NCAA Tournament: Is This the Sweetest 16 Ever?

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NCAA Tournament: Is This the Sweetest 16 Ever?
(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

For the NCAA selection committee, it may well be.

Yes, the very same selection committee that is so maligned this time of year, from every corner. From ESPN to the water cooler, people love nothing more than to discuss just how wrong they got it.

This year, however, it appears they got it very, very right.

I don't mean to suggest that this year's tournament field was perfect. There were still teams that probably shouldn't have made the field, as well as teams that probably should have. But the top 25 percent of the field, (that would be seeds one through four in each region) those the committee nailed.

After a first round filled with upsets, it looked as if this year's tournament would be one of the wilder ones on record. Then, in the second round, there was one. One upset. (And that was a measly five-over-four upset that doesn't really count anyway.)

That left us with the following, very improbable, scenario:

In the East and South regions, all four top seeds made the Sweet 16.

In the West, the top three seeds were joined by the lone upset winner in the second round, fifth-seeded Purdue, giving us the No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, and No. 5 seeds in that region.

Finally, in the Midwest, the top three seeds are joined by the only true surprise (and lone double-digit seed remaining) in the field, 12th-seeded Arizona.  The Wildcats pulled the upset over fifth-seeded Utah in the first round, then were the beneficiaries of the largest first-round upset, when they faced 13th-seeded Cleveland State in the second round, rather than No. 4 Wake Forest.

When was the last time that all four No. 1 seeds, all four No. 2 seeds, and all four No. 3 seeds made the Sweet 16? Simple answer: never. 2009 marks the first time that has ever happened. And it has led to some very intriguing matchups.

On Thursday, in the West region, UConn faces a very scrappy Purdue team that may give the Huskies as much as they can handle.

That game is followed by Memphis-Missouri, where Memphis will put its 27-game win streak on the line against the best team they have played since their last loss, Dec. 20 against Syracuse.

Also on Thursday, the East region serves up a matchup between Pitt and Xavier, a game that I would say Pitt would win handily, if the Panthers hadn't been struggling mightily this postseason.

Following that game is a matchup many are calling the best of this round, Duke-Villanova. This matchup of eerily similar teams (both like to play four guards and spread the floor, with no true post presence) will pit strength versus strength, as a team that finished the season 13-5 in the Big East takes on a team that finished 11-5 in the ACC.

Friday's matchups are no less interesting. In the Midwest, we see the top overall seed Louisville matching up with perennial title-contender-turned-Cinderella, Arizona. The Wildcats will be looking to continue their unlikely run, but to do so will have to topple the Cardinals, one of the few teams many think can challenge North Carolina for the title.

In the Midwest nightcap, Kansas takes on Michigan State, in a matchup of last year's champion versus a team many were extremely high on to begin this season.

Finally, in the South region, UNC takes on Gonzaga in a matchup of preseason top-ten teams, a game that may be decided by a toe. The winner there will face the winner of super-sophomore Blake Griffin's Oklahoma team and Big East Cinderella, Syracuse, a team that seems to be playing its best ball at just the right time.

One thing is certain about all of these matchups. The winners, and the eventual Final Four participants, will know that they have battled to reach Detroit. There are no easy outs this year, not at this level.

I expect eight hard-fought games, followed by four more on Saturday and Sunday. This weekend may produce the best basketball of the entire year.

And that's only possible because the selection committee got it right.

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