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Will the March Madness ‘year of the underdog’ continue in the NCAA tournament Sweet 16?

Brackets are busted all over the college basketball universe as March Madness enters the Sweet 16, with the likes of Oral Roberts, Oregon State, Loyola Chicago and even past heavyweights that were not supposed to have the firepower to make it here, such as UCLA and Syracuse, surviving and advancing to the NCAA tournament regional semifinals. At the same time, most of the cream has risen to the top — No. 1 seeds Gonzaga, Baylor and Michigan, who were the nation’s three best and most consistent teams for most of the 2020-21 season, have their national title hopes very much intact entering the weekend’s contests.

In advance of Saturday’s Sweet 16 (that’s a strange phrase to write), ESPN.com’s college basketball team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi weighed in on who would win the game’s tug-of-war between the underdogs and acknowledged powerhouses, why the Big Ten and Big 12 have struggled in this tournament, and which team we didn’t think was a national title contender has the best chance to keep winning. Follow this link for Saturday’s NCAA tournament tip times, and visit here to fill out a second-chance March Madness bracket.

The Sweet 16 field reflects something of a “year of the underdog” in the NCAA tournament. Why do you think so many teams that were not supposed to be here have broken through, and do you expect to see any double-digit seeds in the Elite Eight?

Medcalf: I don’t know if there is a logical explanation, to be honest. I do think the truncated preseason and nonconference season meant that we didn’t get the typical two-month snapshot of these teams. Think about Loyola Chicago. Its only Power 5 opportunity prior to the NCAA tournament came against Wisconsin. And the only reason that happened was because Northern Iowa had to withdraw from its scheduled matchup with the Badgers due to COVID-19. So Loyola Chicago played on short notice and lost by double-digits. The lopsided nature of that game suggested the Ramblers couldn’t play with the top-tier teams. But maybe it was just Porter Moser having only a few hours — the Rambers had played Illinois Chicago 48 hours before that loss — to prepare for a good team. With a traditional season, we might have had more time to see the flaws in these teams that could become greater challenges down the line.

This explanation makes sense only if the chaos continues and a double-digit seed cracks the Elite Eight, although it won’t be an easy task. Syracuse might have the best shot simply because Houston hasn’t fared as well against the quality teams on its roster.

Borzello: All season, we talked about how, outside of Gonzaga and Baylor and at times Michigan, the rest of the country didn’t really have too much separation. We’ve seen that play out during the NCAA tournament. Was there really a huge difference between Texas as a 3-seed and Oklahoma as an 8-seed? Illinois and Loyola Chicago were separated by six spots at KenPom entering the NCAA tournament. I think the lack of an extended nonconference schedule and teams testing themselves outside of the league played a part in the difficulty in seeding, compared to previous seasons. I also think everyone being on the same playing field in terms of travel and lack of crowds played a role.

I’m not completely sold that we’ll see any double-digit seeds in the Elite Eight. I think Oregon State and Oral Roberts will both fall in the Sweet 16, with the best shots for a double-digit seed advancing coming from UCLA and Syracuse. If UCLA can continue getting excellent perimeter production from Jaime Jaquez and Johnny Juzang, the Bruins will have a shot at Alabama — but I just think the Crimson Tide are too good defensively and can make too many 3s to lose. Then there’s Syracuse. Houston has struggled at times against zones this season, most notably against Tulsa in the first meeting against the Golden Hurricane, but I think Kelvin Sampson having a few extra days to prepare should help.

Gasaway: Even among the double-digit seeds, maybe we’re talking about two different levels of underdogs. Already on Selection Sunday night, for example, it was clear that ESPN.com’s Giant Killers model loved UCLA’s chances against BYU. Once the Bruins were in the round of 32, they faced a No. 14 seed in Abilene Christian. A similar process has played out with Syracuse, which absolutely flummoxed San Diego State with a zone defense and then survived a three-point game against West Virginia.

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Stephen A. is so hyped he can’t stop saying Oral Roberts

Stephen A. Smith gets hyped about how well Oral Roberts is playing in the NCAA tournament.

By contrast, the real underdogs are arguably Oregon State and Oral Roberts. The Beavers have improved by leaps and bounds on defense at a really convenient time of year, while the Golden Eagles have ridden the one-two combination of Max Abmas and Kevin Obanor. In short, ORU is here because those guys are great, but OSU’s day-and-night transformation remains something of a mystery to this observer. (Tennessee and Oklahoma State shot just 24% on their 3s, which would seem to indicate that Oregon State has been fortunate. Yet those same opponents also missed their 2s.) March, go figure.

Lunardi: I’m always amazed at the level of astonishment that accompanies NCAA tournament upsets. We often react like it has never happened before, when, in fact, the “upset” is when it doesn’t. Not to get all KenPom or Gasaway on everyone, but a 70-possession game played by college kids is always going to have a lot more variance than, say, a 700-possession NBA playoff series played by grown men. I mean, the Pomeroy model gave Abilene Christian a 25% chance over Texas and Loyola Chicago a 35% chance over Illinois. I don’t know how Ken weighs things like intrastate bragging rights or Sister Jean scouting reports, but those aren’t very long odds even without the intangibles. If any of us were told there was one chance in three or four of becoming billionaires by jumping head-first into a 45-degree ocean, we’re all sprinting across the beach.

Looking ahead, the KenPom model gives UCLA the best chance to advance among the remaining double-digit seeds. But I’m going with Syracuse. Although Houston has to be considered a slight favorite to emerge from the Napoleon (blown-apart, get it?!?) Midwest Region, we’ve seen this movie quite a few times in recent years. And it’s always Jim Boeheim left smirking at the closing credits, this time with a Buddy by his side.

College hoops observers have made a sport out of ragging on the Big Ten and Big 12 this week, after the two most dominant leagues in the game during the regular season were left with a single team each on the second weekend. What do you make of those conferences’ showings in this event? Is the criticism fair?

Borzello: The criticism is certainly fair. The Big Ten looked like the best league in a long time during the regular season, and it has just Michigan left standing. Proponents of the Big 12 said its league had more potential in March than the Big Ten, upward of seven teams that could win games in the tournament — and it has just Baylor left standing. Like I said above, the lack of extended nonconference schedule played a part in establishing these lofty regular-season reputations, especially in the case of the Big Ten.

Some of it is the variance of a single-elimination tournament and the Madness of March, but the leagues clearly didn’t live up to their reputations last week. I don’t think entire narratives and trends can be developed based solely off of one game in March — one of my favorite sayings on the coaching carousel is, “You shouldn’t hire someone on April 1 that you wouldn’t have hired on March 1” — but that’s the nature of college basketball. We’ll see next season if it has any lasting impact on the perception of either league.

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What’s the reason for the Big Ten’s struggles in the NCAA tournament?

Jay Bilas struggles to explain why only Michigan remains of the nine teams that made the NCAA tournament in the Big Ten.

Gasaway: If either the Big Ten or the Big 12 had advanced as many teams as the brackets would allow to the second weekend, that league’s head office would be churning out news releases right now about this historically great tournament performance. This is the way the game is played, reputations are made in March. I don’t suppose the Pac-12 is one of the greatest conferences of all time, but it sure has recorded one of the best tournament performances we’ve seen in a very long while. The Big Ten and the Big 12 had lofty ambitions, and the nature of the NCAA tournament is that we see those expectations crushed within an incredibly short period of time. It’s shocking, and the reactions you hear echo that fact. The criticism won’t always be fair, no, but it is entirely understandable.

Lunardi: My heart says it’s extremely fair to point out that three Jesuit basketball schools — Gonzaga, Creighton and Loyola Chicago — remain in the Sweet 16, which is more than the Big Ten and Big 12 combined(!). My head knows that the vagaries of March produce these seemingly inexplicable outcomes pretty much every year.

To me, just about the dumbest thing athletic directors do is evaluate, fire and hire coaches based on four days in March instead of the four-month season that precedes it. Yet we see it year after year after year. Is Bill Self a bad coach because he has only one national championship at Kansas? Or is he a great coach because he has 19 consecutive NCAA bids with no worse than a No. 4 seed? Has the Pac-12 eclipsed the NBA’s Pacific Division because three of its four tourney teams got hot at the right time? Or is it the weakest power conference because it gets the fewest NCAA bids on an annual basis?

To quote the old Wendy’s commercials, I’ll take “Burger B.”

Medcalf: If you’re going to tout your league as a “gauntlet” — a word players, coaches and athletic directors love to use in those leagues — throughout the regular season, then you have to be accountable when everything crumbles in March again. The criticism is legit. Overall, I think this says more about the expanding landscape and the idea that the “bluebloods” might be evolving into antiquated idea.

Loyola Chicago is in its second Sweet 16 appearance in three years. Two lottery picks play in Spokane, Washington. The projected top pick played in Stillwater, Oklahoma. These leagues have a lot of talent but they’re also facing more competition than they ever have. The Big 12 is losing Lon Kruger. Kansas is a mystery with a lingering NCAA decision and uncertainty on the recruiting trail. Texas hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game under Shaka Smart. And the Big Ten has promoted its “best conference in America” status for years. But the deep runs haven’t led to a national title in more than 20 years. More than anything, people will continue to dismiss the regular-season results in both leagues after weak outings for both conferences.


A couple of weeks ago the esteemed college basketball writer and author of books John Gasaway identified eight teams that were true national contenders. Of that group, Alabama, Baylor, Gonzaga, Houston, and Michigan remain in this field. (Colorado, Illinois and Iowa are gone). Which means 11 of the Sweet 16 teams fell short of John’s bar. Which of those 11 could you make the best case for right now … and John, we’ll let you have the final word here.

Lunardi: At the time I remember thinking, “John, if it were me, I’d have swapped USC for Colorado” among his chosen true title contenders. If only because I thought USC’s freshman sensation Evan Mobley was the most impactful player not on his list. And the Trojans also boast a truly undervalued supporting cast.

Disregarding USC’s misfortune of being in Gonzaga’s bracket, I still believe the Trojans are the best team among the “non” 11 (and I suspect pretty much every Kansas fan in America would agree). Are they going to win the national championship? Probably not. But we said the same thing about Carmelo Anthony and Syracuse in 2003. That’s my comp.

Borzello: This esteemed college basketball insider and courier of coaching carousel scuttle will go with Florida State. The Seminoles are not as good defensively as they’ve been the past few years under Leonard Hamilton, but they’re also significantly better shooting the ball from the perimeter, which cuts down on some of the scoring droughts they’ve experienced in the past. Now, they tend to turn the ball over a ton, which can be an issue, but Michigan and potentially Alabama don’t thrive too much on turnovers. Florida State is also bigger than any team in the country and deeper than most teams left in the field, and it can simply overwhelm opponents at times. The Noles also tend to play their best in the biggest games of the season — a stretch against Michigan, Alabama, Gonzaga and Baylor would certainly qualify.

Medcalf: I’ll go with Arkansas. Its potential path to the Final Four will demand a win over Oral Roberts, the second 15-seed to reach the Sweet 16, and then a victory over Baylor, a great team that lost its only games of the year in the past month, and a Villanova team moving forward without starting point guard Colin Gillespie. While Arkansas battled Texas Tech in the second round, it was another matchup that involved a good team falling short against the Razorbacks. Only Oklahoma State (Cade Cunningham scored 21 points) and LSU (Cameron Thomas and Javonte Smart combined to score 40) have found a way to beat the Razorbacks in more than two months. They’re a balanced group (top three in offensive and defensive efficiency in the SEC).

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Sister Jean and Loyola Chicago celebrate the upset over No. 1 seed Illinois

Loyola Chicago knocks off No. 1 seed Illinois and celebrates on the floor with Sister Jean in the crowd.

Gasaway: (Correction: “author of book,” singular.) Now, I’ll add Loyola Chicago to my charmed circle of teams. My selection is driven in part by concern for previously selected Houston when it goes against the Syracuse zone. The good news is the Cougars will get offensive rebounds galore. The bad news is they might go and miss that next shot too. If that does happen and the Orange advance, though, I like the Ramblers’ chances in that regional final. (Assuming, of course, Porter Moser’s group makes its way past a suddenly formidable Oregon State team.) Loyola’s games tend to be defensive struggles in any event, and I don’t envision the Ramblers allowing Buddy “Buckets” Boeheim to go wild.

Which remaining team in the field would it most shock you to see still standing in the Elite Eight?

Medcalf: UCLA. Alabama has won eight in a row. All but three of those games were decided by double-digit margins. Alabama is a difficult matchup for any team in America because of its defensive versatility. I think the Crimson Tide will have a game plan to slow Johnny Juzang down. The Bruins have played at one of the slowest tempos in the league, contrasting Alabama’s up-and-down style. But the beauty of Alabama’s success this season is that it plays fast without being sloppy. What Mick Cronin has done with a group that lost key standout Chris Smith months ago has been impressive. But Alabama plays at a different level.

Borzello: Oral Roberts is the easy answer, but I’ll go with Oregon State. I just thought Loyola Chicago’s performance at both ends of the floor against Illinois was one of the best efforts we’ve seen all season. The Ramblers were outstanding defensively against Ayo Dosunmu and Illinois’ guards, and they also did whatever they wanted offensively in terms of finding Cameron Krutwig and letting him operate in space. Oregon State’s defense has created issues for its opponents over the past few weeks, but Krutwig should find space in the middle, and I think the Ramblers’ perimeter defense, led by Braden Norris and Lucas Williamson, should be able to slow down Beavers guard Ethan Thompson. Wayne Tinkle’s team has been on a tear in postseason play, but I see it coming to an end against Moser’s group.

Gasaway: Oral Roberts. We’ve never seen a No. 15 seed in the Elite Eight, and we’ve seen only one in the Sweet 16 before: Florida Gulf Coast in 2013. Arkansas has already defeated the Golden Eagles once this season, and the Razorbacks strike me (and stating this does feel like famous last words, but here goes) as the type of team that will be running and gunning too much to appear nervous and tight in the face of an opponent with zero to lose. Even during this historic run by ORU, opponents have had no problem making 2s. I will be shocked if Paul Mills’ team makes it to the regional final. Then again, after everything we’ve seen to this point, shock has become more or less my default state. Bring it on.

Lunardi: Whomever is playing Gonzaga (sorry, Creighton).

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