Fifty-two of the 68 NCAA Tournament teams have been sent packing, including a No. 1 seed (Villanova) and a pair of No. 2 seeds (Kansas and Virginia), which can only mean we’re down to another Sweet 16.
Sure enough, regional semifinal play tips off Thursday in Cleveland and Los Angeles and continues Friday in Syracuse and Houston. Half of the field is comprised of ACC (five) and Pac-12 (three) teams, but don’t overlook a pair of “mid-major” heavyweights in Gonzaga and Wichita State who own a combined record of 64–6 and are coming off impressive double-digit third-round beat-downs of power-five foes.
Kentucky, though, remains undaunted and unblemished at 36–0 and is the unquestioned team to beat as the overwhelming favorite to cut down the nets April 6 in Indy.
That much established, here are 17 points to ponder before Sweet 16 play gets underway.
1) When it comes to predicting Big Dance success, few metrics are more accurate than Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, and when it comes to the hoops guru’s current adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency measures—which calculate points per 100 possessions adjusted for opponents—Arizona and Kentucky are the only teams ranked in the top 10 in both categories. The West region’s No. 2 seed is ranked seventh offensively and third defensively, which bodes well for coach Sean Miller’s crew. Of the 11 teams to possess dual top-10 rankings over the last 10 seasons, 10 advanced to at least the Elite Eight, nine reached the Final Four, seven played in the national championship game, and five won it all. That makes it that much more of a shame that the two groups of Wildcats share the same side of this year’s bracket.
2) One of the few tasks tougher than spelling Mike Krzyzewski’s name is getting the best of Coach K’s Duke squad on the court. Still, that task hasn’t been quite as daunting in recent seasons. In the 16 seasons spanning 1985–2001, Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils posted a scary 55–12 (.821) NCAA tourney record with 12 Sweet 16 appearances—going 19–3 in the regional round—nine Final Fours, and a trio of national titles. In the 13 completed seasons since, Duke is still an impressive 28–12 (.700) with nine Sweet 16 showings but only has managed a 5–7 showing in the regional semis and finals while squeezing out two Final Four appearances and winning a lone championship. Hey, it’s all relative.
3) In examining another advanced hoops metric, Gonzaga currently tops all 351 Div. I teams in effective field goal percentage—which factors in the added difficulty of hitting three-pointers—at a robust 58.8 percent. Over the Bulldogs’ last three contests—two NCAA wins and the West Coast Conference championship game—that figure is an even more-impressive 63.1 percent. Overall, Gonzaga ranks first in field goal accuracy (52.2 percent) and ranks second in three-point percentage (41.1 percent).
4) Kentucky may be the first Div. I team to reach 36–0, but the Wildcats haven’t exactly played the toughest of schedules so far. Of the 16 remaining teams, only Gonzaga (84th), Notre Dame (94th), and Wichita State (120th) had RPI strength of schedule ratings lower than Kentucky’s 45th-ranked slate entering the postseason. Moreover, in the Wildcats’ last 21 games leading into the Big Dance (since the start of 2015), they only faced one opponent (Arkansas, twice) ranked in the RPI top 36.
5) Bad news for eighth-seeded North Carolina State and seventh-seeded Michigan State in the East Region semifinals: Fourth-seeded Louisville is 51–9 (.850) in games in which it boasts the higher seed since the NCAA began seeding the tournament field in 1979. A word of caution, though, for Cardinal Nation: All nine of the losses—along with 18 wins—have just happened to come when Louisville is a No. 4 seed.
6) Tom Izzo’s March mastery knows few bounds. He has the Spartans in the Sweet 16 for the 13th time in his 20 seasons and 18 NCAA Tournament berths in East Lansing. Izzo owns a 44–16 (.733) Big Dance record, and even more impressively, has guided Sparty into the Sweet 16 in eight more NCAA tourneys (13) than he has experienced opening-weekend exits (five).
7) Watch out Wisconsin: West Region four seed North Carolina has won its last 11 regional semifinal games (1993–2012) and owns a 25–7 all-time record in the round of 16—the best mark for any program that has made 15 or more regional semifinal appearances. It’s going to be tough, though, if the Tar Heels are without starting center Kennedy Meeks, the team’s third-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder, who suffered a knee injury late in the Heels’ third-round win over Arkansas.
8) It would seem that North Carolina State has a tough road ahead as the eighth and lowest remaining seed in the East. But not so fast. Since the tourney expanded to 64 teams in 1985, No. 8 seeds actually are 11–3 in the regional semis, 5–3 in the Elite Eight and 3–2 in the national semifinals, with the legendary 1985 Villanova squad notably winning it all. Now, all Mark Gottfried needs to do is channel his inner Jim Valvano.
9) Notre Dame has its sights set on earning the second Final Four berth in program history, but our good friend Mr. Pomeroy has some bad news. Through the hoops action of Monday, March 23, the Irish ranked 102nd in adjusted defensive efficiency at 99.4 points allowed—easily the worst of the 16 remaining teams. And when it comes to the national semis, only one of the last 40 Final Four teams (the Cinderella 2011 VCU squad at 84th) ranked outside the top 50 in the telling defensive metric.
10) When it comes to consistency, Oklahoma has it all over the other 15 Sweet 16 teams. The Sooners, the highest remaining seed in the South as a No. 3, is one of six teams nationally to have featured the same starting lineup—Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins, Jordan Woodard, Ryan Spangler, and TaShawn Thomas—in each game this season. Hield, Cousins, Woodard, and Spangler also started all 33 of Oklahoma’s games last season when the Sooners were one of seven teams to start the same quintet all year. Thomas has joined the bunch this year as a transfer from Houston after starting the first 96 games of his career with the Cougars. All five of the OU starters are producing as well, averaging at least 9.3 points per game.
11) As the only remaining double-digit seed in the bracket, 11th-seeded UCLA faces an uphill battle in the Sweet 16. However, it’s not as steep as one might believe. Since the ’85 tourney expansion, 17 No. 11 seeds have reached the round of 16, with six advancing to the Elite Eight and three—LSU in ’86, George Mason in ’06 and, yes, that 2011 VCU squad again—reaching the Final Four.
12) Utah has made it to the Sweet 16 as the No. 5 seed in the South, but do the Utes rely too heavily on the three-point shot? The stats would seem to say so as a full 37.7 percent of the team’s total field-goal attempts come from beyond the arc. Of the Sweet 16, only Notre Dame owns a higher percentage at 38.0, and the 13 Big Dance qualifiers—Belmont (47.8), Davidson (45.6), Eastern Washington (43.2), Villanova (42.9), North Florida (42.1), Boise State (41.5), Wyoming (40.0), VCU (39.9), Northern Iowa (39.9), Indiana (39.5), Oklahoma State (38.9), Maryland (38.6) and Dayton (38.2)—who hoisted an even greater percentage of their total shots from long range have all already headed home after combining to go 5–13.
13) Few teams clean the offensive glass as well as West Virginia, which is pacing the nation with 16.5 offensive rebounds per game and ranks seventh in offensive-rebound percentage (38.8). Of the Mountaineers’ fellow Sweet 16 teams, only North Carolina (12th with 14 offensive boards per game) also ranks in the top 20, and it could be West Virginia’s best hope against a towering Kentucky team, which surprisingly ranks only a modest 129th in defensive rebounding percentage at a flat 72 percent.
14) So which school has posted the best winning percentage over the last five seasons? Try Wichita State which is a gaudy 151–28 (.844) since the start of the 2010 campaign. The Shockers have posted three straight 30-win seasons and are the 10th Missouri Valley Conference team to reach the Sweet 16 since the tourney went to 64 teams. Only one of the previous nine, though, reached the Elite Eight (and, then, the Final Four). And, of course, it was Gregg Marshall’s 2013 Wichita crew, which fell to eventual national champion Louisville in the national semifinals.
15) Another key stat that typically portends NCAA success are road/neutral game wins, and no one in the Div. I ranks this season has compiled more than Wisconsin, which has recorded 18 of its 33 victories (and two of its three losses) outside of Madison this season. Gonzaga also boasts 18 road/neutral victories, while Kentucky has 17 and Arizona, Duke, and North Carolina have 16 apiece.
16) Only two teams in the current Sweet 16 field have failed to reach the Final Four. Gonzaga’s inability to crack the final foursome has been well documented this season, but it’s actually Xavier that owns the most NCAA tourney appearances (25) out of the current group without a national semifinal appearance. In fact, only BYU, with 29, has had more Big Dance appearances without a Final Four run. The Musketeers came the closest in 2004 and 2008 with losses in the regional finals.
17) Finally, before we leave you to the games themselves, take a moment to extend your condolences to the 11 states that somehow haven’t fielded a Sweet 16 representative since the tourney expanded to 40 teams in 1979. Well, that isn’t exactly fair as Alaska doesn’t field a Div. I team and the likes of New Hampshire, Vermont, and Hawaii only have a single D-I school. But the remaining seven—Colorado, Delaware, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, and the Dakotas—have less of an excuse. I’ll particularly single out my home state of Colorado, which fields five D-I programs yet still hasn’t managed to steal a single one of the 592 Sweet 16 spots over the last 37 tourneys. Sigh.