NCAA tournament Sweet 16 field contains more surprises than sure things

ByMyron Medcalf via ESPN logo
Monday, March 19, 2018

This is not the Sweet 16 we imagined, but it's the one we deserve.

If the NCAA tournament is anything, it's inclusive -- competitively and culturally. The swell of college basketball fans who flock to the action in March highlights the postseason finale's unique allure to a diverse population that's not easy to galvanize. They all come for different reasons and with varying interests, and the first four days of the NCAA tournament offered a satisfying collection of drama for all.

Virginia's loss to UMBC -- the first time a top seed had lost in the opening round in 136 matchups between a 1-seed and a 16-seed -- will define this tournament 30 years from now. It does not make sense. It will never make sense. Virginia's swift, historic exit punctuated the chaos of the first chapter of the greatest postseason in sports.

This is the first time a pair of 9-seeds will participate in the Sweet 16 (Kansas State, Florida State), and it's the first time, since seeding began in 1979, that a region (the South Region) will not feature a top-four seed, per ESPN Stats & Information research.

A week ago, John Calipari said he had received text messages from friends who'd blasted the committee on Selection Sunday when it handed his Kentucky squad a 5-seed and sent the Wildcats to Boise, Idaho, for a matchup against a feisty Davidson squad and a possible matchup against Arizona. Now, they'll venture to Atlanta, where they'll have the best path to the Final Four that Calipari -- and perhaps any coach in recent history -- has encountered.

The Wildcats will gladly take the easier ride, but a brawl with Virginia and the winner of a Tennessee-Cincinnati game that never happened -- spoiled by upsets from Illinois-Chicago and Nevada, respectively -- would have a presented a more arduous but satisfying path.

But what if Loyola-Chicago -- the 11-seed accompanied by a chaplain named Sister Jean -- keeps winning? Per U.S. Department of Education data, the Ramblers spent just over $500,000 on men's basketball in the most recent fiscal year, while Kentucky allocated nearly $3 million. Those two teams could collide Saturday with the winner securing a trip to the Final Four.

That's why this is the people's bracket, packed with the haves and have-nots. Villanova and Duke reached this stage by stomping their opponents in the first two rounds. Kansas squeezed by Seton Hall as Udoka Azubuike, still not 100 percent after suffering a sprained MCL, boosted the Jayhawks.

On Sunday, Nevada was down by 22 points with less than 11 minutes to go against a Cincinnati squad that played better defense this season than any not named Virginia. Then, the Wolf Pack launched a 32-8 run and won. Their top four scorers in the improbable victory were all transfers from other schools.

Brad Brownell started this season on a warm seat. This week, he'll lead his Clemson squad into a Sweet 16 game against Kansas. Chris Beard was a Division II coach three years ago. Today, he's the head coach of a Texas Tech team that just reached the Sweet 16.

Purdue's Isaac Haas has a fractured elbow, but teammate Matt Haarms will attempt to fill in and help his promising squad beat the Red Raiders this week.

Jim Boeheim's Syracuse squad was the last at-large team picked by the committee, a team that lacked the credentials to feel safe on Selection Sunday. Well, the Orange concluded their three-game run Sunday with a win over a Michigan State team that many had picked to win the national championship. They'll play ACC foe Duke in perhaps the game of the week in the Sweet 16.

Michigan won its second-round game against Houston on a buzzer-beater. Texas A&M, a mess of a program a month ago, beat North Carolina by double digits on Sunday. They'll meet in the Sweet 16.

Florida State charged late to beat 1-seed Xavier in a come-from-behind win and earn a matchup against Gonzaga, the national runner-up from a year ago that's back in the mix after losing key players from that team.

Villanova's Jay Wright will wear an expensive suit to his Sweet 16 matchup against West Virginia, while Bob Huggins will wear a pullover. This is why the NCAA tournament is more unifying than polarizing. Our brackets are broken. Most of us did not predict the major upsets. But we're still enamored by what's ahead.

A Chicago mid-major could reach the Final Four.

A young Kentucky team that recently lost four in a row could repeat the run of the 2013-14 squad that ended the conference season on a rocky ride but reached the national championship game.

Jim Boeheim could secure another trip to the Final Four just two weeks after many doubted his team's argument for an at-large berth.

Gonzaga could avenge last season's loss in the national title game if it can navigate this week's matchups.

It all gives us something to anticipate, something to discuss. There is a storyline for everyone this week and a team to root for even if your favorite squad is no longer in the mix.

That's the mystique of the NCAA tournament in a season such as this. The wild and wacky developments of the past four days have all led to this pristine slate of possibilities in the Sweet 16.

By now, we know it's not wise to guess what will happen next. It's so much easier to just enjoy as it all unfolds.

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