Published March 22, 2010
The heavy favorite is already history on the first weekend of the Big Dance, knocked off by a team out of the Missouri Valley.
If that doesn't confirm that this year's NCAA tournament is up for grabs, I don't know what will.
Maybe the fact that the Big East -- believed by many to be the best league in America -- has already lost six of its eight representatives.
Or that 11 different conferences are represented in the Sweet 16, including a handful from non-BCS leagues and three double-digit seeds.
We'll break down why each team left standing could run the table -- and on the flip side, why they will get knocked off.
NO. 9 NORTHERN IOWA
Why: Ben Jacobsen's team doesn't make a lot of mistakes. The Panthers coach has high-major size at the power forward and center spots with 7-foot, 280-pound Jordan Egleseder and 6-foot-8, 255-pound fellow senior Adam Koch. The third senior starter, Ali Farokhmanesh, has been terrific the last 10 or so games and has the confidence to make huge shots, following game-winners against UNLV and Kansas. The Panthers also have a strong, athletic point guard in Johnny Moran who can handle the physical aspect of going up against big-time floor leaders.
Why not: The depth on the frontline is questionable, and it'll be interesting to see if anyone takes advantage of the slow-footed Egleseder and makes him defend ball screens. In fact, I'd guess that's what Michigan State's Tom Izzo will do in the Panthers' next game.
NO. 5 MICHIGAN STATE
Why: Tom Izzo -- He's a future Hall of Famer who is a mastermind this time of year, so it's difficult to discount any Izzo-coached team. Michigan State still has talented wings with Durrell Summers and Chris Allen and guys that play with toughness. But it's hard to justify how the Spartans can advance without star point guard Kalin Lucas. Korie Lucious played well in the second half against Maryland and made the game-winning shot, but he can't run a team like Lucas.
Why not: Point-guard situation. It was going to be difficult enough for the Spartans, who have struggled with leadership this season, to go far with Lucas. Now, it appears as though his season is over after suffering a torn Achilles' late in the first half of the Maryland victory -- and that's a crushing blow to a team already lacking depth.
NO. 6 TENNESSEE
Why: The Vols defend, they're balanced and they know they can play with anyone after wins against Kansas and Kentucky earlier in the season. They have a veteran big man in Wayne Chism in the middle, a talented wing in Scotty Hopson and a bunch of other pieces with J.P. Prince, Bobby Maze, Cameron Tatum and Brian Williams. Tatum, Williams and Melvin Goins are also playing with something to prove after being suspended earlier in the season.
Why not: I just don't see this team going that far. They have Chism and Hopson but not enough beyond that in terms of offensive options. Case in point: Even Steven Pearl is getting double-digit minutes these days at power forward. Their perimeter shooting is also questionable.
NO. 2 OHIO STATE
Why: Evan Turner -- The Buckeyes junior does it all. He made the transition to point guard this season and has been the best player in the country. His numbers are astonishing -- especially remembering he missed six games recovering from two broken bones in his back. There have been instances where a player can carry a team to the Final Four and the national title -- and Turner is capable because of his exceptional versatility.
Why not: Thad Matta is doing this with basically four players and no depth. It's Turner, David Lighty, William Buford and Jon Diebler. If Turner has an off game now, Ohio State is history. The Buckeyes also have no productive size, which means that Turner has to get 10 rebounds per game.
NO. 1 SYRACUSE
Why: The Orange have impressive balance, role definition, scoring efficiency and a vaunted 2-3 zone limiting opponents at the other end. There's a star in forward Wesley Johnson; a couple of big men in Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson; Andy Rautins, a big-time shooter/leader; and a pair of point guards in Brandon Triche and Scoop Jardine. Jim Boeheim's team fits together well and has been able to win NCAA tournament games without Onuaku, who sat out the first two due to a leg injury.
Why not: The 'Cuse need Onuaku back to make a deep run here. Sure, they won without him against Vermont and Gonzaga, but DeAngelo Riley is no Onuaku. I'm also not completely sold -- even though I probably should be -- on the point-guard duo of Triche and Jardine as we move deeper into the tourney.
NO. 5 BUTLER
Why: The Bulldogs have a group that combines well, having spent the last two or three years playing together. Brad Stevens' team is fundamentally sound, has grown up since last year's first-round loss and hasn't lost a game since Dec. 22. Butler has an underrated guard in Shelvin Mack, a big-time, versatile forward in Gordon Hayward and a gritty, undersized big man in Matt Howard.
Why not: Size -- Matt Howard is a 6-foot-7 post player and hasn't had a stellar season. Butler has to get past a long and athletic Syracuse team, and unless the Bulldogs are sizzling from the perimeter, they'll struggle because they don't really have any legitimate post presence who can go toe-to-toe with the 'Cuse bigs.
NO. 6 XAVIER
Why: Rookie head coach Chris Mack has a bunch of tough, hard-nosed kids with chips on their shoulders. Above all, they have quality guard play. Indiana transfer Jordan Crawford was somehow snubbed for A-10 Player of the Year honors, but he's capable of taking over the game and has matured in his decision-making. Terrell Holloway has become a quality floor leader, while Jason Love is also a capable big man.
Why not: Xavier is too reliant on Crawford to get 20 to continue winning. If Crawford goes cold, who else picks up the slack? Holloway isn't a potent scorer, and guys like Dante Jackson and Jamel McLean are only role players.
NO. 2 KANSAS STATE
Why: These guys are tough -- especially the backcourt duo of Denis Clemente and Jake Pullen -- and have taken on the personality of their coach, Frank Martin. Clemente, a senior, has run the team and Pullen has slid over to the off-guard spot, but both can make plays for themselves and their teammates. While K-State may not be huge up front, with the exception of Luis Colon, it is plenty athletic with guys like Curtis Kelly, Jamar Samuels and Wally Judge.
Why not: Pullen and Clemente are solid, but the frontcourt has been too erratic throughout the season. Samuels and Kelly are the X-factors, and are too inconsistent with their effort and sense of urgency.
NO. 1 KENTUCKY
Why: Um, because they have more talent than anyone in the country. Freshmen John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins are both legit first-team All-Americans, Patrick Patterson is a potential double-double each and every night and frosh Eric Bledsoe could be a featured guy on just about any other team. John Calipari has done a masterful job keeping all the talent and egos in check.
Why not: I'm not buying the youth excuse, but what I am buying is that these guys still aren't a collection of knock-down shooters. Bledsoe has gotten hot from the perimeter, but if he cools off, the Wildcats could struggle against a zone defense.
NO. 12 CORNELL
Why: Steve Donahue's team is making its third consecutive NCAA appearance with a bunch of veterans who have been there before. The Big Red have a 7-footer in the middle, Jeff Foote, who can score and also passes extremely well, surrounded by a slew of shooters: Ryan Wittman, Jon Jacques, Louis Dale and Chris Wroblewski. Cornell is a different team this year with a healthy Dale and Foote's improvement.
Why not: They will be physically overwhelmed physically by Kentucky. Foote will not only have to deal with DeMarcus Cousins but will also see Daniel Orton coming off the bench. Dale is a vastly underrated point guard, but he'll have the challenge of trying to contain John Wall. It's a matchup nightmare at virtually every position.
NO. 11 WASHINGTON
Why: Guards -- They win in the Big Dance, and Lorenzo Romar has some talented ones. Isaiah Thomas is an explosive scorer whose defense has improved. Venoy Overton is arguably the top perimeter defender in the nation, and freshman Abdul Gaddy continues to improve. The Huskies also have a star in forward Quincy Pondexter and an athletic big man, Matthew Bryan-Amaning, who has picked up his play over the past 10 games.
Why not: The Huskies don't always value the basketball as much as they should. Thomas has the propensity to play out of control at times. If that happens and he tries to do too much, U-Dub isn't nearly as effective. Romar will also need Bryan-Amaning to continue to produce each and every game -- something he hasn't done until lately.
NO. 2 WEST VIRGINIA
Why: Toughness -- It's no surprise that Bob Huggins' club is tough since he built the Cincinnati program on the same foundation. West Virginia's toughness is most apparent on the defensive end. But the Mountaineers also have a potent trio of front-line guys in versatile senior Da'Sean Butler and a pair of talented sophomores: Devin Ebanks and underrated Kevin Jones.
Why not: Point-guard play. It's rare that a team goes deep into the NCAA tournament without quality floor leadership. Joe Mazzulla has improved his play as he's gotten healthier, but he and sophomore Darryl "Truck" Bryant are far from a lethal 1-2 punch. Mazzulla is a non-scorer, and Bryant is still understanding how to make his teammates better. The Mountaineers also need to start making shots from the perimeter.
NO. 1 DUKE
Why: The Big Three -- Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith have carried Mike Krzyzewski's team all year along. Scheyer is a senior who has adjusted well to his role as a scoring point guard, Singler to his transition on the perimeter, while Smith has thrived as a scorer. The Blue Devils' top three players are also a senior and a pair of juniors.
Why not: Lack of size -- Although it shouldn't hurt Coach K against Purdue, the Blue Devils lack a consistent low-post presence. They go with a committee that has been inconsistent. It's difficult to know what you're going to get with the Plumlee brothers, Miles and Mason, as well as Zoubek and Lance Thomas.
NO. 4 PURDUE
Why: Defense and resilience -- The Boilermakers were in position to make a legitimate Final Four run until their best player, versatile forward Robbie Hummel, went down with a torn ACL. Now Purdue's toughness and stingy defense, led by senior Chris Kramer, becomes even more critical.
Why not: Shortage of weapons -- Without Hummel in the lineup, Purdue is down to just two guys that opposing teams have to worry about on the offensive end: shooting guard E'Twaun Moore and big man JaJuan Johnson. Chris Kramer gave the Boilermakers a lift against Texas A&M and Keaton Grant has proven capable, but neither have been consistent scorers.
NO. 3 BAYLOR
Why: The Bears are far more adept defensively with the addition of Michigan transfer Ekpe Udoh. In the past, Scott Drew's team couldn't stop anyone. Now, the perimeter players can take chances due to the presence of a big-time shot-blocker like the 6-foot-9 Udoh. Baylor has frontline length with Udoh, Josh Lomers and Anthony Jones, and the threat of one of the nation's most explosive backcourts, with Tweety Carter and LaceDarius Dunn.
Why not: Discipline -- The Bears are prone to taking ill-advised shots and making poor decisions on the offensive end. It'll come down to Carter and Dunn and how they take care of the ball.
NO. 10 SAINT MARY'S
Why: The Gaels have one of the most productive big men in the nation in Omar Samhan and a bunch of shooters all over the court. Samhan is a force in the paint and on the glass and also has a swagger that rubs off on his more reserved teammates. The backcourt features vastly underrated point guard Mickey McConnell and Australian freshman Matthew Dellevadova.
Why not: Randy Bennett's team will be overwhelmed by the athleticism of Baylor and unable to contain the Bears' backcourt of Tweety Carter and LaceDarius Dunn. Baylor will have a home-court advantage, playing in Houston. The Gaels also desperately need Samhan to control his emotions and stay out of foul trouble.