After 96 unrelenting hours of college basketball, and one too many shining moments to reflect upon in between, the NCAA tournament’s field of 68 has dwindled down to 16. With another 96-hour block standing in the way of the Final Four, what can we expect from the Sweet Sixteen’s opening tip on Thursday? Which student-athlete will emerge to make a name for his self only by putting his school on the map this week? Which bracket buster will continue their two-step in the dance?
With all the expert analysis for the Round of 16, one prediction will remain true: With No. 2 Missouri and No.2 Duke out, and North Carolina’s Kendall Marshall sidelined, nothing will stand in the way of Coach Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats shining moment. The favorite among 68 is now the sweetest pick of bunch to win it all.
All four No. 1 seeds advanced to this coming weekend and just three teams with double-digit seeds survived the opening weekend. The field has evolved to the point where it would be surprising if Kentucky did not win the national title. Syracuse and North Carolina, posed as real threats to the Wildcats. But with the Orange losing starting center and Big East Defensive Player of the Year Fab Melo to academic ineligibility, and with the Tar Heels already hampered with starting center John Henson’s injury, now UNC is uncertain whether it will be able to move forward with their starting point guard Marshall -who broke his right wrist against Creighton on Sunday, had surgery on Monday morning in an attempt to have him ready to play on Friday against Ohio. With its main challengers wounded and short-manned, Kentucky’s road to the championship already seems to be paved.
The Wildcats will face the fourth-seeded Indiana Hoosier in the South regional semifinal. Indiana defeated Kentucky back in Bloomington, but Coach Cal’s team is not the same squad that lost in December. Kentucky dominated ninth-seed Iowa State on the way to an 87-71 victory on Saturday, despite an impressive performance from sophomore forward Royce White, who finished with 23 points and nine rebounds, but fouled out.
The Wildcats’ star freshmen big men Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist –the project No. 1 and No. 2 picks in the coming NBA draft- continue to lead the way, as sophomore Terrance Jones (projected at No. 20) and freshman point guard Marquis Teague clears the boards and penetrates the lane, respectively. With Davis controlling the paint, Teague distributing the rock and Kidd-Gilchrist punishing defenses, it’s hard to see any team in the region topping Kentucky.
They may face some stiff competition from the state of Ohio along the way. There are four teams from Ohio along with the Wildcats and Louisville in the Sweet Sixteen. Ohio University, Cincinnati, Ohio State and Xavier, all are formidable opponents. The Big East and the Big Ten, which were regarded as the best leagues this season, each have four teams in the 16.
All that stands in the way of Kentucky reaching the Final Four is revenge against the Hoosier’s and a matchup with either Baylor or Xavier, who face each other on Friday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Baylor is a potential threat to the Wildcats more than any team in the country this side of Kentucky. Should they meet in the South regional final, the Bears can’t solely rely on the hot hand of sophomore guard Brady Heslip, who hit nine 3-pointers for 27 points to torch the Colorado Buffaloes on Saturday. Baylor center Perry Jones III, who combined was 4-for-14 with just nine points in the Bears’ two games, needs to step up offensively and be more a leader in order for the Bears to make the most of their opportunity.
Tom Izzio’s Michigan State Spartans are back in it and Draymond Green, who recorded just the eighth triple-double in the history of the NCAA tournament, is looking very impressive. But still, Kentucky is on the fast track to the Final Four, with Wisconsin, Kansas, the Florida Gators, Marquette Golden Eagles or NC State Wolfpack rounding out the 16, and until then it’s the Wildcats against the nation.