Almost all of the Sweet Sixteen teams that will square off for the chance to make the Final Four in the NCAA basketball tourney later this week are programs from major conferences — many of them legendary teams with legendary coaches.
But there are a couple of surprises. Eight seed North Carolina State bumped off top seed Villanova in the East Region. The Wildcats were the only number one seed to fall last weekend. Seventh seeded Wichita State handled #2 Kansas, #6 Xavier ended #14 Georgia State’s dreams and #7 Michigan State shocked #2 Virginia. The Spartans, coached by Tom Izzo, have made the Sweet Sixteen 13 times in the last 20 years.
The lowest seeded team left in the tournament is #11 UCLA. Given the excellence of their program over the years, this isn’t as surprising as it should be. The Bruins had several bad losses this season — including an embarrassing 83-44 shellacking by #1 Kentucky. But UCLA got lucky when #14 UAB upset #3 Iowa State in the opening round and the Bruins eked out a one point win over #6 SMU. The UAB-UCLA game was no contest and the Bruins find themselves in the top 16.
Gonzaga from the West Coast Conference and Wichita State from the Missouri Valley Conference are the only Mid-Major teams to make it through. Atlantic Coast Conference teams went 11-1 with 5 of their 6 entries remaining. The Pac-12 has three teams left, and no other conference has more than two.
What this points to is that the programs that spend the most, have the best facilities, and possess the history that attracts blue chip recruits will continue to thrive at the highest level while the rest fight over scraps.
The names involved read like a who’s who of the past decade — or the past several — in college basketball. Kentucky. Duke. North Carolina. Michigan State. Louisville. Arizona. Wisconsin. Gonzaga. UCLA.
The coaches are a pack of Hall of Famers: Mike Krzyzewski, he of the 1,000-plus wins. Roy Williams, now tied with Dean Smith for all-time tournament wins. Rick Pitino, unparallelled defensive genius. Bo Ryan, synonymous with death and taxes.
Mark Few, who never misses a tournament. Lon Kruger, the only man to take four different programs this deep in the tournament. Sean Miller, the best coach yet to reach the Final Four. Bob Huggins, avatar for windbreaker-clad realism.
Izzo, who is Izzo.
And then there is John Calipari. Kentucky’s coach is not only a messaging savant whose unprecedented salesmanship has netted him an unfathomable wealth of talent, but also a deft molder of parts into wholes. In five full seasons at Kentucky, Calipari has not only sent several full NBA rosters worth of talent to the next level; he has also netted three Final Fours, two national title appearances and one national title. His current team is 36-0 and chasing history. And everyone else is chasing them.
The oddsmakers are still picking Kentucky as the overwhelming favorite to come out of the East Region, and Gonzaga is a heavy favorite to come out of the South Region. Otherwise, it’s even money between Oklahoma and Louisville in the East and Arizona and Wisconsin in the West.
If there’s one game you won’t want to miss, it’s #1 Wisconsin vs. #4 North Carolina on Thursday. Wisconsin, the power team while UNC is long and tall with excellent athletes. The contrasting styles should make for a hugely entertaining game.