No impostors among this Sweet 16
Martin calls Sweet 16 spot 'unbelievable'
Two years ago, the first weekend of the NCAA tournament featured one of the low-key worst calls in recent March history.
SMU, a No. 6 seed experiencing its first tournament breakthrough of the Larry Brown restoration, led its first-round opponent -- 13-loss, 11-seed UCLA -- by two with 22 seconds remaining. The Bruins inbounded from the sideline. By design, guard Norman Powell circled right and drove to the baseline, while Bryce Alford used a backscreen on the opposite wing. By the time Powell's pass hit Alford in the short corner, however, SMU's rangy defenders had closed in. Alford retreated, circled back around another screen, and then -- despite having 12 seconds left, despite Markus Kennedy's towering contest -- flung an inexplicable fadeaway prayer from 23 feet.
The shot was so far off that SMU forward Yanick Moreira, fearing a UCLA putback, jumped to meet its trajectory as the ball flew wide of the rim. An official, standing at the most deceptive possible angle (and at least 30 feet from the rim) called Moreira for goaltending. He was wrong. UCLA won by one.
Earlier that day, 14th-seeded UAB shocked a disastrously casual Iowa State. Two days later, the overmatched, undersized Blazers got rolled. Just like that -- almost by accident -- the 2015 UCLA Bruins found themselves in the Sweet 16.
Good news: The 2017 NCAA tournament didn't make these mistakes.
If there is one thing each and every one of the 16 teams playing in New York, San Jose, Memphis and Kansas City next weekend have in common, it is that they did not arrive at this stage by accident.
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We can thank the 2017 tourney's unconventional methods for that. Thursday and Friday's first-round action was almost disconertingly sleepy, equally free of overtimes, underdogs and buzzer-beaters -- the good stuff, the stuff the first two days of the tournament usually serves in Cheesecake Factory-sized portions.
Yet this sleepy start came with a significant upside: A second-round chock-full of fascinating matchups between bona fide, high-quality (and, yes, sporadically mis-seeded) teams.
It didn't disappoint -- least of all on Sunday.
From start to finish, the second round's second day was a gem. Michigan's storybook postseason ride continued in Indianapolis, where the Wolverines' incredible versatility and all-cylinders cohesion carried them past No. 2 seed Louisville, one of the best teams and toughest tactical matchups John Beilein has played all season. Michigan made only six 3s, 10 fewer than in its one-point first-round win over Oklahoma State, and a Wolverines team that doesn't need to shoot the lights out to beat Louisville is a terrifying prospect indeed.
Equally terrifying? A Kentucky team that wins with its D. The Wildcats' win over Wichita State, a team with top-10 efficiency numbers laughably carrying a No. 10 seed, was punctuated by back-to-back blocks on the final two possessions of the game.
A little later North Carolina shot poorly, turned the ball over too much, and didn't come anywhere close to its nation's-best offensive rebounding prowess, and still managed to narrowly escape a game Arkansas upset bid. Oregon, the best shot-blocking team in the country this season, had to weather Rhode Island's 65 percent shooting from 2, an out-of-body experience by reserve guard Stanford Robinson, and a 7-of-22 night from Dillon Brooks to overcome Rhode Island in the closing moments in Sacramento. Baylor had to hold on for dear life against insurgent USC. Even Kansas and UCLA were in tight affairs until the final 10 minutes of respective wins over Michigan State and Cincinnati.
Then, of course, there was South Carolina -- which, you know, beat Duke.
Combined with Saturday's results (led by Wisconsin's upset of overall No. 1 seed Villanova), the 16 teams still standing have either (A) beat at least one really good team, (B) been challenged deep into the second half, (C) won despite not having their best stuff, or (D) all of the above.
The result is a fascinating mix of second-weekend matchups. UCLA and Kentucky, and all those brilliant freshmen on one floor. Gonzaga's inside-out attack against West Virginia's swarming, turnover-fueled D. Baylor and South Carolina, where makes will be at a premium. Michigan's ongoing scoring renaissance -- and Beilein's Super Soaker skills -- against an Oregon back line missing Chris Boucher's blocks but still winning all the same.
Arizona coach Sean Miller facing his former program Xavier; Butler and whatever it will cook up for North Carolina; Kansas facing the ultimate frontcourt test in Purdue; locked-in Wisconsin on a quest for its third Final Four in four years in a region that suddenly looks a lot more open to the idea.
Somehow, this group manages to straddle March's fundamental ideological divide: the desire for upsets on one hand, and the desire to see the best teams duke it out on the other. This Sweet 16 is chalky, but not too chalky; surprising, but not Butler-and-VCU-in-the-Final-Four surprising; full of great stories, but not to the detriment of high stakes.
(There are other themes at work here, too, especially if you're into ridiculous retroactive litigation about conference strength. The Big Ten was underrated! Eight of the ACC's nine teams are gone! Blah.)
Most of all, this Sweet 16 is defined by what it doesn't have: mistakes.
No one got lucky. No one avoided a test. No one stumbled backward, like Mr. Magoo, into a goal some other team more readily deserved. There were bad calls and mis-seedings this weekend, sure, but none so big that the teams that eventually emerged didn't deserve to do so.
Things don't always work out this way. Not long after the 2015 NCAA tournament, it became an article of faith that Steve Alford, in his first two seasons in Westwood, had taken UCLA to "two straight Sweet 16s." The details of how trip No. 2 came about, the caveats about the officials' goaltending gift, were almost immediately discarded from the narrative.
The shorthand exists because getting to the Sweet 16 means something. Or at least it should. In an ideal world, there is no 2015 UCLA. In a great Sweet 16, everyone belongs.
This? This is a great Sweet 16. Whatever else we'll say about 2017's unusual, uneven first weekend, we can't argue with the result. Because no one got here by accident.