Big-time teams strut into Sweet 16

Coach Rob Lanier got down on a knee, looked into the faces of his players, and screamed at the top of his lungs.

"Don't be afraid," he yelled. "You can win!"

He screamed it a second time, a third time, and a fourth time, until his eyes looked like they were about to bulge out of his face.

He actually seemed to believe what he was saying.

"Don't be afraid," he tried again. "You can win!"

Then his team, the Siena Saints of Loudonville, N.Y., gathered their strength one more time, put on hard faces, and returned to the basketball court. What they met on the hardwood floor, however, was a circular saw already running on high speed: the Maryland Terrapins.

Predictably, Sienna was shredded 85-70 by the Terps, the No. 1 seed in the eastern bracket of the NCAA basketball championships.

So much for positive thinking. In the world of big-time hoops, only the strong make it to the second weekend, when the field is whittled down to 16 teams.

Going into play last night, the survivors were by and large familiar names from familiar conferences – with familiar stars leading the way and familiar coaches prowling the sidelines: Kansas, UCLA, Kentucky, Duke, Arizona, and Indiana among them. It was nearly a who's who of college basketball history.

The big conferences have thoroughly dominated. Among the Sweet 16, the Big 12 had four teams, the Pac-10 three, while the ACC, Big Ten, and Big East had two teams each. Throw in one from the SEC, and you have a near sweep. (The Mid-Atlantic and Missouri Valley Conferences claimed the only two Cinderella teams.)

What does it all mean? For one thing, it means that the NCAA selection committee is justified in drawing heavily from the major conferences.

Every year critics – most loudly ESPN's Dick Vitale – call for more teams from smaller conferences and fewer from the power conferences. This year Vitale even called for a cap of five on the number of teams per conference that could be selected for the 64-team tourney. But shouldn't the tournament be made up of the best teams, judged on merit only?

Look for more of the same in the next two weeks, as the top remaining seeds in their brackets – Maryland, Duke, Kansas, and Oklahoma – separate themselves from the pack.

Other items of interest this weekend:

The player. Caron Butler of Connecticut has shown that he's as good as any collegiate player in the country. Against North Carolina State last weekend, he looked like a pro surrounded by nine high school players. He scored 34 points, including three clutch-free throws that iced the game.

What's scary is that Butler, a slick, heady forward, appeared to be holding back – and saving his strength for the later rounds. Unfortunately for college fans, his excellent play only makes it more likely that the sophomore will jump to the NBA after this season.

"We ask [Butler] to lead us; we ask him to be our psychological boost, be our strength; rebound, score 20, and be our best passer because I like the ball in his hands in difficult situations," says Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun. "He's the real deal."

The team. Kansas looked shaky in the first round when it barely beat Holy Cross, and guard Kirk Hinrich was on the bench with an ankle injury. But Hinrich is back at full speed, and the Jayhawks are looking strong. Their front line, led by All-American Drew Gooden, is as good as any in the country. Their three-guard offense is perfect for tournament-tough defenses, and versatile. Add it all up, and Coach Roy Williams has a solid chance to win his first national championship as a head coach.

Two things stand in his way, however.

First is the pressure on Williams to win it all, here and now. Second, Maryland, which has a front line every bit as deep as Kansas' and matches up with the Jayhawks and any team in the field.

The region. The West is the most interesting region, with the top seed, Cincinnati, already eliminated by UCLA. (After the game, the frustrated Cincinnati coach, Bob Huggins, called UCLA the best No. 8 seed in the history of the NCAA tournament.)

Overall, there's so much talent in the West that, if you want to pick a winner, you might as well throw away the seeds and take out a dart board. Every surviving team (UCLA, Missouri, Arizona, and Oklahoma) has the horses to make it to the Final Four, and ultimately it may come down to who gets hottest down the stretch. Kudos to the NCAA selection committee for putting this back-breaking bracket together.

The coach. He may be eliminated by the time this story is published, but Mike Davis of Indiana has already emerged as one of the biggest winners in this year's tournament. First, he led his team to a second successful year in the wake of the departure of longtime coach Bob Knight – no easy task, especially considering that his team is not exactly loaded with talent.

But more significant was an interview he gave to CBS this past weekend. In it, he opened up about his stutter, a problem he has struggled to overcome his entire life. He said public speaking was the thing that worried him most about taking the Indiana job. It was a brave thing for Davis to go public with – and it was refreshing to watch a man openly battle his weakness.

Davis came out of it all looking like a coach who was ready to take on the world with integrity and compassion – just what Indiana needs after Knight. Imagine if you were the parent of a high school basketball star. Is there any other coach for whom you'd rather have your kid play?

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