Powerful programs take over Sweet 16
Cinderella took a break this time as chalk leads first weekend
Don't look now, but the NCAA tournament has become a gated community.
The riffraff is out -- some of it kicking and screaming. (Thank you, Siena, for at least going out swinging.) The Sweet 16 is straight blue blood, old money, upper crust. The rich and powerful always take over by the Final Four, but this year they've assumed command earlier than ever.
Normally home to the power programs plus a handful of Cinderella strivers from off-brand conferences, the second week of the tourney this year is elite from one end of the bracket to the other.
In other words, don't go looking around these parts for Davidson or George Mason. Not this year. They don't have enough juice to join this club.
When Arizona and its national title, four Final Fours and 25-year run of making the NCAA tournament is the biggest pretender at this party, you know it's exclusive. Check the numbers:
• Thirteen of the remaining 16 teams hail from the six power conferences: a record five from the Big East, three from the Big 12, two from the Atlantic Coast, two from the Big Ten and one from the Pacific-10. (Actually, they hail from five of the six: the Southeastern Conference has been broomed out in ignominious fashion.) The other three teams happen to be the most perennially powerful outsiders: Memphis, Gonzaga and Xavier.
• More than half the remaining field already has won at least one national title: Louisville, Arizona, Kansas, Michigan State, Connecticut, Villanova, Duke, North Carolina and Syracuse. Only three of the remaining schools have never been to a Final Four (Missouri, Xavier and Gonzaga).
• Seventy percent of the programs I'd rank in the all-time top 10 are in the Sweet 16. In no particular order, that's North Carolina, Duke, Kansas, Louisville, Michigan State, Connecticut and either Syracuse or Arizona. The only ones missing: UCLA, Kentucky and Indiana.
• Seven coaches with rings are still working this season: Rick Pitino of Louisville, Bill Self of Kansas, Tom Izzo of Michigan State, Jim Calhoun of Connecticut (we assume he'll be healthy enough to coach the rest of the way), Mike Krzyzewski of Duke, Roy Williams of North Carolina and Jim Boeheim of Syracuse.
• Every team that was ranked No. 1 this season except Wake Forest is still around. (Wake's roll-over-and-die performance against Cleveland State looks worse and worse in the rearview mirror.)
• Ten of the 16 teams won either their league regular-season title or conference tournament. Or both.
• The most powerful league in the nation, the Big East, has a record five Sweet 16 spots. (ACC honks -- that's you, Krzyzewski -- are politely invited to pipe down after advancing only two of seven teams this far.)
• All of the top 12 seeds in the tourney remain alive. That has never happened before. And it's the first time in 14 years that all of the top eight seeds have made it this far.
• Both the South and East regions have advanced their top four seeds intact. It has been 18 years since more than one region did that.
Since the tourney expanded in 1985, this combined seeding total of 49 is the smallest total ever in the Sweet 16.
That's too bad. One of the tourney's abiding charms is the mid-major interlopers who hang around longer than a weekend.
Which was the more memorable Sweet 16 entrant last year: Davidson or Villanova? Western Kentucky or Wisconsin?
A highbrow Final Four is one thing, but a highbrow Sweet 16 is a little dull. In a sport that continues to consolidate its power in the hands of the few, that's not a good trend.
You could see it coming for weeks, though. This was shaping up as a tournament that would squeeze in more teams from power conferences than ever and fewer from the smaller leagues. That came to pass.
And when the only true mid-major teams to win a game were Siena, Western Kentucky and Cleveland State, that further narrowed the chances for even one Sweet 16 Cinderella.
The surprising thing has been the dearth of upsets of any flavor. A tournament that began Thursday with the promise of a bracket-shattering bloodletting has instead played out predictably. That in itself is an upset, given the number of surprises in the conference tournaments and the general feeling that we were in for a wild three weeks.
Fact is, though, we still have plenty of time for wildness. It simply will have to come about in a different form than giant-slaying upsets.
On paper, every Sweet 16 game is competitive. There should be no double-digit favorites, no overmatched underdogs.
It's reasonable to expect every No. 1 seed to be pushed Thursday or Friday.
Louisville has been a bit wobbly and will take on an Arizona team that barely made the tourney but is playing well with three potential NBA players in the lineup.
Connecticut has been dominant through two rounds but will face a Purdue team that was the most talented in the Big Ten and put it together at season's end to win the league tourney.
Pittsburgh also has been vulnerable through two rounds and will play Xavier, which has more experience at this level of the tournament than the Panthers do after last year's regional final run.
And Gonzaga-North Carolina could be an offensive smorgasbord. If anyone can match the Tar Heels' depth of talent, it might be the Zags.
But the other games in the bracket really dilate the pupils and should guarantee major TV ratings: defending national champion Kansas against Big Ten champ Michigan State, trying to make the Final Four in its home state; manic Missouri against defending national runner-up Memphis in what should be a furiously paced game; Villanova-Duke in a clash of teams that did not win their leagues but have had Final Four potential all season; and Syracuse-Oklahoma, as Blake Griffin takes on the Orange wide-bodies on the interior of Boeheim's 2-3 zone.
So this country-club 16 should be great fun the rest of the way.
It's just too bad none of the riffraff sneaked through the gates.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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