The NCAA tournament rounded out the Elite Eight on March 28. When all was said and done, the Michigan Wolverines, Kentucky Wildcats, Connecticut Huskies and Michigan State Spartans escaped to further another deep NCAA tournament run. While the big names and the cream of the crop are still standing in the Elite Eight, their routes are far more unconventional than usual.
The makeup of the Elite Eight consists of three Big Ten teams, two SEC programs, one from the new American Athletic Conference, a Pac-12 power and an Atlantic 10 bubble team. There are also No. 4, No. 7, No. 8 and No. 11 seeds among them, although the 11'th seeded Dayton Flyers are the only true Cinderella left.
The No. 4 Spartans and No. 7 Huskies technically pulled off upsets in the East regional on March 28, despite how they were each favored. Connecticut continued its latest surprise NCAA tournament surge -- one even more unlikely than that of the 2011 national champions -- in holding off the short handed Iowa State Cyclones by 81-76. Afterwards, the Spartans 'upset' the No. 1 seeded Virginia Cavaliers in a 61-59 grinder, making them the highest seeded team left in the East.
The Midwest now has a favorite that is a No. 8 seed, as the Wildcats stunned the Louisville Cardinals in the final minutes to prevail by 74-69, after trailing most of the night. The SEC rival Tennessee Volunteers almost pulled off a stunning comeback of their own over the Michigan Wolverines, yet a controversial offensive foul on the Volunteers in the final seconds helped the Wolverines survive by 73-71.
While there are just two No. 1 and two No. 2 seeds left, the Florida Gators have risen above the parity to defend their No. 1 overall seed -- and have the most seemingly easy Elite Eight game against Dayton on March 30. The No. 1 Arizona Wildcats also remain on track for the Final Four, yet the No. 2 seeded Wisconsin Badgers have been more impressive thus far.
The NCAA tournament has been predictable in some aspects, thanks to a few top seeds and big names, and completely unpredictable in others, thanks to the unconventional routes of these power programs. The accompanying list details the strongest teams left in the Elite Eight, although a national champion could still come from anyone -- maybe even Dayton at this rate.
Gators still worthy of No. 1
No. 1: Florida Gators -- The Gators have been rolling for three months and haven't slowed down in the NCAA tournament, thanks in part to Scottie Wilbekin. With the Gators on track to play no one higher than a No. 4 seed until the national title game, their route couldn't be more favorable -- unless the Dayton Flyers, Michigan State Spartans or Connecticut Huskies can provide speed bumps.
Spartans take command of East
No. 2: Michigan State Spartans -- The Spartans were favored in the East despite owning a mere No. 4 seed. But after cruising by Delaware, holding on against Harvard and grinding it out over Virginia, Branden Dawson, Tom Izzo and Michigan State are right where everyone expected them to be all along.
Kentucky back on top
No. 3: Kentucky Wildcats -- The Wildcats are among the most baffling teams in recent memory, having gone from preseason No. 1 to an underachieving No. 8 seed to a powerhouse again. After Aaron Harrison led the Wildcats past the Louisville Cardinals, there is no doubt that they are for real once more.
Badgers on cusp of Final Four
No. 4: Wisconsin Badgers -- While the Spartans are surging and the Michigan Wolverines are back on the brink of the Final Four, the Badgers are the quietest Big Ten team in the Elite Eight. Yet after blowing out American and Baylor and winning a shootout over Oregon, Wisconsin may well become the strongest Big Ten contender of all -- and Bo Ryan's first First Four team.
Huskies return to elite
No. 5: Connecticut Huskies -- The Huskies being in the Elite Eight isn't new, but doing it after a year-long NCAA tournament ban for poor academics -- and doing it without Jim Calhoun -- is. Yet after Shabazz Napier powered the Huskies in their first two victories, DeAndre Daniels took the spotlight in their Sweet 16 win over Iowa State, putting the No. 7 seed back on the verge of the Final Four.
Johnson, Wildcats endure
No. 6: Arizona Wildcats -- The Wildcats have had a few disappearing acts thus far in the NCAA tournament, nearly paying for it against San Diego State in the Sweet 16. But Nick Johnson and the Wildcats woke up in time in the final minutes, keeping themselves alive as one of the two No. 1 seeds still left.
Wolverines return to Elite Eight
No. 7: Michigan Wolverines -- When the Wolverines are on fire, especially beyond the arc, they look capable of topping their national title game run from last season. But the Wolverines are equally capable of giving up big runs, which came all too close to costing them against the Tennessee Volunteers in the Sweet 16 -- and may not be as survivable against Kentucky.
Flyers last Cinderella standing
No. 8: Dayton Flyers -- The Elite Eight has No. 4, No. 7 and No. 8 seeds still alive that are nowhere near Cinderellas. The only true surprise contenders still left are coach Archie Miller and the Flyers, who can pull the biggest shocker of all against the No. 1 Gators.