Tonight the Sweet 16 gets cut down to 12 as the Regional Semifinals begin. In Salt Lake City, in the first game Syracuse faces Butler while Kansas State faces Xavier in the other semifinal. In Syracuse, West Virginia faces Washington and in the second game, Kentucky faces Cornell.
The game that will probably interest most of the country is how will the Big Red handle Ashley Judd's boys. Can Ithaca's finest, only playing a short distance from home, deal with the pressure basketball that Wildcat nation will put on them? If Cornell can play as well as they did in their first two games in front of what should be for the most part a partisan crowd for the Big Red, then Kentucky is in for the fight of their season. Look for Louis Dale to be the key tonight. If he can turn John Wall's turnovers into points, I think we have something here.
As for Butler and Syracuse, it's pretty simple. Can Butler effectively score against the Syracuse Zone and can Matt Howard stay out of foul trouble and be effective against the Cuse's Rick Jackson. Butler has to run a half court offense, slow the pace down and score effectively in their possessions tonight to have any chance.Two teams that are 30-4. One will be 31-4 after tonight.
As for West Virginia, the loss of starting point guard Darryl Bryant due to an injury in practice weakens them against a Washington team on a serious roll. The Huskies, winners of nine straight, are looking for a high scoring game. The Mountaineers, winners of eight straight themselves, need to keep them under 70 if they want to win.
And there is the Kansas State- Xavier game. A lot of the interest will be on Kansas State's Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente. But their opposition is probably the most underrated team in the tournament. And once again in a NCAA Tournament, X, as in Xavier marks their spot in the Sweet 16.
Take a look at the eight teams' records in the NCAA Tournament since the 2001-02 season
West Virginia 9-4
Kansas State 3-1
Would you have known that Xavier had tied Kentucky for the most wins? During this stretch of time, Xavier has been at least to four Sweet Sixteens and currently two Elite Eights. In fact, the only NCAA tournament they missed being in was the 2005 NCAA Tournament. Of the other seven schools playing tonight, Kentucky is the only other school that has missed just one NCAA Tournament during that stretch as well (Syracuse missed the NCAA Tournament in two consecutive seasons in 2006-07 and 2007-08).
Is that amazing or what? But you rarely hear about the Musketeers. They are the NCAA's stealth team. You hear all the cinderella talk about Northern Iowa, Cornell, St Mary's and even Butler. But there is Xavier, a borderline mid major who doesn't want to be called a mid major. And after thirteen NCAA Tournament wins in nine seasons, perhaps they have a point.
What's even more amazing is that Xavier has done this with a seemingly revolving door of coaches the past several seasons. Pete Gillen, Skip Prosser, Thad Motta, Sean Miller and now Chris Mack have all coached Xavier in recent history. Yet they don't miss a beat. How is that? Well, when your school spends its athletic budget on basketball not football, perhaps you get good enough players on a consistent basis to have been in 20 NCAA Tournaments.
Still to be so good with such a coaching turnover is amazing and speaks volumes of the program's ability to get top notch coaches and more importantly consistent top notch talent like current players Jordan Crawford, Terrell Holloway and Jason Love. Past players include David West, James Posey and Derrick Brown.
So when you are watching the games tonight at your local sports bar, don't be afraid to pull for the X-Men. When someone asks you why, just ask them "Who has more NCAA Tournaments win since 2001-02, Kansas State or Xavier". You now know the answer and it's not even close.