March Madness

Lack of NCAA tournament upsets has a bright side: the Sweet 16 is loaded with marquee matchups

Lack of NCAA tournament upsets has a bright side: the Sweet 16 is loaded with marquee matchups

An unusually chalky opening weekend of the men’s NCAA tournament has produced a Sweet 16 only Greg Sankey could love.

There are no slingshot-wielding long shots left in the field, no semblance of small-conference charm.

NC State is the only double-digit seed still left in the field. An original ACC school with multiple national titles is no one’s idea of Cinderella.

Only Gonzaga and San Diego State remain from outside college basketball’s power conferences. Those two outgrew the mid-major label long ago.

Marquee programs treated little guys this past weekend like 18-wheelers bearing down on slow-to-react squirrels in their path. Duke put away James Madison before the first half was even over. San Diego State buried Yale under an avalanche of 3-pointers.

"We ran into a buzz saw," Yale coach James Jones lamented. "They're not known to be a great 3-point shooting team, but they saw me coming and they figured they would make 'em all today."

It's difficult to make any sweeping takeaways from Cinderella exiting the dance early during this NCAA tournament because chances are it's a one-year outlier. It was only last year that Florida Atlantic was a buzzer beater away from the national title game. It was only two years ago that Saint Peter's was playing in the Elite Eight.

The bright side to the Oaklands, Grand Canyons and James Madisons heading home is a Sweet 16 overflowing with elite teams. Every top-two seed advanced to the second weekend for only the fifth time since the NCAA tournament bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

No. 1 seeds UConn, Purdue and North Carolina won every game they played by at least 16 points, though the Tar Heels did have to overcome an early 12-point deficit against Michigan State in the second round. Fellow No. 1 seed Houston worked much, much harder to hold off Texas A&M after fouling out four key players and blowing a 12-point lead at the end of regulation.

Marquette and Tennessee faced the stiffest test among the No. 2 seeds. The Golden Eagles survived Colorado guard J'Vonne Hadley’s attempt at a game-tying 3-pointer in the final minute. The Vols shot a dreadful 3-for-25 from behind the arc yet still narrowly edged Texas because they did not allow their shooting woes to drag down their elite defense.

It’s not just the NCAA tournament selection committee’s top eight teams that are still alive. Thirteen of the top 14 teams in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency rankings advanced to the Sweet 16, including Illinois, Creighton, Duke, Alabama and Gonzaga. The only team absent is Auburn, which suffered a stunning first-round loss to Yale on Thursday night.

The Sweet 16 matchups are as tantalizing as you’d expect given the brand-name heavyweights still left in the field. You could ask a roomful of basketball fans to pick the most intriguing matchup and get a handful of different answers.

Is it Houston vs. Duke? The Cougars have been among the sport's elite teams all season, but the talented Blue Devils flashed the firepower on Sunday that many expected from them all season.

Is it Purdue vs. Gonzaga? Zach Edey and the Boilermakers are on a quest to shed the label of March underachievers, but this could be their first real challenge.

Or maybe it's the UConn-San Diego State rematch of last year's national title game. Or the showdown between Alabama and North Carolina.

Among the conferences, the big winners are the Big East and ACC. All three Big East NCAA tournament teams advanced to the Sweet 16, suggesting that perhaps more than UConn, Marquette and Creighton should have been included in the field. The ACC sent a national-best four teams to the Sweet 16, a strong statement that this wasn't the down year for the league it was alleged to be.

"I'm not surprised," Clemson coach Brad Brownell said after his team took down Baylor on Sunday in the round of 32. "I think we have a terrific league. I've been outspoken about disagreeing with some of the metrics and how the way teams are judged."

The other big winners are CBS and TNT Sports, the TV networks that air NCAA tournament broadcasts. Their ideal scenario is for the tournament’s opening weekend to produce a few big upsets and buzzy moments but for the established programs who draw big ratings to make it through.

For the most part, that’s what happened.

The Davids took their shots but mostly missed the mark. Now the Goliaths are left to fight for the crown among themselves.

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