By Sunday night, the Final Four will be set for the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship. But a number of storylines will play out before four teams can punch their tickets to Houston to keep dancing at NRG Stadium. Here are four big questions heading into the weekend.
1. Are there any Cinderellas left?
The Gonzaga Bulldogs are the lowest seed (11th in the Midwest Regional) to make it to the Sweet 16 this year. The Bulldogs (or “Zags” as they’re now commonly known) are from the West Coast Conference, not one of the power conferences. They’ve never reached the Final Four.
But are the Zags bonafide Cinderellas? Not really. Gonzaga first wore the glass slipper in 1999 by reaching the regional finals, or “Elite Eight.” Back then the Spokane, Washington, team was a relatively obscure entity in college basketball. But since then the Zags have made the NCAA tournament every year. They reached the Elite Eight again last season before bowing out against eventual national champion Duke, and they entered this season ranked as high as No.9 nationally.
Today, Gonzaga is proof that a team can go from Cinderella status to being a regular among the nation’s elite teams. That’s why Mark Few, in his 17th year as head coach, has stayed put with the Bulldogs.
“I feel we’ve done it,” Few said. “I think that obviously has shown when you go 18 [tournaments] straight and we’ve been a 1 seed and a 2 seed and a 3 seed and a 4 seed, and pretty much ranked in the top 20 during this whole run. So obviously I think it can be done, and most definitely, 100%, that’s probably the main part of why I stayed.”
2. Will we see a double-digit seed in Houston?
That’s a real possibility, as one is guaranteed to reach the Elite Eight. Syracuse (10th seed) plays Gonzaga at 9:40 p.m. ET tonight on CBS, with the winner facing either top-seeded Virginia or No.4 seed Iowa State in the Midwest Region final on Sunday.
Gonzaga, despite the slightly lower seed, is favored to beat Syracuse in the game at the United Center in Chicago.
Syracuse, though a powerhouse in years past (national champion in 2003 and twice runner-up), has been a surprise this season. The Orange spent part of the season without head coach Jim Boeheim, who was suspended for nine games, and had lost five of their last six games coming into the tournament.
“It’s definitely been an interesting year,” senior guard Trevor Cooney said. “I think things have happened that don’t normally happen to a college basketball team, and I think that’s just helped us prepare for the tournament and everyone just staying strong and keeping together.”
3. Is Kansas a lock to make the Final Four?
Hardly. The Jayhawks, the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament, have to get past Villanova, the No.2 seed in the South Region, to reach the Final Four. Villanova routed No. 3 Miami 92-69 in a region semifinal on Thursday.
“They’re a very good team,” Kansas junior forward Landen Lucas said of Villanova after the Jayhawks downed No.5 seed Maryland 79-63 on Thursday. “We know that they get after it. They’re very aggressive, and they’re a veteran group. We are, too, so we’re looking forward to a competitive game, and it will be fun.”
Kansas is favored by oddsmakers to advance. But there’s some additional pressure on the Jayhawks, who were ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll entering the NCAA tournament. A Wall Street Journal story, citing information from Stats LLC, said that just four teams have won the national championship that entered March Madness ranked No. 1: Duke (1992 and 2001), UCLA (1995) and Kentucky (2012) since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
Kansas and Villanova will square off at 8:49 p.m. ET Saturday on CBS, from Louisville, Kentucky.
4. Who wins the rivalry within the rivalry?
Friday night has a doozy of a Sweet 16 matchup in No. 1 North Carolina against No. 5 Indiana (Friday at 9:57 pm ET on TBS). But it goes deeper than pitting two of college basketball’s most successful programs.
Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell and UNC’s Marcus Paige, both senior guards, have a history that dates back to high school. Paige says he has played against Ferrell since ninth grade. They last faced each other in November 2012, when both were college freshmen. The Hoosiers routed the Tar Heels 83-59 in that game.
Ferrell leads the Hoosiers with 17.1 points and 5.6 assists per game this season, while Paige averages 12 points and leads the Tar Heels with 3.7 assists per game.
“He’s always been a good point guard, good lead guard, great passer,” Paige said of Ferrell. “But this year and last year, to some extent, he’s become a really, really good scorer. He’s shooting the ball extremely well from deep. His pull-up jump shot has always been kind of his go-to thing. He’s getting in the paint and can finish. He’s expanded his game to become a complete guard. That’s why he’s having an All-American season.”