Running down the NCAA's regionals

Published March 20, 2012

| Associated Press

Now it's time for the big dogs to take over the NCAA tournament.

Fourteen of the 16 teams remaining in the bracket are from major conferences, leaving scrappy Ohio and Xavier as the only mid-majors with a shot at following up on what Butler and Virginia Commonwealth did a year ago.

Good news, even for you underdog fans, is that the resumes of the 14 big-school programs include 93 Final Four appearances and 33 national titles. Get teams like that together, and there's sure to be some great matchups and games.

Needless to say, it should be sweet.

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BEST GAMES

If we're going to tout how great the matchups are, we might as well start off by pointing out a few.

Syracuse vs. Wisconsin. The Orange live for creating turnovers; the Badgers hold onto the ball as if it were a pot of gold coins. Should be fun to see how this battle of styles and wills plays out.

Michigan State vs. Louisville. A battle of minds between Cardinals coach Rick Pitino and the Spartans' Tom Izzo. A couple of pretty good teams with some good players, too.

Kentucky vs. Indiana. Don't think the Wildcats have forgotten about that Assembly Hall court storming after Indiana's win in December. Two traditional powers, too; a combined for 12 national titles between them.

Marquette vs. Florida. The Gators can shoot, particularly from the 3-point arc. The Golden Eagles are tough and like to play defense. Another will-inflicting game.

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UNSUNG HEROES

We know the stars, the big names who get all the attention. But just below the marquee are a handful of under-the-radar players who are there to support the headliner, sometimes even steal the show.

Here's a few who have grabbed the spotlight so far:

Brady Heslip, Baylor. He's open soon as he crosses midcourt and has killed teams that collapse on Baylor's big front line in the NCAA tournament. In case you didn't see it, he hit a 10th 3-pointer on the way to the locker room after demolishing Colorado on Saturday.

Marquis Teague, Kentucky. Once considered Kentucky's lone weak spot, the freshman had 24 points, seven assists and four rebounds against Colorado.

Jeff Withey, Kansas. Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor make the Jayhawks go. Withey becoming more assertive helped take them to the regional semis.

Aaron Craft, Ohio State. The Buckeyes' point guard can score and has great court vision. His biggest contribution could be defense; he can take an opposing guard completely out of a game.

Russ Smith, Louisville. The Cardinals guard can be a difference-maker and was against New Mexico, scoring 17 points. He disappeared a few times this season, which Louisville can't afford at this point.

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NUMBERS

0 — Losses by 29-7 Baylor outside the Big 12.

1 — Team left from last year's Final Four: Kentucky.

3 — Conference tournament champions in the round of 16: Michigan State, Louisville and Ohio.

4 — Teams from the Big Ten and Big East left in the tournament.

10 — Times Michigan State has reached the regional semifinals in the last 15 years.

10½ — Point spread for North Carolina over Ohio, widest among the eight games.

48 — Years since Ohio last reached the round of 16.

50 — Years since Cincinnati beat Ohio State in the national title game for the second year in a row. The Bearcats and Orange play Thursday in Boston.

106 — Miles between Cincinnati and Ohio State, who play each other in Boston in the East Regional.

88,312 — Twitter followers for Kentucky super fan, actress and avid tweeter Ashley Judd, who attended the Wildcats' win over Iowa State on Saturday.

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HEADING EAST

The initial 68-team bracket had teams from all over the west, from Arizona and UNLV to Gonzaga and St. Mary's.

Now, they're all gone.

Not a single team from the western half of the United States reached the regionals this year, leaving Baylor, in heart-of-Texas Waco, as the last stop in the bracket.

That's 11 states, no teams. Yet Ohio put a record four teams through to the round of 16: Ohio State, Xavier, Cincinnati and Ohio.

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STUDENTS OF THE GAME

Four of the teams in the round of 16 have coaches who never played college hoops and came through the ranks as student managers.

Tom Crean, Indiana. Didn't play at Central Michigan and got his start as a graduate manager at Michigan State before going on to head coaching jobs at Marquette and with the Hoosiers.

Mick Cronin, Cincinnati. After coaching a local high school while completing his undergraduate degree, he got his first college coaching job as a video coordinator for the Bearcats in 1996-97.

Buzz Williams, Marquette. Before he became Marquette's head coach, the Buzzsaw served as a student assistant at Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas, under Juco Hall of Famer Lewis Orr.

Scott Drew, Baylor. Started his career as a student assistant at Butler and later moved on to Valparaiso, where he earned his master's degree while working for his father, Homer, the Crusaders head coach at the time.

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MONUMENTAL MOMENTS

The remaining teams have accounted for some of the greatest moments in NCAA tournament history. Here's a few:

North Carolina State, 1983. Coach Jim Valvano running around looking for someone to hug after Lorenzo Charles' putback is an all-timer.

Kansas, 2008. "Mario's Miracle" — Mario Chalmers' tying 3-pointer — still draws cheers like Kansas won the title all over again during the pregame video at Allen Fieldhouse.

Michigan State, 1979. Magic vs. Bird. 'Nuff said.

North Carolina, 1982. Freshman Michael Jordan hits the winning jumper against Georgetown, becomes one of basketball's — or any sport's — greatest icons.

Indiana, 1987. Keith Smart pulls a Jordan to beat Syracuse.

Now, the question is will there be any moments as memorable as those when the tournament resumes Thursday?

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