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. The first of two today, here's the West.
West Virginia vs. Xavier, Thursday 7:10 pm
#7 West Virginia Mountaineers
Last Weekend: Defeated #10 Arizona 75-65 , defeated #2 Duke 73-67
How WVU Got Here: In pretty impressive fashion, actually. No first-round patsies for a #7 seed, but Bob Huggins and his 'Eers didn't flinch. Alex Ruoff shot the lights out in the first round, and his team followed suit, hitting 58% percent of their three-point tries. Four starters ended up in double figures in that game, as a talented but directionless Wildcat team was sent packing. Against Duke, it was a somewhat different story, as Joe Alexander took advantage of the soft Blue Devils to the tune of 22 points and 11 rebounds. All that was missing was the sound of dueling banjos.
What the Sweet 16 means to the Mountaineers: It's time to throw out the "NIT Champs" T-shirts. It also means that the Morgantown faithful will feel completely justified in doing whatever it took to hire Bob Huggins, with all of the attendant slime. When Huggins uses this exposure to recruit his own guys, look out. That creep can roll, man.
Chances to Reach San Antonio: Assuming they get past X, it still seems incredibly unlikely, with UCLA looming as a possibility. If the superior talent doesn't get them, the referee malfeasance will.
#3 Xavier Musketeers
Last Weekend: Defeated #14 Georgia 73-61, defeated #6 Purdue 75-68
How Xavier got here: The play of Josh Duncan and a balanced scoring attack that hit its stride at the right time. It appeared as if the Muskies were going to be the first high seed to flame-out of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday afternoon when The Muskies trailed Georgia by 11 in the second half of the Thursday game. Behind Duncan's 20 points (my pick for the most valuable player on Xavier), the Muskies mounted a 22-6 run to end the Bulldogs' miracle run. In the second round, Xavier's offensive attack was clicking on all cylinders, with Drew Lavender and C.J. Anderson each scoring 18 points, Duncan adding 16, and Stanley Burrell scoring 11 for the victory over a talented Purdue squad.
What the Sweet 16 means to the Musketeers: Since the Muskies have been in the Top 25 nearly all season and have done everything possible to dis their mid-major status and conference, a Sweet 16 appearance will no longer suffice. If Xavier really wants to be a big boy school, only an Elite 8 appearance will legitimize a season which saw Xavier attain the most wins in school history.
Chances to Reach San Antonio: Chances of reaching the Elite 8 are at 50%, with a tough upcoming match-up with a surging and very similar West Virginia squad. There is, however, a giant roadblock in the way of the Final Four called UCLA.
Western Kentucky vs. UCLA, Thursday 9:40pm
#12 Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
Last Weekend: Defeated #5 Drake 101-99 (OT), defeated #13 San Diego 72-63.
How WKU Got Here: By dominating their weight class. Some small part of the Hilltoppers probably balked at having to knock out brother mids, but then again, not that much. Passing the ball off to Ty Rogers for the last-millisecond shot on Friday was a gamble that electrified Hoops Nation, and the defeat of fellow upstarts San Diego was the Courtney Lee show, as the pro prospect scored 29 points with 7 rebounds.
What the Sweet 16 means to the Hilltoppers: Everything. The Hilltoppers have a proud history, but in the modern era of the tournament, the last time they made the grade was 1993. It's impossible to calculate what this means to the program and the Sun Belt conference, but we can guess it feels damn good, and that nobody will hang their heads too far if the ride ends here.
Chances to Reach San Antonio: Slim. Beating very good mids is nothing to sneeze at, but UCLA has multiple pro prospects vs. the Hilltoppers' one. The best WKU can realistically hope for is a close result that validates their run thus far. Their heart and hoops IQ have never been in doubt.
#1 UCLA Bruins
Last Weekend: Defeated #16 Mississippi Valley State 70-29, defeated #9 Texas A&M 51-49.
How UCLA Got Here: It started with the holding of Mississippi Valley State to a tourney record 29 points in round one, but got it a bit rocky in the round of 32. It took a late game rally for the Bruins to overcome a double-digit deficit and escape Anaheim alive. Albeit with many a questionable call and a bit of luck, but they escaped nonetheless. A big part of that escape was the play of their two biggest stars in Darren Collison and Kevin Love, while the role players seem to have forgotten what time of year it is. Josh Shipp has averaged just 3 points thus far and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute's still nursing his injured ankle. The defense, however, remains as strong as ever.
What the Sweet 16 Means to the Bruins: Nothing. The Bruins have reached two consecutive Final Fours only to be sent packing by the eventual champion Florida Gators. Sure, it's nice that they can tack up a third straight Sweet 16 banner, but it means almost nothing to these two-time bridesmaids. Nothing short of a Final Four will meet expectations, and a championship is almost necessary for a group that could be remembered for coming up short on the biggest of stages without it.
Chances to Reach San Antonio: Great. They're arguably the tourney's best defensive squad remaining, and anytime you play defense like the Bruins, your odds increase. Add that to their superstar tandem of Collison and Love, and it looks like the Bruins will be dancing to the tourneys final song for a third strait year. That said, if the trio of Shipp, Mbah a Moute and Russell Westbrook fail to show up on the offensive end the Bruins could head home shocked as early as Thursday.