1. The South Region is where you want to be this weekend: Because it doesn’t get much better than this. Three of the teams in the regional — North Carolina, Kentucky and UCLA — are among the favorites left in the field to win the national title. The No. 3 seed, UCLA, has already beaten the No. 2 seed, Kentucky, who currently owns a win over the No. 1 seed, North Carolina, all while the No. 4 seed, Butler, owns two wins over Villanova and three wins over teams left in the Sweet 16.
That’s before you consider that FedExForum is going to be absolutely brimming in blue — Carolina, Kentucky and UCLA. The only people happier than writers heading to Memphis this weekend are the bar owners on Beale Street. Stock up on Miller Lites.
2. North Carolina, by the way, is the only rep left from the ACC: The ACC was supposed to be one of the best conferences in the history of college basketball this season and, well, that didn’t really go the way we all through it would. The league went 7-8 in the first weekend of the tournament, and those eight losses came by an average of 13.9 points. Three of the four top four seeds that lost in first weekend were ACC members. Of the 10 games that were decided by 20 or more points, three involved ACC teams losing. Four involved No. 16 seeds losing. Even UNC needed a late run to survive Arkansas.
3. Kentucky-UCLA is as good of a Sweet 16 matchup as we’re ever going to see: How often do we get two legitimate national title contenders squaring off in the Sweet 16? (Answer: Not often.) But this matchup has so much more to it than just a pair of college basketball’s biggest brands squaring off. We get Lonzo Ball vs. De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk. We get a rematch of one of the best games of college basketball’s regular season. We get a thrilling battle between a pair of high-octane offenses that want to get out in transition. And we get what could potentially be Steve Alford’s last game as the head coach at UCLA.
4. Butler is back to being Cinderella, it seems: The Bulldogs are now members of the Big East and without question one of the better basketball programs in the sport, but when you’re the fourth wheel in a region where three blue-bloods are headed, it’s hard not to be thought of as the plucky upstart. And to be frank, I don’t think Butler minds all that much. Hell, I think they enjoy being the team no one is worried about. I’m sure Chris Holtmann wouldn’t mind if North Carolina overlooked them and focused on the winner of Kentucky-UCLA.
5. Oh, and should I mention that John Calipari is heading back to Memphis?: Coach Cal was once the head coach at Memphis, and when he left for Kentucky back in the spring of 2009, it didn’t end all that well between him and the Tigers. The people in that city are still bitter. The good news? The average Memphis fan will probably be more than happy to sell their tickets for five times face value to a Kentucky or UNC fan thirsty to get into the building.
6. The four best teams are on the right side of the bracket: For my money, three of the four best teams left in the NCAA tournament are in the South Region. The fourth on that list? Kansas, the No. 1 seed in the Midwest. In other words, if seeds hold, the winner of UCLA-Kentucky is going to have to beat the best three teams in the event just to get to the national title game.
7. Frank Mason III vs. Caleb Swanigan for all the Player of the Year votes: I think Kansas gets out of the Midwest Region, but their toughest test is coming in the Sweet 16. Purdue has a massive front line, one that is led by Caleb Swanigan, who is putting up numbers that would make you believe that Tim Duncan has been reincarnated. They won’t go head-to-head in this game, but it is worth noting that Mason and Swanigan are the two favorites to win National Player of the Year. Most seem to favor Mason, although if Swanigan continues to do what he did against Iowa State in a pair of wins this weekend, that sentiment may change.
8. You really should spend some time watching this Michigan team play: The Wolverines are really, really good. And they’re fun to watch. They have a star point guard in Derrick Walton Jr. They surround him with guards that can really shoot it, and they put him on the floor with a pair of mobile big men that can step out and knock down a three. This team is John Beilein at his finest.
9. The Big Ten, overall, availed themselves well: While the ACC was considered the best conference in the country this season, the Big Ten was lampooned for much of the year for their overall mediocrity. But here we are in the Sweet 16 and no conference in the country has more teams left in the field than the Big Ten’s three. Two of those three, Wisconsin (Villanova) and Michigan (Louisville), sent top four seeded teams home.
10. So did the Pac-12: We all knew there was a top three in that conference, and each of those three teams won two games and reached the Sweet 16. The fourth team in the tournament from the Pac-12 was USC, who lost a thriller to Baylor on Sunday but who managed to win a pair of games last week, including a comeback from 17 points down in the second half of the play-in game. Overall, the Pac-12 is 8-1 in the tournament.
11. Sean Miller will be squaring off with his former assistant Chris Mack for the second time in three years: In 2009, Miller left Xavier to become the head coach at Arizona, a no-brainer move for a coach taking over a program with pedigree that can win a national title every single season. Mack, then an assistant for Miller, took over for him and has led the Musketeers to new heights, thriving as a contender in the Big East conference.
12. The winner will play for their first-ever trip to the Final Four, possibly against Mark Few: It’s never easy to play against a former colleague, not when those former colleagues are as close as Miller and Mack are. Added into that conversation is the fact that neither coach has ever reached the Final Four. Miller is widely thought of arguably the best coach in the country that has never made a Final Four, and when he finally does, Mack will move his way closer to the top of that list.
Also on that list? Gonzaga’s Mark Few. The Zags are in the West Region along with Xavier and Arizona, and it would be fascinating to see them square off for the right to get to the final weekend of the season.
13. One of those four head coaches will be making their first Final Four: That’s not the only region where a battle for a first trip to the Final Four will be brewing. In the East, Wisconsin’s Greg Gard, Florida’s Mike White, Baylor’s Scott Drew and South Carolina’s Frank Martin are all looking to make their first trip to the Final Four as well.
14. Good luck trying to re-sell those East Region tickets: Look at the teams in that East Region. Now remember that they are going to be playing in Madison Square Garden this weekend. Now think about the people that sell tickets on the secondary markets — scalpers, stubhub, seatgeek — that thought they were buying tickets for Duke-Villanova in the Garden. They are not going to be making nearly as much money as they thought they would be.
15. No one had a more unlikely or improbable run than South Carolina: I need more space to explain all of the reasons why, but I really do think that Frank Martin leading South Carolina to back-to-back NCAA tournament wins for the first time in program history is one of the most incredible things we’ve seen in the tournament in a long time.
16. No one has had more postseason success than Wisconsin’s seniors: Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes have never been ousted in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. They made a Final Four as freshmen. They played in the national title game as sophomores. They made the Sweet 16 last year. They’re in the Sweet 16 this year. The next time they take the court will be their 17th career NCAA Tournament game, the most in the country.