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NCAA Sweet 16: Thursday Night, the Heavy Weights Take Their Shots

The Jayhawks' run may be over, but Thursday night's first serving of Sweet 16 games features five teams led by Final Four coaches.

Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Don't get me wrong. I don't like seeing Kansas lose in the tournament, but I get over it in a matter of minutes.


By reminding myself that I'm a Kansas City Chiefs fan, too. The Chiefs fan in me calls the Jayhawk fan in me a spoiled whiner for even thinking about sulking over a 'Hawks loss in the NCAA Tournament.

You wanna know real pain? Andrew Luck recovering a butt fumble for a touchdown; Grbac over Gannon; Lin Elliot wide right, then left, then left again; Bruce Smith breaking Joe Montana's brain...

The young Jayhawks losing to a tournament savvy, veteran Wichita State team?


The Jayhawks have won two titles in my relatively young life. I watched the first title through my eyes full of innocent wonder as a second grade kid, and watched the second through my adult eyes sloshed with celebratory inebriation.

Some people go their whole lives without seeing a team they root for win it all. As a Chiefs fan I'm resigned to the fact that if the team ever wins a title it will come in another city, or my daughters will have to make a special trip to place a Super Bowl tee-shirt on my tombstone.

The only time I've ever had a Kansas tournament loss stick with me for more than a day was that game against Michigan in 2013. And only then because it was a single thought that haunted me. How far could that team have gone had Elijah Johnson been ejected for deliberately punching Michigan forward Mitch McGary in the balls early in the first half?

In all of Bill Self's other tournament losses at Kansas, your Bucknell, Bradley, Northern Iowa, VCU, Stanford, etc., his 'Hawks were outplayed in each and every one of them. Nothing to cry about, the Jayhawks took their shot and  just got beat. But that Michigan game was the one that Bill's 'Hawks let slip away. And Elijah, man, the poor kid had a rough season already, but he pretty much singlehandedly lost that Sweet 16 heartbreaker for the Jayhawks.

I was in a packed Dempsey's Pub in Lawrence that Friday night. Things got ugly quick. Jayhawk fans threatening to fight Jayhawk fans, girls crying, widespread "what just happeneds?" sloppily asked by drunk people who'd started a premature Rock Chalk winners' chant at the 12 second mark of regulation.

I bring up this game because it's one of very few times I've ever questioned Bill Self's ability to coach. It was Nadir Tharpe's running of the point that saved the day against North Carolina in the game prior to the Burke shot game. Due to Johnson's three early fouls, it was Tharpe running the point when the Jayhawks put a strangle hold on the game against the Wolverines. And yet it was Johnson on the floor when the game mattered most, all the while clearly having some sort of mental breakdown out there. Tharpe was no world beater, but he'd already made his case that he was more fit to run point for the Jayhawks in that tournament.

If Bill Self detractors want to make the case that the coach and his teams have not been the same since this Michigan game, I don't buy it, but to that argument I'd at least listen. It's an argument that rests on the notion that Bill has a hard time picking the right players to be on the floor, and sticks with and has too much faith in the players he does run out there even though they may be playing piss poor - See Wayne Seldon last year and this, and Brannen Greene over the last month. One could also argue that in addition to Bill's having the wrong guys on the court at the worst possible times, this Michigan loss also showcased a lack of focus that caused the Jayhawks to lose a comfortable lead, which was a problem for both the 2014 and 15 Jayhawk teams.

However, it's a flawed logic, because in sports it's impossible not to have your moments of success dip into the valley of mediocrity from time to time. In single elimination games teams have melt downs, and miracle shots are made. Those things just happen. Ask Memphis. Glory for one team. Agony for another.

This year's team, when you later look back on Bill's time as Kansas coach up to this point, is perhaps his worst team. The '04 and '05 squads had Simien, Langford and Miles. The '06 freshman dominated squad was the core of what would become a championship team. This team was young, yes, but just not that good either. Which, I think, speaks to how good of a coach Bill actually is. The fact that he could win the Big 12 and earn a 2 seed (they were over seeded if you will be honest with yourself), is pretty impressive.

When I was a kid I'd crumple up my bracket and throw it in the trash after Kansas lost. The tournament was over at that point for me. As an adult I don't even fill in a bracket. It ruins the experience. I have my feelings on who might win, but I root for great games and as much chaos as possible. If each March I give into the irresistible schadenfreude of watching others' schools bite the dust, then I accept and respect that there are millions of people across the nation doing the same when the Jayhawks bite it themselves.

This tournament, the heart, the drama, it's all so much bigger than one school. That's why I can't help but stay tuned until the end.

Midwest Region: Sweet 16 games

1 Kentucky - v - 5 West Virginia: Thursday, March 26, @ 8:45 p.m. (CT) CBS

You just knew it. You knew. Even if you hate to admit it. We all knew that once John Calipari got his hands on a big time program he'd become the king of college basketball.

As a young coach he built the UMASS basketball program up from nothing into a national beast. To those who argue that Coach Cal only wins because he has the best talent (Which is perhaps the lamest criticism imaginable. A large part of college coaching is getting the talent to win in the first place) should be reminded that during Cal's time at UMASS he only ever had one McDonald's All American and two players who went on to play in the NBA. Even so Cal owned the A-10 conference, ripping off 5 conference regular season and tournament titles in a row. After leading the Minutemen to the 1996 Final Four, Cal went to the NBA where he flamed out in crippling defeat.

It's a move that a lot of stud college coaches make that usually plays out in similar fashion. Cal could have faded into obscurity, but he didn't. He took over another mid-major program, Memphis, and turned that program into another juggernaut. From 2006 to 2009, Cal's Tigers posted a 137-14 record, best in the country over that time. Over his last three years at Memphis, Cal had begun to absolutely rake in the talent.

Then Kentucky gave him the name, the fan base, the money and, well, here we are now. Since 2006 (10 years) Cal's win loss record at both Memphis and Kentucky is 265-51 (and growing). Even more staggering is his tournament record over that same period of time: 33-7 (and growing), playing in nine Sweet 16s (including this year's ), seven Elite 8s, four Final Fours, three National Title games, and winning a title in 2012.

To the haters who always point out that two of Cal's total of five Final Four appearances have been vacated due to violations, come on, stop with that already. We don't live in Soviet Russia of the 1980s where files are destroyed and we're all supposed to pretend it didn't happen. Kansas wasn't playing a team of ghosts in 2008. NCAA violations are so hypocritical and so laughably inconsistent it's hard to give them much respect.

There are three schools that are currently and consistently landing the marquee one and done players: Kentucky, Duke and Kansas. It's clear that Cal can get more results from those one and dones than both Coach K and Bill Self. These are the kids that are supposed to, you know, "not care" about college basketball and yet these Wildcats refuse to lose.

Kentucky's opponent Thursday night will be Bob Huggins' West Virginia Mountaineers. Since the Mountaineers are so geographically dislocated playing in the Big 12, might they consider changing their name to Midwest Virginia? I did not expect West V. to get past Bobby Hurley's Buffalo Bulls in the Round of 64. So credit to Bob Huggins and his players for two strong defensive efforts against Buffalo and then Maryland to fight their way to this point. Huggs is sure to dance with what that brought him to the Sweet 16 against Kentucky, utilizing the full court press. Doing so may get them run right out of the gym> I can see Kentucky breaking that press and turning the game into a dunk fest. Who knows though. Most teams play scared against Kentucky. Huggins has nothing to be scared of here. Nobody expects his team to win. May as well go after Kentucky and try and force them into a sloppy effort. Huggins' team doesn't shoot well enough from the outside to truly threaten Kentucky. However, they've shown the ability to be able to wipe the glass of the rebounds. Even in what turned out to be a relatively comfortable winning effort, Kentucky rather bizarrely found itself out boarded by Cincinnati. So nothing is impossible here. Huggins is a Final Four coach himself. That's why they play the games and why I'll be watching.

Winner: Kentucky

3 Notre Dame - v - 7 Wichita State: Thursday, March 26, @ 6:15 p.m. (CT) on CBS

Wichita State wanted a shot at Kansas. Once they got it, and moved on, you can bet they're now dying for a chance to ruin Kentucky's perfect season the way the Wildcats ruined theirs last year. Forget beating a down Kansas team in the Round of 32, the Shockers upsetting the Wildcats en route to a second Final Four in three seasons will make them the true "Kings of Kansas."

With Sunday night's win over the Jayhawks, Gregg Marshall's Shockers have now won 30 games three years in a row. The record for consecutive 30 win seasons is four, held by Bill Self and his Kansas Jayhawks (2010-2013). The 'Hawks actually share that record with John Calipari's Memphis Tigers (2006-2009), but since the results of Memphis' 2008 season were "vacated" the official record belongs to Bill Self and Kansas.

If everyone comes back next year, the Shockers could make a push to match that record. But now that Alabama and other schools are pounding at Marshall's door, and Ron Baker and Greg Vanvleet may be bolting for the pros, this tournament run for the Shockers may be the end of the party for the Wich.

Notre Dame has found itself in a couple of bloody dog fights (pun intended) first against the Northeastern Huskies and then their fellow Indiana private institution the Butler Bulldogs. How much do they have left? Wichita state has been here before, but the Irish may benefit from a let down performance by the Shockers coming off of the high of finally facing and then beating Kansas. The Irish's strength lies in their backcourt. Same story for the Shockers. I'm excited to see the two units go at each other. Wichita State abused Kansas by driving the hoop and sinking timely outside shots. The Irish have been gutted in the paint in consecutive tournament games. Their suddenly piss poor outside shooting has only compounded their problems.

Kansas had plenty of open looks behind the arc against Wichita State, but couldn't cash them. Will this be the game that Notre Dame's shooting touch returns?

Wichita State fans may be happy they got a shot at Kansas, but a revenge shot at Kentucky is far more significant.

Winner: Wichita State

Winmore's Midwest Region Record through Round of 32 Games: 7-5

West Region: Sweet 16 Games

1 Wisconsin - v - 4 North Carolina: Thursday, March 26, @ 6:47 p.m. (CT) on TBS

This marks the first time since 2012 that Roy Williams has reached the second weekend of the tournament. In Roy's 25 career cracks at the big dance, the only other time he went consecutive years of bowing out in the first weekend came while he was at Kansas when it happened to his teams three straight years from 1998-'00. That's a pretty impressive run of tournament success for Ol' Roy. His team is playing really well right now.

Unfortunately for his Tar Heels though, so is Wisconsin. The Badgers have been on an absolute tear since their third and final loss of the season came almost exactly one month ago. I didn't think they'd lose, but thought the Ducks, with their athletes, might push Wisconsin in the Round of 32. The Badgers had no problem at all in dispatching the Ducks. So upon first glance I'd say that North Carolina has the athletes to push Wisconsin, but the Badgers' wide distribution of scoring was plenty to weather Oregon's Joseph Young's 30 point outburst. Young may have been the best player on the floor, but he didn't play for the best team on that floor.

Same could be said for this game. Even if, say, Marcus Paige goes off for 22 like he did against the Razorbacks, then Wisconsin will most likely have an answer from multiple offensive sources. It doesn't help Carolina that Roy's best post player, Kennedy Meeks, is not gonna go in Thursday's game. Just not sure that even that would matter. Sometimes teams just have terrific chemistry. That's Bo Ryan's Badgers of these last two seasons.

Winner: Wisconsin

2 Arizona - v - 6 Xavier: Thursday, March 26, @ 9:17 p.m. (CT) on TBS

I thought Arizona faced an upset special going up against Ohio State in the Round of 32. It took them nearly the whole first half to stabilize against De'Angelo Russell and the Buckeyes' speed, but after wrestling control to take a one point lead into the half, the Wildcats came out of the break in devastating fashion. They routed the Buckeyes and seem locked in on that rematch with Wisconsin in the Elite Eight.

Xavier has looked impressively fluid on the offensive end, and they're coming off back to back games in which they shot 44 and 54 percent, respectively, from behind the arc. But this Musketeers' early tournament run has come at the expense of a brain cramping Ole Miss squad and the wing and a prayer darlings of the tournament's opening day, Georgia State. The Panthers gave Xavier all they could handle in that second game, too. If Xavier was having trouble with Georgia State, Arizona must be licking their chops.

Arizona has had an easy go of things early as well. Facing a non threat in Texas Southern that was beaten in the first ten minutes on opening day, and then an Ohio State team that couldn't hit anything from outside and turned the ball over on nearly every third possession in the second half of the Wildcats' game number two.  With the big boy, Matt Stainbrook, running the Xavier offense at the top of the key, this will be Arizona's most competent tournament opponent yet.

Making it this far in the tournament marks just the seventh time in Xavier's basketball history that they will play in the Sweet 16. They've only ever made it to the Elite Eight twice. Their star center, Matt Stainbrook, who I mentioned earlier, is a fifth year senior in grad school who just gave up his scholarship so that his little brother, a walk on to the team, could use it. How can you root against any of this? Xavier is the last true little guy left in the field. Sorry Gonzaga, and Wichita State, but it's true.

Still, Arizona and Wisconsin are destined for a heavy weight bout in L.A.

Winner: Arizona

Winmore's West Region Record after Round of 32 Games: 8-4