America's greatest sporting event has reached the round of 16, where the sweetest college basketball teams — not to mention a nation of fans — catch their breath after opening weekend buzzer-beaters, upsets, exhilaration, despair and warranted exultations from couches across this great land of ours.
Every year, before the Sweet 16 resume play, bracketology reveals just which NCAA Division 1 men's college basketball conferences are truly the nation's best.
There are three clear winners in 2009-'10. The Ivy League, the Missouri Valley and the Horizon are without peer.
Scoffing, are you? Hey – these three leagues are unbeaten, batting 1.000, and deserved of their places among the nation's elite. Cornell has scored more than 82 points a game in defeating the Atlantic 10's Temple Owl's and the Big Ten's Wisconsin Badgers, both vaunted for their defenses. Butler did it again – the Horizon League's Bulldogs, who play in the Indianapolis fieldhouse from "Hoosiers," whipped UTEP and nosed out Murray State. And the Mo Valley's Northern Iowa has given us this year's biggest "Wow!," knocking #1 overall seed Kansas back to Lawrence.
OK, sure, those three schools were the lone invitees from their respective conferences.
Yet they all play smart, they spread the floor and they "offend," as compared to "defend," meaning they understand offensive basketball the way experienced players do.
Didn't you just love it when UNI's Ali Farokhmanesh caught the ball on the right wing, his team leading by a point with 30-ish seconds left to play, the shot clock off … and shot it. Can't you hear Bill Raftery make the call? "Set the puppies, young fellow, and let it fly! What courage! All nylon!"
Northern Iowa now plays big, bad, talented and inexperienced Kentucky, coached by the talented John Calipari, who leaves programs with penalties in his wake. They're in St. Louis. Arch Madness, anyone?
The league with the most teams in the Sweet 16 is, of all people, the Big 10. Ohio State, Michigan State and Purdue are each a compelling story. The Buckeyes' Evan Turner, a superlative player, broke bones in his back this season, yet he's … back. Purdue, playing without its injured star Robbie Hummel, beat Texas A&M when power guard Chris Kramer drove past everyone for the winning lay-up at the buzzer. And Tom Izzo – that guy can coach – has Sparty in the Sweet 16 yet again, thanks to a jump shot from behind the arc by reserve guard Korie Lucious, who caught a pass from a teammate while a third streaking Spartan ducked the pass. Lucious was in for State star Kalin Lucas, who blew his Achilles earlier in the game. Lucious, in for Lucas. Luscious.
The Big 12 is represented by Kansas State and Baylor, but not Kansas and Texas. Can't you hear the chatter in the Sunflower State?
Wait, though. There can be no denying the Big East is the toughest basketball conference in America. The Beast, stretching from Milwaukee to Boston to Miami, had eight teams in the field, eight of the strongest, most physical collections of human specimens in the country. Their league season is great, their conference tournament from Madison Square Garden without peer. Yet there are only two left, Syracuse and West Virginia. Why? The Big East style of football doesn't flow as well when opponents spread the floor and run. And they're not good shooters – Pitt missed seven of 18 free throws in its three-point loss to Sean Miller's former squad, Xavier.
Speaking of which … the lower left of this writer's bracket had the alphabetical, chromosomal madness match-up of X, as in Xavier, versus Y, as in Brigham Young, led by Jimmer Fredette. Wife Lisa says Jimmer will leave the lights on for you. Think about it. It's too bad Gonzaga – Z – wasn't in that regional.
With Washington and Cal, the Pac 10 has earned new respect. The Dookies are better than they've been. But Syracuse is the one Big East team that could win it. The Orange have talent in Wes Johnson, shooting from Andy Rautins, grit despite the loss of Arinze Onuaku and a zone defense teams can't figure out. Plus Lisa is an alum, owns plenty of Orange clothing, and ranks Jim Boeheim among her Sweet 16 men.
Back to the tube!