Cinderella didn’t get an invitation to this year’s ball.
And no, Oregon, you don’t count.
The 12th-seeded Ducks are joined in the South Region semifinals by No. 1 Virginia, No. 2 Tennessee and No. 3 Purdue. The seeds advancing in the other three regions: 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4 and 1-2-3-5. Not since 2009 had all the No. 1, 2 and 3 seeds made it past the first weekend.
That fifth-seeded party crasher is Auburn, the SEC Tournament champion, which faces North Carolina on Friday in the Midwest Region in Kansas City, Mo. In all, the power conferences make up 14 of the 16 teams.
The Tar Heels are one of five teams still alive from the ACC, including Virginia Tech, which is making its first trip to the Sweet 16 in 52 years. Auburn is joined by three of its SEC rivals, and the Big Ten’s three teams. Oregon is a bright mark on an otherwise forgettable season for the Pac-12.
Meanwhile, 31-win Houston is the lone team from the AAC, and Gonzaga — well, you know. The Zags are in the Sweet 16 for a nation’s-best sixth straight year.
While the tournament’s first two rounds were short on madness, there was plenty of star power.
Murray State’s Ja Morant recorded a triple-double in leading the Racers past Marquette in the opening round. Duke needed every one of star Zion Williamson’s 32 points to escape with a one-point win over UCF on Sunday. Gonzaga’s Brandon Clarke became the third player in tournament history to score 35-plus points (he had 36) with five blocked shots. And the sometimes-streaky Carsen Edwards scored 68 points on 13-for-28 shooting from deep in leading Purdue to two easy wins.
As the tournament approaches its second weekend, no result seems impossible.
Virginia (-8.5 over Oregon) is the biggest favorite on Thursday or Friday. But it isn’t hard to envision the flip-a-switch Ducks pulling the upset. Oregon was held scoreless for the first seven minutes of the second half on Sunday as UC Irvine erased a 12-point deficit. But the Ducks outscored the Anteaters 38-17 the rest of the way.
North Carolina has been shaky during the first halves of its first two games. The Tar Heels even trailed 16th-seeded Iona at halftime in the first round. Hoist-it-from-anywhere Auburn will pose a greater defensive challenge than the Gaels or Washington did.
Gonzaga has looked brilliant on offense through its first two games. “Gonzaga currently looks like the Harlem Globetrotters. Which isn’t good for Baylor,” Dana O’Neill, college basketball writer for The Athletic, wrote on Twitter. On Thursday, though, the Bulldogs face long-and-lean Florida State, the team that eliminated them in last year’s Sweet 16.
And then there’s Duke.
The Blue Devils survived two last-second shot attempts by UCF to advance. On Friday, they’ll face a Virginia Tech team that beat them last month (granted, Williamson was not on the floor that day) with a possible Elite Eight meeting with Michigan State looming.
Let’s take a Sweet 16 do-over.
East Region: Mike Krzyzewski motivates his young Blue Devils to play beyond their years, blow past Virginia Tech and edge Michigan State to move on to Minneapolis.
South Region: With a healthy Killian Tillie and key minutes from backup point guard Geno Crandall, Gonzaga gets past Florida State and Texas Tech to return to the Final Four.
South Region: Tennessee’s experience and offensive firepower prove just enough to outlast Virginia in the regional final.
Midwest Region: Auburn and Houston both pull off mild upsets in the Sweet 16, and the Tigers make enough 3-pointers to beat the Cougars and advance to their first Final Four.
Final Four: Gonzaga’s ability to match Duke’s talented front-court stars and better perimeter shooting helps the Zags beat the Blue Devils for the second time this season. In another rematch, the Bulldogs handle the Volunteers, avenging a December loss and completing the school’s 20-year journey to the top of college basketball.
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