We’ve had our fun. Thursday and Friday were wild, but surely things are settling down now, right?
After all, on Saturday, all those plucky and lovable double-digit seeds went just 1-3, the lone survivor being Gonzaga. When a team as talented as the Bulldogs is your solitary example of bracket madness in the Sweet 16, maybe things have been more sane than we think. And yet …
There are six double-digit seeds very much alive and well on Sunday, and we know in advance that we’re guaranteed to see at least one of these teams in the Sweet 16. Tenth-seeded Syracuse will face off against No. 15 seed Middle Tennessee in St. Louis, with the victor proceeding to a regional semifinal. Double-digit fratricide is guaranteed in that one.
Conversely, if you’re looking for good old-fashioned favorite-versus-underdog fare, four of Sunday’s games definitely meet your needs. If the lower seed wins none or even just one of these games, then it’s fair to say the bracket has now officially come to order. On the other hand, if the underdog wins all four, this bracket has now come to represent chaos in its most perfect March form.
Meet Sunday’s David-and-Goliath quartet
Let’s begin our tour with No. 14 seed Stephen F. Austin and No. 6 Notre Dame, because your smug and oh-so-analytical acquaintances on Twitter will be all over this one. They might say, “The Lumberjacks are just as good as Mike Brey’s team. Thomas Walkup and his teammates aren’t true underdogs at all!”
Well, your smug acquaintances may have a point. The Fighting Irish looked far more like the Pacifist, Disinterested and Actually Kind of Sleepy Irish on offense from the beginning of their loss to North Carolina in the ACC tournament up until halftime of their eventual win against Michigan on Friday.
That being said, Brey’s men did round into form in the second half against the Wolverines. They’ll need to carry that performance forward to prevail against Walkup’s devastating (not too strong a word — ask Bob Huggins) combination of interior scoring, passing and defense.
While we’re on the subject of games that may be closer than the seeding suggests, Maryland is going to have to meet the challenge posed by Stefan Jankovic, Roderick Bobbitt and Hawaii. Jankovic is one of those “mobile bigs” you hear about, and on occasion, he has been known to bury opponents slowly and cumulatively with made free throws. That may not be so easy, however, against a Terrapins defense that posted one of the lowest foul rates in Big Ten play.
Rounding out our quartet are two contests in Oklahoma City, where fans will be treated to an all-Cinderella-or-bust session. First, Oklahoma will face a VCU team that commemorated Oregon State’s first tournament appearance in 26 years by promptly sending the Beavers back to Corvallis. The committee may have given Will Wade’s team a No. 10 seed because the Rams lost five times to teams that didn’t make the field of 68 this season. This particular team that dropped five decisions to non-tournament competition, however, is perfectly capable of giving the Sooners a game, even in Oklahoma City.
Lastly, Texas A&M can reach its first Sweet 16 in nine years with a win over Northern Iowa. The Panthers are here courtesy of the spectacular, half-court, banked-in buzzer-beater that Paul Jesperson hit against Texas. From this point forward, I am referring to all such heaves — ones where the bank, as they say, is definitely open — as “Jespersons.” Consider this your invitation to get in on that ground floor.
Nevertheless, the day won’t be devoted entirely to double-digit seeds. In fact, for six Sunday teams, the brackets have actually held true thus far (shocking, I know). The result is three games that could give us the other kind of hoops we yearn for in March. We love the upsets, but (no contradiction here) we also want to see some high-potential heavyweights stay in the hunt. Three of Sunday’s games feature worthy candidates for most-favored-team status.
Villanova vs. Iowa and history — which opponent is stronger?
Sunday tips off with one of these celebrations of single-digit-hood, as No. 7 seed Iowa will try to hang the “underachieving higher seed” label on the second-seeded Wildcats for a third consecutive season. In the past two rounds of 32, Connecticut topped Nova in 2014 and NC State upset Jay Wright’s team in 2015.
If you’re Wright, the question is simply which Iowa shows up. Will it be the one that played like an NCAA tournament No. 1 seed in January, or the one that lost to Illinois in the Big Ten tournament just 10 days ago? Wright’s reputation in March (fairly or unfairly) hangs in the balance.
High seeds going unnoticed in a good way: Oregon and Xavier
When you’re a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed and no one’s really talking about you in a year of rampant bracket destruction, that’s a good thing. No one’s talking about Oregon or Xavier yet, but fate has thrown very worthy opponents into each team’s path.
Chris Mack’s Musketeers will take on Wisconsin, victors over Pittsburgh in the third-lowest-scoring tourney game in the shot clock era. And in the nightcap, the Ducks will play a versatile Saint Joseph’s team that defeated Cincinnati by the slimmest of margins.
In other words, on Sunday, you’ll find 16 teams ranging in seeds from Nos. 1 all the way to 15. Within that group, there awaits the bracket’s most riveting tale of multiyear round of 32 woe, its most famous beard and quite possibly a future national champion. Perhaps the fun isn’t over yet, after all.