The Sweet 16 is upon us, and with it, some tailoring of the field. I mean we all love Tubby, but Minnesota was dreadful this year. If you watched one Villanova game against a team with size, it was clear that they were a pretender. And only friends and family would want to watch Wisconsin play a game against anyone. So with all the fat trimmed, it is time to look towards the Sweet Sixteen, specifically what teams need to do to make the Final Four and what might make them lose the next game. Today we focus on the East Region:
Final Four: The baby Cats have been the most impressive team of the first two days by far. From the opening tip in both their games against ETSU and Wake Forest, the Cats came out rolling and quickly put away both teams by halftime. They have averaged 95 points a game, seen twenty-point performances by 4<sup>th</sup> and 5<sup>th</sup> option scorers and have emptied their bench in both contests. If Kentucky can simply repeat the level of performance that they have shown so far, they can’t be touched in this field.
Loss Next Game: The hot pick of the basketball writing elite is to argue that Cornell can beat Kentucky in the next game. Jay Bilas even predicted the upset before the Tournament started, a rather gutsy selection. To win, Cornell must come out quickly, hit threes in the opening minutes and establish a cushion. They the Big Red must deflate the ball, hope the Cats begin to take bad shots and sustain a lead until the final minutes. At that point, Cornell hits a couple of late threes and the Cats lose in the second shocking upset of the Tournament.
Final Four: The Big Red were very fortunate that their two first-round opponents both played a slow-down style to which Cornell could adapt. This Regional however doesn’t have the same makeup. Kentucky and Washington like to get up the court and West Virginia is as physical a team as there is in America. For Cornell to become the new George Mason, they have to hit threes in masse, slow the games down to a crawl and hope their big men stay out of foul trouble. It’s a long shot, but possible.
Loss Next Game: Cornell runs into a set of talent they simply can’t match. No defense the Big Red can produce slows down John Wall or Eric Bledsoe, Demarcus Cousins controls the paint and Patrick Patterson is left to roam and score inside and outside. Cornell keeps it close by hitting outside shots but has no ability to stop Kentucky from scoring. They go down valiantly, allowing New York Times writers to wax poetic for at least one more column.
Final Four: While the focus has generally been on the surprise of seeing Cornell in this Regional, Washington may be just as big of a shocker. Two weeks ago, they weren’t even likely to go to the NCAA Tournament, but then the Huskies got hot in the Pac 10 Tourney, won a slugfest over “tough as nails” Marquette and crushed the hopes and dreams of an over-seeded New Mexico team. Washington has the toughness to hang with West Virginia and can put up a lot of points, which could lead to a late win. Then if they see Kentucky, they are one of the few teams left in the Tournament with the athletes to guard UK. If the Wildcats go cold and the Huskies play great defense, they could be the most improbable Final Four team from a major conference since LSU in 1986.
Loss Next Game: West Virginia usually imposes its will on opponents, and when that happens, the Mountaineers are successful. The Big East has shown itself to be rather unimposing this Tournament, but West Virginia has hung on for victories, even when shots aren’t falling. If they control the paint, get offensive rebounds and keep the pace from going manic, WVU should end the Huskies’ dream run.
Final Four: Going into the Tournament, West Virginia was everyone’s sexy pick to make some noise and upset Kentucky to head to the Final Four. But after some early struggles with Morgan State and a close game with Missouri, the experts have backed off. I am not sure why. No team left in the field is tougher than Bob Huggins’ group and they have one of the five best scorers left in De’sean Butler. They should outman the Washington group and win a test of willpower and then face Kentucky in the Regional final. If Butler has one of his crazy days and hits big shots, WVU can keep Cousins and Patterson off the glass and steal Bob Huggins’ second trip to the Final Four.
Loss Next Game: You could look at WVU’s success as simply a fluke. They are one banked three-pointer from Butler from having lost in the Big East Quarterfinal and their NCAA Tournament performance hasn’t been exceptional. With poor guard play plaguing at times, Washington gets an early lead and the Mountaineers simply do not have the fire power to fight back. Washington wins and a Huggins coached team loses to a lower-seeded team…again.