Sweet 16 Thursday: When the tourney stops being polite and starts getting real
Sweet 16 Thursday: When the tourney stops being polite and starts getting real published by Evanvinh
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Posted on 2016-03-24
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An Ivy League school's first NCAA tournament win. A Sun Belt superhero's double-overtime thriller. Two 13-seed upsets. A frenzied push by a vastly underseeded mid-major with a Final Four, a 35-1 season and a Sweet 16 on its three-year CV.
A half-court buzzer-beater. A fadeaway corner 3 at the horn. A last-second, last-ditch tip.
One of the most unlikely upsets in tournament history.
The wildest, most mathematically nonsensical, most heartbreaking comebackthe sport has ever seen.
That was the first weekend of the 2016 NCAA tournament: a dopamine-spiking, pupil-enlarging, blink-and-you-messed-up bum-rush of nonstop awesomeness. Since 1985, when the field expanded to 64 teams, no NCAA tournament has featured three games ending on buzzer-beaters ... except this one, which managed the feat in a mere four days. Neither Middle Tennessee (which scored 90 points in 68 possessions against Michigan State, and we're still not sure how) nor Texas A&M (33 seconds, 12 points, zero fouls, true story) were involved in any of the three. The first two rounds were, in every sense of the term, unreal.
Yet the greatest surprise of all? A first weekend like that produced a Sweet 16 -- and more specifically, a remarkable third-round Thursday -- like this.
This is the true story of eight teams -- picked to live in the same side of the bracket ...
Despite suffering a record number of combined losses entering the tournament, all four No. 1 seeds remain in the field -- the first time since 2012 the top line has handled business like this. If you've heard these 16 teams described as "chalky" in the past few days, there's good reason: Their average seed (4.13) is slightly chalkier than the post-1985 mean (4.45).
The only double-digit seeds here (No. 11 Gonzaga, No. 10 Syracuse) are hardly scrappy upstarts. Two other "surprises" (No. 6 Notre Dame, No. 7 Wisconsin) both played in last March's Elite Eight. All four open third-round play on Friday.
Which, as you might expect, means Thursday's Sweet 16 schedule is ... actually, you know what? Just look at it:
South Region -- KFC Yum! Center, Louisville
No. 3 Miami vs. No. 2 Villanova, 7:10 p.m. ET
No. 5 Maryland vs. No. 1 Kansas, 9:40 p.m. ET
West Region -- Honda Center, Anaheim
No. 3 Texas A&M vs. No. 2 Oklahoma, 7:37 p.m. ET
No. 4 Duke vs. No. 1 Oregon, 9:55 p.m. ET
It's the NCAA tournament schedule equivalent of a mouthful of Smarties. Taste the chalk!
The only deviation -- in the whole left side of the bracket! -- comes via dispatched, banged-up No. 4-seeded California, whose spot in the South Regional semifinal was usurped by ... ESPN's preseason No. 1. That's the closest Thursday has to a Cinderella: Maryland. The slipper does not fit.
To which we say: Yes, please. Mind-blowing unreality is a fine way to spend the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. Everybody can get in on the fun. The Sweet 16 is when we weed out the mere dreamers and surface those whose national-title aspirations are firmly rooted in reality. Each of today's eight teams fits the latter description. All four games promise (ostensibly) competitive affairs between comprehensively talented, motivated, well-coached college hoops elites. There isn't a single poser in the bunch.
It's an almost unbelievably good start to the second weekend. It is, in every sense of the term, real.
As the only seed lower than No. 4, fifth-seeded Maryland is the closest thing to a Cinderella on the left side of the bracket. Patrick Smith/Getty Images
Can the Terrapins take their shot? Maryland's second-round win over No. 13-seeded Hawaii was a short-film retelling of the Terrapins' season as a whole: massively talented, plagued by offensive flaws, redeemed by defense, mildly disappointing, nonetheless effective. If not for a 21-of-30 performance inside the arc, Melo Trimble's resurgent free throw frequency down the stretch and some typically solid defensive work, a promising season would have been remembered for how it ended: with a 1-of-18 nightmare on 3-pointers.
That formula might be good enough to hold on against the Rainbow Warriors. It won't be enough against the Jayhawks. There is no such thing as a reliable interior scorer against Kansas. For proof, look no further than KU's second-round win over UConn, when the Jayhawks held the Huskies to 3-of-20 shooting from inside the arc in the first half. Almost all of those shots were tough, contested and low-reward. Even if Mark Turgeon's team guards well on the other end, anything less than its best, most complete offensive performance of the season won't get it done.
Villanova's quest continues. With their first-weekend woes behind them, let's take a moment to acknowledge just how good this Wildcats team is. And how good is that? There are three teams in the country currently ranked in the top 10 in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency: Virginia, Kansas and Villanova. North Carolina, meanwhile, is fifth on offense and 11th on defense, which is close enough to make the following point: Villanova is the only non-No. 1 seed still in this bracket that looks and plays on both sides of the ball like a team that should be a favorite to win the national title. In other words: On the floor, this is a No. 1 seed. No matter what happens Thursday.
Every game might be Buddy Hield's last. The inverse here is even more exciting: Every OU game is a chance to see if the POY is really, truly on one of those legendary Carmelo Anthony/Stephen Curry-esque tears. His numbers through two games -- 63 points, 12 rebounds, 10-of-14 from 2, 9-of-20 from 3, 16-of-19 from the line -- are a pretty good place to start. If he can make it three solid tourney outings -- despite facing Texas A&M's frenetic half-court D (and wing specialist Alex Caruso) -- well, that's when we'll know.
Can Mike Krzyzewski figure something out? On paper, No. 4 Duke seems totally overmatched by the top-seeded Oregon Ducks -- particularly on the defensive interior, where the Blue Devils are at their worst and Dana Altman's team is at its best. Yet Coach K is Coach K, and a 1-3-1 zone he unleashed in a second-round win over Yale helped disrupt the Bulldogs' first-shot offense enough to mitigate Yale's success on the boards. What wrinkle will he have for Oregon? And how will Altman -- one of the nation's best in his own right -- read and react?
By the way: Duke-Oregon is probably Thursday's worst game. What a day.
Eamonn BrennanESPN Staff Writer
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