NCAA Tournament 2018: 16 Things to Know Heading into the Sweet 16

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMarch 19, 2018

NCAA Tournament 2018: 16 Things to Know Heading into the Sweet 16

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    Aundre Jackson
    Aundre JacksonRonald Martinez/Getty Images

    The Sweet 16 for the 2018 men's NCAA tournament is set, and your bracket has probably been set on fire.

    If you just focus on the right half of the bracket, things seem relatively normal. Syracuse's reaching the Sweet 16 as a No. 11 seed is a bit unlikely, but all four of those No. 1 and No. 2 seeds are still in play. Seven of the eight teams are seeded fifth or better. There's a good chance that half of your bracket isn't completely covered in red marks or crossed-out teams.

    The left side of the bracket, though, looks like something you could only come up with by flipping a coin for every game. All four No. 1 and No. 2 seeds are gone. In their place, we have a pair of No. 7 seeds and a pair of No. 9 seeds, as well as Cinderella story Loyola of Chicago still hanging around as a No. 11 seed.

    How in the world did we get to this point, and where do we go from here?

    For starters, we have 16 things you should know about what's left of this year's tournament field. They are listed in no particular order, with the exception of starting with the biggest story imaginable.

Cinderella + Harry Potter + 98-Year-Old Team Chaplain

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    Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt
    Sister Jean Dolores-SchmidtTom Pennington/Getty Images

    It has been a little while since our last true Cinderella story in the NCAA tournament. There have been plenty of surprising runs in recent tournamentsSouth Carolina and Xavier last year, Syracuse to the Final Four as a No. 10 seed in 2016, No. 7 Connecticut vs. No. 8 Kentucky in the 2014 national championshipbut major-conference teams can't be Cinderellas.

    Rather, the last Cinderella story was Florida Gulf Coast reaching the Sweet 16 as a No. 15 seed in 2013 and forever being remembered for two words: Dunk City.

    This year, the team is No. 11 seed Loyola-Chicago.

    And the two words are Sister Jean.

    The team chaplain for the Ramblers is 98-year-old Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt. She has been praying over the team (and scouting opponents) since 1994. Seven years ago, Loyola-Chicago had a Sister Jean bobblehead giveaway. She has been synonymous with the program for many years. But considering this is Loyola's first trip to the NCAA tournament since 1985, this is the first time she has been in the national spotlight. And she has become an overnight sensation on social media.

    This also means it's the first time that most fans have had the opportunity to notice that Loyola's fans wear maroon and gold scarves that look exactly like Gryffindor House attire in the Harry Potter series—which has led to many jokes about Quidditch and "house points" being awarded to Loyola/Gryffindor for made buckets.

    The basketball, you ask? It's quite good. The Ramblers have won 19 of their last 20 games, including both NCAA tournament victories on buckets in the final seconds—making the Sister Jean and Harry Potter mania even more fantastic. Were it not for some injuries earlier in the year, Loyola would probably be 33-2 right now and maybe wouldn't be quite as much of a Cinderella story.

    If your bracket is busted and/or your favorite team has been eliminated from the Big Dance, there's little question who you should and will be rooting for in the Sweet 16.

    With a hat tip to The Allman Brothers Band, for as long as this run lasts, we are all The Ramblin' Man (or Woman).

Last-Second Drama

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    Jordan Poole (2) and Moritz Wagner (13)
    Jordan Poole (2) and Moritz Wagner (13)Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    As just mentioned, Loyola-Chicago has won both of its games on buckets in the final seconds. The Ramblers trailed by identical scores of 62-61 in each game. Donte Ingram hit a three-pointer with 0.3 seconds remaining to knock out Miami. And then the iron was quite kind on Clayton Custer's game-winning deuce with 3.6 seconds to go against Tennessee.

    That's only a small portion of the drama that transpired on opening weekend, though.

    Neither Rhode Island nor Oklahoma made it to the Sweet 16, but they went to overtime in the first game of the first round, setting the stage for a wild few days.

    Nevada and Texas also went to overtime the following day, capping off a frantic comeback for the Wolf Pack with a combined 34 points in the extra period.

    Houston had a back-and-forth final minute with San Diego State before advancing to the second round on a Rob Gray layup with two seconds to go. The Cougars were also involved in an absurd ending in the following round. Devin Davis missed a pair of free throws that could have iced the game, opening the door for Michigan's Jordan Poole to splash in a game-winning triple as time expired.

    In all, 19 of the 48 games20 of 52 if we count the First Fourwere decided by five points or fewer.

    Normally, the 90-hour break between the end of the second round and the start of the Sweet 16 feels like momentum-draining torture. This year, however, we need that time to catch our collective breath and try to process everything that has happened thus far.

    Are we headed for another Kris Jenkins or Mario Chalmers type of moment in the national championship?

Duke Dominating, Villanova Vanquishing

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    Jalen Brunson and Donte DiVincenzo
    Jalen Brunson and Donte DiVincenzoJustin K. Aller/Getty Images

    With so many games being decided in the final minute, it might be tempting to assume that no one looks good and that everything is coming down to a coin flipor yet another interminable monitor review.

    After all, the No. 1 overall seed lost by 20 to a No. 16 seed. Hard to imagine anyone should be trusted this year.

    There are two teams, however, who are destroying everything on the path to their collision course in the Final Four: Duke and Villanova.

    When they were playing their best during the regular season, these two teams looked like the clear favorites to win the national championship. And thus far in the tournament, they have been playing at that level.

    No. 1 seed Villanova smashed Radford by 26 before bending Alabama over its knee for a 23-point spanking. (So much for no one wanting to play that team, eh?) The Wildcats shot a combined 31-of-68 (45.6 percent) from three-point range in the process of polishing off those poundings. Everyone got in on the fun against Radford, and it was mostly Donte DiVincenzo in the first half and Mikal Bridges in the second half against Alabama.

    No. 2 seed Duke had a similarly sweat-free stroll to the Sweet 16. The Blue Devils put up 89 in the first round against Iona, followed by 87 against Rhode Island. They won the first game by 22 and the second by 25. And where Villanova at least had a little trouble in the first half against Alabama, both of Duke's games were practically finished by halftime. Had it kept its foot on the gas for the full 40 minutes instead of embracing cruise control late in both games, it easily would've won both by 30.

    Though blowing out the first two opponents isn't necessarily a prerequisite for a deep run, it's worth noting that Villanova won the 2016 title after winning its first two games by 49 points, and Duke did so in 2015 after a combined margin of victory of 48 points in the opening rounds.

Keenan Evans Is This Year's Kemba Walker

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Ever since Kemba Walker took over the 2011 NCAA tournament, we've been searching for the "Next Kemba." In 2013, it was Russ Smith. The following year, Shabazz Napier filled that role. In 2016, Buddy Hield carried Oklahoma to the Final Four. Last year, South Carolina's Sindarius Thornwell was the man.

    And this year, it's Texas Tech's Keenan Evans.

    It was clear long before the tournament began that this was a distinct possibility. No player in the country was more important to his team's success than Evans. When he struggled or was injured, the Red Raiders were a bit of a mess. When he was healthy and coming close to his season average in scoring, they were darn near unbeatable.

    Through two games, he looks right as rain, and so does Texas Tech.

    Both Stephen F. Austin and Florida gave Evans and Co. all they could handle, but the Red Raiders prevailed with defense and a combined 45 points from their star. Most of that damage came in "winning time," as he scored 33 of those points in the second half and 11 points in the final five minutes.

    What I love most about this particular Kemba comparison is that neither Walker nor Evans is a great three-point shooter, and yet you just feel like every shot Evans takes is going to fall. Moreover, both this star and the 2011 star did a lot of creating for teammates and spent a ton of time at the free-throw line for defensive-minded teams who sputtered to the finish line with losses in four of their final five regular-season games.

    The conference-tournament comparison doesn't work, but could this No. 3 seed replicate what Connecticut did in the Big Dance seven years ago?

Slipper Still Fits

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    Zach Norvell Jr.
    Zach Norvell Jr.Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    Gonzaga isn't a Cinderella story. It hasn't been for a long time. This is the program's 20th consecutive invite to the Big Dance, which includes last year's national championship appearance and now nine trips to the Sweet 16—this is the fourth in a row.

    And yet, the Zags—similar to Butler, even though it's in the Big East nowwill always be America's Cinderella team until it actually wins a title. Case in point: Gonzaga was a 37-1 No. 1 seed and statistically superior to North Carolina last season, but there's no question the Bulldogs were viewed by most of the country as the underdog in the championship game.

    Thus, even though they were the better seed in both of the opening games against UNC Greensboro and Ohio State, it feels like Gonzaga is beating the odds to still be alive in the tournament.

    Part of that is because the Zags simply haven't looked that good yet. They trailed UNC Greensboro with less than a minute remaining before a Josh Perkins deep two and a Zach Norvell Jr. go-ahead three-pointer gave them the four-point win. And after jumping out to a 15-0 lead over the Buckeyes, they gave it all away and actually trailed by four midway through the second half. Good thing Norvell packed a Superman cape for both games, tallying 12 points, six rebounds and two assists in the final eight minutes.

    They can do better.

    Gonzaga is once again one of the most efficient teams in the country. Per KenPom.com, this is one of just three teams ranked in the top 15 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. (The other two are Duke and Michigan State.) The Bulldogs have now won 16 consecutive games, and three of their four losses this season were either by one possession or in overtime.

    In other words, don't be surprised if this former Cinderella reaches the Final Four for a second straight year.

John Calipari Does It Again

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    John Calipari
    John CalipariTed S. Warren/Associated Press

    One of the most incredible coaching statistics in the NCAA tournament is that Roy Williams has never lost in the first round in 28 trips to the Big Dance.

    But slightly more impressive is that John Calipari has now been to the Sweet 16 in 11 of the past 13 years. The only exceptions are the thrilling second-round loss against Indiana in 2016 and Kentucky's missing the tournament altogether in 2013.

    Calipari went 13-4 in the Big Dance in his last four seasons at Memphis, including a trip to the 2008 national championship. And during his current run with Kentucky, he is 28-6 overall in the tournament with four Final Four appearances and one title.

    In most seasons, there's so much NBA talent on the roster that winning two games in the NCAA tournament is almost a foregone conclusion. At any rate, if squads with the likes of Derrick Rose, John Wall, Anthony Davis or Karl-Anthony Towns had been eliminated in the first weekend, it would've been an embarrassment. In eight of the last 13 years, Calipari's team earned either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed by simply having more talent than almost every other team in the country.

    This isn't one of those seasons, though.

    In terms of years of experience on the roster, this is easily the youngest team Calipari has had. It is also the first time in a long time that he didn't have a surefire lottery pick leading the way. All things considered, this has to be his best coaching job since embracing the one-and-done model more than a decade ago.

    The Wildcats are playing their best basketball of the season in March, and the bracket has busted wide open for them. If Loyola-Chicago beats Nevada in the Sweet 16, Kentucky won't face a single team seeded higher than No. 9 until the Final Four.

Jim Boeheim Also Does It Again

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    Jim Boeheim
    Jim BoeheimPaul Sancya/Associated Press

    Two years ago, Syracuse was the most controversial inclusion by the NCAA selection committee. Monmouth, Saint Mary's, San Diego State, Hofstra, Valparaiso and others all had great arguments for an at-large bid. Instead, not only did the Orange get in with a shaky 13-loss resume, but they got in quite safely as a No. 10 seed.

    They proceeded to reach the Final Four.

    This year, Syracuse was the last team into the tournament field. It wasn't quite as controversial since there were so many questionable resumes on the bubble, but there were a lot of deserving teams who were left out for a 13-loss team who suffered four of those losses against teams that didn't make the tournament.

    Once again, Jim Boeheim's guys are taking advantage of the gift they were given by the selection committee.

    The Orange knocked out Arizona State in the First Four, clipped TCU in the first round and squeezed out Michigan State to reach the Sweet 16.

    Their offense was held to 60 points or fewer in all three games, but the defense has been the story. Arizona State made some shots, but TCU and Michigan State could not buy a bucket. Normally two of the best three-point shooting teams in the nation, the Horned Frogs and Spartans combined for just 11-of-54 (20.4 percent) from downtown against the 2-3 zone. And two of Michigan State's threes were banked in.

    To reach yet another improbable Final Four, Syracuse will need to get through Duke and probably Kansas. Against those teams, the Orange went 0-2, losing each game by a 16-point margin. But if they can keep putting a lid on the basket on defense, anything's possible.

Tough Sledding for Wooden Award Finalists

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    Deandre Ayton
    Deandre AytonTed S. Warren/Associated Press

    In most years, it's not a bad strategy to pencil every team with a Wooden Award finalist into the Sweet 16.

    Last season, 11 of the 15 finalists played for teams that won at least two games in the NCAA tournament. One of the exceptions was Markelle Fultz, whose team didn't even come close to receiving an invitation. The other three who didn't make itLuke Kennard, Josh Hart and Bonzie Colson—played for teams that at least made it to the second round. So, if you had all those teams winning two games, you did OK.

    This year, though, star power didn't mean much of anything.

    Arizona (Deandre Ayton), Oklahoma (Trae Young) and Texas (Mohamed Bamba) all lost in the first round. Ohio State (Keita Bates-Diop), Michigan State (Miles Bridges), North Carolina (Luke Maye) and Xavier (Trevon Bluiett) also lost in the opening weekend. Factor in Saint Mary's (Jock Landale) not making the tournament, and more than half of this year's finalists are already gone.

    But there's also the optimistic way to look at that glass: Nearly half of the Wooden Award finalists are still competing in a tournament that has been utterly bonkers.

    The East Regional is especially starry. A total of five finalistsKeenan Evans, Carsen Edwards, Jevon Carter, Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunsonare still battling for that spot in the Final Four. And the Midwest Regional could have one heck of a back-and-forth Elite Eight game if both Kansas (Devonte' Graham) and Duke (Marvin Bagley III) can win one more game.

    The left half of the bracket, though, is devoid of such players. There are still stars at Kentucky, Michigan and Gonzaga, but none of those teams was represented in the Wooden Award finalists.

The South Regional Is Just Plain Nuts

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    Nevada
    NevadaMark Humphrey/Associated Press

    There has been some outrageous regional pairing over the years.

    In the 1986 East Regional, No. 1 Duke faced No. 12 DePaul for the right to face the winner of No. 7 Navy vs. No. 14 Cleveland State.

    Four years later in 1990, it was No. 4 Arkansas vs. No. 8 North Carolina and No. 6 Xavier vs. No. 10 Texas in the Midwest Regional. The Midwest was once again the source of chaos in 1992 when No. 4 Cincinnati battled No. 9 UTEP and No. 6 Memphis faced No. 7 Georgia Tech.

    And in 2000, all hell broke loose. The South was No. 8 North Carolina vs. No. 4 Tennessee and No. 6 Miami vs. No. 7 Tulsa. Meanwhile, in the West, No. 8 Wisconsin faced No. 4 LSU and No. 6 Purdue took on No. 10 Gonzaga.

    In all those years, though, at least one of the top four seeds always advanced to the Sweet 16.

    Until now.

    When play resumes Thursday in Atlanta, it'll be No. 5 Kentucky vs. No. 9 Kansas State and No. 7 Nevada vs. No. 11 Loyola-Chicago.

    That is madness at its finest.

    When the brackets were first announced, it felt like Kentucky got screwed by the selection committee. Not only did the Wildcats need to get through a tough No. 12 seed in Davidson, but subsequent games against No. 4 Arizona and No. 1 Virginia would surely be the end of the road for these young Cats.

    But Buffalo and UMBC had other ideas, making Kentucky's path to the Final Four a No. 12 seed, a No. 13 seed, a No. 9 seed and either a No. 7 or No. 11 seed. That has to be one of the easiest roads ever, especially for a No. 5 seed. At this point, it would be embarrassing if Kentucky doesn't get to San Antonio.

Big Year for the Big 12

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    Lagerald Vick
    Lagerald VickOrlin Wagner/Associated Press

    Using the NCAA tournament as a litmus test for comparing conferences has never made much sense to me.

    For starters, it's such a tiny sample size. These teams play 31-34 games during the regular season, and then we use the first and second rounds of an always-random NCAA tournament to make overarching statements about the strength of the various leagues. The equivalent in another sport would be basing your Cy Young vote solely on what each pitcher does in his final start of the season.

    Moreover, the conferences being compared often don't even play more than one game against each other. It'd be one thing if the SEC went 6-0 against the ACC in the tournament, but usually it's just fans of one league pointing and laughing at teams from a different league for suffering upsets. It's all quite weird.

    But if you're into that sort of thing, the Big 12 was clearly a big winner from opening weekend.

    Texas and Oklahoma lost in the first round, but they were No. 10 seeds, and they both put up valiant fights in overtime games. TCU also lost in the first round, but it had the misfortune of being matched up against the apparent team of destiny: Syracuse.

    Aside from those early exits, the league has four teams in the Sweet 16.

    West Virginia has looked the best of the bunch, smashing both Murray State and Marshall. It's easy to forget in the middle of conference play, but this defense is unbelievably difficult to prepare to face. If you're not used to it or if you don't have a sure-handed point guard, it can get ugly in a hurry.

    Elsewhere, Kansas, Kansas State and Texas Tech were less dominant, but they're still alive, which is all that matters.

Is Clemson the Biggest Surprise of All?

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    Gabe DeVoe
    Gabe DeVoeDonald Miralle/Getty Images

    Loyola-Chicago is the big Cinderella story here, but there were also a lot of people who thought the Ramblers had the potential to put together a little run. Not to braggoodness knows I missed more than a few predictions in this tournamentbut someone asked me on Twitter on Tuesday who I thought could be a sleeper for the Final Four, and I said I liked Loyola's draw to make the Elite Eight.

    No one was buying Clemson, though.

    From the moment the brackets were announced, it seemed like everyone penciled Clemson's first-round opponent, New Mexico State, into the second round, if not the Sweet 16. Even the best man in my wedding, who went to Clemson and bleeds purple and orange, ended up picking New Mexico State because it seemed like the smart thing to do.

    The reason Clemson's stock was so low heading into the tournament is that its offense had vanished. The Tigers scored 58 points or fewer in their final four losses, each of which had occurred since Feb. 18. It seemed they just weren't the same team after losing Donte Grantham to a torn ACL in mid-January and that they were ripe for an upset.

    Lo and behold, Clemson took care of business against the Aggies before absolutely dismantling Auburn by a 31-point margin. That supposedly hapless offense averaged 81.5 points in the first two games and suddenly looks like a force that could eliminate No. 1 seed Kansas in the Sweet 16.

    Will Clemson's Big Four continue to show up? Similar to the Seton Hall team that just gave Kansas fits, the Tigers are almost entirely dependent on three guards (Marcquise Reed, Shelton Mitchell and Gabe DeVoe) and one big man (Elijah Thomas). All four played well against New Mexico State and Auburn, and the Tigers could have a big upset up their sleeves if that continues into next weekend.

The Comeback Six

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    Caleb Martin
    Caleb MartinAndy Lyons/Getty Images

    Back in early January, Ken Pomeroy wrote a piece for The Athletic about comebacks and how they appeared to be making, well, a comeback in college basketball.

    In a season full of ebbs and flows from one minute to the next—let alone from one game, week or month to the next—no lead ever felt safe. Even Louisville couldn't hold on to a four-point lead with 0.9 seconds remaining against Virginia on March 1, somehow losing that game in overtime.

    Even with that context, though, what Nevada did in the opening weekend just seems impossible.

    First, the Wolf Pack came back from a 14-point second-half deficit against Texas for an overtime win. Given Mohamed Bamba battled foul trouble in this game and the Texas offense hasn't exactly been superb for most of the season, it wasn't an entirely shocking rally for Nevada.

    The second comeback was absurd.

    Down by 22 against Cincinnati with 11 minutes remaining, Nevada was as good as dead. Just scoring 22 points in 11 minutes against Cincinnati's defense is a nearly impossible task, and that's without factoring in the need to play defense. But the Wolf Pack somehow finished the game on a 32-8 run, taking their first lead of the entire game with less than 10 seconds remaining.

    The remarkable thing about this team is that it only plays six guys. Nevada always had a short rotation, but it got even shorter when starting point guard Lindsey Drew suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in late February. And despite all the minutes played, these six players rarely make mistakes. In fact, they only committed two turnovers against Cincinnati's defense, which entered the game ranked top 20 in the nation in turnover percentage.

    Caleb Martin, Cody Martin, Josh Hall, Jordan Caroline and Kendall Stephens scored in double figures in both games, all playing a pivotal part in the comebacks. The Wolf Pack will now face Loyola-Chicago in a battle of Cinderella teams that have had dramatic finishes to every game thus far.

Michigan and Purdue Holding the Torch for the Big Ten

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    Matt Haarms
    Matt HaarmsPaul Sancya/Associated Press

    It was a down year for the Big Ten. Not as down as the Pac-12, but still, worse than usual. Both the regular-season champion (Michigan State) and the conference-tournament champion (Michigan) only earned No. 3 seeds, and a grand total of just four teams were invited to the Big Dance for the first time in a decade.

    But with a pair of teams still sitting pretty in the Sweet 16, Michigan and/or Purdue could rewrite the narrative of this season—just like North Carolina made everyone forget about the rest of the ACC's performance in last year's tournament.

    Of the two, Purdue is in the much less favorable position. Not only are the Boilermakers the No. 2 seed in the only regional that came anywhere close to playing to form, but they lost star big man Isaac Haas to a fractured elbow. Without him—and with Carsen Edwards not playing well—Purdue just barely survived against No. 10 seed Butler.

    Given how great a shot-blocker Matt Haarms was throughout the season and how limited Butler is in the frontcourt, you would think Purdue would have dominated the Bulldogs in the paint. However, Butler shot 60 percent from inside the arc, and the teams were almost dead-even in rebounds. To get through Texas Tech and Villanova, the Boilermakers will need to be a lot better than that.

    Meanwhile, Michigan is the best team remaining in its half of the bracket, as far as seeding. No. 1 Virginia, No. 1 Xavier, No. 2 North Carolina, No. 2 Cincinnati and No. 3 Tennessee are all gone from the South and West Regionals, leaving Michigan with a road to the national championship that likely contains a No. 7 seed (Texas A&M), a No. 4 seed (Gonzaga) and a No. 5 seed (Kentucky).

    Like Purdue, though, we're still waiting on Michigan to play as well as it usually does. The Wolverines entered the tournament on a nine-game winning streak, scoring at least 72 points in each of those contests. Thus far, they haven't exceeded 64 and have shot just 28.3 percent from three-point range. Defense has been their calling card this season, so if they rediscover their offense, they could win the national championship they should have won five years ago.

Brutal Year for Regular-Season Champs

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    Jaren Jackson Jr.
    Jaren Jackson Jr.Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    For the bigger leagues, the conference tournament usually doesn't matter. It can help a team improve its seed line a little bit, but there's no rhyme or reason for whether the momentum gained from a deep conference-tournament run helps fuel one in the NCAA tournament. Just last year, Duke was back in a big way after winning four games in four days to take the ACC crown, only to lose in the second round to No. 7 South Carolina.

    The regular-season conference titles, though, almost always count for something. It's one thing to get hot for one weekend, but it's another to play well enough for two months, beating a bunch of tournament teams along the way.

    Case in point: North Carolina won the ACC during the 2016-17 regular season and then won the national championship. Arizona and Oregon were co-Pac-12 champs, and they both reached at least the Sweet 16. Ditto for SEC champ Kentucky, Big Ten champ Purdue and Big 12 champ Kansas. The lone exception was Villanova's one-possession loss in the second round.

    This year, the exception went the opposite way.

    ACC champ Virginia was ousted in historic fashion in the first round. Pac-12 champ Arizona was supposed to be a title contender, but it forgot to show up in the opener against Buffalo. Big Ten champ Michigan State lost to a Syracuse team that barely sneaked into the tournament in the first place. SEC co-champions Auburn and Tennessee both lost in the second round, as did Big East champ Xavier. Even AAC champion Cincinnati got knocked out by Nevada in one of the biggest comebacks ever.

    The lone survivor is Kansas, and there were stretches in both of its games against Penn and Seton Hall in which that was in doubt.

Good Texas A&M Is Back

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    Tonny Trocha-Morelos
    Tonny Trocha-MorelosBob Leverone/Associated Press

    One of the biggest reasons we knew this tournament was going to be so unpredictable before it began was there were so many teams this year that couldn't seem to decide whether they were good.

    The SEC was at the epicenter of this phenomenon. Alabama, Florida, Kentucky and Missouri all felt like they could reach the Final Four, get destroyed in the first round or anything in between. Even Georgia and LSU had some doggone impressive wins this season, despite missing the tournament.

    The king of the unpredictables, though, was Texas A&M.

    The Aggies were outstanding for the first six weeks of the season. They got things started with a 23-point neutral-court win over West Virginia. They followed that up by comfortably winning games away from home against Oklahoma State, Penn State and USCthree of the best teams in the country who failed to make the tournament. By the time they blew out Buffalo on Dec. 21, they were 11-1 with a three-point loss against Arizona at a neutral site and had legitimate aspirations for a national championship.

    From there, it was no telling what the Aggies were going to be. They lost seven of their next nine games, including getting swept by LSU. Then they won four straight, including a road win over Auburn and a home win over Kentucky by double digits. After that, it was back to bad again with three straight losses to Missouri Arkansas and Mississippi State.

    For now, it appears "Good Texas A&M" is back. Tyler Davis, Robert Williams and Co. manhandled Providence in the paint with rebounds and blocked shots before eviscerating the Tar Heels by a 21-point margin in Charlotte, North Carolina. TJ Starks did an excellent job at point guard, which has been A&M's problem position due to a combination of injuries and ineffectiveness.

    The Aggies may come out in the next round and lay an egg. Given the hot-and-cold season they had, that's probably what we should expect. But if they can stay warm, they could win the tournament.

Fine Nines

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    PJ Savoy
    PJ SavoyMark Humphrey/Associated Press

    If you add up the seed number of all the teams left in the tournament, it equals 85. The last time it was that high was in 2000, when No. 8 North Carolina and No. 8 Wisconsin made it to the Final Four and three of the four regions didn't have a single No. 1 or No. 2 seed reach the Elite Eight.

    Instead of eights, could it be a pair of nines reaching the national semifinals this year?

    In the South Regional, the No. 9 Kansas State Wildcats got a lot of help from UMBC, which pulled off the first-ever No. 16 over No. 1 upset in the men's tournament. It makes no sense that the Retrievers scored 74 points in a 62-possession game against Virginia before scoring 43 in a 66-possession game against Kansas State, but that's the way it worked out.

    The Wildcats were fierce on defense in both games, even though they didn't have star player Dean Wade because of a foot injury. If he's able to get back out there for Thursday's matchup at Philips Arena, they'll at least have a chance of knocking off Kentucky before eliminating either Nevada or Loyola-Chicago.

    In the West Regional, No. 9 Florida State had no such luck from its No. 16 seed. After knocking out Michael Porter Jr. and Missouri in the first round, the Seminoles had to deal with No. 1 Xavier in order to reach the Sweet 16. They trailed by a dozen points in the final 10 minutes, but they clawed all the way back for the five-point victory.

    Defense was also the key for this No. 9 seed. Florida State forced 16 turnovers against Missouri and 18 against Xavier. It blocked a combined total of 10 shots and guarded the three-point line about as well as it has at any point in this season.

    Since seeding began in 1979, there have only been two No. 9 seeds to reach the Final Four: Pennsylvania in 1979 and Wichita State in 2013.

    Could that number double Saturday?

                                       

    Statistics courtesy of KenPom.com and Sports Reference.

    Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.