NCAA Tournament 2017: 16 things to know about Sweet 16, including Final Four picks
The WCC has as many teams left as the ACC, and John Calipari's return to FedExForum will be a huge story in Memphis
The ACC placed nine teams in this NCAA Tournament. Four of them were top-four seeds. Seven were top-eight seeds. And yet only one made the Sweet 16. Which is a bad look for the league -- even if it probably doesn’t mean what so many want it to mean, i.e., that the ACC was vastly overrated. This three-week, single-elimination tournament is how college basketball determines its national champion. And that’s fine. And it’s fun. But using the results of individual 40-minute games to draw grand conclusions about four-month seasons has never made much sense to me.
That said, I’m not here to defend the ACC.
Miami, Florida State Seminoles , Louisville Cardinals and Duke Blue Devils each lost to lower-seeded teams, Wake Forest Demon Deacons lost to a Kansas State Wildcats team that finished 8-10 in the Big 12, and Virginia Cavaliers fell 65-39 -- 65-39! -- to a Florida Gators team that lost a starter late in the season and went 1-3 in its four games before the NCAA Tournament. None of that is positive. But the good news is that UNC remains alive. So we could still theoreticaly have an ACC national champ -- although the Las Vegas favorite is now Kansas.
But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.
I’ve been staring at the bracket. And I have some thoughts.
Here are 16 things I want to tell you heading into the Sweet 16:
1. John Calipari is returning to Memphis
I host a radio show in Memphis and live in the area. And I cannot overstate how big of a story this is in the city. It’s such a weird dynamic because Calipari is both the best coach to ever work at Memphis but probably still the most hated person in Memphis even though he hasn’t lived there in eight years. The average Memphian is not over him leaving, weird as that might sound. So Calipari bringing the Big Blue Nation to FedExForum will be, well, great for radio.
2. The South Regional is awesome
Folks always complain about a lack of upsets in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. But you know what you get when there are no upsets? Awesome regionals. And no regional is more awesome than the one at FedExForum. It’s 1-seed North Carolina Tar Heels vs. 4-seed Butler Bulldogs and 2-seed Kentucky Wildcats vs. 3-seed UCLA Bruins on Friday just steps away from Beale Street. As of early Monday, the cheapest Plaza Level ticket available via Stubhub was $625. So, yeah, this is the place to be this weekend. Four top-four seeds. Four national brands. Three fun games no matter how they unfold.
3. Just one more thing about the South
I’ll move on after this, I promise. But another interesting thing about the South Regional is that the 3-seed (UCLA) has already beaten the 2-seed (Kentucky). And the 2-seed has already beaten the 1-seed (North Carolina). And the 4-seed (Butler) owns two wins over a 1-seed ( Villanova Wildcats ) and three wins over teams that made the Sweet 16 ( Arizona Wildcats , Xavier Musketeers twice). In other words, this South Regional is totally up in the air. UNC is the favorite, I guess. But all of these teams have won games that suggest they have a chance to make the Final Four.
4. Frank Mason vs. Caleb Swanigan is appointment TV
I’ve long believed Swanigan should be the National Player of the Year. Others favor Mason. So how cool is it that we’ll get those two on the court together Thursday when Swanigan’s Purdue Boilermakers meet Mason’s Kansas Jayhawks ? This will not, nor should it, definitely decide the Player of the Year debate. But it’s a big stage for two big stars. I can’t wait to watch.
5. Michigan Wolverines sure turned things around
The Wolverines were 14-9 overall and 4-6 in the Big Ten just six weeks ago. They were seemingly headed to the NIT, CBI or something other than the NCAA Tournament. But now look. They’re 12-2 in their past 14 games with eight wins over NCAA Tournament teams -- including four victories over Sweet 16 teams. And they also survived a plane crash. Incredible, all around. Michigan plays Oregon Ducks Thursday in the first game of the Midwest Regional semifinals.
6. The Pac-12 held up OK
Oregon is one of three Pac-12 schools in the Sweet 16. The others are UCLA and Arizona. The only other leagues with three Sweet 16 participants are the Big Ten (Purdue, Wisconsin Badgers , Michigan), Big 12 (Kansas, Baylor Bears , West Virginia Mountaineers ) and SEC (Kentucky, Florida, South Carolina Gamecocks ). The Big East has two (Butler, Xavier). The ACC (North Carolina) and WCC ( Gonzaga Bulldogs ) each have one. (Yes, the WCC got as many schools in the Sweet 16 as the ACC. Amazing.)
7. South Carolina is really in the Sweet 16
The Gamecocks went 3-6 in their nine games before this NCAA Tournament and had a Round of 32 matchup against the school Las Vegas projected to win the national championship (Duke). Regardless, they’re still headed to the second weekend for the first time since 1973. Now did South Carolina benefit from North Carolina’s stupid HB2 bill that led to NCAA Tournament games being moved from Greensboro to Greenville? Yes, undeniably. Anybody arguing otherwise is ridiculous. But to focus too much on that is to take away from South Carolina’s incredible achievement, and I don’t want to take away from anything. So let me just offer a sincere congratulations to the Gamecocks. And shoutout to Devan Downey.
8. Frank Martin is doing the ‘impossible’
I remember when Martin left Kansas State for South Carolina, which was only surprising to those who didn’t realize how badly his relationship with his athletic director had deteriorated. I was talking with a former SEC coach one day, and that former SEC coach described South Carolina as an “impossible” job. That’s the word he used. Impossible. I relayed that story to Martin via text late Sunday. His response: “I’m too dumb and too stubborn to know any better.”
9. Somebody is going to the Final Four for the first time
The four schools in the East Regional are all coached by men who have never made a Final Four. As a result, either Scott Drew (Baylor), Frank Martin (South Carolina), Greg Gard (Wisconsin) or Michael White (Florida) is guaranteed to make the Final Four for the first time. That’s pretty neat.
10. The West Regional is similar
Bob Huggins has made two Final Fours -- one at Cincinnati Bearcats , one at West Virginia. But the other three coaches still alive in San Jose -- Gonzaga’s Mark Few, Arizona’s Sean Miller and Xavier’s Chris Mack -- are chasing their first Final Four. So either one of them will get it or Huggins will advance to the final weekend for the third time in what should be a Hall of Fame career.
11. The West Regional winner will be ...
Gonzaga, I think. I’ll take the Zags over Arizona in the Elite Eight.
12. The East Regional winner will be ...
Baylor, I think. I’ll take the Bears over Florida in the Elite Eight.
13. The Midwest Regional winner will be ...
Kansas, I think. I’ll take the Jayhawks over Michigan in the Elite Eight
14. The South Regional winner will be ...
UCLA, I think. I’ll take the Bruins over North Carolina in the Elite Eight
15. The title game will be ...
Gonzaga vs. UCLA, I think. West Coast stand up!
16. And the national champion will be ...
UCLA, I think. And I feel better about it now than I did when I projected the Bruins as national champs back in February and then again on Selection Sunday, if only because there were 68 teams in play then and only 15 other options now. What I love about UCLA is what you saw in the second half of Sunday’s 79-67 win over Cincinnati. The Bruins struggled for a little while, fell behind and looked vulnerable. But then Lonzo Ball got going. And shots started falling. And UCLA ended up scoring 49 second-half points against a Cincinnati team that plays slow and has a top-15 defensive efficiency rating.
Forty-nine second-half points against Cincinnati!
Who does that?
Answer: Nobody but UCLA.
And that’s why the Bruins are so dangerous. They don’t have to be awesome for 40 minutes because they can run away from you in the span of two media timeouts. Granted, that doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed to come out of the South because nobody is guaranteed to come out of any region -- and especially that region. But forced to pick a national champion, I’ll go with Steve Alford’s Bruins. And if it actually happens, LaVar Ball will never let you or any of us hear the end of it.
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