There might be five schools generically classified as mid-majors left in the NCAA Sweet 16, but there is only one true Cinderella at this Big Dance - Northern Iowa. That was the team on a wild first weekend that played above its head and got a little fairy dust at the end when Ali Farokhmanesh hit his second deciding three-pointer in as many tournament games to knock out No. 1 Kansas.
Based on seeding, 12th-seeded Ivy League champion Cornell and 10th-seeded West Coast Conference Tournament champ St. Mary's are viewed as fit for the glass slipper by most fans, but a closer look at how those two performed during the regular season shows they belong. Pac-10 Tournament champion Washington, an 11th seed, hit a hot streak.
Fifth-seeded Butler and sixth-seeded Xavier are mid-majors, but they have inhabited the Top 25 for so long that their presence isn't an upset. In fact, Butler only had to defeat 12th-seeded UTEP and 13th-seeded Murray State to make it to the West Regional, where the challenge against top-seeded Syracuse is much steeper.
Can the run of bracket-busting upsets continue? Yes, but it requires the right formula: a mix of hot shooting and the ability to get to the foul line consistently. Defense and rebounding, you ask? Yeah, those are important, but it's called "basket"-ball.
The top field-goal percentage team in the country this season was Syracuse, so, no surprise there. The top three-point shooting team? That would be Cornell, which tops the Sweet 16 with a 58.8 percentage on two-point shots, just a smidge ahead of its top-seeded opponent in the East, Kentucky (56.1).
Here's the regional forecast:
EAST:Cornell drew favorable physical matchups in the first two rounds against Temple and Wisconsin. The numbers say the Big Red is as good offensively as Kentucky, but the eyeballs tell us the Wildcats have a different level of athlete with John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. Washington is the hottest three-point shooting team in the tournament and might upset West Virginia. But the Huskies ranked 247th in FG percentage during the season, and the Mountaineers are the best at getting to the line of the remaining 16 teams. It'll be Kentucky's offense against West Virginia's defense in the final. Pick: Kentucky.WEST: Syracuse is vastly superior to Butler on offense except getting to the line, but the Bulldogs don't shoot free throws well. Second-seeded Kansas State and sixth-seeded Xavier are well-matched, but the Wildcats were No. 1 in regular-season free-throw attempts and they convert. Avoiding foul trouble will be key for Syracuse without injured Arinze Onuaku in the final. Pick: Syracuse.
MIDWEST: Believe it or not, ninth-seeded Northern Iowa had the worst regular-season field-goal percentage of the Sweet 16. Even without injured Kalin Lucas, Michigan State has too much offense for the Panthers. Ohio State has a slight edge over Tennessee, especially at the foul line, and the winner should advance to the Final Four because of Lucas' injury. Pick: Ohio State.
SOUTH: If there's a major upset, it will come in this regional because Duke was the weakest top seed offensively, ranking 206th in two-point field-goal percentage. The Blue Devils have enough to beat Robbie Hummel-less Purdue. But the Baylor-St. Mary's winner has performed better offensively all season. If anything, St. Mary's, fourth in three-point percentage in the regular season, hasn't played as well as it can. My bracket says Baylor, but . . . Pick: St. Mary's.