Lack of NCAA tournament upsets has a bright side: the Sweet 16 is loaded with marquee matchups

Jeff Eisenberg

An unusually chalky opening weekend of the men’s NCAA tournament has produced a Sweet 16 only Greg Sankey could love.

There are no slingshot-wielding little guys left in the field, no semblance of small-conference charm.

NC State is the only double-digit seed still left in the field. An original ACC school with multiple national titles is no one’s idea of Cinderella.

Only Gonzaga and San Diego State remain from outside college basketball’s power conferences. Those two outgrew the mid-major label long ago.

The bright side to the Oaklands, Grand Canyons and James Madisons heading home early is a Sweet 16 overflowing with elite teams. Every top-two seed advanced to the second weekend for only the fifth time since the NCAA tournament bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

No. 1 seeds UConn, Purdue and North Carolina won every game they played by at least 16 points, though the Tar Heels did have to overcome an early 12-point deficit against Michigan State in the second round. Fellow No. 1 seed Houston worked much, much harder to hold off Texas A&M after fouling out four starters and blowing a 12-point lead at the end of regulation.

Marquette and Tennessee faced the stiffest test among the No. 2 seeds. The Golden Eagles survived Colorado guard J’Vonne Hadley’s attempt at a game-tying 3-pointer in the final minute. The Vols shot a dreadful 3-for-25 from behind the arc yet still narrowly edged Texas because they did not allow their shooting woes to drag down their elite defense.

It’s not just the NCAA tournament selection committee’s top eight teams that are still alive. Thirteen of the top 14 teams in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency rankings advanced to the Sweet 16, including Illinois, Creighton, Duke, Alabama and Gonzaga. The only team absent is Auburn, which suffered a stunning first-round loss to Yale on Thursday night.

The Sweet 16 matchups are as tantalizing as you’d expect given the brand-name heavyweights still left in the field. It’s hard to pick which of the eight games is the most intriguing.

It might be the matchup in Dallas between top-seeded Houston and a talented Duke team finally performing up to expectations. Or the showdown in Detroit between a Purdue team out for March redemption and a Gonzaga program seeking its first national title. Or the rematch of the UConn-San Diego State 2023 national title game in Boston. Or the fast-paced, high-flying North Carolina-Alabama game in Los Angeles.

The real winners here are CBS and TNT Sports, the TV networks that air the NCAA tournament broadcasts. Their ideal scenario is for the tournament’s opening weekend to produce a few big upsets and buzzy moments but for the established programs who draw big ratings to make it through.

For the most part, that’s what happened here.

The Davids took their shots but mostly missed the mark. Now the Goliaths are left to fight for the crown amongst themselves.