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The men's Sweet 16 tips off Thursday, as basketball fans enjoy a wild March

The Sweet 16 includes Desi Sills (#13) and the Kansas State Wildcats, in an NCAA men's tournament that lacks any of the four top "blue blood" programs, such as Kentucky.
Jacob Kupferman
Getty Images
The Sweet 16 includes Desi Sills (#13) and the Kansas State Wildcats, in an NCAA men's tournament that lacks any of the four top "blue blood" programs, such as Kentucky.

College basketball is delivering two electric NCAA tournaments, full of upsets: In both the men's and women's brackets, only half of the No. 1 seeds have made it to the Sweet 16.

Some of the thrills are courtesy of the transfer portal, which lets athletes swap schools without having to sit out a waiting period. The relatively new policy has been blamed for destabilizing college sports, but it's also creating parity.

With the men resuming play Thursday, here's a quick look at tip-off times for the Sweet 16, and where the tournament stands. (We'll preview the women's Sweet 16 before it begins on Friday.)

The Big Dance's floor is wide open

By this stage of the tournament, an air of destiny often begins to settle on one or two teams that have the right mix of talent and momentum to reach the final. But this year is kind of hard to pin down.

Neither of the two remaining No. 1 seeds, Alabama and Houston, have looked like the hands-down best team. Two other No. 1 seeds, Purdue and defending champion Kansas, are out. So are two No. 2 seeds.

Two teams are getting the Cinderella label, especially the lowest seed still playing: No. 15 Princeton. The Tigers are making the case that their offense and rebounding is good enough to hang with the country's best teams.

Then there's Florida Atlantic. The No. 9 seed has rejected the Cinderella label, saying its 33-3 record came from hard work and focus, not a fairy godmother.

It's a good year for new blood, rather than blue-blood

Eleven conferences are represented in this year's Sweet 16. To find a recent NCAA champion in the current field, you have to go all the way back to 2014 winners UConn.

This is the second time in three years that four of the top "blue blood" programs — North Carolina, Kansas, Duke and Kentucky — are not in the Sweet 16. From 1980 to 2019, at least one of those teams got this far in every year's tournament.

Basketball goes through the portal

The NCAA changed its transfer portal system in April of 2021 to allow athletes to switch schools and play immediately. It's had a big impact on spreading talent: Last year, about 1,650 Division I men's college basketball players went into the portal.

Coaches and programs are still figuring out how to adjust — and how to retain top players. Michigan State's head coach Tom Izzo, a frequent transfer portal critic, says there are pluses and minuses.

"The portal is not all bad. I mean ... every place isn't for everybody," Izzo said recently. "What to me is bad about it is the fact that every kid who has a bad day just thinks about leaving. At this level, if you're half in, you're nowhere."

Despite his skepticism, Izzo has taken advantage of the portal — and it's helped his team in this tournament. MSU has gotten big contributions from a couple of players who transferred from other schools, including leading scorer Tyson Walker.

Thursday's games

Four games each will be played on Thursday and Friday, with the first tipoff at 6:30 p.m. ET.

No. 3 Kansas State vs. No. 7 Michigan State at 6:30 p.m. ET (TBS)
No. 4 UConn vs. No. 8 Arkansas at 7:15 p.m. (CBS)
No. 4 Tennessee vs. No. 9 Florida Atlantic at 9 p.m. (TBS)
No. 2 UCLA vs. No. 3 Gonzaga at 9:45 p.m. (CBS)

Friday's games

No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 5 San Diego State at 6:30 p.m. ET (TBS)
No. 1 Houston vs. No. 5 Miami at 7:15 p.m. (CBS)
No. 6 Creighton vs. No. 15 Princeton at 9 p.m. (TBS)
No. 2 Texas vs. No. 3 Xavier at 9:45 p.m. (CBS)

The Final Four is in April

The remaining eight teams will face off on Saturday and Sunday.

The Final Four is set for Saturday, April 1, with the national championship game on Monday, April 3.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.
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