The NCAA tournament enters its second week on March 27. While the first week had the most games and the third will decide the winner of the NCAA tournament, the second week bridges a very important gap. The Sweet 16 and the Elite Eight will forge the Final Four over the next four days, yet it all starts tonight with eight teams and four games kicking off the Sweet 16.
The South and West regional semifinals serve as a kind of under card for the Sweet 16, as it turns out. The East and Midwest regionals have a bit more star power, with showdowns ahead such as the Kentucky Wildcats facing the Louisville Cardinals, and the Virginia Cavaliers taking on the Michigan State Spartans. While those battles have gotten most of the hype this week, the ones in the South and West are more under the radar.
This can change in the South, if anyone other than the Florida Gators advance to the Final Four. The Gators were already favored, as the No. 1 seed that hasn't lost since Dec. 2013. But if Florida beats the UCLA Bruins in the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in the last decade, it would only have to beat the 10'th seeded Stanford Cardinal or 11'th seeded Dayton Flyers to reach the Final Four.
The route is somewhat tougher for the top seed in the West, as the Arizona Wildcats would face a second seed or a sixth seed if they beat their own fourth seeded challenger. But the Wildcats do have to focus on beating the San Diego State Aztecs for the second time this season, before looking ahead to facing the Wisconsin Badgers or Baylor Bears in the Elite Eight.
The Gators and Wildcats have largely breezed through the regular season, and survived tougher than expected games against No. 16 seeds before cruising in the round of 32. Things seem to still be breaking Florida and Arizona's way in the NCAA tournament, even as it hasn't for other favorites so far. If that continues for one more week, their seemingly inevitable Final Four berths will be a reality.
The accompanying list details the eight Sweet 16 teams in action tonight, the route they took to get here, and the route still ahead as the Final Four is right on the horizon.
Cardinal favored for Elite Eight
Stanford Cardinal: Chasson Randle and the Cardinal stayed on the bubble for much of the year, in the shadows of Arizona and UCLA in the Pac-12. However, Stanford has gone from obscurity to the lower seed in a Sweet 16 game in the blink of an eye.
Flyers biggest surprise left
Dayton Flyers: The Flyers needed a 10-2 run at the end of the season just to make the NCAA tournament, and might not have made it if the Atlantic 10 didn't get five other teams in. As it turns out, the Flyers are the only A-10 team left, and the closest thing left to a true Cinderella in the Sweet 16.
Ryan, Badgers look to break through
Wisconsin Badgers: Bo Ryan has won big with the Badgers for over a decade, yet has done everything but make it to the Final Four. But this high-scoring Badgers team could be the one to get him over the top.
Drew, Bears return to Sweet 16
Baylor Bears: Scott Drew has turned the Bears into a national power with two Elite Eight appearances in four years. A third appearance this year would be the most unlikely to date, although the Bears have caught fire late just like the Flyers.
Gators try once again for Final Four
Florida Gators: The Gators senior class has been to three straight Elite Eight games, only to lose each one. If the Gators fall one game short of the Final Four this time -- after a perfect SEC record, No. 1 ranking, 28-game winning streak and either a No. 10 or No. 11 seed waiting in the Elite Eight -- it would be the cruelest near-miss of all.
Alford leads Bruins
UCLA Bruins: The Bruins have lost three times to the Gators in the NCAA tournament over the last decade, with two of those times coming during the Final Four. Nevertheless, Steve Alford never led the Bruins in those past showdowns.
Miller, Wildcats back in Sweet 16
Arizona Wildcats: Sean Miller has brought the Wildcats back to the elite, with an Elite Eight run and two Sweet 16 berths over the last four years. This time, however, nothing short of a Final Four will do.
Fisher and Thames
San Diego State Aztecs: Steve Fisher and Xavier Thames have the Aztecs in their second Sweet 16 in four years. However, upsetting the Wildcats would truly put the Aztecs in the mid-major pantheon.