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Point/Counterpoint: Which Sweet 16 team in the NCAA Tournament is most surprising?

BY DI STAFF | MARCH 27, 2014 5:00 AM

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Tennessee

I’m not going to sit here and argue that Tennessee is the kind of Cinderella story like tourney upstarts Stanford or Dayton, but in terms of a program pushing back the haters and overcoming the negative stigma connected with SEC basketball, Tennessee has got to be the most surprising Sweet 16 team.

All those who decided not spend their spring breaks in a sea of tequila and regret in Mexico saw what Tennessee did to Iowa. The Hawkeyes had the Volunteers on the ropes, up as much as 11 points during the game. Then Tennessee did what every Big Ten team with a pulse has done to Iowa: battle back, play tough in the boards, make ridiculous 3-point shots, force overtime, and come away with a win.

Frankly, I’m mostly surprised that Tennessee was forced into a similar fate as Iowa, doomed to participate in a play-in game, a sort of college-basketball purgatory. When I first saw Tennessee’s starting five up close in Dayton, it was sort of like that moment in Space Jam where the ’Tunes first laid on the Monstars. The Vols are big, and Tennessee is using its size to its advantage on what has been the easiest road to the Sweet 16. (Not everyone gets to play UMass and Mercer in their first two games).

It’s fitting, then, that Tennessee has by far the toughest matchup in the round of 16. Michigan is playing like it did this time last year, while the two dandies in Stanford and Dayton are set to take each other on, one ending the other’s hopes of ever getting to the Final Four.

Many have Michigan as a national-title contender, or at least an Elite Eight opportunist. That all may be good and true, but I doubt whether the Wolverines ever imagined that the road to Arlington would include a stop in good ol’ Rocky Top. And that right there is Tennessee’s biggest advantage.

— Ben Ross

Stanford

If the Cardinal had not secured an at-large big to the NCAA Tournament, head coach Johnny Dawkins (presumably) would have been on his way out of Palo Alto. That popular assumption, just who Stanford was able to knock off last weekend, and the team’s mildly underwhelming 4-8 mark against tournament-bound teams in the regular season, is why it is the most surprising squad still alive.

Consider the following: Stanford knocked off a favored New Mexico squad just to reach the round of 32. Then, against a Kansas team that’s loaded even without future lottery pick Joel Embiid, the Cardinal failed to make a 3-point attempt but were still able to advance.

Tennessee’s run to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament featured wins against Iowa — a team everyone knows was about as ineffective as a dress code on a spring-break trip towards the end of the season — criminally over-seeded Massachusetts, and Mercer, a 14-seed. The Volunteers have had a nice few games, but after they beat the Hawkeyes and Duke was stunned in the round of 64, good ol’ Rocky Top became a favorite to reach the Sweet 16.

Dayton’s run has been slightly more impressive than Tennessee’s, just based on opponent strength. But Ohio State and Syracuse have under-performed expectations and were slightly worse than what many thought all season.

At least in my tournament pool, no one was bragging about their savvy Stanford pick to reach the Sweet 16. And in ESPN’s Tournament Challenge, just 1.1 percent of brackets had the Cardinal making it as far as they have. That has to make Johnny Dawkins’ squad the most surprising team that’s yet to be eliminated.

— Ryan Probasco

Dayton

Let me quickly play professor and drop some knowledge on these fools I call “coworkers”. There is only one answer to this question — Dayton.

Give me Cinderella. The mid-major written off when it dropped five of six to open Atlantic 10. A team led by Ohio State’s surplus, a Cincy kid named Sibert with a chip on his only something a true competitor could understand.

Give me the 35-year-old head coach who is learning as he goes in his first NCAA Tournament appearance. The Dayton headman trying to put the name “Archie” on the map instead of constantly residing in the shadows of father John and brother Sean at Arizona.

Hell, give me the community of Dayton. The basketball-crazed town that has been waiting for this moment since 1984, the last time the Elite Eight was even considered a possibly. Fans that have been able to puff out their chests out as their Flyers knocked off two teams previously ranked in the top-five in the country.

Sure, Tennessee and Stanford are good stories. But are they really all that surprising? Am I shocked a Bill Self team stubbed its toe in an early round game? Am I stunned that Tennessee’s big boys in the paint kicked a couple of overrated teams while they were down? No.

I love the feel good story. Give me the Flyers.

— Josh Bolander


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