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McCARTHY: 5 things to watch for in the Sweet Sixteen

Despite the nauseating amount of Facebook statuses and Instagram pictures to the contrary, the arrival of spring has nothing to do with the blooming cherry blossoms in D.C., the number of frisbee games being played in Central Park or the amount of people reading “The Hunger Games” in the Boston Common. Spring comes at the same time every year – and that glorious block of days on the calendar came last week.

For sports fans, alcoholics and degenerate gamblers everywhere, March Madness represents the true changing of the seasons. It is a uniquely American event that shakes us out of our post-Super Bowl stupor and bridges the gap to baseball season. It provides the first glimmer of hope that summer is coming. Throw in three weeks of overflowing sports bars and socially acceptable sports betting, and we’ve got ourselves the greatest time of the year.

In honor of this, and because your bracket has most likely already been decimated by the likes of Duke and Missouri, here are some things to watch for as the remaining field of sixteen is whittled down to one:

Can Syracuse University win without Fab Melo?

Last Tuesday, Syracuse star freshman center Fab Melo was ruled ineligible for the entirety of the NCAA tournament. As a Kentucky fan, this is great news. For the large percentage of the population who tabbed ‘Cuse to win? Not so much.

As a result, the Orange went from being a presumptive favorite to the team that every pundit had on upset alert. Now that they’ve advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, nothing has changed. They beat Kansas State soundly in their round of 32 game, but required some questionable officiating to dispatch 16-seed University of North Carolina-Asheville in their first round match up.

It’s clear Syracuse is struggling to find an identity in the post Fab Melo era, and as a result, it remains to be seen if it is still the national championship contender it was for much of the season.

Who will be this year’s underdog story?

I have to be honest, I thought this role was tailor made for Murray State this year. They had a clutch star in Isaiah Canaan, a veteran supporting cast and a young head coach in Steve Prohm in the mold of Brad Stevens (Butler) and Shaka Smart (Virginia Commonwealth University).

All told, Murray State had the makings of the type of small school that tends to play deep into March. The only problem? It may have been too good. They went into the tournament at 30-1, and had cracked the national TV lineup a few times. When the seedings were announced, everyone acknowledged the Racers as a force to be reckoned with, not a Cinderella squad happy to be at the dance.

The result? They got a more-talented Marquette›s best game, and lost. That being said, history still tells us there will be a team that shocks everyone in the coming weeks.

Ohio University is a great story, but I just don’t see it getting past North Carolina. Frankly, there may be simply too much talent for any of the lower seeds to get much farther than they already have. With six of the top eight seeds remaining in the tournament, this year›s Butler or VCU may come in the form of a highly-ranked team whom no one envisioned as a title contender. If that’s the case, watch out for the Marquettes and Wisconsins of the world.

Which Jared Sullinger will come to play?

Entering the season, Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger was seen as a near-lock for National Player of the Year. As a freshman, he was a physically dominating post presence with the type of athletic ability normally unseen in players his size.

As a sophomore, the score sheet told a similar story to the year prior, but he did not make the type of evolutionary leap expected of him when he made the decision to forgo NBA draft for another year of college.

Thus far in the tournament, however, he has been a monster. This is the point in the tournament where one player can carry a team to the Promised Land, and Sullinger has the ability to do just that. With the Melo-less Syracuse Orange weak in the frontcourt, the North region is there for the taking for the Buckeyes.

If OSU advances to the Final Four, Sullinger’s mercurial and marginally underwhelming season thus far will be forgiven. In the end, the fate of Ohio State and the reputation of Sullinger himself will come down to the size of the big man’s heart.

Will talent finally trump experience?

Look no further than Kentucky for this one. For all of coach John Calipari’s accolades, he has yet to cut down the nets to the tune of One Shining Moment. As a result, his critics have harped on his propensity for filling his roster with blue chip recruits as the reason for his championship shortcomings.

After an Elite Eight appearance in 2010, and a Final Four appearance last year, this year’s installment of über-talent might be Calipari’s most talented bunch yet. Starting three freshmen and two sophomores, the Cats have dominated for most of the year and were the odds-on favorite going into the tournament.

Heading into the Sweet Sixteen, and following blowouts over Iowa State and Western Kentucky, that front-runner status remains unchanged. There is, however, some merit to the idea that veteran experience is a necessity in the pressure cooker that is the March Madness.

That being said, if there is ever going to be a young team that breaks the mold, it is probably the one led by Anthony Davis.

Will God intervene in the tournament this year?

He already has. Duke lost.

One Comment

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