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The 10 Biggest Things We’ve Learned From the NCAA Tournament So Far

Molly Geary
The 10 Biggest Things We’ve Learned From the NCAA Tournament So Far

The 2019 Sweet 16 is set, and it’s a lot chalkier than usual (more on that below). And while March has been a bit short on the madness so far, we’ve still had some heart-stopping endings, like UCF’s rim-out just before the buzzer against Duke, or Tremont Waters’s last-second lay-up to beat Maryland. With four days of games under our belt, it’s about the time when you can start drawing some conclusions based on what’s happened and what seems poised to come. Here are our biggest takeaways from the first two rounds.

The top-seed hype was real

For only the second time in NCAA tournament history, all No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 seeds advanced to the Sweet 16. It had been 10 years since we’d seen that happen, and the chalk-heavy bracket brought some social-media grumblings over the largely drama-free first four days—UCF’s near-upset of Duke notwithstanding. But perhaps we should’ve seen this coming. All season long, it has felt like there’s been a notable gap between the top tier of teams in the country and the rest, with the AP top 10 frequently just changing order, not teams. Not a single true Final Four contender fell victim to a first-weekend upset, even if a couple came close. The result is a loaded Sweet 16 field that seems bound to provide more drama than the first slate of games did.

...and it feels like anyone's title to win

If you're a fan of analytics, the chalky Sweet 16 field probably wasn't much of a surprise. Fourteen of kenpom.com's pre-tournament top 16 teams are still dancing; the only odd ones out are No. 11 Wisconsin and No. 16 Iowa State (replaced by No. 18 LSU and No. 43 Oregon). The cream has risen to the top, which makes it particuarly difficult to predict what will happen next. Would it really be shocking if No. 5 seed Auburn rode a bevy of three-pointers to the Final Four? Or if No. 3 seeds Texas Tech or Houston used their defense to get to Minneapolis? After even mighty Duke got fortunate just to still be alive, it's nearly as easy to picture anyone losing their next game as it is anyone winning. No matchup from here on out will be a gimme (that's not to say there won't be any blowouts—these teams are all talented enough that if they play to their ceiling and their opponent has an off night, things could get out of hand), and fans of nearly all 16 are probably harboring title hopes, even if some scenarios require a healthy dose of optimism.

The reigning champion curse struck again

Speaking of champions, would you believe that a defending national champ hasn’t made it past the Sweet 16 since Florida won back-to-back titles in 2006 and ’07? It’s true. Villanova became the latest victim of that pattern on Saturday night, when the Wildcats were run off the floor by Purdue to bring an up-and-down season to its end. That stat goes to show how difficult it is to sustain year-to-year, top-end success in this sport, and it’s probably not a coincidence that the drought goes back to nearly the start of the one-and-done rule in 2006. Even a program like Villanova, which has won two of the last three national titles not with freshmen but with sophomores, juniors and seniors, has fallen in the second round in both of the years after those championships. Jay Wright lost four key pieces from last year’s juggernaut, and while ’Nova was a top-10 preseason team, it never achieved that level this season, and its early exit was on par with its No. 6 seed.

The ACC, SEC and Big Ten are dominating

Here’s the Sweet 16 breakdown by conference: Five for the ACC (Duke, Virginia, UNC, Florida State, Virginia Tech), four for the SEC (Tennessee, Kentucky, LSU, Auburn), three for the Big Ten (Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue), one WCC (Gonzaga), one Big 12 (Texas Tech) one AAC (Houston) and one Pac-12 (Oregon). The Big East, notably, has zero. The Big Ten went 7–1 in the first round, only two ACC teams (Syracuse and Louisville) have lost at all and the SEC has four teams among the last 16 for only the third time in league history. It’s not a surprise to see these conferences having success after the regular seasons they had, but sometimes the volatility of the NCAA tournament setting doesn’t bear that out.

Ja may be gone, but there’s plenty of non-Zion star power left

Despite Ja Morant and Murray State’s run coming to an end in the second round, there’s still star power to be found outside of Durham. Look no further than Carsen Edwards’s 42-point outburst against Villanova, or Coby White’s smooth, highlight-reel worthy plays vs. Washington. Or perhaps you’re more into the takeover ability of Grant Williams, Cassius Winston and Jarrett Culver. Defense more your thing? Kenny Wooten has blocked and dunked his way to the Sweet 16, while De’Andre Hunter is a two-way star for the Cavaliers. And that’s to say nothing of the more team-driven efforts of Gonzaga, Michigan, Kentucky and others. If you need a reason to keep tuning in despite a lack of feel-good underdog stories, there’s no shortage of high-level talent.

Oregon saved the Pac-12. Now can it save chaos-seekers?

In a rare occurrence, there are no Cinderellas dancing into the second weekend—but there is a double-digit seed. The Ducks are the last hope for those rooting for busted brackets—not just the only double-digit seed left, but also the only team that is lower than No. 5.

We’re not calling Oregon a Cinderella because this is a program that went to the Final Four three years ago, and even if the Pac-12 was abnormally poor this season, it wasn’t crazy to think the Ducks could make a run. They came into the NCAA tournament as one of the nation’s hottest teams, thanks to a defense that ranks 11th nationally since Feb. 1 and third since March 1, per T-rank. Oregon starts four 6'9" players—including shot-blocking extraordinaire Kenny Wooten—and is mastering a matchup zone that is stymieing opposing offenses. But the Ducks will get their biggest test yet in Virginia on Thursday, and it will likely take a near-perfect effort to take down the Cavaliers. How would that be for chaos?

Buffalo and Wofford validated their seeds

Casual fans of college basketball were probably surprised to see that mid-majors Buffalo (No. 6) and Wofford (No. 7) were single-digit seeds in the tournament, and both would have earned an at-large bid had they not won their respective conference tourneys. If anyone wasn’t convinced by their résumés or strong analytics (both are top 25 on kenpom), the Bulls and Terriers proved they deserved their seeding by winning their first-round games by double digits—Buffalo over Arizona State, and Wofford over Seton Hall. And while Buffalo ran into a buzzsaw named Texas Tech’s defense in the second round, Wofford gave No. 2 seed Kentucky everything it could handle in its loss, despite the fact that its star, Fletcher Magee, shot a record 0 for 12 from three. It’s easy to underestimate mid-majors on the basis that their schedules aren’t as tough as, say, playing in the ACC or Big Ten, but these were two legitimate, well-built teams that belonged.

If this version of Nassir Little sticks around, UNC is even scarier

This hasn’t been the freshman season Nassir Little expected in Chapel Hill. A former top-five recruit and still current projected NBA draft lottery pick, Little has come off the bench all year and struggled to find consistency in the Tar Heels’ rotation. Entering the NCAA tournament, he had scored 20 points just once in 2019, and not since Jan. 21. Yet his first two March Madness games have brought 19 points against Iona and 20 points against Washington on combined 16-of-23 shooting, including playing a key role in UNC breaking down the Huskies’ 3–2 zone. Has the freshman turned a corner for real? If North Carolina can get the aggressive Little from the first weekend consistently going forward, its ceiling only becomes greater as it chases its second national title in three years. And with a fast-paced, three-point shooting Auburn team up next, it’s going to need him.

Gonzaga-FSU will feature two of the most underrated players in the country

Gonzaga junior Brandon Clarke is second nationally in win shares, Player Efficiency Rating (PER) and box plus/minus minutes. He’s shooting 71.6% on two-pointers and, unfathomably, has more blocks this season than missed shots. Yet he wasn’t even named as one of 10 semifinalists for the Naismith National Player of the Year award and is often overshadowed by his frontcourt mate Rui Hachimura, who is excellent in his own right.

Clarke got everyone’s attention with a superb 36-point outing in the Zags’ second-round win over Baylor, becoming the first player since Shaquille O’Neal in 1992 to have 35 points and five blocks in an NCAA tournament game. A little bit earlier, Florida State sophomore Mfiondu Kabengele scored 22 points in the Seminoles’ domination of Murray State, giving him 43 points, 17 rebounds and four blocks through two tournament games. Kabengele’s season numbers don’t jump off the page—13.4 points, 5.9 rebounds—but he’s 19th in PER, and his breakout has been a huge key to FSU’s success this year.

On Thursday night, Clarke and Kabengele will share a stage as the Bulldogs and Seminoles meet in the Sweet 16 for the second straight year. Last March, Florida State's length and physicality were too much for Gonzaga in a 15-point win. Of course, Clarke wasn’t even part of that game (and the Zags’ Killian Tillie was injured), while Kabengele was a freshman who played 14 minutes. This time around, expect both players to have a pivotal role in the outcome.

LSU must find more consistency if it wants to advance

The Tigers overcame Will Wade’s absence to make their first Sweet 16 since 2006, but neither of their games have been easy. LSU has twice had a chance to put an opponent to bed and twice let that team turn a comfortable win into a nail-biter. First it was Yale, which rallied back from a 16-point halftime deficit and made Tigers fans sweat out the final minutes after outscoring LSU by 11 in the second half.

In the second round against Maryland, the Tigers once again were in control, leading by 15 with 16 minutes to go. Then the Terps switched to a 3–2 zone defense that knocked LSU off-kilter and got them back in the game, and LSU needed a Waters scoop lay-up in the final seconds to escape. The Tigers’ PPP against zone defenses this season ranks 248th nationally, per Synergy, and while Tom Izzo isn’t known for straying from man-to-man, the Spartans’ defense ranks in the top 10 on kenpom. LSU will likely need to put together a complete game if it wants to knock off Michigan State, and that’s going to require staying focused and maintaining a level of high intensity for longer than it did during the first weekend.