The first weekend of the NCAA mens's basketball tournament is widely considered the best few days of the sports calendar, and the 2018 version certainly did not disappoint.
A No. 16 seed slaying a No. 1? Check. Numerous buzzer-beaters and wild comebacks? Also check.
What we have left is just seven teams who are at least a No. 4 seed and plenty of parity left with the Sweet 16. Therefore, the odds for who will now win the national championship have changed dramatically since the start of the tournament.
Let us take a look at the upcoming schedule for the regional semifinals, along with each school's title odds.
Thursday, March 22 on CBS
No. 7 Nevada (40/1) vs. No. 11 Loyola-Chicago (50/1) at 7:07 p.m. ET
No. 5 Kentucky (7/1) vs. No. 9 Kansas State (40/1) at 9:37 p.m. ET
Thursday, March 22 on TBS
No. 3 Michigan (17/2) vs. No. 7 Texas A&M (25/1) at 7:37 p.m. ET
No. 4 Gonzaga (7/1) vs. No. 9 Florida State (60/1) at 9:59 p.m. ET
Friday, March 23 on CBS
No. 1 Kansas (17/2) vs. No. 5 Clemson (40/1) at 7:07 p.m. ET
No. 2 Duke (13/4) vs. No. 11 Syracuse (66/1) at 9:37 p.m. ET
Friday, March 23 on TBS
No. 1 Villanova (15/4) vs. No. 5 West Virginia (16/1) at 7:27 p.m. ET
No. 2 Purdue (14/1) vs. No. 3 Texas Tech (25/1) at 9:57 p.m. ET
*Odds are according to OddsShark.com.
The Sea Parting for Kentucky in the South?
The South Region entered this tournament with the No. 1 overall seed, a potentially underseeded juggernaut and a couple of dangerous mid-majors. All three groups made history during the first weekend.
Virginia became the first No. 1 to ever lose to a No. 16 thanks to a blowout collapse to UMBC. Arizona was outplayed from the opening tip en route to a big loss to Buffalo. Nevada staged a 22-point comeback in the second half to stun No. 2 Cincinnati, while Loyola-Chicago hit two game-winners in the final seconds to down No. 6 Miami and No. 3 Tennessee.
As a result, the quartet remaining has never been seen before, per the NCAA's director of media coordination David Warlock:
David Worlock @DavidWorlock
In the history of the tournament, there has never (I repeat NEVER) been a region that has featured none of the top 4 seeds in the Sweet 16. Until now. The South Region in Atlanta will feature (5) Kentucky, (11) Loyola Chicago, (7) Nevada and either (9) Kansas St. or (16) UMBC.
So who should be favored to emerge from this weekend in the South?
Kentucky is the top seed remaining and is playing like the favorite. The Wildcats are third among remaining teams in scoring with 173 points in two games, but they are getting contributions from everywhere.
Leading scorer Kevin Knox was quiet with just eight points in the second-round win over Buffalo, but Kentucky was able to churn out 95 points thanks to 27 from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and 22 from Hamidou Diallo.
Wenyen Gabriel has also stepped up in the last week as he poured in 16 points against Buffalo after putting up a season-best 23 points in the SEC Tournament semifinals.
All of the pieces are falling into place for Kentucky, who has won five straight and could have one of the easier paths, on paper, in recent memory to the Final Four and even the national final, as ESPN's Jeff Goodman noted:
The Wildcats are playing their best basketball of the year, but they must first get by a Kansas State team that is much bigger and more physical than Kentucky. Kansas State ranks 11th nationally in total steals and is in the top 50 in scoring defense, meaning a young Kentucky team must be efficient on offense on a consistent basis.
Kansas State could also get back its leading scorer Dean Wade, who missed the last three games due to a foot injury but says he will likely return on Thursday, per 247Sports.com.
Still, Kentucky has much more depth and talent and should still be favored to win here. Kansas State will make it a tough, grind-it-out muck fest, but it simply cannot match the multitude of scoring options Kentucky presents.
As for potential matchups in the Elite Eight, both Loyola-Chicago and Nevada are strong offensive teams.
The Ramblers run smooth, crisp half-court sets to set up quality looks, which helped them overcome athletic disadvantages in their first two wins. Nevada plays fast and scores at a high rate, ranking 16th nationally with 83 points per game along with 29th nationally with 9.6 threes per night.
Of these two, Nevada would likely present a tougher game as it too can throw out a ton of scoring options. The Wolf Pack have four players who average at least 13 points per game in Jordan Caroline, Caleb and Cody Martin and Kendall Stephens. They also boast four players who shoot 39 percent or better from three.
Thus, it comes as no surprise that these two teams have two of the three best odds to win a national title from the South. On paper, Kentucky should expect to come out of this region this weekend due to stronger overall personnel and a Hall of Fame-coach in John Calipari, who is no stranger to playing in Sweet 16s and Elite Eights.
After being in the midst of what looked like a rebuilding year of sorts just two months ago, Kentucky is now expected to make the Final Four. It's wild how drastically perceptions change.
Duke or Villanova the Favorite?
With Duke winning its two games by a combined 47 points and Villanova taking its by a combined 49 points, no two teams looked more dominant last weekend. As a result, they are the two favorites to win a national championship, but the order may seem odd.
Villanova has been floating at or near the top of every major poll for the better part of two months, as the Wildcats lead the country in scoring while boasting the possible national player of the year in Jalen Brunson, along with a loaded roster that also includes potential NBA lottery pick Mikal Bridges. As a matter of fact, Villanova has six players averaging double-figures in scoring.
Villanova is fifth overall nationally in field-goal percentage, but it is also historically lethal from three, per ESPN Stats & Info:
So why is Duke the slight favorite to win the national championship? It must be the path to reach the Final Four.
Villanova must overcome the vaunted "Press Virginia" in the Sweet 16—a West Virginia team that is top-10 nationally in steals and turnovers forced while ranking second in turnover margin.
The frenetic, full-court pressure style of West Virginia can force any team into uncharacteristic mistakes and a bad night, which is concerning for Villanova.
Jevon Carter's tenacity at both ends of the court will be a challenge for Brunson, but Villanova does have the luxury of having three other capable ball handlers in Bridges, Phil Booth and Donte DiVincenzo who can take pressure off of their point guard and consistently break the press. Villanova should be able to outlast the Mountaineers, but it is still an unenviable task.
It does not get much easier in the Elite Eight, as the Wildcats will have to face either the senior-laden, physical defense of Purdue or the high-flying athletes of Texas Tech and grossly underrated guard Keenan Evans. Again, Villanova would be favored in these matchups, but both teams have the potential to frustrate and down the Wildcats.
On the other hand, Duke gets to face Syracuse's zone, but it will be for the second time. The first time, the Blue Devils had no issues as they cruised to a 60-44 win despite going cold from three with a 2-for-18 mark.
The Orange count on teams missing from three, since it is typically the best available shot against the zone. It worked wonders against Michigan State, but Duke has the athletes to rip the zone to shreds with Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. inside along with deadly snipers in Grayson Allen and Gary Trent on the outside.
Syracuse is so limited offensively thanks to its 317th-ranked 66.7 points per game, so it needs teams to be cold to grind out wins. Duke will likely not go 2-for-18 again from three, and it has enough quickness on the perimeter with Trevon Duval to penetrate the zone and make plays. Simply put, the odds are stacked favorably for Duke to get a win here.
Should they win, the Blue Devils would either get the lowest No. 1 seed in Kansas or a Clemson team that they already beat and is still playing without its best player in Donte Grantham.
If Duke and Villanova both make it through, they would play each other in the Final Four. From that point, it's a toss-up to play for a national title. However, Villanova's path is much tougher to reach that point, so while it may be a more complete team, its odds should be slightly lower than the Blue Devils' at this stage.
Statistics are courtesy of NCAA.com unless otherwise noted.