By: John Albinson
With only sixteen teams remaining in the NCAA Tournament, it’s safe to say that any squad still breathing after the first two rounds has a legitimate chance to win the national championship. That’s not to say that a team like Princeton or North Dakota State didn’t have a shot at doing that, but it’s hard for a mid-major to pull off such a feat when they’re forced to play a team mainly composed of All-American one-and-dones in the first round. Like every other year, March Madness has been predictably unpredictable—almost to the point that huge upsets seem more obligatory than crazy. Defending champions Villanova losing to Wisconsin in the second round? Why not. Duke choking in the first weekend of action? Of course. Middle Tennessee, a team that beat No. 2 seeded Michigan State last year, “upsetting” Minnesota? Let’s roll.
There doesn’t seem to be any truly dominant team this year. The three No. 1 seeds remaining—Gonzaga, Kansas, and North Carolina—all had brief scares in their second round matchups. UCLA, with freshman phenom Lonzo Ball, has looked terrific, but they’ve only had to play Kent State and Cincinnati. The two remaining No. 2 seeds, Arizona and Kentucky, also showed some problems in their second round games, with the latter only beating No. 10 seeded Wichita State by three points. No. 3 seeded Oregon was a consensus top-ten team near the end of the regular season, but an injury during the Pac-12 tournament to one of their star players has left them as vulnerable as any; they barely managed to escape getting upset by No. 11 seeded Rhode Island.
America’s team, at this point, has to be Michigan. After their team plane sustained a minor crash on March 8, the Wolverines went on to win the Big Ten tournament, beating two top-25 teams in the process. They were given a 7 seed in the tournament (which many thought was underrated), and have proceeded to knock off both Oklahoma State and No. 2-seeded Louisville. By the time this article comes out, they will have already played No. 3 Oregon in the Sweet Sixteen round—a game that a month ago would have been fully in favor of the Ducks, but now in March could really go to any team.
The best game of the round of sixteen looks to be Kentucky against UCLA, a rematch of a regular season matchup that saw the Bruins win 97-92. The Wildcats, who have two future NBA lottery picks in De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, have certainly improved their chemistry since that early season loss, but it could still easily lose to UCLA. The Bruins, on the other hand, have the nation’s best offense due to Ball and freshman stud T.J. Leaf but have struggled all year with defense and rebounding—a trait that could prove fatal in this high octane matchup. Either way, I believe that the winner of this game will advance to the Final Four, no matter if they play Butler or UNC the next round. The 2017 NCAA Tournament has lived up to its usual hype so far, and there’s still so much basketball left to be played.