Predicting what we can about the Sweet 16 field
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This NCAA tournament is easy to predict, unless you want to be right. Then you have a problem. I realized this while watching Northern Iowa repeatedly give the ball and finally the game to Texas A&M, in a game that was like a Jackson Pollock painting: I’m sure it belongs in a museum somewhere, but I won’t pretend to understand it.
How does a team blow a 12-point lead in 38 seconds? We now know that Northern Iowa is better at half-court shots than inbounds passes. That does not make sense, but neither does this: Middle Tennessee State’s Reggie Upshaw sank 8 of 14 shots for 21 points against Michigan State in arguably the biggest tournament upset ever—and two days later, in the same building, he shot 1 for 10 in a blowout loss to Syracuse. If that doesn’t give Tom Izzo a drinking problem, nothing will.
Speaking of drinking, a word here about the great state of Wisconsin. The Badgers’ Bronson Koenig knocked Xavier out of the tournament with a crazy three-pointer that Koenig knew was going in the moment he released it. It was cold-blooded. Ruthless. If you see Koenig on the street, do not take his parking spot.
And yet, this shot was perfectly normal for Wisconsin. Sam Dekker hit shots like that against Arizona last year. Wisconsin has played 13 games over the last three tournaments, and six have been classics: Back-to-back Elite Eight wins over Arizona, back-to-back Final Four games against Kentucky, the national title game loss to Duke, and now this.
So maybe we should have predicted Koenig’s shot. We did not. But we can imagine what might be coming in the next two weeks, like ...
... a Duke-North Carolina final, which sounds exciting until you realize most Americans hate Duke and North Carolina.
... a North Carolina-Kansas final, which would be delayed 16 times so ball boys could wipe Roy Williams’s tears off the floor.
... four ACC teams in the Final Four: Duke, North Carolina, Miami and Virginia. It’s possible. But even more riveting would be Duke, North Carolina, Virginia and longtime ACC power Maryland. It’s tantalizing to imagine the Terrapins facing former rivals Duke and then North Carolina in the Final Four, though I think we can agree that those rivalries pale compared to what Maryland-Nebraska has become.
... an all-Big 12 semifinal of Kansas-Oklahoma. This would be an epic game (the teams have already played two epic games this season); it would mean at least three more games of the Buddy Hield Experience at Oklahoma; it would give Big 12 people a chance to call everybody at the College Football Playoff and say “THERE is our damn conference championship game,” and it would be a rematch of one of the great games in NCAA tournament history, the 1988 final.
The ’88 final was so good, Kansas coach Larry Brown waited until it ended before taking another job. It was tied 50–50 at the half before Danny Manning and the Miracles stunned the favored Sooners. Those mid-‘80s Oklahoma teams are largely forgotten now, but they were one of the great black-hat teams in college hoops history. Coach Billy Tubbs seemed to revel in running up the score and rubbing it in opponents’ faces. In 1984, the Sooners beat Kansas for a share of the Big Eight title, then celebrated by cutting down the nets—at Kansas.
Anyway, let’s return to the current century. I suppose Kansas, the pre-tournament favorite, is now the Sweet 16 favorite. But I’m skeptical. (Kansas fans, everything you are about to read is just one man’s opinion. So settle down.)
This year’s Kansas team reminds me of the 2014 Florida Gators, who only lost two games before the tournament and appeared to be clear favorites entering the second weekend, even though they didn’t have much NBA-level talent. The Gators made the Final Four but were then upset by Connecticut.
Those Gators could have won the title, but they did not have the talent of a prohibitive favorite. Kansas’s next opponent, Maryland, may be a more talented team. That’s probably a toss-up game, or close to it.
One reason to have faith in the Jayhawks, though: They do not play in the Pac-12. Our West Coast friends are down to one team in the Sweet 16: Oregon. And that is not surprising.
Seriously, Pac-12: Since 2001, one school from your league has made it to the Final Four. That would be the UCLA Bruins of Ben Howland, who did it three straight years from 2006 to 2008.
One school. In 15 years. That is laughable, and it is why, fairly or unfairly, people don’t see Oregon as a true No. 1 seed. The Pac-12 can tout its seven NCAA teams this year, but six of them are gone, and we can’t dismiss that as a small sample size. A 15-year sample size tells us the Pac-12 does not belong in the same conversation as the ACC or the Big Ten, especially if that conversation is about the Final Four.
Maybe Oregon will change that whole narrative. In the meantime, we break down the Sweet 16 like this:
Title favorites: Kansas, North Carolina, Buddy Hield, Duke, Maryland, Virginia.
Could win it: Miami, Indiana, Villanova, Oregon.
Quite unlikely: Iowa State, Wisconsin, Notre Dame, Texas A&M, Syracuse.
Story of the century: Gonzaga.
Again, that’s just my opinion, but you should know that I’m doing quite well in both of my pools. Of course, my champion was Michigan State.