By Seth Gruen–
(CBS) Finally, the NCAA Tournament can begin in earnest.
I’m not one to hate on the first weekend of games, but we sort of artificially root for mid-majors with low seeds for the excitement of the whole thing. Sure, we’re rooting for our brackets, but we know they have the slimmest of chances to go far into the tournament.
They aren’t going to win for long. And barring the second coming of Larry Bird at Indiana State, they aren’t going to the Final Four either, with a few exceptions. That first weekend is almost a tournament unto itself. We like to see who can survive it.
All which makes this weekend of games — the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight — my favorite weekend of games.
Those low-seeded teams that make it to the Sweet 16 generally fall under two categories: They’re talented yet underachieved during the regular season or were totally under-seeded. Tenth-seeded Syracuse, a talented team, is an example of the former.
There’s a feeling, though, that most of these teams have a chance. There’s still a high volume of games on the schedule — 12 to be exact — that feature a higher level of basketball and have the potential to be just as close as the early round heart-stoppers.
Most of all, there’s a feeling as if the remaining teams are actually playing for something more than a little airtime on network television.
At the beginning of the season, we might have a handful of teams we think can win a national championship. The same goes for the beginning of the tournament. Now, every team has that aspiration. It’s a little more believable, making the tournament picture a lot more cluttered and, of course, raising more questions than ever before.
Let’s take a look at the big storylines of the second weekend.
Forget the Final Four — will we even see a Big Ten team get a chance to play for such a berth?
The Big Ten has three teams remaining: No. 7 Wisconsin, No. 5 Indiana and No. 5 Maryland. This isn’t what most would have predicted at the start of the tournament, but it doesn’t lessen conference’s chances of having a Final Four team in my mind.
I believe,at least one of the three will advance to the Elite Eight. Which one?
Maryland has the toughest Sweet 16 matchup in Kansas but is the most talented of the remaining Big Ten teams. Indiana is playing the best. The least likely to advance is Wisconsin, which on paper has the easiest matchup against sixth-seeded Notre Dame but one I don’t think favors the Badgers.
Which No. 1 seed will lose first?
Thursday’s games feature the toughest matchups for the top seeds. As mentioned above, Kansas plays Maryland, and top-seeded Oregon plays No. 4 Duke, games that will be played simultaneously.
So throwing out any semantics about when each game might end, the Ducks will be the first of the No. 1 seeds to lose. The Blue Devils are playing as well as they have all season, and their experience should win out in this situation.
That said, both No. 1 seeds could easily lose Thursday, given the difficultly of the Jayhawks’ matchup.
Win or not, does Oklahoma have staying power?
Buddy Hield may be graduating, but coach Lon Kruger is staying. He’s a proven coach whom more players will want to play for after seeing him elevate Hield from a second-rounder to a lottery pick.
Kruger has a top-25 recruiting class coming in, according to Rivals. The recruiting site highlights shooting guard Kameron McGusty, ranked 43rd in his class, as the best natural scorer in the class of 2016. Hield Part II, maybe?
Which is the toughest regional?
Even though chalk advanced to the Sweet 16 in the West, the South features games that should be much closer.
Maryland was thought to have the best starting lineup at the beginning of the season, making its matchup with Kansas the best of the Sweet 16. With the way Miami can guard, its game against Villanova should be close.
Which is the weakest regional?
It’s easily the West. All-offense No. 4 Iowa State gives Virginia the easiest matchup of any of its top-seeded counterparts.
If it advances, Virginia would see either Gonzaga or Syracuse — a game that should be an Elite Eight blowout.
Here’s a question within a question: Which team is most likely to make the Final Four?
Virginia. No team has an easier road from here.
Seth Gruen is columnist for CBSChicago.com, focusing on college sports. You can follow him on Twitter @SethGruen.