Ness Notes: From Sweet to Elite to Final 4 (Mar 27-30)

by Larry Ness

With the 2021 Masters coming up April 8-11, we'll often hear Jim Nantz say "A tradition unlike any other." The saying has even been trademarked by Augusta National and now adorns tournament merchandise. With deference to Nantz and The Masters, I think it's more than fair to 'borrow' that phrase and call the 2021 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, "A tournament unlike any other." For starters, this year's tournament has been contested at a number of notable venues throughout Central Indiana, including Lucas Oil Stadium (home of the NFL's Colts), Bankers Life Fieldhouse (home of the NBA's Pacers), Indiana Farmers Coliseum, Butler University’s Hinkle Fieldhouse, Indiana University’s Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall and Purdue University’s Mackey Arena. Each of the six 2021 NCAA Tournament venues has a storied history that goes beyond college basketball. No time to recap, so you'll trust me (the check's in the mail).

The First Four was contested on Thursday March 18 and we got an early preview of things to come. The lone favorite to win was Drake, which edged Wichita St 53-52. As the tourney was down to 64 teams and headed for the First Round (March 19 and 20), favorites were 1-3 SU & 0-4 ATS. 32 games were scheduled last Friday and Saturday but as all know, VCU was forced to forfeit its Saturday game to Oregon due to COVID issues. Over the other 31 games, favorites would go 19-12 SU but just 12-19 ATS. No. 1 seeds won all four games against their 16th-seeded opponents (now 143-1 all-time), although they were just 2-2 ATS. In all, NINE double-digit seeds won SU in the first round, including No. 15 Oral Roberts (just the 9th 15-seed to win an opener), No. 14 Abilene Christian, two No. 13 seeds (North Texas and Ohio U), a No. 12 seed plus two No. 11 and two No. 10 seeds.

Moving to Sunday, favorites went just 3-5 SU and 2-6 ATS, As the second round got set to complete 'Day 2' on Monday, favorites were only 22-17 SU (.564) and a 'money-burning' 14-25 ATS (35.9%). The tourney's fifth day saw No. 7 seed Oregon (+5) beat No. 2 seed Iowa 95-80 and the refrain was, "Here we go again." However, favorites would go 7-0 SU & ATS in the day's final seven games. As all teams took a four-day break before beginning Sweet 16 play on Saturday (March 27), favorites sit 29-18 (.617) and 21-26 ATS (44.7%).

OK, so why have I called this "A tournament unlike any other?" Consider the following factoids. The NCAA defines an upset as a team seeded five spots or lower than their opponent. A new record has already been set this year with 12 such "upsets" and there hasn't been a Sweet 16 game played yet. That's hardly all. Double digit seeds set a record by winning 14 games in the 2016 tournament (no counting First Four contests) and after four days of 1st and 2nd round games, that figure has been matched at 14, with FOUR of those double digit seeds reaching the Sweet 16. For the record, the list includes No. 15 Oral Roberts and No. 12 Oregon St plus No. 11 seeds Syracuse and UCLA. 

Upset possibilities typically become limited at this stage of the tournament but there are three among the eight Sweet 16 games. No. 15 Oral Roberts faces No. 3 Arkansas, plus both No. 11 seeds are 'in play,' Syracuse against No. 2 Houston and UCLA against No. 2 Alabama. This should grab your attention. The combined seeds in this year's Sweet 16 add up to 94, eclipsing the record of 89 set back in 1986. Seeding began back in 1979 (anyone remember Bird vs Magic?). There was no tourney last year but in 2019 (UVa's championship season), the combined seeds of Sweet 16 teams added up to just 49! One tourney apart, it's gone from 49 to 94, a numerical palindrome.

All No. 1 seeds won in the first round but Illinois was 'bounced' in the second round by 8th-seeded Loyola-Chicago. The good news for No. 1 seeds (Gonzaga, Baylor and Michigan) is that they've gone 97-23 (.808) in Sweet 16 games and for those who advance to the Elite 8, those teams have gone 57-40 (.588). No. 2 seeds still in it are Alabama and Houston and No. 2 seeds are 64-25 (.719) in Sweet 16 games but the winners are just 29-35 (.453) in Elite 8 games. Checking in on the double digit seeds, No. 11 seeds (Syracuse and UCLA this tourney) have won just EIGHT of 22 Sweet 16 games but of the eight that have advanced to the Elite, HALF (four) have made the Final Four. Oregon St is a No. 12 seed and it's NOT good news that of the previous 20 teams seeded No. 12 to make the Sweet 16, just ONE has advanced to the Elite 8. The 2002 Missouri Tigers are the only 12-seed to ever make the Elite 8, where they lost 81-75 to No. 2 Oklahoma. Not for nothing but Quin Snyder was Missouri's head coach that season. Anyone know what he's doing these days? 15th-seeded Oral Roberts is the 'longest shot' still in the tourney, as the Golden Eagles join the 2013 Florida Gulf Coast Eagles (pretty close nicknames, right?) as the only two No. 15 seeds to make the Sweet 16. That "Dunk City" team lost 62-50 to No. 3 Florida.

The seven other teams comprising the Sweet 16 are No. 3 Arkansas, No. 4 FSU, two No. 5s in Creighton and Villanova, No. 6 USC, No. 7 Oregon and No. 8 Loyola-Chicago. Of seeds 3 through 8 making the Sweet 16, the seed with the best winning percentage is the No. 8 seed, going 8-5. Of the eight Sweet 16 winners, FIVE advanced to the Final Four and THREE to the championship game. The Kansas Jayhawks of 1988, led by Danny Manning and coached by the infamous Larry Brown, won it all beating Oklahoma 83-79! Seeds 3 through 7 have done very poorly in Sweet 16 games, going a combined 90-166 (.352). No. 5 seeds (watch out Creighton and Villanova) own the worst record among the aforementioned group, going 9-38 (.191). However, of the nine that advanced to the Elite 8, SEVEN made the Final 4. However, a No. 5 seed has NEVER won the national championship.

This tournament began with no Duke or Kentucky in the field for the first time since 1976. The 1975-76 season was also memorable because it's the last time a team entered the tourney No. 1 AND unbeaten to go on and capture the title (Bobby's Knight's Hoosiers). This season the Gonzaga Bulldogs have a chance to match that feat and do so right in the "heart of Indiana'' (Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis). No. 1 seeds have won 22 titles since 1979, while No. 2 seeds have claimed five titles and No. 3 seeds have won four titles. As noted, one No. 8 seed has won a title and a No. 5 seed has never won one (see above for both examples). One No. 4 seed has won (Arizona in 1997), one No. 6 seed won (Jimmy V's 1983 NC State team) and one No. 7 seed won (UConn in 2014).

Enjoy the rest of March Madness.

Good luck...Larry

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