The first couple rounds of the NCAA Tournament is almost bulletproof. With so many games, and now the ability to actually see all of them, rarely do we come away disappointed with the first weekend of games.
We get upsets, we get buzzer beaters, we get Greg Gumbel butchering interviews. With so many games, all of those are virtual certainties.
The Sweet 16 is trickier, though. Do the first weekend upsets leave us with a slew of ho hum match ups? Did the committee's poor job in seeding teams catch up with them?
Well, I would say that in 2014, the basketball gods have smiled on us, for the Sweet 16 this season is the perfect mix of upstarts, dark horses, blue bloods, and geography.
To wit, how about the ticket prices? This from Forbes:
While Madison Square Garden never had a chance to host Syracuse this tournament, their former Big East-rival UConn did make it back to their former home-away-from-home, and that has been plenty to send prices soaring. Prices for the Friday night session are up 60% since UConn advanced with their win over Villanova. Just a Metro North-ride away from Manhattan, it seems both alum and students are doing whatever they can to get their hands on the first NCAA Tournament tickets at the Garden in 53 years. They're also hoping to relive some of the magic that Ray Allen and Kemba Walker used to show on the Garden hardwood.
As for the other rounds, the West regional has stayed closest to form, with three of the top Four seeds still alive. Aside from Baylor blowing out Creighton by 30, there haven't been any baffling box scores from the early rounds. Most expected to see Arizona and San Diego State in Anaheim and ticket demand shows that locals are willing to pay and fans are willing to travel. The Honda Center features the second highest price point at $376 and average resale price has steadily increased since Friday.
The MidWest regional contains without a doubt the most intriguing matchup of the Sweet 16. Two legendary coaches go head to head as John Calipari's Kentucky Wildcats take on Rick Pitino's Louisville Cardinals for an in-state affair as Friday's nightcap at Lucas Oil Stadium, which is less than 200 miles from each campus. Ticket prices have increased 18% since the matchup was set. The current average ticket price is $267, up from $176 on Friday. If Duke hadn't suffered an early exit, a Blue Devils-Michigan bout may have ballooned ticket prices past the Honda Center. While prices are likely to rise in the coming days, they still won't catch the next bigget interstate sporting event: Kentucky Derby Tickets. At an average price of just under $1,000, you can still bring a family of four to the regionals for the price of one ticket to the Derby.
The South regional will ensure that a double digit seed makes it to the Elite 8, with Number 10 Stanford and Number 11 Dayton squaring off on Thursday. While seeing two Cinderella teams on a bigger stage is fun water cooler talk, FedEx Forum tickets have taken the biggest hit on the secondary market. Fans expected recognizable names and stars like Jim Boeheim and Andrew Wiggins, but are instead will see the Cardinal and Flyers. Ticket prices have taken a 17% decrease in the past 24 hours, and are expected to continue to fall. The average ticket price for the sessions in Memphis is $95. At that price, it makes it the least expensive regional session over the last three years, over $60 behind the West Regional in 2012.
For the NCAA, at least when it comes to basketball, despite realignment and one-and-dones sucking some of the life of college basketball, tradition and drama is their business, and business is good.
So let's get you ready for these games, and rank them in order of how basketball-aroused each game gets us...
8. Thursday 6:15 p.m. SOUTH: 11 Dayton vs 10 Stanford Two of the three double digit seeded teams remaining, they lead off the weekend in a bit of an old school WWE wrestling card mode, where a couple of curtain jerkers would get the festivities started. Both teams caught a couple of vulnerable higher seeds in the Round of 32, Dayton catching Syracuse at the end of a month of offensive doldrums, and Stanford catching Kansas without center Joel Embiid. The Cardinal have size down low with Josh Huestis and Dwight Powell and consistent veteran guard Chasson Randle runs the show, but if it's a close game, Dayton has already been in a couple of these against Cuse and Ohio State. The winner likely gets served to Florida on a plate on Saturday. Prediction: Dayton 63, Stanford 61
7. Thursday 9:17 p.m. WEST: 4 San Diego State vs 1 Arizona This was a region that I thought would get blown up with several high seeds that i wasn't all that fond of. It turns out I was only right about Creighton. Arizona has actually been the strongest of all the one seeds, behind guard Nick Johnson. Freshman Aaron Gordon has center stage with all the other big time freshmen not named Julius Randle knocked out. This is a classic high octane offense versus gritty defense matchup. I'll take the offense. Prediction:Arizona 79, San Diego State 68
6. Friday 8:57 p.m. EAST: 4 Michigan State vs 1 Virginia Michigan State is the Louisville of the East Region -- dark horse four seed who is actually favored to win the region, traditional power, hyperactive Italian coach, experienced and tough minded squad. Meanwhile, Virginia just continues to win. I actually love the makeup of this Cavalier team. They're experienced, they're the best defensive team in the country, and they can shoot the basketball. I have them in my finals on the bracket so i can't stop now. Prediction: Virginia 55, Michigan State 53
5. Friday 6:15 p.m. MIDWEST: 11 Tennessee vs 2 Michigan Of all the teams where we need to now throw out their seed number when we assess them, Tennessee may be the best example, and have been since the tournament started. Ken Pomeroy's formula had them as the 13th best team overall headed into the tournament, and they've played like it. Meanwhile, Michigan just continues to hum along under Jon Bielein, even without Mitch McGary. The variable here is shooting. If Michigan is knocking down threes, they can bury almost anybody, and Tennessee is no different. Prediction: Michigan 79, Tennessee 69
4. Friday 6:27 p.m. EAST: 7 UConn vs 3 Iowa State The crowd at Madison Square Garden will have a decided Connecticut flavor to it, in no small part because they might be the one state whose residents can afford to buy tickets to the games this weekend. Good lord, three grand for floor seats! The best player still left in the East Regional might be UConn's Shabazz Napier. Certainly, he's the player most able to put a team on his back, and people forget, because UConn has been through tournament exile and a coaching change since then, but Napier was a sixth man on UConn's last title team three seasons ago. No moment will be too big for him. Meanwhile, the Cyclones continue to try to survive and advance without their big man Georges Niang. This is a rematch from the 2012 tournament, back when Royce White used to play basketball. Prediction: Connecticut 78, Iowa State 72
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3. Thursday 6:47 p.m. WEST: 6 Baylor vs 2 Wisconsin This game might be the most fun game of the weekend. The top two games on my board are buoyed in part by the big names of the schools and the inherent rivalries. This one is just two teams that are balanced, can score, and are playing really good basketball. Baylor is 12-2 in its last 14 games, and Wisconsin showed in the Oregon game that they can take a punch in the face and come back from big deficits. Wisconsin is more athletic than Creighton was, so if the Bears get hot, the Badgers should be able to respond. Should be able to.... Prediction:Baylor 81, Wisconsin 73
2. Thursday 8:45 p.m. SOUTH: 4 UCLA vs 1 Florida A rematch of the 2006 finals when Joakim Noah and company cut down the nets for the first time. Like that Florida team, this Gator squad is strong at all five positions, and defends. If any team in the tournament can lock a team down for five or ten minutes and choke them out, it's Florida. Where UCLA may have a "kill spot" on the Gators (see my Swamp People reference there?) is at point guard where Kyle Anderson has a huge size advantage on Scottie Wilbekin. Intriguing subplot that means nothing: Both coaches were star players for teams in the 1987 Final Four, Billy Donovan for Providence and Steve Alford for Indiana. I graduated from high school three months later. I feel old. Prediction: Florida 65, UCLA 60
1. Friday 8:45 p.m. MIDWEST: 8 Kentucky vs 4 Louisville Old lions against young lions. Calipari against Pitino. One-and-dones against seasoned vets. Bottled up southern hatred. Let's get it on. Prediction: Louisville 65, Kentucky 59