16 observations for the Sweet 16, including whether Duke is still the favorite

Sixteen observations on the Sweet 16:

1. This NCAA tournament is choking on chalk and bereft of small-program charm. In the 40 years since the NCAA selection committee began publicly seeding teams, this equals the chalkiest Sweet 16 of them all. The total seed number of the advancing teams is 49, tying 2009 for the Big Dance most bereft of upsets.

The top three seeds in every region are moving on, and half of the No. 4 seeds. The lone exceptions are No. 5 Auburn and No. 12 Oregon, which knocked off UC Irvine Sunday night to make sure we had a grand total of zero Sweet 16 programs that could qualify as real underdogs.

When the putative Cinderella, according to seeding, is the University of Swoosh, there isn't a lot of populist appeal left in the field. There is no Sister Jean, no Loyola, no little guy left.

As is increasingly the case in recent years, the power conferences rule. The Sweet 16 is comprised of five teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference, four from the Southeastern, three from the Big Ten and one apiece from the Big 12 and Pac-12. The only outliers are Gonzaga from the West Coast and Houston from the American Athletic, and both of those come with asterisks: the Zags are a perennial basketball power; the Cougars have become Houston billionaire and NBA Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta's boutique college program.

The few Cinderella candidates that survived Round 1 tapped out in Round 2 — most of them without a serious fight. Murray State was blown out. Buffalo was blown out. Liberty hung around for most of the game against Virginia Tech before submitting. Irvine took a second-half lead, then promptly gave it back and wound up being run out. Only Wofford, taking on Kentucky, was closer than five points in the final minutes.

Now they're all gone, after two rounds that were not March Madness. They were March Mundanity.

2. That said, we have a remaining bracket that will drive big ratings. There are name brands and compelling storylines aplenty.

Duke and Zion Williamson march on, albeit barely and with increasing vulnerability. North Carolina is rolling. Kentucky remains in play. Virginia, with its history of tourney angst, has stoked mainstream curiosity. So has LSU, playing without suspended head coach Will Wade. Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue have strong basketball fan bases. Gonzaga has national appeal.

Duke forward Zion Williamson reacts after getting called for a foul against Central Florida during the second half of a second-round game in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament Sunday, March 24, 2019, in Columbia, S.C. Duke won 77-76. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

3. Nine of the 16 remaining coaches have been to at least one Final Four: Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, John Calipari, Tom Izzo, Mark Few, John Beilein, Dana Altman, Rick Barnes and Kelvin Sampson. Of that group, seven have been to a Final Four within the last five seasons. Four of them have won at least one national championship.

CBS need not worry; people will be watching Thursday through Sunday.

4. Ranking the Sweet 16 coaches who haven't been to the Final Four in order of who is most overdue:

Tony Bennett, Virginia.

Matt Painter, Purdue.

Leonard Hamilton, Florida State.

Bruce Pearl, Auburn.

Buzz Williams, Virginia Tech.

Chris Beard, Texas Tech.

Tony Benford, interim at LSU.

5. More chalk numbers: The top 14 teams in the Pomeroy Ratings all advanced. Fifteen of the 16 are in the top 20. All of the 16 are in the top 30. Every remaining team has won at least 25 games, and only one has double-digit losses (Oregon is 25-12).

6. Easiest remaining road to the Final Four for a No. 1 seed belongs to Virginia. It really does feel like now or never for Bennett to get the Cavaliers to the Promised Land.

Virginia heads to Louisville for the South regional and draws Oregon. While the Ducks are a hot team, having won 10 straight, they also managed to finish tied for fourth in a wretched Pac-12 and lost seven games to non-NCAA tourney teams.

From there, Virginia would face either Purdue or Tennessee in the regional final. While both are quality teams, the Cavaliers would be solidly favored against either.

7. Hardest remaining road to the Final Four for a No. 1 seed belongs to Duke. The Blue Devils face ACC opponent Virginia Tech, and they lost the lone meeting in the regular season. (Albeit without Williamson and on the road.)

After that could be a potential showdown with a Michigan State team that had a pretty good argument for its own No. 1 seed. Putting Duke and the Spartans in the same region was the only bracketing mistake that may negatively impact the outcome of the tourney.

8. The other big bracketing error, giving Kansas a chance to play in Kansas City as a No. 4 seed, became moot when the Jayhawks flamed out in the second round. That's just one of the potential breaks bestowed upon North Carolina and Roy Williams.

Williams would have hated playing the school he once coached in a truly hostile setting in Kansas City. He avoided that and instead draws an Auburn team that is not great defensively and has been hammered on the offensive glass — bad traits for a team taking on the Tar Heels.

Then North Carolina could face a regional final against a Kentucky team that still seems unlikely to have injured forward P.J. Washington. He was last seen in a hard cast when the Wildcats were winning two games in Jacksonville.

Duke holds off UCF in stunning finish

Watch highlights as the 1-seed Blue Devils hold off the Golden Knights to win 77-76 and advance to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament.

9. The closest thing we got to vintage Madness ending instead turned out to be a missed shot. Which kind of sums up the opening two rounds of play.

When UCF star Aubrey Dawkins soared in for a very makable tip-in of a missed Knights shot in the final seconds against Duke, a seismic upset of the overall No. 1 seed appeared to be at hand. Yet the dramatic conclusion veered from being one of the moments in highlight montages forever to an agonizing miss, rolling off the rim and sparing the Blue Devils' postseason life.

"I mean, when he tipped it, you talk about microseconds," Williamson said. "When that ball rolled around the rim, it looked like it was going in. But as Coach K talks a lot about the basketball gods, they had our back tonight."

10. There have been only two other truly dramatic endings: Maryland-LSU in the second round and New Mexico State-Auburn in the first. They were dramatic in very different ways.

The Terrapins and Tigers each made clutch shots in the final 40 seconds. Skylar Mays made a go-ahead 3-pointer for LSU. Jalen Smith answered to tie the game with 28 seconds remaining. Then Tremont Waters called game for LSU with a driving scoop shot with 1.5 seconds left.

NMSU-Auburn was the anti-clutch ending — both teams took turns screwing up and refusing to win. Trailing by two points in the final seconds, Aggies guard AJ Harris drove for a wide-open layup to tie — only to whip the ball out to the 3-point line for a shot by teammate Terrell Brown. Auburn then one-upped that mental error by fouling Brown, actually giving New Mexico State a chance to win.

But Brown refused that largesse, missing two of three free throws. Still, the Aggies ended up with one last chance when the rebound off the last miss went out of bounds off Auburn. NMSU ran a perfect play for a wide-open corner 3 by Trevelin Queen — and it was an airball by about a foot.

That was no way to end a tournament game.

11. The lone power conference not represented in the Sweet 16 is the Big East. Which is fitting.

It was a lousy year in that league, and its teams backed that up by combining to go 1-4 in the tourney. Defending national champion Villanova got the league's lone win over Saint Mary's, then was promptly blown out by Purdue.

12. Highest-scoring Sweet 16 game: North Carolina-Auburn. The Heels want to run and gun, and the Tigers are likely to oblige. UNC has averaged 84.5 points in two tourney games; Auburn has averaged 83.5.

13. Lowest-scoring Sweet 16 game: Texas Tech-Michigan. These are the top two defensive teams in the nation, per Ken Pomeroy. The Red Raiders have allowed 57.5 points in two NCAA tournament games; the Wolverines have allowed 52. First one to 60 definitely wins, but neither may get there.

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March Madness 2019: Photos from the first round
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March Madness 2019: Photos from the first round
Maryland 's Bruno Fernando (23) celebrates during the final moments of the second half of a first round men's college basketball game against Belmont in the NCAA Tournament in Jacksonville, Fla., Thursday, March 21, 2019. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman (23) grabs a rebound over Bradley guard Ja'Shon Henry (22) during a first round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Thursday, March 21, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Louisville forward Jordan Nwora is fouled by Minnesota guard Amir Coffey, right, during a first round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Thursday, March 21, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Auburn's forward Horace Spencer (0) and New Mexico State guard JoJo Zamora (4) battle for a rebound in the first half during a first round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Thursday, March 21, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Yale 's Paul Atkinson (20) and LSU's Kavell Bigby-Williams battle for a rebound during the first half of a first round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament in Jacksonville, Fla. Thursday, March 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)
Belmont 's Dylan Windler, center, goes to the basket between Maryland 's Bruno Fernando, left, and Darryl Morsell (11) during the second half of the first round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament in Jacksonville, Fla. Thursday, March 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)
SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH - MARCH 21: Trevelin Queen #20 of the New Mexico State Aggies reacts after being defeated by the Auburn Tigers 78-77 in the first round of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Vivint Smart Home Arena on March 21, 2019 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH - MARCH 21: Terrell Brown #3 of the New Mexico State Aggies attempts to shoot the ball against Anfernee McLemore #24 of the Auburn Tigers during the second half in the first round of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Vivint Smart Home Arena on March 21, 2019 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
DES MOINES, IOWA - MARCH 21: Elijah Childs #10 of the Bradley Braves celebrates after a three point basket against the Michigan State Spartans during their game in the First Round of the NCAA Basketball Tournament at Wells Fargo Arena on March 21, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH - MARCH 21: Clayton Henry #5 of the New Mexico State Aggies dives for the ball during the first half against the Auburn Tigers in the first round of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Vivint Smart Home Arena on March 21, 2019 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
HARTFORD, CONNECTICUT - MARCH 21: Tevin Brown #10 of the Murray State Racers celebrates after hitting a three pointer during the second half of the first round game of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament against the Marquette Golden Eagles at XL Center on March 21, 2019 in Hartford, Connecticut. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Purdue's Matt Haarms celebrates a basket as Old Dominion's Justice Kithcart (2) follows during the second half of a first-round game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament Thursday, March 21, 2019, in Hartford, Conn. Purdue won 61-48. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Villanova's Jermaine Samuels (23) dunks against St. Mary's Malik Fitts (24) during the second half of a first round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Thursday, March 21, 2019, in Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH - MARCH 21: Johnny MCCants #35 of the New Mexico State Aggies dunks the ball against Chuma Okeke #5 of the Auburn Tigers during the second half in the first round of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Vivint Smart Home Arena on March 21, 2019 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
DES MOINES, IOWA - MARCH 21: Head coach Tom Izzo of the Michigan State Spartans glares at Aaron Henry #11 after a play during their game in the First Round of the NCAA Basketball Tournament against the Bradley Braves at Wells Fargo Arena on March 21, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA - MARCH 21: Adam Kunkel #5 of the Belmont Bruins reacts on the bench in the second half of play against the Maryland Terrapins during the first round of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at VyStar Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena on March 21, 2019 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mississippi State guard Lamar Peters watches during the second half of the team's game against Liberty in the first round of the NCAA men's college basketball tournament Friday, March 22, 2019, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Liberty's Zach Farquhar, left, and Keegan McDowell celebrate during the second half of a first round men's college basketball game against Mississippi State in the NCAA tournament Friday, March 22, 2019, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Houston's DeJon Jarreau dunks the ball during the first half of a first round men's college basketball game against Georgia State in the NCAA Tournament Friday, March 22, 2019, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Buffalo's Jeremy Harris chases after a loose ball during the second half of a first round men's college basketball game against Arizona State in the NCAA Tournament Friday, March 22, 2019, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Buffalo's Montell McRae (1) and Arizona State's Zylan Cheatham (45) chase a loose ball during the first half of a first-round game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament, Friday, March 22, 2019, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Wisconsin guard D'Mitrik Trice, bottom, holds onto the ball under Oregon guard Ehab Amin during the first half of a first-round game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament, Friday, March 22, 2019, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Gardner Webb forward Eric Jamison Jr. (2) has the stripped by Virginia guard Kihei Clark, right, during a first-round game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament Friday, March 22, 2019, in Columbia, S.C. Virginia defeated Gardner-Webb 71-56. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)
Buffalo's Dontay Caruthers celebrates a teammates basket during the first half of a first round men's college basketball game against Arizona State in the NCAA Tournament Friday, March 22, 2019, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA - MARCH 22: RJ Barrett #5 of the Duke Blue Devils dunks the ball as teammate Zion Williamson #1 celebrates against the North Dakota State Bison in the second half during the first round of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Colonial Life Arena on March 22, 2019 in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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14. A first-ever Final Four with a quartet of teams from the same conference remains possible. The ACC has a team in every region, and two in the East, with all three of its No. 1 seeds advancing. The longer shot is Florida State, which faces No. 1 seed Gonzaga in Anaheim. FSU has had one of its best seasons in school history, but the path to the Sweet 16 wasn't the most rigorous (Vermont, Murray State).

15. The scandalous context of this season remains very much in effect in the Sweet 16. No fewer than four schools implicated in the federal investigation of corruption in college basketball and involved in the series of trials are still playing.

Duke: The transcript of a wiretap read during court described a conversation between Adidas consultant Merl Code and Kansas assistant coach Kurtis Townsend about alleged improper benefits it would take to sign Williamson.

Oregon: Allegedly made an "astronomical offer" to land five-star prospect Brian Bowen.

Auburn: Former assistant coach Chuck Person is accepting a plea deal for bribes he took.

LSU: Coach Will Wade is suspended over the wiretap transcript in which he describes a "strong-ass offer" he made to land a recruit.

16. The four teams that will make the Final Four in Minneapolis: Duke, Michigan, Purdue, North Carolina.

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