Anything can happen, but favorites sure are playing like it
Remember when any ol' team could come from nowhere and make the Final Four?
That was so 2016.
Though Florida and Wisconsin closed out the Sweet 16 with some long-awaited thrills Friday night, the favorites and a few others among this year's Elite Eight are playing more like powerhouses who want to drain all the drama from March Madness.
North Carolina, Kentucky and Kansas - programs that have combined for 11 Final Four appearances since 2000 - are showing, once again, that they can play some of their best basketball in March. In the regional semifinals, they were double-digit winners against 3 and 4 seeds that were expected to keep things interesting.
''If they play like they did the second half, they can't'' be stopped, said Purdue coach Matt Painter, after the Boilermakers were outscored 51-26 over the final 20 minutes of a 98-66 loss to the Jayhawks on Thursday.
The Elite Eight also includes South Carolina - a No. 7 seed that has a great argument as the NCAA selection committee's ''Most Wrongly Seeded Team.'' Their average margin of victory in the tournament: 15.7.
''We've been doing it all season,'' Gamecocks guard Sindarius Thornwell said. ''It's just now y'all gave us a stage.''
Every bit as telling about the state of this year's tournament - maybe even the state of college basketball in 2017 - is a short list of teams that some expected to go on big runs at the tournament but instead made either early, or ugly, exits:
-There's Duke: The Blue Devils got some late love as a deserving No. 1 seed after winning the ACC Tournament but turned out to be every bit as flawed and fragile as a 2 as it appeared during a drama-filled season .
-There's Villanova: The defending champion and top overall seed got toppled by a Wisconsin team that was almost certainly given the wrong seeding.
-And then there are Baylor, Purdue, UCLA and Butler: So much was made after all 16 teams seeded 1 through 4 made it through the first round of the tournament without a loss. It was the first time that had happened in 10 years. Then, these four 3s and 4s came to the Sweet 16 and lost their games by an average of 18.7 points.
It left Oregon as the only 3 seed and Florida as the lone 4.
The Gators overcame Zak Showalter's tying, off-balance runner with one of its own, by Chris Chiozza, to win 84-83 at the buzzer in overtime. Indeed, moments like that generate the sort of momentum that can take a team to the title.
The Ducks squeaked by Michigan and appear to be adjusting to life without forward Chris Boucher, who was lost for the season earlier this month with an injured knee.
Both are good stories, as is the one at Gonzaga, whose days as a lovable underdog ended at around the time ''American Idol'' was still going strong. The Bulldogs are top-seeded, but have just squeaked by in their last two wins.
By contrast, North Carolina has won its tournament games by 39, seven and, most recently, 12 points.
The Tar Heels' next opponent, Kentucky, is getting better as the tournament progresses, beating UCLA 86-75 for its first double-digit win of the tournament. (These teams played the best game of the season, a 103-100 Kentucky win in December, prompting the question: Isn't this really a matchup for the Final Four, not the Elite Eight?)
Meanwhile, Kansas has beaten all three of its tournament foes by 20 or more.
''There's no reason to think that they're going to play any less than what they've done,'' said Oregon coach Dana Altman, whose team faces the Jayhawks on Saturday.
Looking for an up-from-your-bootstraps underdog? It would have to be Xavier.
The Musketeers, who play Gonzaga on Saturday, lost their starting point guard and went on a six-game losing streak in February. When the month ended, they tore up the calendar pages, burned them, dumped them in a jar and now carry that jar on the road to remind them of what they've overcome.
They are an 11 seed - one notch lower than Syracuse was last year when it made the Final Four - but the notion of the Musketeers as the scruffy, lovable team from nowhere is best left in the 1980s and `90s, when they really were just that.
Now, they're in the Big East, and on their fourth ride to the tournament's second weekend since 2010. And if Gonzaga doesn't knock them out, the Jayhawks, Tar Heels and Wildcats are certainly playing as though they will.
''We knew they were an unbelievable team,'' Butler forward Andrew Chrabascz said of the Tar Heels after the Bulldogs fell, 82-70. ''We scouted them as one of the best teams in the country. We knew they had earned that respect.''
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