Who’s hot, who’s not in the men’s Sweet 16? The ACC, transfer portal and … birds

The Creighton Bluejays mascot is one of the few bird mascots left in the men’s NCAA Tournament. The Jays are averaging more made 3-point field goals (10.6) than turnovers committed (9.8) per game. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – The first round of men’s March Madness marched its way to an average of 8.3 million viewers, the most in tournament history, according to Front Office Sports. Fifty two teams were eliminated and 16 remain vying to reach the Final Four at Glendale’s State Farm Stadium April 6-8. So, who’s feeling hot, and who’s not?

Hot: The ACC

A strong narrative surrounding this year’s tournament is that the ACC had a fall from grace. Five teams squeaked into the NCAA Tournament, with two of them unexpected bid-stealers North Carolina State and Virginia, which was among the last four teams in.

All eyes were on the Dayton site as Virginia took on Colorado State in the First Four game. Would the ACC prove itself early?

All the eyes that were open would quickly be closed. Most of the country fell asleep watching an abysmal performance by the Cavaliers as they scored 14 points in the first half and lost, 67-42. Finally, it was confirmation that all ACC doubts were validated. Think again.

The league has responded with eight straight wins, has the best win percentage of any conference outside of the Big East in the tournament and currently represents 25% of Sweet 16 participants.

The regular season champion and No.1 seed North Carolina Tar Heels took care of business in their first two games, including an impressive 85-69 rout of Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans. The last time the Final Four was in the Valley, in 2017, the Tar Heels won the national championship. Can history repeat itself?

Duke responded to an early ACC tournament exit with a pair of double-digit seed wins and will now face its biggest challenge of the season against No.1 seed Houston. Blue Devils guard Jared McCain’s 30-point performance against James Madison was the second most in an NCAA Tournament game by a Duke freshman.

No. 6 seed Clemson had the most impressive pair of wins of any team in the field by beating Mountain West tournament champion New Mexico, seeded 11, and No. 3 seed Baylor. The Tigers play a “road” game in Los Angeles Thursday against the No. 2 seed Arizona Wildcats.

Clemson is 11-0 in games where the Tigers shoot 40% or higher from 3-point range this season. Tigers center PJ Hall could be a matchup nightmare as a stretch-five versus Oumar Ballo, who only played 22 minutes last game due to Dayton’s center Daron Holmes’ shooting ability. It’s something to watch for as Clemson tries to make its first Final Four appearance in school history.

The “cardiac pack” continued their Cinderella story by upsetting Texas Tech and defeating fellow underdog Oakland in the Round of 32. NC State is the last double-digit seed alive and the Wolfpack are trying for another upset as they take on the No. 2 seed Marquette in Dallas.
Coaches in the ACC are not shocked by the success.

“Certainly there’s a tremendous amount of pride with our coaches and players that the ACC is performing as well as it is,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “Again, I don’t think that any of us are surprised by that.”

The ACC is competing for representation in the Final Four for the third year in a row and four out of the last five.

Not hot: Teams west of Texas trying to win a title

It has been a struggle for teams west of Texas to be crowned national champions for the past 27 years. Multiple teams have come close – most notably, San Diego State fell short in last season’s title game, losing to UConn 76-59.

It does not look like this trend will end this season with only three teams in this category remaining in No. 2 Arizona, No. 5 Gonzaga and No. 5 San Diego State. All these teams have difficult paths to the championship.

Arizona is the most complete team of the group with a good balance of experience and young talent. The problem for the Wildcats is that they will have to go through a gauntlet to secure a title in Glendale.

Arizona freshman guard KJ Lewis hopes he and his teammates stay in the “what’s hot” category during the rest of the men’s NCAA Tournament. (Photo by Dominic Contini/Cronkite News)

Arizona freshman guard KJ Lewis hopes he and his teammates stay in the “what’s hot” category during the rest of the men’s NCAA Tournament. (Photo by Dominic Contini/Cronkite News)

The Wildcats will most likely have to play three No. 1 seeds on their route with North Carolina looming in the Elite Eight, UConn in the Final Four, and either Houston or Purdue reaching the national title game.

Coincidentally, the Wildcats have accomplished this in the past in their 1997 championship run that knocked out three No. 1 seeds in Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky. Could Arizona pull it off by cutting down the State Farm Stadium nets in its home state?

Gonzaga and San Diego State have a similar issue in that both are facing a No.1 seed in their Sweet 16 games and will play a No. 2 or No. 3 seed in the Elite Eight due to the lack of upsets.

History is not on their side either as out of the top eight seeds in March Madness, the No. 5 seed is the only one to never win a national championship. Not so hot.

Hot: The transfer portal

Over 500 players have already entered the transfer portal, reports On3 Transfer Portal. The portal opened the Monday after Selection Sunday and has not stopped since with new additions seemingly every minute.

This bears the question of whether the NCAA can and should delay this until after the conclusion of the national championship game. It would give a chance for teams to celebrate and truly enjoy the accomplishments of competing in March Madness. It also allows coaches and players of losing teams to let the dust settle and have time off before thinking about the next step in their careers.

“It’s a s—t show,” longtime college basketball reporter Jeff Goodman said. “Why are you having the portal open today (the day after Selection Sunday) when it should be all about the NCAA Tournament?”

A record-high 17 teams declined NIT bids, which is a testament that players were not convinced to compete in a lesser event and just wanted to get in the portal. This early portal date gives no incentive to postseason play unless a player is competing in the NCAA Tournament.
Even teams that have lost in the NCAA Tournament are having quick turnarounds with their roster. As of Wednesday, the day before the Sweet 16, 56% of teams that have been eliminated from the tournament have had a player enter the transfer portal.

The NCAA should do the right thing by pushing the portal window back so fans can celebrate one of the greatest sporting events in the world.

Not: The Bird is not the word

Teams with bird mascots this March Madness came in heavy with 10 representatives. Five birds went down in the first round with the Saint Peter’s Peacocks, South Carolina Gamecocks, Florida Atlantic Owls, Morehead State Eagles and Wagner Seahawks all unable to fly into the Round of 32.

The second round took out two more birds. First, the Kansas Jayhawks fell to the Gonzaga Bulldogs in Salt Lake City 89-68. Point for the dogs.

Then some unfortunate bird-on-bird crime occurred when the Oregon Ducks were knocked out by the Creighton Blue Jays 86-73 in a double-overtime thriller. This leaves three teams remaining to try and carry the torch for the birds.

Related story

The first is the No. 2 seed Iowa State Cyclones in the East Region. A cyclone is not a bird! Relax, Iowa State has Cy the Cardinal which has been cheering on Iowa State since 1954. Iowa State has the number one adjusted defense in the country and will take on the Illinois Fighting Illini with the number one adjusted offense in the country, according to Kenpom. Iowa State opened as -1.5 point favorites.

The second is the No. 3 Creighton Blue Jays in the Midwest Region. The Jays are averaging more made 3-point field goals (10.6) than turnovers committed (9.8) per game. If an aesthetically pleasing offense versus a tough defense is an interest, check out No. 2 Tennessee vs No. 3 Creighton. Baylor Scheierman versus Dalton Knecht is appointment-television in a Sweet Sixteen matchup.

Lastly, don’t ignore the No. 2 seed Marquette Golden Eagles in the South Region. They have one of the most talented point guards in the entire country in Tyler Kolek, who is averaging just under eight assists per game. The Golden Eagles have a tough task playing the hottest team in the entire tournament in NC State. Marquette is a -6.5 point favorite versus the Wolfpack in Dallas.

Teams with a bird mascot, not named Kansas or Louisville, have never won a national men’s basketball championship. But wait, Utah won in 1944 and Marquette won in 1977!

In 1944, Utah was known as the “Utah Redskins” which has since been changed and replaced with Utah’s current mascot “Swoop,” the red-tailed hawk which was introduced in 1996. So Utah is out and did not have a bird mascot for their championship.

The 1977 Marquette national championship team was led by legendary guard Butch Lee, who would go on to become an NBA champion with the Los Angeles Lakers just two years later. Marquette changed to the Golden Eagles in 1994 but were known as the “Warriors” in their ‘77 run to the title where they beat UNC in the championship.

Could Marquette meet North Carolina in the title game this season? It’s possible, all that is needed is for both teams to win three more games against the best teams in the country, so easy.

Iowa State, Creighton and Marquette are looking to change their fate this season and join Kansas and Louisville in the cool birds club.

Sixteen teams have great momentum heading into their matchup on either Thursday or Friday. Who can stay hot and reach Glendale?

Bobby Hurley(he/his/him)
Sports Digital Producer, Phoenix

Bobby Hurley expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Hurley has interned at the Sun Devil Radio Network.

Sports Digital Producer, Phoenix

Dominic Contini expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and minor in digital audiences. Contini aspires to be a content creator and has interned for the social media teams of ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Sporting News, Fiesta Bowl, Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee and Arizona State Athletics.