Sixteen Sweet 16 storylines as we head out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament and toward the second:
1. The Atlantic Coast Conference got nine bids to this tourney, and Syracuse nearly made it 10. The league was awarded a No. 1 seed (North Carolina), two No. 2 seeds (Louisville and Duke) and a No. 3 seed (Florida State). This looked like another dominant March for what traditionally has been the best conference in college basketball.
And now look at it. The ACC has been a colossal bust.
Sifting through the wreckage, North Carolina is the only ACC team still dancing – and the Tar Heels were pushed to the wire in the second round by Arkansas. Duke flamed out Sunday night against South Carolina, Louisville was eliminated by red-hot Michigan, and FSU was wiped out by Xavier.
The ACC has as many teams still dancing as the West Coast Conference.
And now the one ACC survivor advances to the only formful region, where the top four seeds all survived: the Tar Heels, No. 2 Kentucky, No. 3 UCLA and No. 4 Butler. The competition will be stiff in Memphis. It’s entirely possible that the Final Four in Glendale, Ariz., will be an ACC-free zone.
Maybe the league expended all its karma getting Clemson the football national title.
2. The only thing deader than the ACC is Cinderella. There are zero mid-major teams still playing.
Thirteen remaining teams are from Power Five conferences: three each from the Big 12, SEC, Pac-12 and Big Ten, plus North Carolina. Butler and Xavier are from the Big East, which is a power league in its own right. And Gonzaga, with a No. 1 seed and making its 19th straight tournament appearance, is no Cinderella.
Every team still playing ranks in Ken Pomeroy’s top 30. Most remaining teams can’t even play the Everyone Counted Us Out card.
Rhode Island came closest to being Cinderella. The Rams led Oregon much of the game but collapsed late and lost by three.
This is partly a byproduct of the selection committee allotting precious few bids to mid-major teams. The tournament is leaking charm, both this season and likely in seasons to come unless this trend is reversed going forward.
3. After yet another lackluster regular season, the SEC is staging quite a revival. Seventh-seeded South Carolina, which hadn’t won an NCAA tourney game in 45 years, won two in three days, shocking Duke Sunday night. Fourth-seeded Florida has been as impressive as anyone thus far in the tournament, winning two games by a combined 41 points. And second-seeded Kentucky is Kentucky.
All three SEC teams still playing rank in Ken Pomeroy’s top seven nationally in defensive efficiency. Florida is No. 3, South Carolina is No. 4 and Kentucky is No. 7.
4. The Big Ten, another league that has been maligned at times this year and considered bereft of a true national championship contender, has been the biggest overachiever by seeding. Two Big Ten teams, No. 8 seed Wisconsin and No. 7 Michigan, have outperformed their seeding to reach the Sweet Sixteen.
5. When the bracket was released on Selection Sunday, it was easy to look ahead and envision sky-high ticket prices for a glamorous East Region final in Madison Square Garden between defending national champion Villanova and Duke.
Now we’re looking at Wisconsin, Florida, Baylor and South Carolina in MSG. And one of them is going to the Final Four.
The team that wins the East will be coached by a Final Four newcomer. Greg Gard of Wisconsin, Mike White of Florida, Scott Drew of Baylor and Frank Martin of South Carolina have never made it to the last weekend as a head coach.
6. Only five of the 11 remaining coaches have been to a Final Four: Bob Huggins of West Virginia, Bill Self of Kansas, John Beilein of Michigan, Roy Williams of North Carolina and John Calipari of Kentucky. Only three have won it all: Self, Williams and Calipari. There is a high likelihood for a lot of new blood in Arizona.
7. At least one coach who has never won a national title will play for one in Glendale. The eight coaches in the left-hand side of the bracket (East and West Regions) have zero championships between them. The East and West champions will meet in one national semifinal, which guarantees at least one ringless coach playing on the final Monday. The winners of the Midwest and South will meet in the other national semifinal.
8. Calipari’s return to Memphis will be much discussed. He used to coach there, in case you hadn’t heard. Since Calipari jumped ship for Kentucky in 2009, the Tigers have fallen from the elite ranks – they’ve missed the NCAAs the past three years, something that last happened from 2000-02.
It will be interesting to see how Cal is greeted by Memphis fans – with warm nostalgia or cold anger.
9. Kentucky-UCLA will be the most-watched Sweet 16 game, in terms of TV ratings and NBA front-office interest. There will be pros all over the court, and many of them will be entering the draft this spring.
10. The Memphis Regional features teams that have won a combined 24 national titles (11 for UCLA, eight for Kentucky, five for North Carolina). It also features teams that have been in the Final Four 12 times in the past 12 tournaments (four each for North Carolina and Kentucky, three for UCLA, two for Butler).
11. Just one double-digit seed is still playing, No. 11 Xavier, which ties the lowest number in the past 10 tourneys. The Musketeers endured a late, six-game losing streak after being beset by injuries but have regrouped impressively, even though No. 2 scorer and leading assist man Edmund Sumner was lost for the season to a knee injury five weeks ago.
Trevon Bluiett has played like a star in the Big Dance, scoring 50 points in two games and making 8 of 15 shots from beyond the arc. But it usually takes a career performance or two for a double-digit seed to still be playing, and Xavier has gotten that from backup big man Sean O’Mara.
In the first round against Maryland, O’Mara scored a career-high 18 points. Then he added 11 more against Florida State. A career 65 percent foul shooter, O’Mara is 15 for 16 in the tournament.
12. After Hysterical Northwestern Child and Angry Coach’s Wife, the Sweet 16 has its work cut out for it in terms of memorable fan cutaways. Those were classics.
13. Wisconsin’s senior starting quartet of Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes, Zack Showalter and Vitto Brown has an NCAA tournament record of 13-3. That’s amazing. The Badgers’ four-year streak of reaching the Sweet 16 is the longest active streak in college basketball.
14. This is the first tournament since 2012 without an overtime game among the first two rounds. It also has been a tourney without a true buzzer-beater. Combine that with the lack of Cinderella impact and you have compelling reasons why this has been considered a rather dull tournament by customary March Madness standards.
15. Six of Pomeroy’s top-10 Player of the Year candidates are still playing: No. 3 Johnathan Motley of Baylor; No. 4 Caleb Swanigan of Purdue; No. 5 Nigel Williams-Goss of Gonzaga; No. 6 Ethan Happ of Wisconsin; No. 7 Frank Mason of Kansas; and No. 9 Sindarius Thornwell of South Carolina.
The four who are out: No. 1 Josh Hart of Villanova; No. 2 Jock Landale of Saint Mary’s; No. 8 Jawun Evans of Oklahoma State; and No. 10 Bonzie Colson of Notre Dame.
16. Michigan’s Beilein and Oregon’s Dana Altman meet in a No Suit Coats allowed regional semifinal in Kansas City.
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