Taste-Testing the Sweet Sixteen: Finding Nuggets of Fun and Fact From Each Team Still Alive

It’s Sweet Sixteen time, but the diet can’t be all sweets or we’ll spoil our dinner. Each team has their sweet spots and sour notes worth exploring. Let’s run through them and find reasons to watch each team, reasons to root for most, and the things to be wary of this weekend.

Kansas

The Sweet: The best team name in America! Frank Mason’s rap career! More of Wayne Selden’s crazy Uncle Anthony!

Not to mention, they are the best team in this tournament. Their best may not be better than some other team’s (Oklahoma on a hot shooting night, Virginia when they get crazy locked in on defense, etc.) but their floor and their median level of play outlast everyone else.

The Sour: What is Bill Self’s rotation strategy? He starts Frank Mason-Devonte Graham-Wayne Selden-Perry Ellis-Landen Lucas, and rightfully so. That group has proven themselves as his best option in a vacuum. The NCAA Tournament is not a vacuum, though. That lineup has size concerns (Mason is 5’10, Graham is 6’2, Selden is 6’5). When Maryland counters with two bigs plus Melo Trimble (6’3), Rasheed Sulaimon (6’4), and Jake Layman (6’9) at the 1, 2, and 3, where does Self turn? Sviatoslav Myhialiuk and Brannen Greene are taller options at shooting guard or small forward, but both have proven to be streaky shooters and questionable defenders and rebounders. If Ellis or Lucas pick-up fouls, how much can he rely on Jamari Traylor, Carlton Bragg, or Hunter Mickelson in a big moment?

If a team like Duke or Villanova went small on Kansas, with Mikal Bridges or Brandon Ingram at the 4-spot, can Ellis respond? He’ll either need to guard a smaller player or by punish that player on the other end.

Kansas has the upper hand, but may be in danger of catching the wrong team, wrong match-up, or wrong scheme.

Maryland

The Sweet: If Melo Trimble and Diamond Stone can figure things out and get in sync, Maryland is one of the nation’s most exciting teams. Trimble is a joy in the open floor and when he gets hot, he gets RED hot. Jake Layman is a Swiss Army knife, capable of just about any task required on a basketball court.

The Sour: I picked them to win the National Championship preseason for a reason, but Maryland’s effort, defense, and coaching have all been question marks this season.

Miami

The Sweet: Angel Rodriguez is a fifth-year senior and he plays like one. If floor generals who control their team and love to run is your thing, A-Rod is your man.

Plus, when they win, coach Jim Larranaga dances!

 

The Sour: Not a reason they’ll lose or a reason to root against them, but God are the Hurricanes’ shorts an abomination.

via Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
via Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Adidas, stop doing everything you are doing.

Villanova

The Sweet: Villanova silenced a small portion of their critics by reaching the second weekend for the first time in the better part of a decade, though let’s not pretend that those naysayers would jump right back at Nova Nation should the Wildcats lose to Miami in the Sweet Sixteen.

This Villanova team is really good and worthy of respect. Ryan Arcidiacono was an irrational gunner two years ago and now has one of the steadiest heads remaining in the field. Josh Hart is a silent assassin, quietly playing at an All-American level. Kris Jenkins can drop 25 or 30 on anyone on any night. Daniel Ochefu, if healthy, is a gamechanger on defense.

Don’t want top seeded Kansas to coast to the Final Four? Villanova is your best bet to knock them off.

The Sour: Living in the Philadelphia area during this Villanova run has been a joy. The sad sack Philadelphia fanbase will latch on to anything they can claim as a championship (Smarty Jones at the Derby! Jennifer Lawrence’s Silver Lining Playbook Oscar!). So fans of St. Joe’s and Temple and the rest of the Big 5 have been hesitant to join into the Nova love this March. And you know what? They shouldn’t! Root for your team! A Dukie would never wish Carolina well. So sure, continue to pretend the Main Line is miles and miles from the city. Put your foot down on the chances of a Wildcat parade down Broad Street. The Villanova faithful will expect the worst should they lose and would hate nothing more than to see you on the bandwagon if they win.

 

Oregon

The Sweet: The main reason to root for them is to see Oregon guys succeed before they head off to play for Chip Kelly in the pros.

Also, loud quacking is highly encouraged during Ducks games. Ducks fly together!

quacks

The Sour: EAST COAST BIAS. NEVER SEEN THEM AND THEIR MIDNIGHT GAMES, THEY MUST STINK AND I HOPE THEY LOSE.

Duke

The Sweet: {error; file not found}

The Sweet, Seriously: Have you joined the Brandon Ingram Revolution yet? His charge to overtake Ben Simmons on draft boards has occurred later than Karl-Anthony Towns’ move past Jahlil Okafor last season but the parallels can’t be denied. The one-and-done rule exists for a reason and we’ve seen it in action consecutive years now. If you’re still not sure, watch Duke, specifically Ingram, and remember he’s playing out of position at the four.

The Sour: The narrative about the current Duke roster has been that Grayson Allen, who looks like a young Ted Cruz, trips opponents, and scores 20+ points per game, has entered the pantheon of Duke hatred. But are we missing something?

Luke Kennard, as just a freshman, might be worse. At least Allen can back up his smug and smarm with his scoring and impressive play. Kennard is having a nice season, but his production comes nowhere near cancelling out the punchability of his face. Watch him when Duke plays. Notice how often he fixes his hair with the heel of his hand. Not only is he the only person in the world who does this, he does it thousands of times per game. Wake up, people. Hating Grayson Allen is so December. It’s March. The cool kids hate Kennard now.

Texas A&M

The Sweet: Such a fun collection of talent in College Station. The pieces of that team fit together perfectly and make for a great unit to watch. I profiled the Aggies for Rush The Court back in February and came away very impressed.

No Aggie left me more impressed than Alex Caruso. If Caruso showed up to your local pick-up game, you’d be unsure about having him on your team. He’s got thinning hair, an awkward gate, and bad facial hair.

via SECSports.com
via SECSports.com

Then he’d make no-look passes all over the floor, throw down a few dunks, drain some threes, and make you look sillier than his mustache.

The Sour: Did the Aggies use up all of their likability, karma, and luck in their impossible comeback against UNI? Everything from here on out is gravy. Even with a blowout loss to Oklahoma, they’ve secured their spot in “One Shining Moment” and the annals of college hoop lore. It may prove difficult to rev their emotional engines high enough to win another game if they fall behind early or face some adversity.

Oklahoma 

The Sweet: Hey, you! Casual basketball fan. You’ve heard of Buddy Hield, right? This is the team he plays for. He’s really fun to watch and so are his teammates. They play fast and they shoot it from all over.

As always, I’m contractually obligated to mention: the only approved way to watch Oklahoma is to yell like Lars from Heavyweights every time Buddy Hield shoots the ball.

buddy

The Sour: No one in the Big XII shot more threes or scored more of their points from beyond the arc. The only team in the nation to shoot a better percentage from outside was the now dearly departed Michigan State Spartans (though in Izzoland, what is dead may never die, but rises again harder and stronger).

While the Warriors are off on a quest to prove the old adage “Live by the 3, die by by the 3” wrong, they have the luxury of doing so in a 7 game series. As those very Dubs proved in San Antonio last week, any team is capable of going ice cold for one game. In this tournament, that means heading home.

North Carolina

The Sweet: If they win it all, maybe Roy Williams will do this again:

The Sour: I can’t shut up about UNC refusing to play small.

It’s 2016. Play Justin Jackson as a small ball four. Make centers chase Brice Johnson and his fleet feet around the paint. If the Tar Heels don’t start doing this, they leave themselves in danger of being out paced or out spaced by smaller teams.

Indiana

The Sweet: Tom Crean was one bad season away from the unemployment line (or, knowing Indiana fans, a chase from a pitchfork wielding angry mob). But here he stands, Big Ten regular season champion and in the Sweet 16. Watching Hoosier fans begrudgingly about-face from hating Crean to supporting him again has been a joy.

Indiana fans are so fervent in their love of the Hoosiers, you can’t help but side with them. Sure, Kentucky and Kansas and Carolina fans care too, but the rabid Indiana fanbase rooting for and forcing themselves to love their awkward, dopey head coach is just too sweet. Look at Crean after winning one of the biggest game of his life:

Imagine Coach K buying a stadium t-shirt. Imagine John Calipari even saying the word t-shirt.

Tom Crean is the hapless presidential candidate making gaffe after gaffe, but his base of supporters just can’t stop stumping for him.

(Also Yogi Ferrell is awesome. The crowd shots of his sisters are awesome. His absolute undeniability is awesome. His “I don’t care how tall I am, how tall you are, who you play for, or what the hell is going on, I’m making the Final Four” attitude is amazing to watch in action.)

The Sour: Tom Crean is still a bad coach! He mismanaged his timeouts at the end of the Kentucky game wildly incorrectly. He let Kentucky continue to foul freshman big man Thomas Bryant (70% FT) instead of getting the ball to his senior point guard Yogi Ferrell (83% FT) or fifth year senior Nick Zeisloft (19 for 21 on the season from the stripe).

Watching Tom Crean coach this very talented Hoosiers team is like watching an elderly woman spin the showcase wheel on “Wheel of Fortune”. She might hit a dollar, but she also might slip, fall, and rip her “WE MISS BOB” homemade sweatshirt.

Notre Dame

The Sweet: Looking for your new favorite player? Try Demetrius Jackson. His story is the stuff of cinema.

In 6th grade his father went to jail and he was placed in foster care. Now, after moving into the home of a former AAU teammate, he’s led the Irish to the Sweet Sixteen and he’s a likely lottery pick after the season.

The Sour: It’s Notre Dame! Their basketball team should not be spared the hatred the football team receives. The fight song and fanbase are damn near sickening, no matter the sport.

Wisconsin

The Sweet: There’s no coach worth rooting for more than Greg Gard. He’d never been a head coach in his entire career, until taking over for Bo Ryan midseason this year, after a rocky start too. The Badgers have turned things around and are playing like the team we all thought they could be before seeing them struggle early on. Gard’s had the interim tag removed and has been as good a coach as anyone this year.

Plus, Nigel Hayes is trying to hook up with one of the actresses from Glee via press conference comments. Every Wisconsin win brings that closer to a reality.

The Sour: When Bo Ryan retired, I wrote a glowing post about him here. Now, after making his only Final Four last year, it would be quite a story for Gard to match Ryan the following year, or even one-up him with a championship. I’m sure no one is rooting for Gard harder than Bo, but that twinge of “what could have been” will haunt Bo Ryan.

Virginia

The Sweet: If you believe basketball can be beautiful, UVA is the team that can show you that beauty. The Pack Line defense and motion offense are both harmonious and gorgeous. I don’t care what they scoreboard says, effectiveness can be sexy too. And Malcolm Brogdon is doing incredible things. Scoring 18.7 points per game at Virginia’s methodical pace is ridiculous.

And for some reason, the barbers of Charlottesville haven’t been very busy this season. London Perrantes is going for that “Gerald from Hey Arnold look”.

perrantes geralsd

Who knows what Anthony Gill is going for? But more importantly, who cares? Crazy hair in March Madness is good hair in March Madness.

gill hair

The Sour: I’m fine with a championship game with a total final score under 110, but I don’t know that the rest of the world is with me. I’ll watch Virginia be patient and work for a good look as long as they want, though reading the HOT TAKES and hearing the welping of the casual fan on social media is already annoying. A Virginia championship satiates the “NBA is better” fan like a Thanksgiving feast.

Iowa State

The Sweet: Excuse me, but do you have a moment to talk about accepting Georges Niang as your basketball Lord and savior? The Iowa State senior is slow footed, doughy-figured superstar. His success has become commonplace but will always blow me away. I could watch him weave his way to the basket and toss up ugly baby hook shots all damn day.

And because Niang ‘s athletic skills aren’t elite, he probably has no future in the NBA. After an upset loss last season, this is Niang’s last real chance at glory. He’s been playing like he’d gladly trade his left foot for a shot at the Final Four. Only his good friend/rival Buddy Hield has scored more points in the tournament than he has.

The Sour: With a new head coach and a lax defensive effort, the Cyclones didn’t even finish in the top 3 of the Big XII this season. Their liabilities haven’t bit them in this tournament yet, but Iowa State has been lucky enough to play consecutive double-digit seeds.

Gonzaga

The Sweet: Mark Few and Gonzaga have never made the Final Four. He’s had very good and even great teams under his tutelage, but not reached the Promised Land. Adam Morrison’s team blew a 17 point lead in the Sweet Sixteen. The Zags only run as a #1 seed failed to even reach the second weekend. Kevin Pangos’ senior year ended after they ran out of gas against Duke last season.

This is not Few’s best team. Far from it. At the conclusion of the regular season, this looked like the worst Gonzaga season in Few’s 17 years. Now they stand a win over a 10 seed and a bigger upset from the Final Four. Funny how that works out.

If you’re looking for reasons to like this Gonzaga team, or entertainment between games this weekend, I suggest binge watching “Gonzaga: The March To Madness” on HBO. Cameras followed the Zags around for a few weeks as the season concluded, the result being a 5 episode, 2.5 hour Hard Knocks-ian mini-series. Mark Few’s dad, the long-haired walk-ons, and the Kennel Club make it worth your time.

The Sour: I’m a Gonzaga fan. When Adam Morrison cried, so did I. I miss Kevin Pangos, Blake Stepp, Matt Bouldin, and Dan Dickau in my life.

You know who I won’t add to that list some day? Kyle Wiltjer. I don’t trust him. His shot comes and goes, and seems to go when the lights get the brightest.

Syracuse

The Sweet: Do we sleep on Syracuse as a hate worthy team? I had a more difficult time writing this section than any other. Even Duke has players that are fun to watch or able to root for (ROTC grad student Marshall Plumlee and human piece of Milky Way commercial caramel Brandon Ingram). Where are those guys on Syracuse?

Jim Boeheim grows more smug and irritable as he grows older. His comments about his team deserving a tournament spot despite his (rightful) suspension as they lost five of their last six came off so condescending and tone deaf.

Quick, name a player from Syracuse that is or was likable.

Carmelo Anthony? Dion Waiters? Michael-Carter Williams?

Why do we talk about Grayson Allen joining the litany of hated white Duke players when Syracuse should have their own “Hate Worthy White Player Museum”? Eric Devendorf, Andy Rautins, Gerry MacNamara, with Trevor Cooney set to join their ranks.

The constant zone defense. The giant football sized dome arena. The color orange, blasted into our faces at unbearable levels.

I’ve had enough of it! Syracuse’s time outside of the ire of the national basketball fanbase ends now. So no, nothing sweet about Syracuse. Sorry!

The Sour: All of the above! But also…

The mid-majors on the bubble got shafted again this year in favor of teams who had mediocre seasons from high-major conferences. Syracuse epitomizes the latter category. In the tough ACC, the Orange finished 9th at 9-9, then promptly lost their first game in the conference tournament. Nothing they did this season really made them stand out.

The Orange were 4-8 against teams who qualified for the NCAA Tournament (with another loss against surefire tourney team Louisville who was banned from postseason play). Monmouth, the most deserving of this year’s snubs, was 3-4 against tournament level competition. The committee harped on the importance of quality or top 50 wins this year, but Syracuse is given so many more opportunities to collect those wins.

It’s silly to use tournament success as an indicator for whether or not a team belongs in the tournament. Purdue, Michigan State, and Cal were all worthy of being in the NCAA Tournament and lost early. Yet if Syracuse’s run continues, there will be important, powerful people who take note. Next year when comparing the next Monmouth to a middling power conference team, those people will be inclined to favor the high-major program. Thar’s just not fair and in no way represents what this tournament is about.

But most importantly when talking about Syracuse, never ever forget, zone is for cowards.

**

Header image via Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports, snarky comment via me.

Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to SALTMoney.org, Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. If you have any suggestions, tips, ideas, or questions, email them to palestraback@gmail.com.

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