Miami Hurricanes: Ok, so I'm not going to list any connections here. Going into their game with Marquette, Miami just learned they'll be without the services of Reggie Johnson. Player to Watch: Shane Larkin. While Miami has loads of guys who can score - as demonstrated by Rion Brown's 21 pts against Illinois - Larkin is the straw that stirs the drink. The sophomore PG gets his teammates involved and can create his own shot in just about any one-on-one situation. With Reggie out, expect to see Tonye Jekiri get some more minutes.
The Pick: Miami holds off Marquette to advance to the Elite 8 for the first time in school history.
Marquette Golden Eagles: Miami has played Marquette 4X with the series tied at (2-2). To say that Thursday's game against the Golden Eagles is the biggest in series history doesn't do the magnitude any justice. Dwayne Wade became somewhat of a fan of the ‘Canes this season, cheering on the spectacular Larkin to Kadji off the backboard dunk. Still to expect WOW (or whatever he calls himself) to root for the ‘Canes would be silly. Wade is one of the greatest players in Marquette history - and their best NBA entry. Player to Watch: Vander Blue. When I hear Blue's name, I immediately think of "Old School". However, Blue has been on fire lately, torching Butler for 29 in his last outing. Durand Scott, among others, will be charged with slowing down Blue.
Indiana Hoosiers - Indiana and Miami were ranked #1 and #2 in the polls together for a short time. Both teams have standout guards who won Defensive Player of the Year awards in their respective conferences: Victor Oladipo and Durand Scott. Player to Watch: Victor Oladipo. Oladipo is an electric G/F who can dominate a game on both sides of the ball.
The Pick: I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that the Orange have a great night shooting threes and pull off the upset. We'll see if Oladipo and Cody Zeller can get going against Coach Boeheim's vaunted zone.
Syracuse Orange: Miami and Syracuse go way back to the Big East. Syracuse is the only team in the tournament named after a skittles flavor. The Greatest College Football Team of All Time - the 2001 Miami Hurricanes butchered Syracuse 59-0. Syracuse has fared much better than the 'Canes on the hardwood over the years. Player to Watch: C.J. Fair. Like many of the teams left in the tournament, Syracuse uses a very balanced attack. Fair has been 'more than good' so far in the Big Dance.
Kansas Jayhawks: On Selection Sunday the air went out of any hopes of Miami getting a #1 seed when Kansas was given the nod. Not many connections here, but I have one from watching the Kansas-UNC game at the Upper Deck Sports Bar in Hallandale. A Kansas graduate and fan was there to watch the game. Some friends and I were going to take in the whole slate. The Upper Deck kept mangling the TV situation and the Kansas guy was starting to lose it. I put myself in his shoes and went to action. If Miami had been playing, I would have been more than a little aggravated. I got the manager to straighten it out and told the guy (when Kansas was down at the half) that if they got the ball down to Jeff Withey it would open up the perimeter game and Kansas would cruise to the Sweet Sixteen. That happened and he left happy. Five minutes later our waitress came over and told us that he had paid for our dinners and various pints of beer. Thanks Kansas fan, wherever you are! Player to Watch: Ben McLemore. The talented redshirt frosh is listed as a possible #1 overall pick in the upcoming NBA draft by various sites. McLemore has struggled a bit in the tournament so far, but he's due to explode soon.
The Pick: Just like in their last game, Kansas is going to be playing a perimeter-oriented team. While McLemore is considered the best player on the team, look for Jeff Withey to give Michigan trouble down low helping to propel the Jayhawks onward.
Michigan Wolverines - Rumor has it that Michigan's Tim Hardaway Jr. was dead-set on playing basketball at the U. I've read some message board posts indicating that ex-coach Frank Haith wasn't interested in the smooth swingman with the pro pedigree - or other reasons that won't be discussed here. When we were students at Miami, Jerry and I shot around with an already talented 5-year old Tim Hardaway Jr. during the 1998-1999 NBA lockout. Player to Watch: Trey Burke. Burke is a monster. Look for him to bring his A-game against Kansas.
Florida Gators: The hated Gators have had the most success in college hoops out of any school in the state. Connections here are aplenty due to the football rivalry. Miami and Florida have not crossed paths in hoops very much over the years, but it's a distinct possibility they may cross paths before the song is over and the Big Dance is done. Florida has to get by Florida Gulf Coast - team that beat a Durand Scott-less ‘Canes team early in the season. Player to Watch: Erik Murphy. Florida uses a balanced attack, but Murphy has been their most consistent scorer in the tourney so far.
The Pick: Is this the end of Dunk City? This is a real tough one to call. Difficult to pick against Florida here, but I'm going to go against my gut and pick FGCU to continue to make history.
Florida Gulf Coast Eagles: Besides beating the ‘Canes back in November, Coach Andy Enfield worked under Coach Leonard Hamilton from 2006-2011. FGCU Assistant coach Kevin Norris was an excellent point guard for the ‘Canes during the Hamilton era. Ironically, if the Selection Committee knew how good FGCU actually was, Miami would have likely earned a #1 seed. The "Bad Loss" to FGCU can no longer be designated as such. Player to Watch: Sherwood Brown. I don't know how many people had Brown on their radar at the beginning of the year, but this kid looks like the real deal with potential at the next level.
Louisville Cardinals - Luke Hancock. If Coach Larranaga hadn't left George Mason for Miami, Hancock wouldn't have left George Mason for Louisville. It seemed to work out for both as the Cardinals and the Hurricanes are in the Sweet Sixteen. Player to Watch: Russ Smith. "Russdiculous" scores 18.4pts per game and has dumped in 50 points over his first two NCAA Tournament games.
The Pick: Oregon's Duck finally goes into cardiac arrest from partying too hard and the Cardinals fly into the next round.
Oregon Ducks - The Oregon mascot is a duck that looks as though it just freebased crack-cocaine. Those wide, gaping eyes obviously lead to a bottomless soul. Sebastian, on the other hand, is a more hearty bird with down-home sensibilities. If there is a connection here, it's that they're both birds, as are 6 mascots out of the 16 teams in the Sweet Sixteen. Player to Watch: Damyean Dotson. The talented true frosh is lighting up the NCAA tournament. He poured in 23 against St. Louis to help propel the Ducks.
Michigan State Spartans - Early in the season Miami defeated the Spartans 67-59 at the BUC. It was the biggest win of the season at that point and was the first step the team took toward building an incredible season. Interestingly enough, Coach Larranaga has done well against Coach Tom Izzo throughout their careers, including beating MSU in the tournament when he was at George Mason. Player to Watch: Keith Appling. MSU has some excellent big men, but it is Appling who gets them quick baskets with Izzo's patented 5-second layup strategy. It has worked for years and Appling is a dynamic scorer. He banged his shoulder up in the previous game against Memphis, so it'll be interesting to see if his injured shoulder throws off his shot.
The Pick: Sparty. Michigan State is a bad match-up for Duke due to their size and toughness. Look for Michigan State to get Nix and Payne going, leading to an easier time for Appling and others to attack the rim. Duke's Kelly has not been moving well as of late after returning from a foot injury and that could mean doom for the Blue Devils.
Duke Blue Devils: Miami's biggest regular season win of the year came during a 27-point drubbing of the Blue Devils. Duke got some revenge at Cameron - and now both teams are riding high into the Sweet Sixteen. As ACC conference foes, connections here are aplenty. Through Miami's short tenure in the ACC, Duke has consistently beaten Miami over the years - until Coach Larranaga took over ‘Canes coaching duties. Player to Watch: Ryan Kelly. Coming off injury, Kelly has slowed down since his eruption against Miami. Duke is going to need Kelly to nail some 3's or MSU will eat them up.
Wichita State Shockers - Finding anything relevant here was a bit difficult. Both Miami and Wichita both played - and lost - to Indiana State. Since the Sycamores are in the same conference as the Shockers, they received another shot and avenged the loss. Player to Watch: Cleanthony Early. Early has been right on time for the Shockers, leading them in scoring so far during the tournament. Whatever formula they've been using has worked so far, so look for Early to get plenty of looks.
The Pick: This game is probably the most difficult to pick. I'm hedging on Wichita State because they did take out #1 Gonzaga, but I don't feel at all comfortable with my pick.
LaSalle Explorers: When Miami defeated LaSalle 76-59 neither team was widely thought to be capable of reaching the Sweet Sixteen. Both were unranked and had suffered early season losses. LaSalle guard Sam Mills is from Sunrise, Florida and went to Cardinal Gibbons High School. During the game early in the season, I sat behind some of Mills' former HS teammates and a friend of theirs who played HS ball with Tonye Jekiri. Jekri's former teammate said that he would beat the guards up and down the floor. Player to Watch: Ramon Galloway. Galloway has been on fire in the Big Dance so far, scoring 21, 19 and 24 points in his first three NCAA Tourney games.
Ohio State Buckeyes - The first basketball memory that comes to mind at the mention of Ohio State was the game on Dec. 2nd, 2008. Jack McClinton started the game off on absolute fire then reacted to a foul by slapping out with his hand. The contact was ruled a punch and McClinton was ejected. Miami couldn't recover after the loss of Jack and lost by 5 at the BUC. When we talk football and OSU - I think there's a certain game 99.9% of all ‘Canes fans will point to. Player to Watch: Deshaun Thomas. Thomas is by far the leading scorer on the Buckeyes. Slowing him down is key to stopping OSU. The only problem is that nobody has slowed him down so far. Thomas went for a super-efficient 24 and 22 in his first two NCAA games this year.
The Pick: Arizona. I think Arizona is remembering how they played early in the season at just the right time. After a few minor conference hiccups late in the year, the Wildcats have been dominant in the tournament so far. Arizona has a ton of athletes and if they can derail OSU's Deshaun Thomas it could be a big win.
Arizona Wildcats: During the first practice before the commencement of the 2012 Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii Reggie Johnson busted his left thumb. Miami was looking to make a statement against the Wildcats, but were routed 69-50. Durand Scott twisted his ankle at the beginning of the game and was hobbled throughout. Player to Watch: Mark Lyons. Lyons, the leading scorer on the Wildcats, has taken his game up a notch and is averaging 25ppg in the tourney so far.