My, will we miss Lehigh.
We here at Keeping Score have mixed feelings about this year’s NCAA tournament. Friday was a thrill. For the first time, two No. 15 seeds upset a pair of No. 2 seeds in the same tournament, as Norfolk State shocked Missouri and then Lehigh knocked off Duke a few hours later. But only two teams outside the six major conferences advanced to the Sweet 16, and one of them, Xavier from the Atlantic 10, is a regular: the Musketeers have made four Sweet 16s in the past five years. The other, Ohio University, from the Mid-American Conference, is a nice team, if for nothing else than a family connection: Nick Kellogg, son of CBS broadcast analyst Clark Kellogg, is an Ohio sharpshooter. After Ohio knocked off South Florida, Kellogg, who was announcing the Lehigh-Xavier second-round game, beamed, started clapping and screamed, “Go Bobcats!”
In fact, the state of Ohio is a perfect 8-0 in this year’s tournament and is sending four teams (Xavier, Ohio, Ohio State, and Cincinnati) to the Sweet 16. No state has ever before accounted for a quarter of the NCAA regionals.
But unless you’re a Buckeye booster, this year’s Sweet 16 is a bit of a letdown. Especially since we’ve been spoiled with Cinderellas the past two years. Butler and Cornell made the Sweet 16 in 2010; of course, the Bulldogs advanced all the way to the title game and were a Gordon Heyward miracle shot away from winning it all. Last year, both Butler and VCU made the Final Four. Butler beat VCU in the semis and lost to UConn in the final.
This year, Butler didn’t make the tournament. And VCU lost a heartbreaker on Saturday: Rob Brandenberg missed a three-pointer at the buzzer that would have given the Rams the win. Instead, VCU fell to Indiana, 63-61.
Lehigh seemed to have Butler-like potential. Like former Butler guard Shelvin Mack, who is now playing for the Washington Wizards, Lehigh guard C.J. McCollum is a big-time talent. McCollum scored 30 against Duke but had to sit on the bench during the first half against Xavier after being charged with two fouls. Still, red-hot Lehigh led Xavier by 15 points, 35-20, late in the first half. But the Mountain Hawks were equally cold down the stretch, at one point going six minutes without scoring, and fell to Xavier 70-58.
Though there are fewer true Cinderellas now left in this year’s tournament, three double-digit seeds remain: No. 10 Xavier; No. 11 North Carolina State, who defeated Georgetown; and No. 13 Ohio. The Bobcats now face No. 1 North Carolina, which may be vulnerable thanks to the fractured right hand of point guard Kendall Marshall, who was terrific in Carolina’s win Sunday over Creighton.
Otherwise, this year’s Sweet 16 has mostly followed the script. All four No. 1 seeds — Syracuse, Michigan State, Kentucky and North Carolina — remain. In the West region, the top four seeds all advanced. Which region do we like the best? That would be the South: the Kentucky-Indiana Sweet 16 game not only pits two tradition-rich schools against each other; it’s also a rematch of a regular-season game that Indiana won at the buzzer back in December. If Kentucky does prevail, and Baylor beats Xavier, the Kentucky-Baylor regional final could be a classic. Like Kentucky, Baylor is supremely athletic, and Baylor’s Perry Jones III can hang with any of Kentucky’s future pros.
What the Sweet 16 lacks in charming, unexpected stories, it can easily make up for in compelling games. When it comes to that, March Madness rarely disappoints.