While most everyone is still recovering from one of the most exciting opening weekend’s in NCAA Tournament history, as hard as it is to believe, the Sweet 16 is set to tip-off again Thursday.
As you get ready for another exhilarating weekend of basketball action, here are the five most burning questions heading into this weekend’s games:
1. Is Northern Iowa The New Favorite In The Midwest?
It’s funny, but just a few short weeks ago we were calling the Midwest the “Bracket of Death,” as Kansas, Ohio State and Georgetown seemed set to duke it out in St. Louis for the right to get to the Final Four. Only here we are ready to tip-off, and Kansas and Georgetown will be watching the action from the comfort of their couches, just like you and I will be.
With those two college basketball super powers out of the equation, has a new one emerged? Is Northern Iowa now the team to beat in this region?
Think about it. Michigan State is without their best player, guard Kalin Lucas (Although we should all know by now to never, ever, doubt a Tom Izzo coached team). Ohio State has hardly been impressive over their last half dozen games. Tennessee will be the underdog in their game. So why not Northern Iowa?
Remember also, that the Panthers rank in the top 10 in college basketball in free throw percentage, fewest turnovers and fewest points allowed. It’s simple math really, if you do all those things well, you’re going to be in every game you play.
So could this team be another George Mason from 2006? Maybe, but if so, it’d be in Final Four acumen only. This Northern Iowa team is already better than that one was, regardless of what happens going forward.
2. Will Cornell Be Able To Keep Up With Kentucky?
For all the talk about Northern Iowa last weekend, Cornell was just as impressive, if not more so. But when they line up against Kentucky on Thursday night, it will be an entirely new ball-game.
We all know what the Wildcats have: Size, strength, agility and athleticism, amongst a bounty of other skills. They’ve got the highest paid (and arguably) best coach in the game. Basically, they’re a professional team taking the court in a college uniform. And they’re nothing like Cornell has seen all year.
Sure the Big Red played at Kansas earlier this season, and even nearly pulled off the upset. But remember, there’s a big difference between a mid-week game in December, and a Sweet 16 matchup in March. There is no way Kentucky will be overlooking their Ivy League counterparts, and Cornell definitely won’t be creeping up on anyone this weekend.
Remember though, this game will be played in Syracuse, just a mere few miles from the Cornell campus. Meaning, that if the Big Red can keep this game close, they’ll have 40,000 people cheering for them all game long.
But will it be enough against the tournament’s best remaining team?
3. Can St. Mary’s Center Omar Samhan Keep Up His Heroics?
Amongst a bunch of already great stories, Samhan is the talk of this tournament. Not only is he a heck of a player on the court, but he’s lively, interesting and gregarious off it. And he’s been a hit.
But the Baylor frontcourt he’ll be going up against Friday is no joke. Ekpe Udoh, Quincy Acy, Anthony Jones and the suddenly red-hot Josh Lomers provide the size, skill and depth that the Gaels have yet to see so far. Udoh in specific is a feared shot blocker, averaging almost four a game.
It’s a little unrealistic to expect Samhan to score 30 points against Baylor like he did against Villanova. But the Gaels will need at least 20 to keep up.
Is their biggest man, up for his biggest challenge of the season?
4. Staying in the South
Can Duke Exorcise Their Tournament Demons? They’re the team that everyone loves to hate. They’re the Duke Blue Devils.
But for all that animosity, Duke really hasn’t been all that good in recent tournaments. This is the first year they’ve been a No. 1 seed since 2006, and haven’t been to a Final Four since 2004. In between they’ve had tournament disappointments scattered all over their resume. Could this be the year things change?
It won’t be easy, as on Friday, they’ll go up against a feisty Purdue team that might have lost its best player, but hasn’t lost its fight to compete. They’ve won two close games already and won’t be afraid of Coach K’s boys. Should Duke win, they’ll get either Baylor or St. Mary’s.
The path for Duke won’t be easy, but this is the best Blue Devils team we’ve seen in half a decade.
Coach K and his boys are running out of excuses.
5. Can Syracuse Stay Hot?
With all the chatter about all the teams listed above, our old friends from Syracuse got a bit lost in the shuffle. Not only did they beat an underrated Vermont team in their opener, but were fantastic against a Gonzaga crew that was ranked in the top 25 for virtually the entire season. It’s hard to imagine this team performing any better than they did in their 87-65 win over the ‘Zags on Sunday. They did it all: Played great defense, made the extra pass and hit their open jumpers. Wes Johnson even added 31 points and 14 rebounds just for good measure.
But now, as they get ready to take on Butler in the West Regional in Salt Lake City, a new question has emerged. When, if ever, will the Orange get back Arinze Onuaku? Coach Jim Boeheim announced at a Wednesday press conference he wouldn’t be playing Thursday, and his status for Saturday has to be highly questionable at this point.
It’s important to note that the Orange should be able to get by Butler without Onuaku. But they won’t be hoisting a championship trophy without him.
To read all of Aaron’s work, including his detailed predictions of this weekend’s Sweet 16 games, please visit him at www.aarontorres-sports.com. Also, for his thoughts on all things sports, including on this weekend’s NCAA Tournament action, be sure to follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres