Sixteen observations on the Sweet 16:
1. This NCAA tournament is choking on chalk and bereft of small-program charm. In the 40 years since the NCAA selection committee began publicly seeding teams, this equals the chalkiest Sweet 16 of them all. The total seed number of the advancing teams is 49, tying 2009 for the Big Dance most bereft of upsets.
The top three seeds in every region are moving on, and half of the No. 4 seeds. The lone exceptions are No. 5 Auburn and No. 12 Oregon, which knocked off UC Irvine Sunday night to make sure we had a grand total of zero Sweet 16 programs that could qualify as real underdogs.
When the putative Cinderella, according to seeding, is the University of Swoosh, there isn't a lot of populist appeal left in the field. There is no Sister Jean, no Loyola, no little guy left.
As is increasingly the case in recent years, the power conferences rule. The Sweet 16 is comprised of five teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference, four from the Southeastern, three from the Big Ten and one apiece from the Big 12 and Pac-12. The only outliers are Gonzaga from the West Coast and Houston from the American Athletic, and both of those come with asterisks: the Zags are a perennial basketball power; the Cougars have become Houston billionaire and NBA Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta's boutique college program.
The few Cinderella candidates that survived Round 1 tapped out in Round 2 — most of them without a serious fight. Murray State was blown out. Buffalo was blown out. Liberty hung around for most of the game against Virginia Tech before submitting. Irvine took a second-half lead, then promptly gave it back and wound up being run out. Only Wofford, taking on Kentucky, was closer than five points in the final minutes.
Now they're all gone, after two rounds that were not March Madness. They were March Mundanity.
2. That said, we have a remaining bracket that will drive big ratings. There are name brands and compelling storylines aplenty.
Duke and Zion Williamson march on, albeit barely and with increasing vulnerability. North Carolina is rolling. Kentucky remains in play. Virginia, with its history of tourney angst, has stoked mainstream curiosity. So has LSU, playing without suspended head coach Will Wade. Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue have strong basketball fan bases. Gonzaga has national appeal.
3. Nine of the 16 remaining coaches have been to at least one Final Four: Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, John Calipari, Tom Izzo, Mark Few, John Beilein, Dana Altman, Rick Barnes and Kelvin Sampson. Of that group, seven have been to a Final Four within the last five seasons. Four of them have won at least one national championship.
CBS need not worry; people will be watching Thursday through Sunday.
4. Ranking the Sweet 16 coaches who haven't been to the Final Four in order of who is most overdue:
Tony Bennett, Virginia.
Matt Painter, Purdue.
Leonard Hamilton, Florida State.
Bruce Pearl, Auburn.
Buzz Williams, Virginia Tech.
Chris Beard, Texas Tech.
Tony Benford, interim at LSU.
5. More chalk numbers: The top 14 teams in the Pomeroy Ratings all advanced. Fifteen of the 16 are in the top 20. All of the 16 are in the top 30. Every remaining team has won at least 25 games, and only one has double-digit losses (Oregon is 25-12).
6. Easiest remaining road to the Final Four for a No. 1 seed belongs to Virginia. It really does feel like now or never for Bennett to get the Cavaliers to the Promised Land.
Virginia heads to Louisville for the South regional and draws Oregon. While the Ducks are a hot team, having won 10 straight, they also managed to finish tied for fourth in a wretched Pac-12 and lost seven games to non-NCAA tourney teams.
From there, Virginia would face either Purdue or Tennessee in the regional final. While both are quality teams, the Cavaliers would be solidly favored against either.
7. Hardest remaining road to the Final Four for a No. 1 seed belongs to Duke. The Blue Devils face ACC opponent Virginia Tech, and they lost the lone meeting in the regular season. (Albeit without Williamson and on the road.)
After that could be a potential showdown with a Michigan State team that had a pretty good argument for its own No. 1 seed. Putting Duke and the Spartans in the same region was the only bracketing mistake that may negatively impact the outcome of the tourney.
8. The other big bracketing error, giving Kansas a chance to play in Kansas City as a No. 4 seed, became moot when the Jayhawks flamed out in the second round. That's just one of the potential breaks bestowed upon North Carolina and Roy Williams.
Williams would have hated playing the school he once coached in a truly hostile setting in Kansas City. He avoided that and instead draws an Auburn team that is not great defensively and has been hammered on the offensive glass — bad traits for a team taking on the Tar Heels.
Then North Carolina could face a regional final against a Kentucky team that still seems unlikely to have injured forward P.J. Washington. He was last seen in a hard cast when the Wildcats were winning two games in Jacksonville.
9. The closest thing we got to vintage Madness ending instead turned out to be a missed shot. Which kind of sums up the opening two rounds of play.
When UCF star Aubrey Dawkins soared in for a very makable tip-in of a missed Knights shot in the final seconds against Duke, a seismic upset of the overall No. 1 seed appeared to be at hand. Yet the dramatic conclusion veered from being one of the moments in highlight montages forever to an agonizing miss, rolling off the rim and sparing the Blue Devils' postseason life.
"I mean, when he tipped it, you talk about microseconds," Williamson said. "When that ball rolled around the rim, it looked like it was going in. But as Coach K talks a lot about the basketball gods, they had our back tonight."
10. There have been only two other truly dramatic endings: Maryland-LSU in the second round and New Mexico State-Auburn in the first. They were dramatic in very different ways.
The Terrapins and Tigers each made clutch shots in the final 40 seconds. Skylar Mays made a go-ahead 3-pointer for LSU. Jalen Smith answered to tie the game with 28 seconds remaining. Then Tremont Waters called game for LSU with a driving scoop shot with 1.5 seconds left.
NMSU-Auburn was the anti-clutch ending — both teams took turns screwing up and refusing to win. Trailing by two points in the final seconds, Aggies guard AJ Harris drove for a wide-open layup to tie — only to whip the ball out to the 3-point line for a shot by teammate Terrell Brown. Auburn then one-upped that mental error by fouling Brown, actually giving New Mexico State a chance to win.
But Brown refused that largesse, missing two of three free throws. Still, the Aggies ended up with one last chance when the rebound off the last miss went out of bounds off Auburn. NMSU ran a perfect play for a wide-open corner 3 by Trevelin Queen — and it was an airball by about a foot.
That was no way to end a tournament game.
11. The lone power conference not represented in the Sweet 16 is the Big East. Which is fitting.
It was a lousy year in that league, and its teams backed that up by combining to go 1-4 in the tourney. Defending national champion Villanova got the league's lone win over Saint Mary's, then was promptly blown out by Purdue.
12. Highest-scoring Sweet 16 game: North Carolina-Auburn. The Heels want to run and gun, and the Tigers are likely to oblige. UNC has averaged 84.5 points in two tourney games; Auburn has averaged 83.5.
13. Lowest-scoring Sweet 16 game: Texas Tech-Michigan. These are the top two defensive teams in the nation, per Ken Pomeroy. The Red Raiders have allowed 57.5 points in two NCAA tournament games; the Wolverines have allowed 52. First one to 60 definitely wins, but neither may get there.
14. A first-ever Final Four with a quartet of teams from the same conference remains possible. The ACC has a team in every region, and two in the East, with all three of its No. 1 seeds advancing. The longer shot is Florida State, which faces No. 1 seed Gonzaga in Anaheim. FSU has had one of its best seasons in school history, but the path to the Sweet 16 wasn't the most rigorous (Vermont, Murray State).
15. The scandalous context of this season remains very much in effect in the Sweet 16. No fewer than four schools implicated in the federal investigation of corruption in college basketball and involved in the series of trials are still playing.
Duke: The transcript of a wiretap read during court described a conversation between Adidas consultant Merl Code and Kansas assistant coach Kurtis Townsend about alleged improper benefits it would take to sign Williamson.
Oregon: Allegedly made an "astronomical offer" to land five-star prospect Brian Bowen.
Auburn: Former assistant coach Chuck Person is accepting a plea deal for bribes he took.
LSU: Coach Will Wade is suspended over the wiretap transcript in which he describes a "strong-ass offer" he made to land a recruit.
16. The four teams that will make the Final Four in Minneapolis: Duke, Michigan, Purdue, North Carolina.
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