BY JIM O’CONNELL
It’s on to the weekend that many consider the defining mark of a season. Reach the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament and a season is a success. Two wins from the Final Four and all the weekday games are in prime time.
“I just told everybody, just wait,” Michigan’s John Beilein, one of three coaches taking a Big Ten team to the round of 16, said of the conference’s early struggles. “The level of coaching in this league, the resources in this league, the level of talent in this league, it will come to the top at the end of the year.”
The regionals start Thursday and are in New York City (East), Memphis (South), San Jose, California, (West) and Kansas City, Missouri (Midwest).
CONFERENCE CALL: The Big Ten, Southeastern Conference, Big 12 and Pac-12 will all have three teams in the Sweet 16. The Pac-12’s run is the most impressive considering it had four teams in the field of 68. Now, Oregon, Arizona and UCLA are all still alive in the one-and-done tournament.
The SEC had three of five advance while the Big 12 had six teams in the field and the Big Ten had seven.
The conference that had the toughest early rounds was the Atlantic Coast Conference. North Carolina is the only remaining team from the nine that started the tournament. The ACC went from having 19 percent of the entire field to having 6.3 percent of the Sweet 16.
SEED THOUGHTS: The No. 4 seeds all advanced to the Sweet 16, the only line that didn’t lose a team. Florida, Purdue, West Virginia and Butler were the four No. 4 seeds that moved on.
The No. 1 line and the No. 3 both had three teams move on while the No. 2 and No. 7 had two each.
The only double-digit seed still playing is No. 11 Xavier, which faces No. 2 Arizona in the West Regional semifinals.
ALL WET: This tournament has started a new postgame tradition, spraying everybody with water in the locker room. Few coaches have escaped the wet form of congratulations.
Michigan coach John Beilein arrived for his postgame news conference having been through the water treatment.
“A little damp right now, but our guys, we started a tradition of taking a shower, I guess, without going into the shower after good wins,” he said. “It’s not stopping.”
NO DUKE: One of the more stunning losses by an ACC team was Duke, which lost 88-81 to South Carolina. Coach Mike Krzyzewski explained what happened in his locker room after the game.
“I told them I love these guys. I’m proud of them. I’m disappointed that we didn’t win tonight. But at the end of the season I want my guys to either be crying because we’ve lost or crying because we’ve just won,” he said. “And it shows that if you’re not doing one of those, that means you never really became a team. It was never really that important. And for these guys, they were a really good team. This is one of the most proud teams for me.”
TOUGH SELL: Whether it’s as a No. 1 seed in 2014 or as a 10 seed this year, it seems Wichita State can’t get the credit they deserve as a successful program.
“How many years do we have to do this to make people respect our program? I don’t know. That’s up to you guys,” coach Gregg Marshall told reporters after his 10th-seeded Shockers lost 65-62 to Kentucky on Sunday. It was a rematch of the 2014 game when eighth-seeded Kentucky ended top-seeded Wichita State’s perfect season in the second round. “I know that we have the heart of a champion.”
“This will just be more fuel for us. … It really doesn’t matter what other people think, to be honest. It matters what we think. And we can’t change people’s perception of our program. We can’t change people’s perception of the Missouri Valley Conference or the talent level. It’s more important that we know what we’re about, and we sleep really well at night knowing what we have and what we continue to prove and what we continue to do as a program.”
ANY WIN: Gonzaga’s Nigel-Williams-Goss explains how teams feel who won two games to advance to the regional semifinals.
“It’s survive, advance and move on,” he said. “We’ll take the win whether it’s pretty, ugly. Can you go back and get better? Sure. That’s what you have to do because the competition is going to get better.”
“We have a motto, let’s be better next week than we were last weekend, and I think that’s going to stay consistent,” he said.
BIG REMATCH: Back on Dec. 3, Kentucky and UCLA met in Lexington. Just over three months later, the two will meet in Memphis in the South Regional’s Sweet 16.
When they met the first time, UCLA was ranked 11th in the country and the Wildcats were No. 1.
UCLA won 97-92, its second win over Kentucky in as many years.
It was the Bruins’ first-ever visit to storied Rupp Arena — where the Wildcats had won 42 straight coming in and 89 percent overall. It was the most points scored against a Kentucky team coached by John Calipari. It was UCLA’s 12th win over a No. 1 team, one behind North Carolina on the all-time list.
“It’s a very, very good basketball team,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said of Kentucky. “I think they’re better now in March than they were when we played them in December and I think we’re better than what we were in December as well. Makes for a great matchup.”
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