Oh, how sweet it already is.

On Thursday night, the Sweet 16 kicked off with a star-studded field. Where were the upsets on opening weekend? They were waiting for us in the Sweet 16, where 3 favorites (Arizona, Iowa State and UNC) went down.

Here’s a takeaway from each game, along with a thought on each Sweet 16 matchup on Friday:

Clemson vs. Arizona — This Clemson defense is no joke

Arizona was all out of sorts until it was too late. A Clemson team that most of us, myself included, didn’t have winning in the Round of 64 against New Mexico is advancing to the Elite Eight because of how well it defends. Specifically, Clemson is moving on because Brent Venables’ defense is that good. Whoops. Wrong sport/decade of Clemson. The Tigers are allowing opponents to shoot just 18.7% from 3-point range in the NCAA Tournament, and nobody has made more than 6 3s. That length and the switch to the zone threw off an immensely talented Arizona team and it trailed all night.

Six-seed or not, a Clemson team that’s been an underdog in every game so far is going to be a brutal out the rest of the way.

San Diego State vs. UConn — If you weren’t on board with UConn vs. the field, are you now?

If you just saw the final score, you’d yawn and think that a No. 1 seed beat up on a Mountain West team. Lost in the shuffle of that was San Diego State — last year’s national runner-up — hung tough and had it within 4 late in the first half. Donovan Clingan struggled early and Jaedon LeDee looked every bit like the All-American he’s been. And then, of course, UConn happened. The defense was lights out. Danny Hurley’s team flipped it into overdrive and a close game turned into a 30-point rout. Insane.

UConn has won every NCAA Tournament game in the past 2 years by at least 13 points. That’s 8-0 with an average margin of victory of 22.9 points. On top of that, the notion of UConn facing Arizona in the Final Four in Phoenix went out the window with the Wildcats’ loss to Clemson. In other words, that path to become the first team to repeat since 2006-07 Florida cleared up even more for the defending champs.

Alabama vs. North Carolina — An unlikely team had an unlikely hero

Remember last year when Alabama was a 1-seed that swept the SEC regular season and conference tournament with arguably the best player in the country in Brandon Miller? Nate Oats still couldn’t get past the Sweet 16. So how fitting it was that a year later, as a 4-seed after a herky-jerky season that saw Alabama go one-and-done in the SEC Tournament, Grant Nelson put on his cape and led the Tide to the program’s first Elite Eight berth in 20 years. That’s March, baby. Nelson was brilliant, not just on offense with his season-high 24 points, but his 2 defensive stands on RJ Davis in the final minute were remarkable, as was his game-sealing block on UNC’s full-court heave at the buzzer.

Nelson isn’t quite in the Jack Gohlke category of March heroes because he’s at least been the starter for a team that’s on its way to the Elite Eight, but he certainly put himself in a different stratosphere. Perhaps it’s only fitting that a football-like matchup with Clemson stands in the way of Alabama’s first Final Four trip in program history.

Iowa State vs. Illinois — Not even the nation’s top defense could defend Terrence Shannon Jr.

Iowa State entered the night ranked No. 1 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric having not allowed a 25-point scorer since Houston star Jamal Shead dropped 26 on the Cyclones on Feb. 19. It was fair to question if Shannon would struggle against that defensive pressure. Instead, he was on fire. The nation’s 3rd-leading scorer dropped 29 points in just 22 minutes — he got into foul trouble — to send Illinois to its first Elite Eight berth since 2005. Brad Underwood’s star continued his blazing March and further solidified the notion that he’s the best pure scorer remaining in the NCAA Tournament.

It’ll be a fascinating matchup for a UConn squad that reminded us just how elite it is defensively. To slow down this Illini squad is to give Shannon some sort of resistance, which the Huskies showed they were capable of doing against LeDee. A heavyweight fight awaits on Saturday.

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And 1 thought on each Friday game …

NC State vs. Marquette — Let’s look at the recent double-digit seeds vs. single-digit seeds in the Sweet 16

Here’s your reference point, NC State fans:

  • 2013 — No. 12 Oregon, L 77-69 vs. No. 1 Louisville
    • No. 13 LaSalle, L 72-58 vs. No. 9 Wichita State
    • No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast, L 62-50 vs. No. 3 Florida
  • 2014 — No. 11 Tennessee, L 73-71 vs. No. 2 Michigan
  • 2015 — No. 11 UCLA, L 74-62 vs. No. 2 Gonzaga
  • 2016 — None
  • 2017 — No. 11 Xavier, W 73-71 vs. No. 2 Arizona
  • 2018 — No. 11 Loyola-Chicago, W 78-62 vs. No. 7 Nevada
    • No. 11 Syracuse, L 69-65 vs. No. 2 Duke
  • 2019 — No. 12 Oregon, L 53-49 vs. No. 1 Virginia
  • 2021 — No. 11 UCLA, W 88-78 (OT) vs. No. 2 Alabama
    • No. 15 Oral Roberts, L 72-70 vs. No. 3 Arkansas
    • No. 12 Oregon State, W 65-58 vs. No. 8 Loyola-Chicago
    • No. 11 Syracuse, L 62-46 vs. No. 2 Houston
  • 2022 — No. 15 Saint Peter’s, W 67-64 vs. No. 3 Purdue
    • No. 11 Michigan, L 63-55 vs. No. 2 Villanova
  • 2023 — No. 15 Princeton, L 86-75 vs. No. 6 Creighton

A 5-11 mark for double-digit seeds vs. single-digit seeds isn’t that bad. If you just look at since 2017, that mark is 5-6.

If you want to focus on double-digit seeds vs. top-2 seeds since 2013, however, they’re 2-7. That 2017 Xavier squad is the lone double-digit seed to beat a top-2 seed in regulation since 2013 (that excludes UCLA’s 2021 overtime win vs. Alabama). In other words, NC State is battling at least some history.

Gonzaga vs. Purdue — If not now, then when for Matt Painter?

I know. We ask that question too often in sports. I’m guilty of it, and some might think I’m guilty of it here. But just stay with me for a second. If Painter loses either game this weekend, he’ll enter Year 20 having never been to a Final Four. If he loses to a red-hot Gonzaga team, he’ll enter Year 20 with 1 Elite Eight trip. He’ll also enter Year 20 with Zach Edey off to the NBA. Edey is an advantage unlike any he’s ever had, too.

It’s not that Painter’s legacy is on the line and he’s suddenly a bad coach if his team falls short of that. But it’s fair to wonder if that opportunity came and went if he fails to lead Purdue to its first Final Four since the Jimmy Carter administration.

Duke vs. Houston — Duke settling for 3s would be a bad formula for an upset

What a weird time to be alive where it’s Duke that’s trying to pull off the upset against Houston. But yes, that’s reality. At 30%, nobody in the remaining field defends the 3-ball better than Houston (No. 16 in America), and that’s been ramped up lately with an average of 5 made threes allowed in the last 7 games.

The Blue Devils only average 22.2 threes per game, which is very middle-of-the-pack nationally, so it’s not necessarily a team that gets roped into that very often. But coming off the James Madison beatdown, wherein they were 14-for-28 from long range because Jared McCain couldn’t miss, it might be easy to default to that. If I’m Duke, I’m going into this game knowing that possessions will be at a premium. I’d also be looking to attack the rim and either try to get higher-percentage looks or get Houston into some foul trouble to test that depth. Texas A&M did that, and it nearly resulted in a monumental upset.

Duke beating Houston wouldn’t be a “monumental upset,” but it would certainly be Jon Scheyer’s best win to date.

Creighton vs. Tennessee — Dalton Knecht, the stage is yours

As much as I’ve said all week that the non-Knecht Tennessee starters need to start knocking down some shots, this is the time for Knecht to be that all-important difference-maker. The All-American has been a revelation, and in a season in which many have complained about the lack of stars in the sport, Knecht’s flair can be just what the doctor ordered for Tennessee in March. His ability to score 10 points in a 5-minute stretch is second to none.

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Creighton has a variety of offensive options. A team with 3 guys averaging north of 17 points is eventually going to get something going, even against a group as lockdown as Tennessee is. Knecht being the guy who helps the Vols keep pace is essential.

If Knecht can lead Tennessee to its second Elite Eight berth in program history, he’ll never pay for a drink in the Volunteer State.

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