Surprises sweeten the pot for round of 16

Packer-Martelli heads list of great matchups

Analysis

March 22, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Anybody out there have a Nevada-Vanderbilt championship game in their Final Four? How about Alabama-Birmingham and Xavier?

Talk about bracket busters. The first week of this year's NCAA tournament was pure obliteration when it came to the office pools. Has anybody seen CBS' Billy Packer lately? How about ESPN's Andy Katz, who is giving bracketology a bad name?

The Sweet 16 of this year's NCAA men's tournament is upon us, with the list of potential Cinderfellas growing longer by the day. With the exception of the chalk-solid East Rutherford, N.J. Regional, and the heavily favored and (at least in these parts) hated Blue Devils of Duke in Atlanta, this tournament has become the revenge of the hoop nerds.

Here's a look at how the next round shapes up:

Best matchup

Given what Jameer Nelson has done all season -- for four seasons actually -- at Saint Joseph's, he deserves to be put on the pedestal of college point guards.

But is he playing better than Wake Forest wunderkind Chris Paul? Is anybody, at any size? This meeting of these miniature Magics in the Jersey Meadowlands Thursday night could be one for the ages.

Best coaching matchup

Oklahoma State's Eddie Sutton has been coaching longer than first-year Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon has been alive. The man who has been called "Fast Eddie" for good and bad reasons during a career that seemed to bottom out at Kentucky more than a decade ago is one of the best in the business.

Dixon has emerged from the shadows of former Panthers coach Ben Howland to have one of the most successful coaching debuts in history. Sutton and Dixon will match wits in East Rutherford as well.

Next big upset

The Nevada Wolf Pack and the UAB Blazers are certainly the unlikeliest of the remaining Sweet 16 teams.

Given how shaky Georgia Tech has looked -- nearly blowing a big lead yesterday after barely beating Northern Iowa in the opening round -- and how dominating Nevada was in crushing Gonzaga in what was essentially a home game for the Zags in Seattle, this might not even be that big a surprise should the No. 10 seed upset the No. 3 seed in St. Louis Friday.

Kansas, which plays UAB in the other regional semifinal there, wants a rematch with Nevada, which beat the Jayhawks earlier this season.

Strongest regional

Not that the next national champion will definitely emerge from East Rutherford, but it's the only regional left with all four top seeds intact. Top-seeded Saint Joseph's is certainly a team with a cause -- is it silencing Packer or helping the ratings on coach Phil Martelli's television show? -- and could be the least imposing of an impressive group.

The matchup between Pittsburgh and Oklahoma State might not have the marquee names or programs, but it's probably the best of the eight games.

Weakest regional

Just by the look at the seeds left, one might think that it's St. Louis. But when a team does what UAB did in Columbus, Ohio, in the past three days -- stopping red-hot Washington in a 102-100 shootout and then knocking off Kentucky, the No. 1 team in the field and one of Katz's mortal locks -- its seed is irrelevant.

Maryland must be kicking itself for not beating Syracuse, given former fellow bubble team Alabama would have been its next opponent and the other half of the bracket now includes Vanderbilt and Connecticut, another high seed that seems very beatable.

The fun is over

Coach Bruce Weber and Illinois have certainly had their share of ups and downs this season. Remember the whole episode with Weber talking about Fighting Illini fans forgetting the past -- particularly former coach Bill Self -- by holding a mock funeral?

All is forgiven in Champaign, but meeting up with Murray State and Cincinnati is certainly not in the same category as playing Duke. With North Carolina not going to Atlanta, the Blue Devils will certainly not be looking ahead to Sunday's regional final.

The fun is over (Part 2)

Jim Boeheim is trying to become the first coach to lead his team to back-to-back national championships since Mike Krzyzewski did it at Duke (1991-92).

The Orangemen are basically a two-man team with Gerry McNamara and Hakim Warrick, and if Alabama can play at the level it did in upsetting Stanford, Boeheim will soon be joining buddy Gary Williams on the golf course.

Best story line

There are many, but how can you ignore the Martelli-Packer battle that has been brouhahaing since the selections were made?

Because Packer has never shied away from a skirmish during his career, it's only fitting the former Wake Forest guard be courtside for his alma mater's first Sweet 16 game since 1996. Packer has done games involving the Demon Deacons for years, and now shouldn't be a time to stop.

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