By Lenn Robbins
Welcome to the Sweet 16.
Oh, sorry. You lost half of your Final Four in the first and second rounds? Illinois set the tone for the Big 10. Kansas (good grief, Kansas), North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas forgot this is a one-and-done tournament.
That, in a nutshell, is why the NCAA Tournament is most commonly referred to as March Madness.
Before we get to picks, a few thoughts:
SMART MOVE: Shaka Smart, once considered the hottest young coach in college basketball when turning VCU into an Atlantic 10 power, never found the same success at Texas, where, frankly, he was an odd fit. The gut call upon the announcement that he’s accepted the head coaching job at Marquette is that it’s a win-win.
Smart’s “city-game” approach (“We are going to wreak havoc on our opponent’s psyche and their plan of attack,” he said at VCU) should fit much better in the Big East. Marquette is old-school, basketball-first university. Texas is, and always will be, a football-first school.
UPWARD ZAGS: Gonzaga continues to prove it is the premier program on the West Coast and one of the best in college basketball. Five-star guard Hunter Sallis of Nebraska, committed to the Zags over Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas, Oregon, UCLA, Creighton and Iowa State.
Sallis follows in the footsteps of our favorite all-around player in the tournament, Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs, who is likely to declare for the NBA after the tournament, making him the second Zag one-and-done. The 7-foot Zach Collins is developing into a quality stretch 4-5 with the Trail Blazers.
WELL DESERVED: Lon Kruger’s announcement that he is retiring after 45 years in coaching including 35 as a college head coach is bittersweet. Kruger did more with less in many of his stops. He never sought the headline and always treated his players and the media with respect.
He is one of three coaches (Rick Pitino, Tubby Smith) to take five colleges to the Big Dance. His teams made the NCAA Tournament 20 times and went to two Final Four. Kruger, a Kansas native, epitomized the humbleness of the Midwest. He’s earned his retirement.
MEA CULPA: Apologies to Creighton, a Jesuit Catholic university which I omitted from my last column. The Blue Jays are 2-0 in the tournament, improving the record of “faith-based” universities in the tournament to 11-6. Mea culpa.
SWEET 16: Oral Roberts, based on its No.15 seed, is considered the Cinderella of the tournament. Fair enough. Oregon State is our biggest surprise. The Beavers were 11-11 on Feb. 20 after a home loss to Colorado. They’ve won 6-of-7 and are on their longest win streak of the season, five straight.
Oregon State blasted Tennessee, 70-56, in a first-round game and beat Oklahoma State, 80-70, one of the hottest teams in the nation in the second half of the season. Many thought Cade Cunningham would lead the Cowboys to a Final Four run but the Beavers would have none of it.
Loyola Chicago, the No.8 seed in the Midwest reminds me of an all-old school Big East team. It’s senior heavy (5-of-7 of the top scorers are seniors), defensive-minded (Ramblers are first in the nation in scoring defense (55.8 points per game) and utterly unselfish, starting with senior center Cameron Krutwig, who is second on the team in assists (87).
Krutwig is a point guard in a center’s body (6-foot-9, 255 pounds). He’s arguable the most experienced player in the tournament. Krutwig has scored in double figures in each of his four seasons and will be playing in his ninth NCAA Tournament game when the Rambles face Oregon State on Saturday (2:40 p.m.; CBS).
PREDICTION: Loyola Chicago, 74, Oregon State 59
No.5 Villanova vs No.1 Baylor
This one is pretty simple folks. Villanova cherishes the ball better than any team in the tournament. They average a paltry 8.8 turnovers per game. The Wildcats have been able to withstand the loss of point guard Collin Gillespie by using Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and others.
But Baylor makes its living on defense, forcing 17.5 turnovers per game. When its three-headed guard monster is locked in, teams get locked out.
It’s more glaring stated this way: Villanova has committed 210 turnovers. Baylor has forced 454. Tipoff is 5:15 (CBS) and don’t be late because this one will be over by the midway mark of the second, if not sooner, much sooner.
PREDICTION: Baylor 88, Villanova 66
No. 15 Oral Roberts vs No.3 Arkansas
What a wonderful run by Oral Roberts, the first 15 seed to make it to the Sweet 16. Arkansas is one of our Final Four teams. The Razorbacks can score and score in bunches.
The influence of the NBA should be watched here. Coach Eric Musselman spent more than a decade in the NBA. He was tremendously successful in the CBA (270-122) and the NBA D-League (72-28) and then turned Nevada into a machine.
He runs a lot of NBA stuff on offense and defense. The Hogs knocked it out of the park when they hired Musselman, the son of a coach. They have 440 assists on 880 field goals. Think about that. This won’t be much of a game but worth watching (7:25, TBS) Razorbacks.
PREDICTION: Arkansas 84, Oral Roberts 53
No. 11 Syracuse vs No. 2 Houston
Arguably the most intriguing matchup in the Sweet 16 is the Syracuse-Houston game. Jim Boeheim is at it again, taking his bubble team to the Sweet 16. Behind the scorching-hot shooting of his son, Buddy, and the vaunted 2-3 zone, the Orange, a No. 11 seed, face No.2 Houston (9:55 p.m.; TBS).
Houston has struggled against zone defenses at times and the Cougars have never seen anything like the 2-3 Syracuse plays. What the Cougars do really well is what Kelvin Sampson teams do – use their tenacity and athleticism to attack – particularly on the boards, especially on the offensive end. Because of the way the Orange trap, sometimes in the corner, it is vulnerable to offensive rebound.
This truly is a computer date foul-up which makes it so tough to predict.
Prediction: Houston 68, Syracuse 66.