Now that we are down to just sixteen teams, STF will profile each Regional lineup to see how we got here, what the Sweet 16 really means to each participating school, and who has the best chance to advance to San Antonio. First up: the Beast of the East.
Washington State vs. North Carolina, 7:27 pm Thursday
#4 Washington State Cougars
Last Weekend: Defeated #13 Winthrop 71-40, defeated #5 Notre Dame 61-41.
How Washington State Got Here: Defense to make the gods weep. When Winthrop got uppity and scored 29 points in the first half of the teams' first round meeting, the Cougs slammed the door on them, allowing only 11 thereafter (two treys, one dunk, a jumper, and one free throw, if we're counting). Notre Dame got one more point, but did it with less efficiency, shooting 24 percent from the floor.
What the Sweet 16 Means to WSU: Happy days are here again. The Cougs played for a national championship in 1941, losing to Wisconsin. But back then, there were only eight teams in the dance, so they've technically never been to the Sweet 16. This achievement means that young Tony Bennett was the right hire, and if Wash State is wise, they'll come up with whatever it takes to keep him around.
Chances to Reach San Antonio: Eesh. In any other region, probably excellent, based on that lockdown D alone. But Wazzou face their Bizzaro-selves in the Tar Heels, who have yet to score less than 100 points in any game they've played in this tournament. And if they get past the Heels, it's more of the same with Louisville or Tennessee.
#1 North Carolina Tar Heels
Last Weekend: Defeated #16 Mount St. Mary's 113-74, defeated #9 Arkansas 108-77.
How North Carolina Got Here: Absolute domination. Their two games - in particular the 108-77 destruction of Arkansas - were a complete team effort. Everyone played to their capabilities, and Arkansas, a good team, seemed shell-shocked from the get-go.
What the Sweet 16 Means to UNC: The real tournament begins. With their talent level and the expectations of Tar Heel fans everywhere, anything less than the Final Four would be considered a failure.
Chances to Reach San Antonio: If the Heels play like they did against Arkansas, their chances could be near absolute. If they play like they did during the regular season...their chances are substantially less than absolute. Every team they face is a Final Four, perhaps even Championship-caliber, from this point on. Carolina's had a tendency to get behind early in their ACC games. So far they've managed to escape with wins in all but one of those games (Maryland). If they do that in the Charlotte regional, over even let their opponent hang around too long, they could be watching the Final Four from home.
Louisville vs. Tennessee, 9:57 pm Thursday
#3 Louisville Cardinals
Last Weekend: Defeated #14 Boise State 79-61, defeated #6 Oklahoma 78-48.
How Louisville Got Here: In waves. At least, that's how they came at opponents. The Cards under Rick Pitino have the type of talent-laden bench that signals elite status, allowing the team to appear perpetually fresh and rested as they toy with lesser opponents. Eight players logged double-figure minutes vs. Boise State, and that number went up to nine in the savage, back-alley beating of the Oklahoma Sooners.
What the Sweet 16 Means to the Cards: Another shot at history. The Cardinals are rarely mentioned with the all-time programs, but they are no strangers to the Final Four or the National Championship. Rick Pitino aims to remind us all that this ain't his first rodeo, either.
Chances to Reach San Antonio: It's going to be tough. The East is deadly this year, but there isn't much of a talent gap between the four remaining teams. In that respect, the Cards have as good a chance as anyone. They'd probably like to see a little more out of David Padgett to get them over the hump.
#2 Tennessee Volunteers
Last Weekend: Defeated #15 American 72-57, defeated #7 Butler 76-71 (OT)
How Tennessee Got Here: White-knuckled. The Vols had to crank up the defense over the last six minutes of their game against tourney virgins American in order to advance, and then Butler took them to the limit in the second round until fouls claimed two of the Bulldogs' best players. At least we know they can play tough now.
What the Sweet 16 Means to the Vols: Us against the world. It's an old coaching chestnut, but it's got to be working for Bruce Pearl. Tennessee felt like they deserved a #1 seed, but they got stuck in the toughest region instead. Now they play a loaded Louisville team just to get to the Elite Eight. Oy vey.
Chances to Reach San Antonio: Depends on whether that alarm clock finally went off or not. The Vols won't be able to run the Cards out of the gym or wear them down with depth and talent, so it's time to simply want it more. And if they pull it off, there's more of the same on the other side. Tough draw.