RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — In a wild NCAA Tournament full of upsets, it’s somehow appropriate that the first ticket to the Final Four will go to a No. 9 or No. 11 seed.
And the second could go to another 9-seed.
Welcome to the madder half of the March Madness bracket. The Elite Eight games Saturday in the South and West lack the Selection Sunday favorites and instead feature a surging 3-seed (Big Ten champion Michigan), two teams who were power-conference also-rans (No. 9 seeds Florida State and Kansas State) and the upstart (11-seed Loyola-Chicago).
The Wildcats and the Ramblers meet in the first regional final to wrap up the South bracket in Atlanta, then the Wolverines and Seminoles meet in Los Angeles.
Further down the line, one of those teams will end up playing for the national championship in San Antonio.
It’s quite a feat considering three of those teams faced at least some bubble uncertainty in the final month of the regular season. And that was particularly true of the Ramblers (31-5) , who went 15-3 in their Missouri Valley Conference but could have easily been left out of the field of 68 had they not won the league tournament.
Yet, the Ramblers beat 6-seed Miami 64-62 in the first round on 3-pointer by Donte Ingram with 0.3 seconds left. Then came a 63-62 second-round win against third-seeded Tennessee on another late shot, this one a jumper from Clayton Custer with 3.6 seconds left. And finally, they held off No. 7 seed Nevada 69-68 in the Sweet 16, putting them a win away from the national semifinals for the first time since winning the 1963 national title .
“I think there’s a lot of parity in the game, and I love it for our league,” Ramblers coach Porter Moser said. “There was a lot of talk that we weren’t going to get in if we didn’t win the tournament, and we know in the Missouri Valley how good a league it is from top to bottom. And for us to get in here, I think it’s going to spark conversation about this, and I know the committees have such a hard job.”
Now they’re meeting the Wildcats in the first 9-vs-11 game in NCAA Tournament history.
Kansas State (25-11) caught a break when UMBC pulled the first 16-vs-1 upset of top overall seed Virginia, allowing the Wildcats to avoid the Cavaliers in the second round. Kansas State beat UMBC then took out Kentucky’s latest crop of touted freshmen to reach its first regional final since 2010 and second since 1988.
“We know that every team right now is trying to make history,” Kansas State guard Barry Brown Jr. said.
Here are things to know about the NCAA Tournament’s second week:
ROLLING AGAIN: For the second straight season, the Wolverines (31-7) got hot late in the year to win the Big Ten Tournament title and reach the NCAA regional rounds. Now they’re the closest thing to a favorite in their half of the draw.
Last year’s team lost by one to Oregon in the Sweet 16, but Michigan blew out Texas A&M on Thursday to reach its third regional final in six seasons.
“I’d prefer more games like that,” coach John Beilein said afterward. “I don’t think we’ll see any more, but I’d prefer it.”
For the record, Michigan has won 12 straight and hasn’t lost since falling at Northwestern on Feb. 6 .
LONG WAIT: The last time Florida State was in a regional final, two-sport point guard Charlie Ward was months away from claiming the Heisman Trophy as the Seminoles’ quarterback, the Fab Five ruled at Michigan — and the Seminoles were blown out by a Rick Pitino-coached Kentucky team featuring Jamal Mashburn.
That was 1993.
“We just don’t care who plays or who scores the basket, as long as everybody’s happy,” FSU’s Braian Angola said. “We buy into the system, and that’s what we’re doing right now.”
SEMBLANCE OF ORDER: The other half of the bracket looks much closer to form.
In the East, Jalen Brunson was fantastic in leading top-seeded Villanova past Press, umm, West Virginia in Friday’s Sweet 16. That pushed the Wildcats — the highest overall seed left — into Sunday’s regional final in Boston to face third-seeded Texas Tech, which beat 2-seed Purdue.
And in the Midwest, bluebloods Kansas and Duke advanced to a chalk regional final in Omaha, Nebraska. Neither had an easy time of it, with the top-seeded Jayhawks holding off fifth-seeded Clemson while the second-seeded Blue Devils beat No. 11 seed Syracuse in an Atlantic Coast Conference-heavy doubleheader.
CONFERENCE BREAKDOWN: The Big 12 and ACC are leading the way entering the Elite Eight.
The Big 12 earned seven bids and has three teams (Kansas, Texas Tech and Kansas State) still alive to go with an 11-4 tournament record (.733). The ACC tied its own record with nine bids and has two left (Duke and FSU) to go with a 12-7 record (.632).
The Big East (Villanova), Big Ten (Michigan) and Missouri Valley Conference (Loyola-Chicago) have the other spots.
FAIL: ESPN says there were 17.3 million entrees into its bracket contest. And zero —as in nary a one— got the Elite Eight teams correct. So maybe you don’t have to feel so badly about your up-in-smoke picks?
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