NCAA Sweet 16 Approaches It's March Madness, and the Sweet 16 games start Thursday. Melissa Block talks with NPR's Mike Pesca about the NCAA tournament.
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NCAA Sweet 16 Approaches

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NCAA Sweet 16 Approaches

NCAA Sweet 16 Approaches

NCAA Sweet 16 Approaches

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It's March Madness, and the Sweet 16 games start Thursday. Melissa Block talks with NPR's Mike Pesca about the NCAA tournament.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

College basketball fans have had plenty of time to cry over their busted brackets, so it's time to look ahead to the next round of the NCAA tournament. The Sweet 16 begins play on Thursday, and with us to talk about how the games lay out is NPR's Mike Pesca.

And, Mike, let's take a look at the 16 teams left. What are the surprises in your view?

MIKE PESCA: Well, some of the surprises were how they got there in some cases. Often, in the NCAA tournament, there are nail-biters, but a few of these games, especially in the last round, were combination nail biters and forehead thumpers...

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: ...because you said how could these guys - how could - they're young guys. They're college students. But a lot of boneheaded plays were being made to inexplicable fouls at the end of the Butler-Pittsburgh game...

BLOCK: Yeah.

PESCA: the Washington game, a three - a long three-point shot from half court with three seconds left didn't really make sense. But when all the dust settles, perhaps the most intriguing team to me - and there are a bunch - is VCU, Virginia Commonwealth, because they have a 33-year-old coach named Shaka Smart, who has a great name, and he lives up to his name. He has a list, a 115-page list of quotes that he's been collecting throughout his life, and it's not the quotes...

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: ...that have inspired the team, but their team is amazingly fast and agile when they're on their game. And they beat Purdue, a team that was allowing opponents 60 points a game, and they scored 90 on Purdue.

And the great thing about VCU is that they were one of the teams where commentators said they should not be in the tournament. And Jay Bilas of ESPN, who's a great commentator, I think, and a smart guy - we all get a mulligan - he used the word indefensible to describe their inclusion in the tournament. And I just hope now in Richmond on the campus of VCU, they're printing up T-shirts...

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: ...that say indefensible because they have proven to be that during this tournament.

BLOCK: OK. Let's see if we can stop biting our fingernails and thumping our foreheads to think about some disappointments here. The Big East came into this tournament with a record 11 teams getting invitations going out with a whimper. Hasn't turned out so well for the Big East.

PESCA: That's right. And the 11 - the big - if you talk to the experts, the 11 teams didn't necessarily mean this was the best conference in America. And some advanced metrics that I looked at and some of the very smart guys who look at basketball were telling me the Big 10 is actually a better conference, and they, in fact, have more teams than the Big East in the Sweet 16.

But the problem with the Big East was they had some bad luck. One of the best players on St. John's tore an ACL in the tournament, and he couldn't play. And Preston Knowles on Louisville hurt himself during his game, and they lost to Morehead State. And Chris Wright on Georgetown had a broken hand, and he shot three for 13. But none of that matters. It's absolutely true that they did underperform, and they only have two teams in the tournament so far going forward now.

BLOCK: Yeah. Yeah.

PESCA: And who knows if they are going forward from this point?

BLOCK: Well, who do you think looks really strong from here on out? And can we just talk about Butler a little bit?

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Yeah.

BLOCK: They made it to the finals last year. Do you think they're going all the way this year?

PESCA: I will say that Butler looks great. I mean, they are a well-coached team, and I've been talking to - I attended those games, and I've talked to Matt Howard after each game. He's their best player, and he is an insightful guy. He's very different from a lot of players. When you think about his mindset, he seems very laid back. And, you know, I bet his resting heartbeat is very, very low.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: But we talked about - you know, I told him - I watched him on the court. He doesn't break a lot of expression, but when he goes into the huddle during timeouts, he's always smiling. And he talked about what he learned last year, when Butler went to the finals, was how important it is to keep a positive attitude.

And watch Butler's games. Watch how he goes over to all his teammates. And if there's ever a scowl on anyone's face, it's Howard bucking them up.

But as to your question, Ohio State has been playing the best in this tournament. Kansas has been playing really well, too, and Kansas is in a regional without any low seeds anymore. So they play Richmond, and then they get the winner of the Virginia Commonwealth-Florida State game, which should be a bit of an easy pass for Kansas, if anything can be said to be easy at this point.

BLOCK: Yeah. And very briefly, Mike, before I let you go, Tennessee, which is knocked out of the tournament in the first round, fired its head coach, Bruce Pearl, today. Tell us about that.

PESCA: Bruce Pearl committed some violations, invited some high school students to his barbecue, was caught on that, cried, said I'm sorry, I won't do it again, then committed another violation weeks later. He didn't tell his school. The school knew about this for a while. They said they were going to sit on a decision, then Tennessee got blown out by Michigan during the tournament. Add that all up and bye-bye Bruce.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Mike Pesca gearing up for the Sweet 16.

Mike, thanks so much.

PESCA: You're welcome.

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