The burning of busted brackets is lighting the way to Madison Square Garden.
After the stunning ousters of Duke and Villanova in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, tonight’s East Regional Sweet 16 games took a decidedly unexpected turn. The highest remaining seed? No. 3 Baylor, which hasn’t made a Final Four since 1950. The number of conference titles this year among the four teams? Zero. The people who expected any of it? Literally one in a million, according to ESPN.
How’s that for a little madness?
“This is all new to me,” said point guard Manu Lecomte, the native of Belgium whose Baylor Bears will take on seventh-seeded South Carolina, vanquisher of Duke. “I’ve been in college for three years, never made it to the NCAA Tournament. But when I got on this team, even last year, when I was redshirting, I knew anything would be possible with this team. Great coaching staff, great teammates. And being here at Sweet 16 in New York is just a dream come true to me. So I’m very blessed.”
The Bears will take on the Gamecocks in the first game of the doubleheader, and they’ve watched about three hours of tape on South Carolina star shooting guard Sindarius Thornwell, according to senior Ishmail Wainright.
“The whole team will be defending him,” said Wainright, who’s hardly forgotten Thornwell’s 24 points against Duke, with 3-for-6 shooting from three-point range. “They do a great job of feeding him the ball in spots he likes the ball. Coach has broke down every made shot that he’s had.”
With the East’s former favorites watching from their couches, there’s the sense that although Baylor and fourth-seeded Florida are likely to emerge from the scrum to play Sunday, South Carolina’s vaunted interior defense and eighth-seeded Wisconsin’s significant NCAA experience could propel either to another upset.
Add the fact that none of these teams was on most people’s Final Four radar, and you have the makings of an unpredictable weekend.
“This is what it’s all about,” Florida coach Mike White said. “It’s March Madness. It’s Sweet 16. It’s really cool. And who knows? I think it’s wide open and I think all of us probably right now are not worried about the end result [winning the tournament]. We have our hands full. We know the Gators do with Wisconsin.”
The Badgers have made the tournament every year for the last 19. They have played 14 NCAA Tournament games in the last three years, and this will be the final go-round for seniors Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, the two active leading scorers in this tournament. The Gators boast speed, athleticism and Justin Leon, one of the SEC’s top three-point shooters.
“Mike’s got those kids playing through his eyes right now and they have made a run,” Gamecocks coach Frank Martin said. “Now they’re earning that credibility. Hopefully, our guys get rewarded with the same kind of conversation [being a hard-working team], because that’s the way we approach our jobs every single day at South Carolina.”
It’ll be a long road for them in this, their first tournament appearance since 2004, but certainly doable. Though Baylor is the only one of the four teams to poll at No. 1 this season — if only briefly — South Carolina’s pressure defense knows how to force turnovers and upend even the best. But whoever pulls it out, the East already has brought an unexpected guest to the table.
“As far as the NCAA Tournament, it’s just like the season,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “It doesn’t matter what you’re seeded, what you’re ranked. What really matters is who plays the best in that 40 minutes, and that team advances. And it’s not best-four-of-seven, so the best team doesn’t always win.”