebounded Duke in spite of a non-performance from center Reggie Johnson (no points, five boards in 17 minutes) and it took a superlative game from Ryan Kelly, who hit seven of nine treys, to beat Miami in a close game in Durham. But there’s no excusing the loss to Georgia Tech this week, marked by lackadaisical defense. I like that the pressure is off Miami and feel they have a better chance of success on this seed line, but they need to get back on track against Clemson on Saturday.

Michigan State got back on track when they blew out Wisconsin 58-43 last night. More specifically, Keith Appling got back on track. The guard who had been in a shooting slump and committed an awful turnover to cost his team a win at Michigan last Sunday, found his stroke last night and scored 19 points. If he’s back on track, Sparty’s a real Final Four threat again. They also have a Big Ten title shot thanks to Ohio State, who beat Indiana earlier in the week. The Buckeyes hit the boards, outrebounding the Hoosiers 34-28 to key that win. Michigan State will play Northwestern, while Ohio State hosts Illinois to wrap up the season.

New Mexico has everything clinched in the Mountain West and word is that center Alex Kirk and guard Kendall Williams will get limited minutes in Saturday’s finale in order to rest up.

#2 SEEDS: Florida, Georgetown, Michigan, Louisville: The Wolverines got the big win over Michigan State, but everyone other than Trey Burke seems out of sorts right now. If they beat Indiana on Sunday, all is well, but this is a team that hasn’t looked right for several weeks. Florida really looked right in beating Alabama 64-52. I don’t want to overstate the quality of the win—‘Bama’s good, but this isn’t football. But what I liked was that Florida, known for launching its three-pointers, beat a team in a must-win spot in spite of going just 2-of-13 from behind the arc. That shows some versatility and toughness that I’ve wondered if this Gator team is.

Louisville is playing some excellent basketball right now and in true Rick Pitino fashion, it’s being done on the defensive end. They held Syracuse and Cincinnati to sub-40 percent from the floor over the last week and forced Cincy into 21 turnovers. The ‘Ville hasn’t lost since their five-overtime epic in South Bend earlier in February and Notre Dame makes the return visit on Saturday.

The Cardinals will be playing for a share of the Big East title, as well Georgetown (and Marquette). The Hoyas lost at Villanova on Wednesday, a sloppy game with a combined 38 turnovers, the majority by Georgetown. But they had won 11 in a row coming in and with ‘Nova desperate, I think you could see that loss coming. Now let’s see how the Hoyas bounce back at home against Syracuse with a share of a championship on the line.

#1 SEEDS: Gonzaga, Kansas, Duke, Indiana: I don’t know what to make of Duke. My problems with their performance through the ACC season have to be mitigated because Ryan Kelly is back. But how realistic is it to think that Kelly goes off for 36 a game against good teams, like he did against Miami? Or even half that? Duke goes to North Carolina on Saturday night, and between this game and the ACC Tournament, we’ll get a better handle on where the Dookies are as a basketball team.

Indiana played mediocre defense and did not rebound against Ohio State, keeping me in limbo on the Hoosiers. These issues are the very reason I haven’t embraced them as a team to beat all year and every time they do something that gets me close to conceding, they turn in a game like Tuesday’s. Now it’s all on the line at Michigan—or at least partly, since IU has a share of the title clinched.

Kansas took care of West Virginia and Texas Tech in short order, and goes for its share of the Big 12 title at Baylor on Saturday. Gonzaga closed its regular season last Saturday by blowing out Portland and starts its conference tournament this weekend.