Sweet Sixteen Surprises, Upsets And Predictions

The regional semifinals for the NCAA basketball tournament begin tomorrow and March Madness will get a little madder as the Sweet 16 games begin for men and women. NPR correspondent Mike Pesca talks about this year's surprises and upsets and makes his predictions for the NCAA tournament.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

And Cory Booker is not the only one excited about March Madness. NPR correspondent Mike Pesca joins us now from our bureau in New York. He's going to be attending those games in Newark. And Mike, always nice to have you on the program.

MIKE PESCA: Thanks for having me on.

CONAN: And you're going to get to see, as the mayor mentioned, the number one number one, Ohio State.

PESCA: Yeah. And I know that Cory Booker sometimes is compared to Barack Obama, and I've actually covered both of them. Now, Barack Obama picked four number ones in his Final Four, and there you heard Cory Booker just picked three number ones seeds in his Final Four. So maybe the comparison is apt.

CONAN: And it's going to be Ohio State against Kentucky there in the men's Sweet 16, also Marquette, something of a dark horse, against North Carolina.

PESCA: Yes. And I am very intrigued by a couple of things about Marquette. They have a great coach, Buzz Williams, who ask him a question at a press conference, he might go on for 15 minutes, but it will be a captivating 15 minutes. And they play a great offense where no one really has positions. But the deficit of their team if their defense and the University of North Carolina has great athletic players, so that - both those games should be good games. I mean, there are a lot of really intriguing Sweet 16 games around the country.

CONAN: As we look on the other parts of the bracket, three of the four number one seeds have made it through to this round of the men's side.

PESCA: Right. And so that's why Cory Booker didn't pick all four number one seeds to advance. And the exception is Pittsburgh. They lost that game I was at, also in Washington, D.C. And Butler, the number eight seed, will be facing Wisconsin.

Now, in that bracket, except for the this is the Southeast and they'll be playing their games in New Orleans. Except for Pittsburgh, everyone else really held serve, so the two, three and four seeds are in the last - the regional semi-finals, it would be called.

But I think Butler might be - they're not technically the favorite in Las Vegas, but I would give them absolutely as equal a chance as Wisconsin, or the winner of the game between BYU and Florida. I'm also really interested to see how BYU does. Like a lot of people, I had thought that the exclusion of their great post player, Brandon Davies - and he was kicked off the team for violating the school's honor code - I thought that would really hurt BYU, because they have no inside presence. But they have just about the best guard in the country in Jimmer Fredette, the best college guard.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

PESCA: So I thought they might fall apart and a lot of people did, too, but they've been fantastic in their first two games. We'll see how they do against Florida. We'll see if they win that game, if they could make the Final Four. And if they do - I mean, I was talking to a friend who considers himself a basketball fan but not an NCAA fan, and he said, I think I can name two guys in college basketball, Kemba Walker and Jimmer Fredette. And both of those guys, Kemba Walker of UCONN, Jimmer Fredette of BYU, are in it. And I think those guys are the types that can really captivate the public's attention.

CONAN: And the one bracket we haven't talked about is in the Southwest, where there you have the real Cinderellas.

PESCA: Yes. Except for Kansas, the number one team, every other team in that bracket is a double-digit seed. So Richmond, the 12 seed, they're going to be playing Kansas. Then another school from Richmond - and it's important to note that the city of Richmond has as many teams in the Sweet 16 as the entire Big East conference, which is kind of depressing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Virginia Commonwealth is there. They're playing Florida State. What an interesting game that should be. Florida State has this great defense. They have Bernard James, who is in the Air Force. He's 26 years old. He's big and physical and he's mature both literally, but also being, you know, a sergeant in the Air Force, he brings a lot of leadership to that Florida State team. And they weren't supposed to win either of their first two games.

But then you have Virginia Commonwealth, the team that people were criticizing their very existence in the tournament. And they shredded a Purdue defense, and Purdue has a great defense. And Virginia Commonwealth put up 91 points against them, I think, 90-something points.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

PESCA: And the coach of Virginia Commonwealth is one of the most sought-after guys now. His name is Shaka Smart and he is. He lives up to that name. He has a length - a book-length list of famous quotations. And I was going through some - it's up to like 115 pages now. And he inspires the kids with quotations. He inspires himself with quotations. I was going through some of these quotations and a couple of them are really good.

And my son, he's going to be four soon, so soon I'm going to start telling him this one: First, we make our habits then our habits make us. I love that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: On the other side, Kansas, the number one seed in that bracket, takes on the Richmond Spiders. I think that's one of the great nicknames in college sports.

PESCA: Yes. And their actual logo is not one of these cute, cuddly, you know, let's put in the kid's bedroom spiders. It's like a real arachnid.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: So it's pretty intimidating. Kansas looks great. They have the Morris brothers who are going to be NBA players. The team is, you know, stocked with NBA players to the point where early in this earlier in this year, if there was any tension or controversy around Kansas - and this is one of those teams where it's so covered. It really is the professional team in their state. One of the players let out that there were so many good players there are almost too many options to choose from, and that was, you know, deemed one of these criticizing-the-team-type comments.

But it's not a criticism, it's saying that they are so loaded with players the challenge is to, you know, get the ball in every one of these kids' hands who could score. So this is why most people - also by judging from the first two games - are saying that Kansas and Ohio State have the best chance to make the Final Four.

And Duke is the other number one seed, and we haven't talked about them too much. They're a very good team. They're always very well coached. The X factor there is Kyrie Irving, who hurt his toe on December 4th. Kyrie Irving is a freshman. If he does pro next year, he will be definitely be in the top five NBA selections. But he's only played nine or 10 games, and Duke has been trying to incorporate him in during the tournament.

So that will - Mike Krzyzewksi is a great coach. He's never really had to do this, kind of allot minutes to a guy who hasn't played and doing it to a team that is a number one seed anyway.

So in the first game, it looked like Kyrie Irving, you know, he contributed well. They were blowing out Hampton. But in the second game against Michigan, this didn't go as well, and maybe there were some criticism of how Krzyzewksi used Kyrie Irving in that game. We'll see how Irving, Nolan Smith, the Plumlee brothers, all the rest of the Duke players, play against Arizona in their game in Anaheim.

CONAN: We are talking with NPR correspondent Mike Pesca - not his father Joe. We're talking about the Sweet 16s. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go to the women's tournament now. And all four of the number one seeds are through there - a lot of chalk on the women's side. But it's considered wide open this year because the University of Connecticut actually lost a game.

PESCA: Yes, they lost a game to Stanford, who is another number one seed. It is interesting, it's not just chalk, which is, you know, the word for when favorites survive. I was looking at the ESPN prognosticators, their experts, and everyone before the tournament starts play picks their Final Four.

And if you look at experts from the men's side, you'll see a great variation of which teams would play, of course, bias towards the top seeds. Of the - so there are five experts picking games from ESPN. That means they have 20 teams, 20 slots for a team to make the Final Four. And 19 of the 20 were the same. And I think one of the experts picked Notre Dame to be the only non-number one seed to make the Final Four. So you have Connecticut, who lost one game, is perhaps more vulnerable than in the last couple of years.

CONAN: A little thinner than usual.

PESCA: Yes. It doesn't mean they're not the best team in the country, but they lost one game. And yet, Stanford, the team that beat Notre Dame - sorry, the team that beat UConn, then you have Baylor with the - Brittney Griner, who is a captivating and interesting and almost Wilt Chamberlain of women's basketball. They might have to change some rules around her. She's dunked in a game -fairly rare in women's basketball.

And then the fourth number one seed is Tennessee, Connecticut's longtime rival. Pat Summit, a great coach. And right now, it's looking that all four of those teams could make the Final Four, which would be really what women's basketball fans want.

CONAN: And I think every women's basketball fans, except perhaps those at Georgetown and Ohio State, would like to see Tennessee and Connecticut face off in the semifinals.

PESCA: This was a rivalry that was - the plug was pulled on the rivalry, when Pat Summitt, well, they blame each other. But these two coaches...

CONAN: They blame each other. They detest each other.

PESCA: They - but they blame each other about why they don't play during the regular season. They really don't like each other. They have different styles. Although you can argue they have very similar styles and that they're both headstrong generals in maybe slightly different molds.

So the teams don't play during the regular season now, so we have to wait for the tournament for the teams to play, and this is the matchup that everyone wants to see, because Tennessee was so good that it was - for a while there in the late '80s, actually, through the '90s and the early '00s. It was the Tennessee Volunteers and women's basketball, almost in that order. Now, it's become, the UConn women and the rest of women's basketball. So there are -UConn is the better team or better-ranked team. They have a better record this year. But it will be a clash of dynasties.

CONAN: Well, as long as we're talking jersey pride, let's not forget the days of Montclair State and Carol Blazejowski, who still owns the single game scoring record at Madison Square Garden.

But anyway, I did want to point out that there is - that there was an interesting game in the first round of the tournament: Geno Auriemma of Connecticut, facing off against his former star guard Jen Rizzotti, now the coach at Hartford, right up the road from Storrs, Connecticut. You'd have thought that Auriemma might give his former star player a break.

PESCA: You don't know Auriemma then.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: The break he gives them is to give them a lot of experience and a lot of his former players are - a couple are - Shea Ralph is an assistant on his team, and some of the others have gone out into the world, and they're head coaches and assistant coaches now.

Hartford plays Connecticut during the season. And one of the - aside from a talent advantage, UConn was playing on its home court. I guess Hartford was pretty much too. But there is an odd thing in the women's tournament, where in the first couple of rounds teams play on either team's home court, and it doesn't always go by who's the higher ranked team.

So Gonzaga was an 11th seed, but they were playing on their home court because their school bid for the tournament and put up money. And they hope their team would make it, because it's possible that a school could say we'll host a tournament game and then their school doesn't even make the tournament. And in those cases, the schools wind up losing money.

So Gonzaga had the advantage of a home court, even though they were only an 11th seed, and they won their games. Utah had a home court advantage but is a 15th seed. They were not able to win their games. Some number one seeds play on their home court, like Tennessee, and some do not, like Ohio State.

CONAN: Mike Pesca, thanks very much for your time. Have a great time this weekend in Newark.

PESCA: Yes, thank you.

CONAN: NPR correspondent Mike Pesca joined us from our bureau in New York. Tomorrow, with Japan's struggle to contain its overheated reactors, Germany now says it'll pull the plug on nuclear power. Could that ever happen in the United States? Jennifer Ludden will be here to talk about what a future without nuclear energy might be like.

I'm Neal Conan. We'll see you again on Monday. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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