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The Sweet 16 Features a Potential Team of Destiny and a Noticeable Lack of Duke

Ten thoughts from the tourney’s opening weekend

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

It took longer than many people hoped, but March finally delivered the madness in a big way over the weekend. After the first round of the NCAA tournament, 19 of the selection committee’s top 20 teams remained alive, with the only exception being no. 5 seed Minnesota, a program that was so overseeded that the Gophers were Las Vegas underdogs in their opening game against no. 12 seed Middle Tennessee. One round later, chaos has emerged as the true favorite of this tourney, and that annoying coworker you try your best to avoid cannot WAIT to tell you how busted his bracket is. (“Everything was going so well until the upsets starting happening! Isn’t that absurd?”) One no. 1 seed (Villanova) lost while two others (Gonzaga and North Carolina) survived close scares. Two no. 2 seeds (Duke and Louisville) and a no. 3 seed (Florida State) went down. There were a ton of close games, there was plenty of terrible officiating, and there was at least one instance of a head coach’s wife getting rowdy in the crowd. When the dust settled, the field of 68 had been trimmed to 16, and those who had complained about this tournament potentially being the most boring ever had gone back to reminding everyone they majored in journalism at Northwestern.

Here are my 10 takeaways entering the Sweet 16.

1. Conference pride is the dumbest thing about college sports.

As soon as the buzzer sounded on no. 7 seed Michigan’s 73–69 victory over no. 2 seed Louisville on Sunday afternoon, the talk of the internet became whether the Big Ten, which was complete trash from November through early March, had been underrated all season. At that time, the conference had four teams left in the field: Wisconsin (which beat the tournament’s no. 1 overall seed and defending national champion, Villanova), Purdue (which beat Big 12 tournament champ Iowa State), Michigan State (which beat the hell out of Miami in its first-round matchup but went on to lose to Kansas), and Michigan (which might be the hottest team in the country). Meanwhile, the ACC, which some argued during the regular season had a case for being the strongest conference ever, was then left with just North Carolina (which went on to barely edge Arkansas) and Duke (which went on to lose to South Carolina) as its representatives. Clearly this had to mean something, right?

Of course not. You know what Michigan beating Louisville and Wisconsin beating Villanova proved? That Michigan outplayed Louisville and that Wisconsin outplayed Villanova. How come everyone who gets so wrapped up in conference-pride bullshit always seems to move the goalposts with these arguments? What makes having the most Sweet 16 teams so much more important than a league getting the most teams into the tournament, having the most Final Four teams, or producing the national champion? And why are certain results conveniently ignored?

It makes no sense to claim that the Big Ten is great because Wisconsin and Michigan won and then pretend that Maryland and Minnesota didn’t lose to no. 11 and no. 12 seeds, respectively, in the first round. If Purdue beating Iowa State 80–76 proves that the Big Ten is superior to the Big 12, then what does Kansas demolishing Michigan State 90–70 signify? If Wisconsin beating Villanova 65–62 proves that the Big Ten is better than the Big East, then what does Xavier downing Maryland 76–65 tell us?

Who cares about any of this? How does this matter? I’m pretty sure the NCAA doesn’t hand out trophies to all the teams in the best conference in America (sorry, Rutgers), so instead of fighting about whether the ACC was overrated, what if we just watch the games, treat each team as an individual entity, and agree that whoever made that Gatorade commercial with all the athletes singing a cappella can go straight to hell?

2. The results of the tournament don’t prove whether the selection committee was right or wrong.

Since I’m already charged up, here’s another one of my pet peeves: Stop it with the “This game proves that the committee got it wrong!” garbage. It’s embarrassing how big of a thing after-the-fact complaining about seeding has become. Wichita State may or may not have gotten boned by landing a no. 10 seed, but that debate was no longer relevant once the tournament began because here’s a little nugget of truth nobody seems to care about: If you want to win a national title, at some point you have to beat great teams.

And isn’t determining a national champion all that matters? I understand why everyone gets excited about teams making it to certain stages of the tournament, but the committee’s only job is to set a field that will result in the crowning of one champ. So why are people complaining about Wichita State’s tight 65–62 loss to Kentucky proving that the Shockers should have gotten a better seed? Wichita State lost to the first great team it came up against! It was NEVER going to win the national title, so who (other than head coach Gregg Marshall and his agent) gives a damn that it went down in the second round instead of the Sweet 16?

And look, I was as pissed as anyone on Selection Sunday that Wisconsin got a no. 8 seed. I thought it deserved at least a no. 6 seed, and I could provide plenty of reasons why. But none of those include the Badgers’ victory over Villanova, because that’s not how tournament seeding works. You can’t just throw out four months of data because an upset happens. If that were the case and we used the tourney’s results to argue where teams should have been seeded, why do we look back on George Mason’s run to the 2006 Final Four as a Cinderella story? Shouldn’t we be upset that the committee TOTALLY SCREWED the Patriots out of the no. 1 seed they so clearly deserved with their 23–7 record from the Colonial Athletic Association?

3. College basketball referees are bad.

One more complaint: I hate it that officials don’t just “let the players play” when the game is on the line. I also hate it when calls aren’t made on plays like the Joel Berry II drive at the end of the North Carolina’s 72–65 win over Arkansas, when Berry collided with Adrio Bailey, traveled, threw the ball toward the basket, and was bailed out by Kennedy Meeks’s rebound and tip-in. In other words, I want the refs, in the split second they have to make a decision, to be able to tell the difference between a “Let the players play!” situation and a “You have to call that!” situation. I also want them to make all the calls that I would make, while at the same time avoiding the ones that I wouldn’t make. WHAT’S SO HARD ABOUT THAT?

Luke Kennard (Getty Images)
Luke Kennard (Getty Images)

4. We finally got a permanent answer: DUKE IS BACK … home in Durham.

The most entertaining individual team college basketball season of my lifetime came to an end on Sunday, as no. 2 seed Duke’s lack of a true point guard, defense, or any semblance of chemistry led to its demise in an 88–81 loss to no. 7 seed South Carolina. And while I know that many fans derive a specific kind of pleasure from seeing the Blue Devils bounced in the early rounds of the tournament, I want to take a moment to offer my sincere gratitude to Mike Krzyzewski, Jeff Capel, Grayson Allen, and everyone else involved in this program for providing me with the kind of content of which a college basketball writer can only dream. From the moment the whispers of 40–0 were silenced by #BIFM in Madison Square Garden in November, I knew there was something special about this Duke team.

But who could have predicted what would come. We got Allen tripping opponents and serving an “indefinite” one-game suspension; Coach K undergoing midseason back surgery that lent itself to countless conspiracy theories; Capel bombing in his audition to be Coach K’s eventual successor; Allen, Luke Kennard, and Jayson Tatum having a power struggle for the right to be called the best player on the roster; Allen ultimately getting benched; and the BACK/NOT BACK narrative roller coaster reaching a new high or low seemingly every week. Then there was the Blue Devils’ laundry list of injuries and illnesses, the “It’s unfair that we’re playing a little closer to South Carolina’s campus than ours despite being a higher seed” gripe, and whatever other adversity the Blue Devils could manufacture. And that’s not to mention Coach K choosing not to give Amile Jefferson a hug and/or words of encouragement as Jefferson, a fifth-year senior, walked off the court in a Duke uniform for the last time in his life.

Every day of the 2016–17 Duke season was a reality show that I never wanted to end. Yet here we are.

5. There can be only one Team of Destiny.

And it might be Michigan. Well, probably not. But maybe!

How about this: Michigan was a bad basketball team two months ago, then became an OK basketball team a month ago, and is now a good basketball team. As tempting as it is to credit the Wolverines’ hot streak to their plane scare prior to the Big Ten tournament, the truth is that their run of success dates back to February 4, when they lost to Ohio State 70–66 in Ann Arbor, triggering a feeling of embarrassment that can be felt only after dropping a home game to a rival having its worst season in over a decade. Since then, Michigan has not lost a game in regulation by more than one possession, and has beaten several tournament teams: Purdue (twice), Wisconsin (twice), Michigan State, Minnesota, Oklahoma State, and now Louisville.

Is Michigan the Team of Destiny? We’ll find out soon enough. Or maybe none of the off-the-court stuff matters and the Wolverines simply got significantly better as the season progressed.

6. The left side of the bracket is a wide-open mess, in a good way.

None of the remaining head coaches in the East and West regions have made it to a national title game, while only West Virginia’s Bob Huggins has reached the Final Four (he’s been twice). Meanwhile, the coaches on the right side of the bracket have a combined four national championships, 11 title game appearances, and 17 Final Fours. So all signs point to fresh blood going up against a seasoned veteran for the title, which is interesting given that the last four national title games have each featured a coach who had already won a title going up against one making his first championship game appearance. (The rookies and vets went 2–2 in those four games.)

De’Aaron Fox (Getty Images)
De’Aaron Fox (Getty Images)

7. The Kentucky-UCLA Sweet 16 matchup is going to melt my face off.

The first meeting between these teams this season took place on December 3 in Rupp Arena and served as the coming-out party for the Bruins. They beat the then-top-ranked Wildcats 97–92, looking completely unstoppable from start to finish. It was one of the five best matchups of 2016–17, for all the reasons that typically make games great: There was a ton of individual talent on display, the pace was frenetic but not chaotic, the stakes were as high as they could be for a December nonconference game (Kentucky was no. 1 in the AP poll and was riding a 42-game home winning streak), and the outcome wasn’t decided until the final minute of regulation.

I’m not sure how much that game matters in forecasting what to expect in the Sweet 16, since the first meeting was less of a tactical war and more of a glorified pickup game. But I’m willing to assume this much: The rematch will include a lot of points, a lot of highlights, and a lot of really talented basketball players being sent home before the Elite Eight.

8. The ghost of Robbie Hummel willed Kansas-Purdue to happen because he loves us very much.

The obvious story line entering this Sweet 16 matchup (excluding that it’s a rematch of the programs involved in Hummel’s final game at Purdue) is Boilermakers big man Caleb Swanigan being the only real challenger to Jayhawks point guard Frank Mason III for the Naismith Award. More interesting, though, is the fact that both of these teams present matchup nightmares for each other. Purdue’s Achilles’ heel on defense is containing explosive guards; that’s pretty much the only type of player that Kansas has on its roster. On the flip side, the Jayhawks have only one serviceable big man (Landen Lucas) to guard Swanigan, and he averages five fouls per 40 minutes played. Each team has a huuuuuge advantage over the other in some way, and it’ll to be fascinating to see how this plays out.

9. Oregon is lurking.

The Ducks, with a fully healthy roster, have lost only one game (a 74–65 defeat at Colorado) by more than four points in 2016–17. They have won 31 times, are the back-to-back Pac-12 regular-season champions, and just snapped Rhode Island’s nine-game winning streak. They lost only two meaningful players from last season’s Elite Eight squad, have a potential first-team All-American and the Pac-12 Player of the Year in Dillon Brooks, and are experienced, deep, and balanced — both in the way their production is distributed and in that they’re as good offensively as they are defensively.

I’m not saying I like Oregon to advance to the Final Four. I’m just saying in a Midwest region where Kansas is the no. 1 seed with the Player of the Year favorite, Purdue is the program with the dominant big man whose story will melt your heart, and Michigan is the Team of Destiny, the Ducks are quietly heading into the Sweet 16 with a roster good enough to win a national title.

10. This is the tournament of waterworks.

I’m only one man and therefore didn’t catch every second of tourney action the past four days (Lord knows I tried), but here’s how I saw it all play out.

Doug Collins got us started when he couldn’t contain his emotions after his son led Northwestern to its first NCAA tournament win. Then Nevada’s D.J. Fenner broke down as the Wolfpack lost to Iowa State, before Virginia’s London Perrantes joined the party when his college career ended with a second-round defeat at the hands of Florida. And, of course, the crying Northwestern kid highlighted an emotional weekend for everybody when he [insert joke about a crying 12-year-old that I’d totally make in private with my friends but I’d feel like an asshole if I made in public]. Sprinkled among all of that were the locker-room celebrations featuring coaches and players dousing each other with water — Northwestern, Wisconsin, Xavier, and Michigan all did it, with Wolverines head coach John Beilein using a suspiciously available Super Soaker. And to cap it off, South Carolina and head coach Frank Martin got in on the action after upsetting Duke, both with the outpouring of emotions and the literal pouring of water on one another in celebration.

Put it all together and it’s just another clear reminder: The NCAA tournament is the greatest goddamn thing in the world.