This is where it starts to really get good. The Sweet 16. It’s just a moniker, but it means so much more. You make the Sweet 16 and jobs are safe, at least for the most part. You make the Sweet 16 and the program is satisfied. The ones who aren’t satisfied? They win titles.
With four games tipping off tonight (why we have all day and yet the games are overlapping, that’s a whole other topic, but don’t even get me started…), take a look back at some of the best Sweet 16 games of the decade. Hopefully, maybe one of the games tonight will find its way onto this list next year.
2003: Syracuse 79, Auburn 78
Before all of the Final Four glory and the shine that comes with a National Championship, the Orange were pushed to the limit in the round of 16 by a 10-seed. Auburn was led by Marquis Daniels, who went for 27 points and nine rebounds in this game. And while the opening possession began emphatically for ‘Cuse with a huge Hakim Warrick dunk, Auburn stayed close enough all the way to the end.
In the last 78 seconds, the Tigers went crazy, hitting four deep balls. Daniels had kept them in it all game long, and continued that late, splitting double teams for layups and making a pair of three-pointers.
‘Cuse had some freshman named Carmelo Anthony, who was skinny with braids back then. Now as we lament over his problems in New York City, we forget how clutch he was this whole tournament. On this night, he scored all 18 of his points in the second half, and had a putback that basically clinched the win in the final minute.
2006: Texas 74, West Virginia 71
You undoubtedly remember those old Mountaineer squads, those teams that always went far in the tournament with random guys who had awful hair and always made the most ridiculous threes. I’m betting you remember Mike Gansey, and there’s no way possible that you forgot about Kevin Pittsnogle. Even though Texas won this game at the buzzer on a long Kenton Paulino wing three, we were all losers.
This was the end of the line for Mr. Pittsnogle in a collegiate uniform. For two straight unforgettable years, the loveable big bear had been one of the best names, even good enough to become a catch phrase, and had an equally great game. He had helped upset Chris Paul and Wake Forest the year before and then against the Longhorns, had WVU on the brink of the Elite Eight once again. Pittsnogle’s fifth three-pointer of the game tied the score with just five seconds to play. But Texas raced down and somehow got Paulino wide open. His shot was bottoms.
2005: North Carolina 67, Villanova 66
Let me start by saying this Villanova squad was one of my favorite college teams ever. I haven’t seen too many with a guard trio as dominant and aggressive as Randy Foye, Allan Ray and Kyle Lowry. Plus, they had Curtis Sumpter, a perfect complement at forward. I thought they had the talent to win it all, and despite the guards doing most of the scoring, they were a well-balanced team. But, first Sumpter tore up his knee early in the NCAA Tournament and then the ref called traveling.
It was supposed to be a foul. Should’ve been a foul. But instead referee Tom O’Neill called Ray for traveling, effectively taking away a possible three-point play for ‘Nova that would’ve tied it with just seconds remaining. The call set UNC up perfectly to finish them off in a game that the Wildcats led for most of the first half. How bad was the call? Even the Tar Heel defender on the play, Melvin Scott, said he figured it was a foul.
Goliath should’ve been killed. UNC won it all that year and had four first-round picks. But Villanova should’ve beat them with a team that went six deep and two guys in Lowry and Mike Nardi, neither over six feet tall, who were told pregame if they got switched onto one of the Tar Heels’ big guys, they better not get posted up because no help was coming. That team had so much heart.
2002: Indiana 74, Duke 73
I remember missing this game and hearing about it later. I can’t even explain how shocked I was: easily the most stunning tournament game I’ve ever witnessed. Duke was supposed to be unbeatable that year, and for the most part they really were. They were coming off a National Championship season, were 31-3 entering this game and they had Jason Williams, the best player in the nation. They led by 17 points in this game, and started four players who would go on to start in the NBA. They were playing a ho-hum Indiana team whose best player would go on to become a massive NBA bust.
Still, once Williams missed the free throw on a potential four-point play with just seconds remaining, it was a wrap. Duke was going home, just as dazed as I was. They had jumped out by 13 points at the start of the game, unleashing their speed and talent, stuff the Hoosiers couldn’t match. But as the game went on, Duke got bored and Indiana muddied the game up.
At the time, it was hard to fathom how my bracket could’ve been completely screwed up by a team that started guys like Kyle Hornsby and Dane Fife. I still don’t get it.
2006: UCLA 73, Gonzaga 71
Two names. Adam Morrison. Gus Johnson. First of all, it’s become common practice to always watch whatever game Johnson is calling, no matter if it’s Morehead State vs. Troy or North Carolina and Duke. He is must-listen TV. This game has since been dubbed “Heartbreak City” just because Johnson said so.
Then, there is that guy Morrison. Remember him? He was the guy who started sobbing before the game was even over, with still seconds remaining in a tight game. Then, once the inevitable happened and Gonzaga eventually blew it, he broke down and collapsed at midcourt.
As for the game, Gonzaga had one of their best seasons ever, led by Morrison. He was the talk of college basketball all year, averaging over 28 points a game, and had his ‘Zags up 17 in the first half. They still had a nine-point lead late, but a couple of turnovers put UCLA in the driver’s seat. J.P. Batista‘s awkward-looking jumper at the buzzer was off and then all Hell broke loose between UCLA’s celebration and Gus Johnson’s serenading. One of the craziest games ever.
What’s your favorite Sweet 16 game of the decade? Which game do you think will be the best this year?
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