— The instant Northern Iowa’s Ali Farokmanesh pulled the trigger and hit his history making three-pointer Saturday against Kansas, two significant steps were taken in the 2010 NCAA tournament.
The most obvious was the sudden grounding of the top-seeded Jayhawks, the country's No. 1 team and the favorite in a majority of brackets filled out by followers of March Madness. But the impact was felt way down in New Orleans, where Kentucky was preparing for its second-round game against Wake Forest.
Yes, Farokmanesh’s shot sent Northern Iowa into the Sweet 16 but it also passed all the pressure directly to the Wildcats. How else can you explain Kentucky coach John Calipari turning off the TV that his players were watching?
“We weren’t allowed to know what was the results of that game,” Kentucky freshman DeMarcus Cousins said when asked his reaction to the upset of Kansas. “We were told to focus on our own game.”
There’s no reason for concern in Kentucky. Not yet. The Wildcats appeared to have plenty of focus in their 90-60 destruction of Wake Forest. Now Big Blue Nation can pack its bags and invade Syracuse for a weekend of fun in the Carrier Dome. Won’t that be strange, seeing Ashley Judd and the rest of the Kentucky fans painting a canvas of blue in a building built around the basic hue of Orange? (Syracuse fans will either be in Salt Lake City or home watching their No. 1 seed on TV.)
Coach Cal cannot order the unplugging of all TV sets in Upstate New York. But he doesn’t need to. His focus will be on his own team — and the Wildcats can’t possibly clash with the Orange until the national championship game April 5 in Indianapolis.
But Calipari knows the meaning of that Kansas loss. The most anticipated sequence of events — until Saturday — had UK and KU clashing for the national title. The Jayhawks were favored to win that one because they were the most talented and most experienced team in the field of 65. Or at least that’s what all the experts (yours truly included) thought.
So now we have a new favorite. Other than that, not a whole lot has changed. Syracuse and Duke are still alive too, giving us three No. 1 seeds in the Sweet 16. Villanova is the only No. 2 seed missing with Ohio State, Kansas State and West Virginia all moving on. Baylor is the only No. 3 remaining, but the Bears have played with enough confidence that it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see them in the Final Four.
Searching for the next champion beyond than that really is an exercise in foolishness. The last time a team seeded lower than No. 3 won the national championship was 1997 when Arizona was a No. 4.
Eleven conferences will be represented in this Sweet 16. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the Big Ten, leading the way with three teams (Ohio State, Michigan State and Purdue). The Big 12, Big East and SEC are down to two teams each.
Kentucky opened play as the second No. 1 seed, according to the selection committee. And with a starting lineup full of NBA lottery picks, the Wildcats clearly are the most talented team remaining, regardless of their experience.
Calipari’s not buying it. What a surprise. He’s got his Ph.D. in spin, so he won’t be agreeing with any declarations of superiority attached to his team. He proved that immediately after the Wake Forest game, during Kentucky’s postgame news conference, when a reporter declared, “You’re obviously the overwhelming favorite now for most people.”
Calipari responded with one of his patented incredulous facial expressions.
“I don’t know if we’re the overwhelming favorite,” Calipari said. “Everybody was picking us to lose, today being a tough game. They were also saying we’d be the first No. 1 out. So how do they change those talking heads overnight? With one game? Come one. We’re still a bunch of freshmen and sophomores. Our second NCAA tournament game — the guys that we’re playing have never played in it.”
First off, let’s dispense with the “our guys don’t even shave” argument. This isn’t a Kentucky team from the Adolph Rupp era. Kids today play so many AAU games they often can’t even remember if they’ve gone up against a college opponent before they rose to that level. The Wildcats have gotten their taste of Madison Square Garden, the SEC, and now the NCAA. No more excuses.
The Kentucky players were asked if they felt added pressure now that Kansas lost.
“Nope,” Cousins said. Darius Miller agreed. “I don’t think that adds any pressure,” Miller said. “As long as we come out and play the best we can, that’s all we can control.”
Kentucky finds itself sharing the East Regional with No. 2-seed West Virginia, but also with No. 11 Washington and No. 12 Cornell. That’s a crazy combination, but give the Huskies and Big Red credit for taking advantage of favorable style matchups in the first two rounds.
The bottom line is Cornell is much better than a 12 seed. It'll will be playing about an hour from its campus and the temptation is to say there’s no way the Big Red can stay with the Big Blue. But consider Cornell shot 61 percent overall and 53 percent from three-point range in its victory over Wisconsin. And remember Cornell almost defeated Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse in the regular season. The Kentucky players better not take Cornell lightly. This is a talented and intelligent team.
Northern Iowa’s upset received so much attention it really overshadowed the accomplishments of Washington. The Huskies went through a stretch in January when they lost five of seven games and coming out of the beleaguered Pac-10 there wasn’t any reason to believe Washington would be in the Sweet 16. But led by Quincy Pondexter, the Huskies showed great team speed in wins over Marquette and New Mexico. Suddenly the Huskies are on a great run. It will be a test of wills against a West Virginia team that plays tough defense and loves to spread the floor. Da’Sean Butler has evolved into a postseason hero for the Mountaineers.
In the South, Duke defeated Cal Sunday even though Jon Scheyer was 1-for-11 from the field and scored only seven points. Center Brian Zoubek picked up the slack with 14 points and 13 rebounds. But the absence of Villanova in the Houston regional doesn’t mean Duke has an easy path.
No. 4 Purdue is Duke’s semifinal opponent and the Boilermakers, led by hard-nosed Chris Kramer, are not interested in any sympathy over the loss of injured Robbie Hummel. They dodged Siena in the first round and then outlasted a good Texas A&M team in overtime. Two more wins and the Boilermakers finish the season with home games in the Final Four.
But Baylor will be the hometown favorite in Houston. The Bears became a trendy pick when the brackets were announced and with the solid combination of perimeter shooting and effective inside play, the Bears should put an end to the magical ride of St. Mary’s, the No. 10 seed. The best advice for Duke and Purdue is to begin their homework on Baylor’s Tweety Carter, LaceDarius Dunn and Ekpe Udoh now — not later.
The departure of Kansas leaves the Midwest region relatively open. With Tom Izzo coaching, No. 5 Michigan State can never be counted out, but if Kalin Lucas is lost to injury the Spartans are going to have a tough with Northern Iowa. If Michigan State can limp into the Elite Eight, the Spartans will likely get a rematch with Ohio State. Evan Turner and Co. play No. 6 Tennessee in the other regional semi.
Syracuse engineered blowouts of Vermont and Gonzaga even without center Arinze Onuaku. If Onuaku can return for the West regional in Salt Lake City, the chances of the Orange returning to the Final Four will look even better. Syracuse gets No. 5 Butler in the semifinals and with a win would move on to play the winner of Kansas State vs. No. 6 Xavier.
Honestly, Butler and Xavier have gone about as far as they can go. K-State is the sexy pick to win the West but Syracuse loves to run as much as the Wildcats. If the K-State guards can’t find the key to unlocking Syracuse’s 2-3 zone, there’s no way the Wildcats move on to Indy.
We could get real crazy here and predict a Final Four of Northern Iowa, Butler, Cornell and St. Mary’s. CBS would get horrible ratings and talk of expansion might cease for a very long time.
But don’t count on that. Instead, look for Kentucky, Baylor, Syracuse, and Ohio State to punch their tickets to Indianapolis.
And remember, the Wildcats are on the hot seat now.