This year’s NCAA Tournament, as in the past, has already featured a host of exciting games. Thus far, basketball fans have had the pleasure of witnessing shocking upsets and stellar individual performances. A good deal of hype surrounded this year’s Duke squad, for instance, but Mercer defeated the Blue Devils in a tense round-of-64 matchup. Mercer, in turn, looked to have its eye on the glass slipper, but Tennessee convincingly beat them in the round of 32. Playing with a collective chip on their shoulders, the Dayton Flyers are the only team from Ohio remaining, as they upset Ohio State, and Harvard defeated Cincinatti. The Kentucky Wildcats managed to vanquish the well-coached Wichita State Shockers, the only undefeated team going into the tournament. With regard to individual performances, Michigan State’s Adrien Payne scored 41 points in the team’s round-64 matchup against Delaware, and Iowa State’s DeAndre Kane willed his team to victory over North Carolina. Indeed, there has not been a dearth of excitement and energy in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
As opposed to who’s still in the Tournament, some of the most interesting storylines have to do with who’s already out. This season’s most eulogized freshmen—Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, and Tyler Ennis—are all done for the season. Syracuse, Ennis’ squad, started the season off 25-0 before struggling down the stretch. Although the team had difficulty scoring the ball throughout the season, their failure to reach the Sweet 16 surprises many. Andrew Wiggins, who might become the first overall selection in the upcoming NBA Draft, only managed 4 points in Kansas’ loss—an unfortunate way to end his collegiate career. Of course, the Wichita State Shockers’ absence from the sweet 16 is noteworthy. Irrespective of their unblemished record coming into the Tournament, the Shockers advanced to last year’s Final Four, and the key pieces from that squad returned this season. Given the single-elimination nature of the Tournament, these kinds of stories emerge each season, though they still come as a surprise for many fans.
If a host of March Madness storylines concern who’s out, that does not mean that this year’s Sweet 16 lacks noteworthy stories. Indeed, analysts continue to invoke the Tournament’s new buzzword, parity, when discussing this year’s field. The last decade of NCAA Tournaments has witnessed a paradigm-shifting accretion of talent throughout the nation, as Mid-Major schools continue to close the gap between them and the once-almighty schools from Major conferences. As such, this year’s Sweet 16 features no clear-cut favourites, and expert statisticians inclined to wager money on a particular team will have a tough time. This year’s Sweet 16, moreover, is freighted with storylines that transcend the action on the floor. For example, which brother’s team—Archie Miller’s Dayton Flyers or Sean Miller’s Arizona Wildcats—will advance farther in the Tournament? When in-state rivals Kentucky and Louisville faceoff, who will vanquish whom? These kinds of stories add a good deal of gravitas to an already serious affair.
This list, then, looks at ten interesting storylines from this year’s Sweet 16. The following stories are noteworthy for manifold reasons, and will mean more to certain fans than others. The future’s opacity imbues these mini-narratives with excitement, as fans bide their time in anticipation, eagerly awaiting the lucidity of a final result. It should be noted that this list does not attempt to rank these storylines in order of importance; they are randomly numbered.
10. Michigan State Spartans
Michigan State’s run through the Tournament this year is interesting for a number of reasons. Since President Obama picked them to go to the Final Four, the Spartans have been a trendy favourite among rank-and-file fans. Indeed, the team that started the year off as the nation’s first ranked team struggled in the second half of the season, but has begun playing its best ball in the postseason. Experts and fans alike have begun to recognize. The Spartans are deep, talented, and well-coached; they can beat you inside and outside, on the run and in the half-court set. Tom Izzo’s ability to continually put forth a competitive team cannot be overstated; he is one of the nation’s best coaches. On that note, one of the reasons to watch the Michigan State Spartans in the Sweet 16 is to see whether or not Izzo can get another group of seniors back to the Final Four. Since taking over as Sparty’s head coach, Izzo has succeeded in taking all his classes of seniors to at least one Final Four.
9. Stanford vs. Dayton
Stanford and Dayton’s respective runs through this year’s NCAA Tournament have surprised many fans and experts alike. A traditionally powerful Pac-12 school, Stanford has floundered the past several years, but Johnny Dawkins has done an admirable job of resuscitating the basketball program at the school. Stanford’s round-of-32 upset of Kansas nevertheless comes as a bit of a shock, especially given the hype surrounding Kansas’ talented freshmen, Andrew Wiggins. An injury to the squad’s only true point guard somewhat hampers their ability to move the ball and deal with full-court pressure, but the team has talented frontcourt players, who play key roles on both offense and defense. On the other hand, the Dayton Flyers were on few people’s radar coming into the Tournament. While analysts showed little amazement over Dayton’s defeat of Ohio State, the team’s fortitude in beating Syracuse definitely attracted attention. When this game between Stanford and Dayton is over, either an eleventh seed or tenth seed will advance to the Elite Eight.
8. SEC Teams
Before this Tournament, the SEC looked like a struggling conference. Analysts routinely pointed to the SEC as the worst Major conference in basketball. Indeed, only three SEC teams, the lowest number of teams from a Major conference, were selected to play in this year’s Tournament. After the first weekend of the Tournament, however, the SEC remains undefeated, as all three teams have advanced to the Sweet 16. The Tennessee Volunteers are one of the Tournament’s most surprising teams, as they were given one of the last at-large bids and had to play in the first round of games to earn a spot in the field of the final 64 teams. The Kentucky Wildcats convincingly advanced to the Sweet 16 by knocking off Wichita State, and they look poised to make a deep run. The Florida Gators also look poised to make a deep run, as a talented group of upperclassmen lead the team into its Sweet 16 matchup with UCLA. These teams’ collective success illustrates the futility of making predictions in college basketball.
7. Louisville vs. Kentucky
The game between the Louisville Cardinals and Kentucky Wildcats will probably be one of the most exciting Sweet 16 matchups to watch, since the teams are in-state rivals. Indeed, sports are always a fun and exciting way for fans and students to hash out their collegiate rivalries, and this game will certainly engender a tense atmosphere of contention and bitterness. The battle of the Kentucky powerhouses will also feature a noteworthy battle between the two coaches. Rick Pitino, Louisville’s coach, and John Calipari, Kentucky’s coach, are among the nation’s best collegiate coaches, and each coach is aware of the other. As two dissimilar coaching philosophies and recruiting paradigms go head to head, who will defeat whom?
6. One-and-Dones versus Upperclassmen
Since the NBA stopped allowing high school players to opt for the draft, there has been a wealth of talented basketball players who have come to various campuses for a year before leaving for the NBA. This year is no exception, as players with the NBA on their mind pervade collegiate rosters. However, the jury is still out as to whether or not this kind of player helps or hinders a program. Although many potential one-and-dones are already out of this year’s Tournament, the Sweet 16 still features some interesting matchups between talented freshmen and experienced upperclassmen. In particular, the Louisville and Kentucky matchup will feature a battle between Louisville’s battle-tested upperclassmen and Kentucky’s talented, if raw, underclassmen.
5. University of Connecticut’s Rebirth
After winning the Tournament in 2011 and losing beloved coach Jim Calhoun in 2012, the UConn Huskies have somewhat fallen from their pedestal of basketball glory. Kevin Ollie, however, has rebuilt the team, reinvigorating the program with a batch of new recruits to help the last of Calhoun’s recruits. The Huskies surprisingly knocked off the Villanova Wildcats in the teams’ round-of-32 matchup. As a corollary, the Huskies are officially on everybody’s radar. The Huskies will play the Iowa State Cyclones in the Sweet 16. Like the Huskies, the Cyclones are coached by a former NBA player in Fred Hoiberg. This game will be an exciting one, and the Huskies will probably rely on their talented upperclassmen, Shabazz Napier, who has carried the team all year.
4. Mid-Major Successes
As in the past, teams from Mid-Major conferences have played well in this year’s Tournament, and a couple of Mid-Major teams are still alive. Given the parity in college basketball, however, this year’s Sweet 16 appears to have a dearth of Mid-Major teams dappling the bracket—but perhaps that is a sign of parity, since several Mid-Major teams who have lost were ranked higher than traditional powerhouses coming into the Tournament. Regardless, San Diego State and Dayton are the Mid-Major conferences’ last hope for success against the exceedingly well-funded teams from Major conferences. San Diego State will play Arizona, and Dayton will play Stanford.
3. Brotherly Love—Archie/Sean Miller and Andrew/ Aaron Harrison
This year’s Sweet 16 features two sets of brothers: Archie and Sean Miller and Andrew and Aaron Harrison. The former set coach Dayton and Arizona, respectively. Archie Miller, in fact, was an assistant coach on Sean Miller’s staff before accepting the job at Dayton, and now Archie looks to be in the better position of moving on to the Elite Eight. Arizona will have a tough time in its game against the well-coached San Diego State Aztecs. It would make exciting drama if the brothers’ respective teams met down the line in this year’s Tournament. Unlike the Millers, Andrew and Aaron Harrison play on the same Kentucky squad. The Harrisons’ collective contribution to their team helped Kentucky beat Wichita State. If Kentucky is going to beat Louisville, Andrew and Aaron Harrison’s play will be a significant factor.
2. Michigan’s Surprising Success
Although the Michigan Wolverines advanced to the Finals of last year’s Tournament, they lost their best players—Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr.—to the NBA. Moreover, the squad has been without its best player, Mitch McGarry, for most of the season. Despite these obstacles, the team has had a dominant season, winning the Big Ten regular season title. Nik Stauskas, who was a spot shooter for last year’s squad, has ascended to become one of the NCAA’s scariest scorers, as he can light up scoreboards with his torrid shooting. Stauskas will have to continue his excellent play if the team wants to advance to the Elite Eight. Michigan will play the hungry Tennessee Volunteers in the Sweet 16, a matchup that will be tough for John Beilein’s squad.
1. Rematch of 2006 Final: Florida vs. UCLA
A lot has happened since 2006, but Florida and UCLA are back in the Sweet 16, playing each other for the first time since 2011. The two teams memorably met in the Finals of the 2006 Tournament—a game that featured several future NBA players. This year, though, the Bruins are without their coach from 2006, Ben Howland, whom the administration fired before this season. Billy Donovan, who coached Florida to back-to-back championships from 2006-2007, is still the coach of the Florida Gators, a team glutted with talented upperclassmen. Florida has become a trendy pick to win it all, but UCLA is no pushover. This game should be an exciting one, and, if nothing else, it will remind fans and experts of those powerful teams from 2006.