Wow. After a mundane Thursday in which the only upsets were an 11 (Colorado, who seemed to be effectively playing a home game at The Pit) over a 6 (UNLV) and a 12 (last year's Final Four darling VCU) over a 5 (Wichita State - so much for a possible deep run), Friday rewarded us with one of the craziest days in tournament history, with TWO 2-seeds biting the dust in quick succession (Duke and Missouri) to go along with three other wins by double-digit seeds (12 South Florida, 13 Ohio, and 10 Purdue). So who really emerged, and who has a chance to capitalize the most on their success going forward? What remaining team is facing the biggest uphill climb? And how dumb do some of my predictions look? (The answer: very.)
Breakout Star Whom You Should Love: Kyle O'Quinn, Norfolk State - O'Quinn was the catalyst behind Norfolk State's shocking upset of the Tigers, a Final Four pick for many (ummm, about that...). He had an impressive box score line (26 points, 14 boards, 2 assists, 2 blocks, and a steal), but it was his post-game interview that proved even more revealing. After admitting that their win had even messed up his bracket, O'Quinn told the sideline reporter that he had promised his coach (Anthony Evans) a championship after Norfolk State had given him his only scholarship offer, and that this win was just extra. O'Quinn leaves a Spartans team that may be on the rise in coming years, as coach Evans has found a way to effectively mine New York for talent (eight NSU players are from one of the five boroughs), and O'Quinn himself may have played himself into a little pro consideration.
How in the Hell Did He Wind Up at THAT School: C. J. McCollum, Lehigh - With apologies to McQuinn, who rode pine for three years in high school as a converted football player, after watching Lehigh for two games, I am shocked that McCollum (a high school star in Ohio) ended up in Bethlehem. Granted, Duke's perimeter defense was a much bigger issue this season than it typically is, but McCollum was nevertheless dominant. I can't believe that he was bypassed not only by the Big Ten, but by the Atlantic 10. Even though Xavier beat Lehigh, I imagine that Chris Mack saw enough that made him scratch his head and wonder how he didn't find McCollum and convince him to stay in-state. Now it will be interesting to see if McCollum tests the NBA draft waters after lighting up one of the premiere programs in the country for 30 points and 6 assists.
Biggest Beneficiary of an Eligibility Issue: Syracuse - Surprise! After all the hoopla surrounding Fab Melo's ineligibility for the tournament, Syracuse sweated their way through their game with UNC-Asheville, with an assist from the officials (on the out-of-bounds call, NOT the lane violation - that was the correct call) before catching a major break on Saturday when Kansas State held out senior forward Jamar Samuels because of his own eligibility issue. Samuels was far and away the Wildcats' best offensive threat inside, and his presence likely would have significantly altered that game. The emotional scars were evident to see, both during every cutaway to an unhappy Samuels on the bench, and during the post-game press conference. For those of you that missed it, Martin provided a poignant moment that showed why, for all of the manic death stares and yelling, his players will run through walls for him. A reporter asked Martin to comment on what having Samuels would have meant in the game, and he fought off tears for about ten seconds before responding with "He's...he's our toughest kid." I would love to play for Frank Martin.
Wait 'Til Next Year: Creighton - The Bluejays clearly made an error in judgment in trying to out-physical North Carolina (Grant Gibbs slapping John Henson's injured wrist, Gregory Echenique giving a nasty forearm shiver to Tyler Zeller, who did flop a little bit), but next year they could be looking at something in the 3-to-6-seed range if they handle the rugged Missouri Valley. Only point guard Antoine Young is a senior, and the Jays will have firepower (All-American forward Doug McDermott), basketball smarts (Gibbs), size (Echenique), and a bevy of shooters and role players to make them an even tougher out next year.
Possibly Making Moves: Colorado - The Buffs have a lot of things going for them at the moment. For starters, the school certainly seems invested in sustaining interest in basketball, having paid for student travel both to the Pac-12 tournament in Los Angeles and the sub-regionals in Albuquerque, where they turned up the noise in one of basketball's best arenas and made it rock. Their conference is clearly without an elite team at the moment, one that barely managed to get a single at-large entry into the last four slots (Cal: the Buffs won the conference tournament). Colorado loses three contributing seniors, but has plenty of returning talent and has signed a couple of major prospects. They are already using their new conference to their advantage, with one of those recruits (Xavier Johnson of famed Mater Dei) and their two top freshmen this year (Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker) all coming from Los Angeles. Additionally, Denver is a major city with an NBA history stretching back decades now, and quietly produces some basketball talent, which the major state university is prepared to cash in on. And if all that weren't enough, they play their home games at 5,400 feet above sea level, which can be a challenge for their sea-level conference opponents, and not just Josh Smith. Watch out for the Buffs in the coming years.
"Ruh Roh!" Moment: Kendall Marshall, UNC - As I wrote last week, Marshall is probably the single most important player to his team, even if he's only about the fourth-or-fifth best player on that team. As anyone who recalls the Larry Drew II era can attest, the Heels need great point guard play to be at their best, regardless of the talent elsewhere on the floor. Roy Williams' teams come after you one way all game long, with that great fast break out of makes or misses, and they need the right man at the controls. Fortunately for Marshall, he injured his off-hand, but this is still dangerous for Carolina. In the best-case scenario, he likely loses the offensive ability that he's been showing since the Duke game, and opponents will have little to worry about from him in the scoring department. Defenders will sit on his left and force him to dribble with the injured right wrist, a difficult proposition. And let's not forget his shaky defense. In their worst-case scenario, Marshall cannot play, and the Heels are forced to endure a full game of Stilman White and Justin Watts at the point. While the loss or reduction of Marshall may not be enough for this uber-talented team to lose to Ohio, I doubt that Carolina can handle either Kansas or a very confident North Carolina State team that will have the added motivation of revenge for their loss in the ACC semis on some questionable calls.
Team With the Best Shot Going Forward: Kentucky - Coach Cal's Wildcats have what looks like some easy sledding to get to New Orleans, although you should never completely discount the ability of a young team to implode. First up is Indiana, the team that cost them their first, and for a long time only, loss of the season. They'll be playing this game in "Catlanta," not Assembly Hall, and I have to believe that Kentucky will be supremely motivated going in. Past that would be a regional final date with either an undersized Xavier team that can't hope to match up with either Anthony Davis or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, or an oversized Baylor team that has beaten a better team precisely once this season (Kansas in the Big 12 semis). It will be a MAJOR upset if Kentucky is not partying on Bourbon Street next weekend.