Striking a balancing act between the things that we love about March Madness can be difficult to do. We love the Cinderellas and the upsets, but come Sweet Sixteen time, we like to see the heavyweights and blue bloods battle it out. It's tough to have both.
A rash of upsets will usually result in an underwhelming Sweet Sixteen. Conversely, the chalk making it through the first weekend sets us up for a pretty stellar four days of college basketball. This season we got the latter, as 15 of the 16 schools come from the Power Six basketball conferences (the five FBS football conferences plus the Big East), and the one school that comes from a mid-major is No. 1 Gonzaga, which feels more like an independent than a member of its home conference, the WCC.
If you're a casual basketball fan, Thursday through Sunday should give you the perfect mix of 2017 NBA draft prospects, insane coaches (what up, Huggy Bear!), doubly insane helicopter parents (what up, LaVar Ball!) and gambling drama (what up, Sean Pendergast!)
Rating the four regionals in order of how compelling they are would probably go something like this...
4. EAST REGIONAL (New York), Friday, March 24
MATCHUPS: No. 3 Baylor vs. No. 7 South Carolina (6:39 p.m. CT), No. 8 Wisconsin vs. No. 4 Florida (8:59 p.m. CT)
VEGAS SPREADS: BAY -3.5, FLA -1.5
TICKET PRICES (via SeatGeek): $315 and up
REGIONAL STORYLINES: That sound you heard was ticket brokers throughout the greater New York area screaming in agony as No. 1 Villanova and No. 2 Duke were knocked out in the first weekend of the tournament. There's really no good permutation of teams here that gives you a marquee regional final, although this is easily the regional where you'd most want to watch the football teams of the four schools involved. So that's something. Also, watching South Carolina head coach Frank Martin's insane eyes for 40 minutes is mesmerizing.
3. WEST REGIONAL (San Jose), Thursday, March 23
MATCHUPS: No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 4 West Virginia (6:39 p.m. CT), No. 11 Xavier vs. No. 2 Arizona (9:09 p.m. CT)
VEGAS SPREADS: GONZ -3, ARIZ -7
TICKET PRICES (via SeatGeek): $268 and up
REGIONAL STORY LINES: For years, Gonzaga has teased college basketball fans everywhere into touting them as a "dark horse to make some noise." They were the quintessential school people would use when they were trying to sound smart in filling out their brackets, and every year, Mark Few's squad would come up short. Now, here they are as the top seed on the West Coast. This will be their best look at a Final Four, although they got a rough Sweet Sixteen draw with Bob Huggins's Mountaineers. When West Virginia brings its A-game, it can beat anybody. On the other side, Arizona coach Sean Miller goes up against his former employers, Xavier. Don't tell me the committee doesn't have a sense of humor!
2. MIDWEST REGIONAL (Kansas City), Thursday, March 23
MATCHUPS: No. 3 Oregon vs. No. 7 Michigan (6:09 p.m. CT), No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 4 Purdue (8:39 p.m. CT)
VEGAS SPREADS: MICH -1.5, KAN -4
TICKET PRICES (via SeatGeek): $405 and up
REGIONAL STORY LINES: Solid regional here, with a legitimate home team in Kansas, going up against Caleb Swanigan in his "coming-out party for people who don't really follow college basketball." On the other side, you have Michigan on its miracle run since staring death in the face after its plane slid off the runway before the Big Ten tournament. They haven't lost a game since then. A regional final of Kansas at home against Michigan's karma would pop a big number.
1, SOUTH REGIONAL (Memphis), Friday, March 24
MATCHUPS: No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 4 Butler (6:09 p.m. CT), No. 3 UCLA vs. No. 2 Kentucky (8:39 p.m. CT)
VEGAS SPREADS: UNC -7, UCLA/KY Pick Em
TICKET PRICES (via SeatGeek): $255 and up
REGIONAL STORY LINES: Far and away the best combination of "blue blood" programs, perennial tournament darlings, individual star power and legendary coaching pedigrees. While in some ways the tournament would probably like to have Kentucky and UCLA meeting further down the line, the fact is that this is the ideal non-Final Four spot for the two teams to meet, where we will get four days of hype leading up to one of the final games of the Sweet Sixteen. Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf on one side, Malik Monk and Houston's DeAaron Fox on the other. Honestly, with rumors of a monster deal on the table from his alma mater, Indiana, UCLA head coach Steve Alford might welcome the ancillary noise that comes with Ball's old man, LaVar. In the other matchup, Roy Williams and the Tar Heels face off against Butler, no longer a Cinderella darling in the Big East. Similarly to Alford having a LaVar Ball-shield, Butler's Chris Holtmann has an Alford-shield, as the Butler head coach is also having his name tossed around in the mix for the job vacated by Tom Crean's firing. There are no really bad outcomes for TV purposes in this region, although CBS has to be quietly rooting for North Carolina, and to let the chips fall where they may in the other matchup.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.
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