Philadelphia, PA – It serves all of you right -- yes you at the local watering hole bellyaching at about 3 p.m. on Friday about the lack of excitement in this year's NCAA Tournament.
You should know by now that madness ensues when you least expect it. Friday was a historically maddening March day with a pair of No. 15 seeds (Lehigh and Norfolk State) becoming the fifth and sixth ever to claim tournament wins. And they accomplished the Herculean feat within three hours of each other.
That's not to turn a blind eye to South Florida's suffocating defense against Temple or Ohio and North Carolina State navigating their way to the Sweet 16. March has proven its worth again, shame on you for having any doubt, and we are now left with 16 teams with one dream.
No team (yes even Kentucky) is perfect, and each has to look inside itself and across the court at its opponent to answer the questions holding it back from advancing within one step of the Final Four.
From the End of the Bench will be back on Saturday to re-live the regional semifinals and get you ready for an Elite Eight weekend. Until then, we ask the questions facing each team on its journey to New Orleans.
We don't have the answers. That's the point. Only the players and coaches do... or at least they hope so.
Road to the Sweet 16: Defeated Western Kentucky and Iowa State
Question Left to Answer: Can the guards raise the bar? The doubters went on and on about Kentucky's perimeter scoring, and in some respects it is still a concern, especially if the Wildcats have to deal with Baylor's speed and length in a regional final. However, freshman Marquis Teague played his best game (24 points, seven assists, four rebounds) in the 87-71 impressive thumping of Iowa State on Saturday, quelling any vociferous attacks for now. Darius Miller will probably see a lot of time on Christian Watford in the regional semifinal, so Teague will be locked against Jordan Hulls -- Indiana's deadliest outside shooter. Teague also can't fall in love with quick shots now that he has proven he can score.
Road to the Sweet 16: Defeated New Mexico State and VCU
Question Left to Answer: Can the Hoosiers clean up their act? Indiana can't be as sloppy with the ball as it was against VCU, committing a season-high 22 turnovers in the face of constant pressure. Kentucky head coach John Calipari will likely watch that film and throw some full-court defenses at Hulls, to take time off the shot clock and force him to exert energy more than anything else. Indiana will have memories and confidence on its side Friday night after knocking off the Wildcats back in early December, but the normally efficient offense needs to get into their sets, avoid backcourt miscues and control the pace to stand a chance at a repeat performance.
Road to the Sweet 16: Defeated South Dakota State and Colorado
Question Left to Answer: Can the hot shooting continue? Baylor has always been seen as an inside-out offense, which puts a lot of focus and pressure on Perry Jones III, Quincy Miller and Quincy Acy on the interior. The trio has not always handled the attention with smashing results, but if Brady Heslip can continue to shoot as well has he has in the tournament to date (actually 22- of-36 from beyond the arc over the last four games dating back to the Big 12 Tournament), the Bears will see a wider lane and more space for their bigs to maneuver. An outside-in attack may be the only way to beat Kentucky in a regional final, but first things first. Heslip and/or Jackson need to force Xavier guard Tu Holloway to his left and feed him into the Baylor trees to negate his offensive influence on the regional semifinal matchup.
Road to the Sweet 16: Defeated Notre Dame and Lehigh
Question Left to Answer: Are the Musketeers tough enough? And I'm not talking about slugging somebody; we already know they can do that. I'm talking about the mental fortitude to persevere through in-game hardships that are sure to come in the next two rounds. We know head coach Chris Mack and his team can work its way through season-long issues, but in-game, the Musketeers need to show the same resolve they did after finding themselves in an early 15-point hole to Lehigh.
Road to the Sweet 16: Defeated Long Island and Saint Louis
Question Left to Answer: Can Draymond Green continue to carry the Spartans on his back? Green recorded the eighth triple-double in NCAA Tournament history against Long Island, then posted 16 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and two steals against Saint Louis. The guy sure can do it all. The question remains, "Where will the necessary help come from?" Green's one-man show will have a tough time against Rick Pitino's Louisville defense, so other Spartans will have open looks. I'm looking at Keith Appling, Brandon Wood and the under-the- radar Austin Thornton.
Road to the Sweet 16: Defeated Davidson and New Mexico
Question Left to Answer: Can the Cardinals maintain their momentum? Uncle Mo is a hit-or-miss relative, and right now, Louisville is using him as its good luck charm with six straight wins since the start of the Big East Tournament. Peyton Siva needs to stick to Appling like glue and force one of the other Spartan guards to beat them from the perimeter. Also, the Cardinals don't have a perfect matchup for Green (most teams don't), so a win or loss could hinge on the team defensive approach centered around Gorgui Dieng.
Road to the Sweet 16: Defeated BYU and Murray State
Question Left to Answer: Can the Golden Eagles take care of their interior advantage? Marquette is a detail-oriented, balanced team with the quickness on the outside to get up on shooters and particularly negate Florida's speed. The Golden Eagles have an advantage on the wing with Jae Crowder and on the block with Junior Cadougan and Davante Gardner. The question is whether Marquette's physicality on the interior and its in-your-shorts perimeter defense will overwhelm and/or wear down the smaller Gators.
Road to the Sweet 16: Defeated Virginia and Norfolk State
Question Left to Answer: Can Florida play with the patience needed against Marquette? The Gators have always had the flash, but many questioned the substance as little as a month ago. Their guards, for all of their positive attributes, took questionable shots that lowered their offensive efficiency. Yet, Florida has outscored its first two opponents by a combined 70 points and thrived off making the extra pass and converting its opportunities into points. However, Marquette is a different animal. The Gators need to stay poised, run their offensive sets and don't get discouraged by misses against an excellent defensive team.
Road to the Sweet 16: Defeated UNC-Asheville and Kansas State
Question Left to Answer: Can Rakeem Christmas, James Southerland and the Orange bench continue to provide the defensive stability and offensive firepower with Fab Melo's ineligibility and C.J. Fair's sudden struggles? Fair has scored just 14 points in his last five games on just 4-of-21 shooting, and he saw just 15 minutes of action against Kansas State. Syracuse can survive his slump if Southerland keeps pouring in the points (15 points in each tournament win) and Christmas keeps plugging the hole left by Melo in the middle (he had 11 rebounds and three blocks against the Wildcats). Syracuse needs to recognize shooters with the same smarts and veracity that it displayed in holding Kansas State to 4-of-17 shooting from long range because Wisconsin has a pair of lethal marksmen in Ben Brust and All-Big Ten performer Jordan Taylor.
Road to the Sweet 16: Defeated Montana and Vanderbilt
Question Left to Answer: Can Wisconsin continue to dictate tempo and play the game on its terms against a higher level of competition? The Badgers have won with their formula: drain the clock, avoid turnovers and make winning plays down the stretch. Before Wisconsin can display its uncanny cool demeanor, it has to reach crunch time first, which means playing the first 36 minutes on its terms, especially against a long, athletic team like Syracuse.
Road to the Sweet 16: Defeated Texas and Florida State
Question Left to Answer: Can the Bearcats score enough, especially from the perimeter, to beat teams with higher offensive efficiency rates? Cincinnati, for lack of a better term, wins by attrition. The Bearcats normally have better, stronger, faster athletes who, over time, just wear down the opponent, leading to easy late-game baskets they desperately need. Why? Because they don't score consistently enough in the half-court. Everyone will talk about the importance of Yancy Gates going up against Jared Sullinger, and it is true, but Cashmere Wright may be even more important. The guard needs to make early shots to help spread the floor, but that won't come easy against the nation's top ranked efficiency defense.
Road to the Sweet 16: Beat Loyola-Maryland and Gonzaga
Question Left to Answer: Can Aaron Craft and William Buford make shots? Neither guard needs to light it up because the Buckeyes have other options with swingman DeShaun Thomas and the aforementioned Sullinger, but some semblance of a perimeter game would help ease the burden. Both answered the bell to an extent against Gonzaga, combining to make 11-of-22 shots, but just 3-of-10 from long range.
Road to the Sweet 16: Defeated Vermont and Creighton
Question Left to Answer: How does North Carolina's up-tempo offense function if point guard Kendall Marshall misses any time? Marshall broke a bone in his right wrist in the second half of the victory over the Bluejays, and word spread after the game like a seismic force for the national title contender. From the End of the Bench has waxed for months (even devoting an early-season op-ed to the issue) that Marshall is the single most important player in college basketball. He became even more important when his backup, Dexter Strickland, tore his ACL in the middle of ACC play. Now, Marshall's back-ups are Stilman White, who is heading off on a Mormon mission after the season, and Justin Watts, an all-purpose player who isn't even a point guard. And, remember, this isn't Wisconsin we are talking about. Head coach Roy Williams' offense is predicated on fast-break points, over 70 offensive possessions a game and easy points at every turn. How can the Heels continue to run the same sets if Marshall can't play? They may have less than a week to figure it out. (No official word has been released on Marshall's availability)
Road to the Sweet 16: Defeated Michigan and South Florida
Question Left to Answer: Can D.J. Cooper continue the magic? The Ohio guard has already slayed a pair of top-tier point guards (Michigan's Trey Burke and South Florida's Anthony Collins), and he may catch a break if Marshall can't suit up on Friday. Even without Marshall, North Carolina will try to force a faster game than the Bobcats are accustomed to, so Cooper will need to limit turnovers and possessions while helping off Marshall's backups to double in the post, where Tyler Zeller and John Henson will have a sizable height advantage.
North Carolina State
Road to the Sweet 16: Defeated San Diego State and Georgetown
Question Left to Answer: Can the Wolfpack bigs continue to play as large? Richard Howell and C.J. Leslie are just a part of the reason North Carolina State is in the Sweet 16, but they will play a large role in its staying power. The duo combined for 37 points against San Diego State and 23 against Georgetown, so a scoring punch is important. However, perhaps even more important is their ability, particularly Howell's, to stay out of foul trouble. Howell has picked up four fouls in each of the first two games, and Leslie sat for a decent chunk of the first half against the Aztecs with two fouls. North Carolina State needs both men on the floor in an effort to handle Kansas beast Thomas Robinson.
Road to the Sweet 16: Defeated Detroit and Purdue
Question Left to Answer: Can the Jayhawks clean up their act? Kansas played admittedly sloppy in a 63-60 escape against the Boilermakers, and to give credit where it's due, a lot of its miscues were the result of stifling defense. Yet, Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor need to be much better than 6-of-23 from the floor because Kansas can't rely on Elijah Johnson to drop home 18 points every day despite the junior guard's scoring resurgence as of late (26, 15, 15 and 18 in the last four tilts).