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What a Sweet 16: Can the Mids go Major?

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After a thrilling, exhausting, and truly memorable opening weekend, the 2010 NCAA Tournament delivers a series of delicious Sweet 16 matchups.  Is there a more intriguing game than Cornell vs. Kentucky?  How about Northern Iowa against a depleted Michigan State (Kalin Lucas is out with a torn achilles)?  There’s also a rematch: Xavier-Kent State … a St. Mary’s arrival … a Boiler resurgence … and a forgotten group of Huskies.  What’s it all mean?  Hopefully, a few more shining moments …

If you consider Xavier a mid-major (a bit of a stretch), there are 5 Mids and 11 Majors left in the field.  Which begs the question … Can the Mids go Major?  Northern Iowa already has – beating Kansas, the tourney’s overall No. 1 seed.  If Butler, Xavier, St. Mary’s and Cornell do the same, imagine this Elite 8 … No. Iowa, Butler, Xavier, St. Mary’s, Cornell and your choice of Duke-Purdue, Washington-West Virginia, Ohio State-Tennessee.  Will it happen?  Not likely, but let’s take a look …

Northern Iowa – Michigan State: Without Kalin Lucas, UNI might actually be considered the favorite.  The Panthers’ biggest concern is momentum.  How does a four-day layoff affect their last-second Karma?  Sparty will battle much harder on the glass than Kansas and it’ll be critical for the Panthers to keep MSU from dominating the glass.

Tennessee – Ohio State: If you need a truly great player to win the national title,  the edge goes to Evan Turner and OSU.  Forget tired legs, the Buckeyes’ balance should be enough against a Vols team that actually prefers to play half-court.

Syracuse – Butler: The gritty Bulldogs overwhelmed UTEP in the second half, but struggled to shoot well against Murray State.  Butler will need another Miner-type performance to advance, as the Orange should own a huge rebounding edge.  After years of playing marquis opponents, however, Butler won’t be in awe of the more talented Orange.

Xavier – Kansas State: Payback chance for the Muskateers who lost in Manhattan by 15 in December.  A neutral-court setting will help and Jordan Crawford will have to keep making big shots.  Xavier may also need an X-factor – an unknown Muskie to be a difference maker. 

Baylor – St. Mary’s: If the Gaels can get Omar Samhan the ball, they can certainly beat the more athletic Bears.  St. Mary’s will, however, be challenged defensively by Baylor’s guards who can finish at the rim.  What gives?  St. Mary’s must stretch the Bears’ zone by making shots.  That will open up the middle for Samhan to operate.

Washington – West Virginia: The Huskies are finally playing like the team we expected back in November.  That said, West Virginia presents more size and toughness than Marquette or New Mexico.  Few teams crash the offensive glass better than the Mountaineers.  If UW tries to get out on the break without securing the rebound it could be a long (or short) night for the Huskies.

Duke – Purdue: Few thought the Boilers would survive after the loss of Robbie Hummel.  There’s still a lot of talent on Purdue’s roster and they made just enough plays to outlast Texas A&M.  It will take another gritty defensive effort to beat the Blue Devils; and the Boilers need to have an officiating crew that doesn’t mind contact.  The Blue Devils can be had if Purdue limits them to one shot per trip.

Kentucky – Cornell:  The most intriguing matchup of the Sweet 16.  Ivy Leaguers against future pros.  UK has far more athleticism than Temple or Wisconsin, so whether the Big Red can pick apart the Wildcats is questionnable.  One thing’s for sure, Cornell will have to make shots early and keep the game close by controlling tempo.  If they can, how will UK respond in a tight game?

Given the injury to Lucas, Northern Iowa probably has the best chance to advance among the five mid-majors.  St. Mary’s is next in line.  If you’re looking for picks … Kentucky and West Virginia will advance in the East, Duke and Baylor in the South, Kansas State and Syracuse in the West and Northern Iowa and Ohio State in the Midwest.   I originally picked Syracuse, Baylor and Kentucky to reach the Final Four – so I have to stick with those.  Might as well bring Player-of-the-Year candidate Evan Turner and OSU to Indy.  Then again, I picked Kansas to win it all.

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