Glut of ACC teams in Sweet 16 is great, but so are underdogs

  • By ERIC OLSON
  • Wednesday, March 23, 2016 1:07am
  • Sports

The NCAA Tournament has reached the Sweet 16, and many of the usual suspects made it. There also are a few surprise teams and matchups. Don’t feel bad if you’re having trouble keeping track of it all.

Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli spoke for many over the weekend when he said there’s only so much college basketball a person can absorb when there are games on television night after night starting in November. In fact, he confessed he knew nothing about his team’s second-round opponent, the Oregon Ducks, before he found out his Hawks would be playing them.

No. 1 seeds Kansas, North Carolina, Oregon and Virginia and No. 2s Oklahoma and Villanova have gotten lots of attention. So with Martelli in mind, let’s throw out some nuggets on some of the other teams so we’re ready when the games resume Thursday.

DOUBLE-DIGIT SEEDS: The Midwest Regional semifinal between No. 11 Gonzaga and No. 10 Syracuse on Friday will mark the fourth time double-digit seeds have met in the Sweet 16 since seeding began in 1979. The other occasions were Dayton-Stanford in 2014, VCU-Florida State in 2011 and Providence-Chattanooga in 1997.

The Gonzaga-Syracuse matchup was predicted on 1.3 percent of the 13 million brackets submitted to the ESPN Tournament Challenge. Gonzaga is no stranger to the Sweet 16, having made it seven times. But what in the name of Adam Morrison are the Zags — yes, they’re the Bulldogs, but we know them better as the Zags — doing here this year?

They were 21-7 after losing to Saint Mary’s a second time in the regular season on Feb. 21 and their NCAA hopes were wavering. They haven’t lost since. They clinched their NCAA bid by beating Saint Mary’s in the West Coast Conference championship game and posted wins by a combined 39 points over sixth-seeded Seton Hall and No. 3 Utah. Big men Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer are the best known Zags, and guard Eric McClellan has stepped up his game of late.

Syracuse was in the news early in the season when coach Jim Boeheim served a nine-game suspension for NCAA rules violations, and the Orange were on the tournament bubble after going 9-9 in Atlantic Coast Conference games and losing their last three games.

Lo and behold, the Orange got in, opened with a 19-point win over Dayton and then won their surprise matchup with No. 15 seed Middle Tennessee by 25. Now Syracuse, in its 19th regional semifinal, is among the record six ACC teams in the Sweet 16 with a balanced attack led by Michael Gbinije, who has scored 10 or more points in 34 straight games.

Badgers are back

Last time Wisconsin was in this big a spotlight, Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and coach Bo Ryan were leading the Badgers to the 2015 national championship game against Duke. All those guys are gone, and here the Badgers are in the Sweet 16 for the fifth time in six years thanks to Bronson Koenig’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer against Xavier.

This journey wasn’t expected back in November when Western Illinois — which finished last in the Summit League — upset a Badgers team that was ranked 17th. Ryan took everyone by surprise by retiring soon after, and interim coach Greg Gard led Wisconsin to a tie for third place in the Big Ten to earn the full-time gig.

The seventh-seeded Badgers face No. 6 Notre Dame in Philadelphia on Friday. Koenig and Nigel Hayes played key roles during last year’s run. But the Irish better be ready for the challenge of 6-foot-9, 235-pound redshirt freshman Ethan Happ and 6-8, 230-pound Vitto Brown in the paint.

About the Irish

Rex Pflueger’s name won’t soon be forgotten among Notre Dame fans. He’s the guy who tipped in a rebound ahead of the buzzer to beat Stephen F. Austin and send the sixth-seeded Irish to the Sweet 16 for the second straight year. Fun fact about the freshman: He plays beach volleyball whenever he goes home to Dana Point, California.

The NIT bounce

Bet you forgot that Miami made it to the 2015 championship game of the NIT, losing 66-64 to Stanford in overtime. The third-seeded Hurricanes, who play No. 2 Villanova in Louisville on Thursday, have gone 27-7 this season with NIT holdovers Sheldon McClellan, Davon Reed and Ja’Quan Newton leading the way along with Angel Rodriguez, who missed the NIT run because of injury.

Gig ‘em, Aggies

As a No. 3 seed, it’s no surprise Texas A&M made it this far. How the Aggies did it, by erasing a double-digit deficit in the last minute of regulation to beat Northern Iowa, is another matter. If they beat No. 2 Oklahoma in Anaheim, California, on Thursday, they’ll be in a regional final for the first time.

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