Luke Winn: At The Dance
  • 11:49 PM ET  03.22
Like many of the top seeds the tournament's first weekend, Michigan State had its hands full with lower-seeded USC.
John Biever/SI

MINNEAPOLIS -- Five things we learned on Day 4 of the dance:

1. It was the weekend of The Scare: Forty-eight games rife with near-upsets that resulted in no real carnage in the bracket. On Sunday, there was Louisville, the top seed in the field, trailing No. 9 Siena by six with 7:52 to go, needing this reminder from coach Rick Pitino during a timeout huddle: "You're the No. 1 team in the country. If you think it's a cakewalk in this tournament, you're wrong." Earlier on the same court, in Dayton, there was Pittsburgh, a national-title pick on many a pool sheet, fearing that its rebounding force, DeJuan Blair, might be knocked out with an injury against Oklahoma State -- "I had everybody scared for a minute," he said, "and I was scared myself" -- and fearing that the team might get knocked prematurely out of the dance. There was No. 3 Missouri, needing help from an over-the-line misstep by Marquette inbounder Lazar Hayward in the final minute in Boise, and No. 2 Michigan State, needing help from glue guy Travis Walton at the Metrodome when its stars couldn't score on USC.

Spartans coach Tom Izzo said he felt "fortunate," rather than ecstatic, to win, and this summed up the feeling of the majority of favorites emerging into the Sweet 16. First scared, then fortunate. When the NCAA volunteers in charge of the giant bracket backstage at the Metrodome were done pasting up the survivors' names on Sunday night, all 12 of the Nos. 1-3 seeds were still alive, for the first time in the history of the Field of 65. Balk at chalk if you must, but this will make for a strong second weekend. Would you rather have had North Carolina-Western Kentucky than Carolina-Gonzaga? Or Villanova-Texas rather than Villanova-Duke? Or Syracuse-Michigan rather than 'Cuse-Oklahoma? I think not.

2. The only top seed to avoid The Scare was UConn -- which means we shouldn't be shocked to see the Huskies make a run to the title game. They were the last team on the top line of the selection committee's S-curve, and a debatable pick for a No. 1, but no team was more dominant than the Huskies on the NCAA tournament's first weekend. They were unfazed by coach Jim Calhoun's hospitalization during their first-round game, and blitzed Chattanooga, 103-47; then they treated Texas A&M like a low-major opponent in the second round, winning 92-66. "This should be a message sent," said senior guard A.J. Price, "showing that we're a good team." The strong play of Stanley Robinson, who scored 27 in the first round and then helped lock down A&M's Josh Carter in the second, is a reason to be more confident in UConn than we were coming into the dance. If they don't lose momentum heading into Glendale, they'll be able to overcome Memphis, and potentially set up a Monday-night showdown in Detroit against North Carolina, which should  be at full strength in Memphis after point guard Ty Lawson has another week to heal.

3. The 1-3 seeds wouldn't have gone 12-for-12 to the Sweet 16 without surprise heroes. Izzo, when reflecting on the performance of Walton, who scored 18 points -- just two shy of Kalin Lucas, Goran Suton and Raymar Morgan combined -- said this:

"I told my team the other night [that] I talked to a friend of mine and he said, 'One play can make the difference in a game, and one game can make a difference in a season.' When I talk to my team now during tournament time, I always try to go over things that have happened. Because when I talk about [Mateen] Cleaves, I talk about Magic, all the things in the past, some of these guys weren't born then. So when you can get right to the point, and the point I used was the kid from Memphis [Roburt Sallie] the other night. He's averaging 10 minutes a game and 4.4 points and hits 10 threes. If he doesn't hit those, they lose. And I said, 'That's what the tournament is all about. Somebody has to step up and somebody has to do something they're not capable of doing in some people's minds.'"

Walton and Sallie, whose 35-point effort against Cal State Northridge really did save the Tigers, weren't the only ones who rescued top seeds.

Kim English, the Missouri freshman who was pulled off the bench to "pinch-shoot" free throws in place of an injured J.T. Tiller with 5.5 seconds left in a tie game, came up big. English hadn't shot a free throw all day, but stepped to the line and calmly sank two.

Jon Scheyer, the Duke guard who starts but rarely ever stars, made a huge play to corral a loose ball -- and keep it alive by heaving it downcourt -- in the final seconds of the Texas game on Saturday. "Those are plays that you think of Magic Johnson making," Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski said -- and then turned to Scheyer to add, "You never thought I'd compare you to Magic Johnson, right?"

Terrence Williams, the Louisville point forward who wants to be compared to Magic, stepped out of his normal distributor's role when the Cards needed him to score to fend off Siena, and finished with 24 points -- nearly double his average of 12.5.

4. Kansas' Cole Aldrich is turning into a Hasheem Thabeet-like presence on defense. After Kansas had beaten Dayton on Sunday, a KU official escorted Aldrich -- who had just completed the first triple-double in school history with 13 points, 20 rebounds and 10 blocks -- over to a courtside CBS interview. Announcer Gus Johnson walked up to the official and said, "Do you know that's the first triple-double with blocks since 1992, since Shaq did it?" It had gone down somewhat quietly in the course of a 60-43 rout, but Aldrich made history at the Metrodome, and caused Jayhawks coach Bill Self to say, "As a head coach, I've never coached anybody that good as a true five. You know, Big Country [Bryant Reeves] was pretty good at Oklahoma State. But [Aldrich] has a chance to be a fabulous player and even an All-American-type player." The All-America thing would come next year, but for now he's just a dominant force in the NCAA tournament. Dayton shot just 22.2 percent on the game, and forward Charles Little credited part of that to Aldrich: "One of our greatest strengths is attacking the basket," Little said, "and you get past the first guy and you look up and there's a mountain in the middle of the lane."

5. Russ Pennell and Arizona deserve credit for salvaging their season, but don't call the Wildcats a Cinderella. As of Valentine's Day, they were headed for a No. 6 seed in the dance; just because they underperformed down the stretch, losing five of their last six and slipping to a No. 12 seed, doesn't make their story a fairy tale. Recall that this is a team that, in the regular season, beat No. 3 seed Kansas, No. 4 seeds Washington and Gonzaga, and No. 6 seed UCLA. And it's also a team with two first-round NBA draft picks on its roster in Jordan Hill and Chase Budinger. Making the NCAA tournament, then beating a Mountain West school (Utah) and a Horizon League school (Cleveland State) is what Arizona is supposed to do, right? I'd prefer to limit the definition of Cinderella, for future tournaments, to either 1) low-to-mid majors or 2) BCS-league teams that only qualified for the dance through an improbable run through their conference tournament -- like Georgia did in 2008.


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