Entering the Sweet 16, somehow, the NCAA tournament’s South region was already busted. The quadrant’s four highest seeds lost during the Dance’s first weekend, leaving fifth-seeded Kentucky as the section’s only hope for normalcy. The path to the Final Four was clear: In the Sweet 16, John Calipari’s squad was matched with lowly ninth-seeded Kansas State, and after that, they would play either seventh-seeded Nevada or 11th-seeded Loyola-Chicago for a spot in the national semis. But the wrong Wildcats won on Thursday night. With the 61-58 victory, Kansas State further cluttered one of the most confusing regions in history by winning a game that was equally puzzling. Bruce Weber’s team won while running out of people to put on the court: Two KSU players racked up four fouls, and another three fouled out altogether.
That included Xavier Sneed and his game-high 22 points and team-high nine boards. So, with the game tied and the clock winding down, the ball ended up in the hands of guard Barry Brown, who had no problem getting to the hole.
With that bucket, Brown erased each silky shot from Kevin Knox and each foul strategically (and quite liberally) drawn by PJ Washington. Kansas State was finally the superior Cats, beating Kentucky for the first time in program history.
Two birds, one Barry Brown basket: It was also a first for coach John Calipari. Before Thursday, he had never lost a Sweet 16 game as the head coach at Kentucky. And those two firsts set up another: Never before have a 9-seed (Kansas State) and an 11-seed (Loyola-Chicago) met in the Elite Eight. The night brought one more new happening: The NCAA as we know it now, a 64-team tournament, had only ever had two no. 9 seeds make it to the Elite Eight. With Loyola and Florida State, which took down Gonzaga on Thursday, winning, that total doubled.
The first weekend of the tournament set the South up for this unprecedented path: Buffalo ran circles around Arizona on opening day until they fell down—watch out next round, K-State; no Wildcats are safe in 2018—and just like that, NBA birdwatchers had their Deandre Ayton time cut short. It was the year’s biggest first-round upset … for less than 24 hours. Virginia, the tournament’s top overall seed, was toppled by UMBC, a true 16-seed that became the first bottom seed in 136 tries to win its first-round matchup. And two days later, the region’s 2-seed, Cincinnati, was downed by seventh-seeded Nevada.
Perhaps nothing has been stranger than the persistence of Loyola-Chicago—and more importantly, 98-year-old team chaplain Sister Jean—which has done its part to Keep the Region Weird. The Ramblers have won their three tournament games so far by a combined four points—first Donte Ingram sank a buzzer-beating, Hail Mary of a 3-pointer against Miami to win, 64-62; then in the second round, Clayton Custer’s Our Father jumper bounced in with 3.6 seconds left against Tennessee. On Thursday, they slipped away with yet another close win, edging Nevada 69-68.
There’s only one more round that will be played exclusively in the South region. After that, we’ll see what happens when divine intervention touches the Final Four.