Maybe we all should have braced ourselves for an exceptionally turbulent ride the moment we saw 12th-seeded Manhattan knock off fifth-seeded Florida in the first game on Thursday. Or maybe even four days earlier, when a deranged Billy Packer went off on a tirade against the awarding of a No. 1 seed to St. Joe's on Selection Sunday. (Incidentally, Billy, the Hawks had the nation's No.1 Non-conference RPI, were the undefeated regular-season champs of a conference rated above the Big Ten and Pac-10, and are still around for Weekend #2.) The first weekend of this year's NCAA Tournament featured more nailbiters than an Anxiety Disorder convention, and although only one true Cinderella (i.e. double-digit seed) lasted two rounds, there have been upsets galore.
Despite the prognostications of so-called experts, this year's NCAA Championship trophy will NOT be hoisted by a West Coast powerhouse. Alabama and Nevada saw to that by knocking off Andy Katz's favorite, Stanford, and Seth Davis' choice, Gonzaga.
Other teams which cut a particularly violent swath through my own bracket, and l suspect many others' as well, were UAB, maybe the most surprising giant-killer by virtue of its 76-75 upset of overall number one Kentucky, and Xavier, which eliminated a treacherous Louisville team in round one, and then upset SEC Champ Mississippi State in round two. The Musketeers had actually lost to the Bulldogs earlier in the season, but came through when it really mattered. And you can't leave out Vanderbilt, the only one of the dangerous #6 seeds NOT anointed by anyone as a Final Four sleeper. The Commodores' hopes are still alive after an inspired comeback against NC State on Sunday afternoon.
So what's in store for Weekend #2 of NCAA play? Can we expect the turbulence to continue, or is it safe to move about our cabins (or living rooms) without a seatbelt? Let's take a look at the Sweet 16 matchups:
VANDERBILT VS. CONNECTICUT
Thursday, 7:10 ET, Phoenix.
It's been a great ride for the Commodores, and coach Kevin Stallings may finally have earned the respect he deserves from fans in Nashville. But Vandy will simply be overmatched in this game. UConn has an all-around arsenal which ranks up there with that of Duke and Oklahoma State as the best remaining in the tournament. Given that Okafor is not at 100%, look for the Huskies to exploit Vandy on the perimeter--particularly if Anderson stays hot from long range.
PITTSBURGH VS. OKLAHOMA STATE
Thursday, 7:27 ET, East Rutherford
This probably should have been a Final Four matchup, as both teams were deserving of No. 2 seeds. But we'll just have to be thankful it's occurring at all. OSU has played plenty of teams with Pittsburgh's smashmouth style in the rugged Big XII (think Oklahoma and Texas especially), and has been successful against all of them. Having said this, Pitt is probably better at the halfcourt, defensive-minded style of play than any team in the country. If the Panthers can snap out of their recent perimeter slump, they'll dramatically increase their probability of success. But look for OSU's team quickness and Lucas' and Allen's late-game ability to get to the rim to give the Cowboys the edge.
ALABAMA VS. SYRACUSE
Thursday, 9:40 ET, Phoenix.
Gerry McNamara probably deserves the award for best individual performance of the tournament, pouring in 43 against BYU in the opening round, a feat which single-handedly propelled his team into its second-round matchup with Maryland. I was impressed by the way Alabama handled itself under pressure against both Southern Illinois and Stanford--there's no doubt it's a reflection of Mark Gottfried's coaching ability. But it's also a result of playing the nation's No. 1 schedule during the regular season, and learning from close games against top competition. In order for the Tide to keep rolling, they're going to have to find a way to contain G-Mac, though they'll benefit from having played games against sharpshooters Gerald Fitch, Anthony Roberson, Devin Harris, and Lionel Chalmers over the course of the regular season. If Hakim Warrick gets into foul trouble inside, as he did in the first round against BYU, look for Alabama to sneak into the Elite Eight.
WAKE FOREST VS. SAINT JOSEPH'S
Thursday, 9:57 ET, East Rutherford.
Funny that even though St. Joseph's is the No. 1 seed in this region, more people probably picked Wake to advance to this game than St. Joe's. The Hawks are led by the best backcourt duo in the country, Jameer Nelson and Delonte West, though certainly Duke and Illinois fans have legitimate arguments for their own teams' guards. The question with St. Joe's, as always, has nothing to do with their own skills, but their opponents' defense: will the Deacons be able to shut down the Hawks' perimeter shooting and force Phil Martelli to send the ball inside? On the year, Wake's opponents have shot 37% from three-point range. Even taking into account the fact that Wake plays in a conference featuring J. J. Redick, Julius Hodge, and Rashad McCants, it's a pretty high number. Still, if Williams and Levy can give the Deacs enough second chances on the boards, they should advance.
UAB VS. KANSAS
Friday, 7:10 ET, St Louis.
UAB's been a great story--they became one of my pre-tournament sleepers after I watched their only nationally-televised game of the year, late in the season against Memphis. I thought Kentucky would be too efficient offensively and too hardnosed defensively for the Blazers to make it past the second round, but I underestimated this team. Consider the fact that of all the heavyweight coaches from C-USA who took their teams to the tournament (Pitino, Calipari, Huggins, Lutz, and Leitao), Mike Anderson is the only one remaining. Unfortunately for the Blazers, Anderson's counterpart Bill Self also knows a little something about NCAA success, having led Tulsa, Illinois, and now Kansas to the Sweet 16. And the Jayhawks have geography on their side, as the Savvis Center in St. Louis will be packed with displaced Allen Fieldhouse season-ticketholders. (Fans from Lawrence have only about a four-hour drive.) "40 Minutes of Hell: Part II" probably won't be enough to stop a Kansas team that also likes to run, though Aaron Miles' ballhandling ability will face a severe test in this game.
XAVIER VS. TEXAS
Friday, 7:27 ET, Atlanta.
All that talk of a Duke-UNC Regional Final was silenced by Rick Barnes' Longhorns Saturday night. Despite a furious barrage of threes by the Tar Heels at the end, Texas is back in the Sweet 16 for the third year in a row. Xavier is here for the first time in ages. Will tournament experience play a role in this game? Only if the Musketeers let it. They've been unconscious from the outside in their sprint through March (see: Finn's Hail Mary at the halftime buzzer against MSU). It's hard to pick against a team on a streak like Xavier's, but I like Texas in this one if they play with the same defensive intensity they did against North Carolina for most of their second-round game.
NEVADA VS. GEORGIA TECH
Friday, 9:40 ET, St Louis.
There's only one Wolf Pack still standing in this year's NCAA field. And it's not the one from Raleigh. In one of the more convincing wins of the tournament, Nevada handed Gonzaga its third and final loss of the season. Kirk Snyder has become a "PrimeTime Player," and although his mentor Mike Montgomery made an early exit, coach Trent Johnson has led his team to the Sweet 16. Georgia Tech has survived two of the more entertaining games of the tournament, against Northern Iowa and Boston College. Jarrett Jack has proven that he is Tech's go-to-guy at the end of the game, and his potential matchup with Snyder could be a sensational battle. But I think Tech has too many weapons in this one, and should win a good ol' fashioned Midwestern barnburner in St. Louis for their third close win in as many games.
ILLINOIS VS. DUKE
Friday, 9:57 ET, Atlanta.
For my money, the most convincing win of the tournament to date came from Bruce Weber's Illini in their 92-68 shellacking of the Cincinnati Bearcats, who went from swaggering to staggering during the course of about four minutes of the first half. The fact that Bob Huggins would allow the kind of trashtalking the Bearcats were doing before the game still boggles the mind. Show some class, Huggy Bear! (Pardon the aside.) As a reward for its 'magical' performance in the second round, Illinois draws Duke in the Regional Semis. Both teams are essentially mirrors of each other, with three potent guards leading the way for most of the season on both ends of the floor (Head, Brown, Williams vs. Ewing, Redick, Duhon). What to watch in this game is how well Roger Powell and James Augustine perform inside against Shelden Williams and Luol Deng. If Illinois can somehow get Deng (Duke's X-factor) in foul trouble, it could pull off its biggest tournament win since the days of the Flyin' Illini in 1989. Remember Duke's Sweet 16 fate against a five seed from the Big Ten in 2002? Regardless of the outcome, this game has the potential to be the best of the tournament.