I know everyone loves the NCAA tournament because of the propensity for upsets—the system breeds upsets—and I love seeing them too … so long as KU isn’t the one being foiled (not this year, again!). Beyond those early upsets, and before the big-time matchups in the Final Four, though, are some intriguing Round of 32, Sweet 16, and Elite Eight possibilities. Here are the 10 best, in order of intrigue:
1. Kansas/Wichita State; Midwest Region Round of 32—Wichita State wants to play Kansas. Too bad, though, because Kansas doesn’t want to play Wichita State—at least not outside of Allen Fieldhouse. The two teams haven’t met since 1993 after meeting nine times in a 10-year-span—Kansas owns a commanding 12–2 advantage in the series and won the final five by an average of 32 points—the last one being a 103–54 whipping. But things are different now as the Shockers are no longer the pushover they once were. It’s a long-simmering rivalry ready to explode, should the two teams win their openers.
2. Wisconsin/Arizona; West Region Elite Eight—These two combined for a classic Elite Eight matchup last season as Frank Kaminsky (in his coming-out party) put up 28 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in the second-seeded Badgers’ 64–63 overtime win over top-seeded Arizona. The seeds are reversed this year, though there’s little separation between the two teams, and the Wildcats would love some redemption.
3. Wichita State/Kentucky; Midwest Region Elite Eight—The Shockers entered last year’s tournament at 34–0, just like Kentucky this year, but were upset in the Round of 32 by a Kentucky team that was much better than their 8-seed suggested. The back-and-forth thriller ended when Fred Van Vleet missed a potential game-winning three-pointer as the clock ran out. I’m sure he and his teammates would love a re-do, and the rest of us would want to see it.
4. Michigan State/Virginia; East Region Round of 32—Last year, the fourth-seeded Spartans knocked off top-seeded Virginia 61–59 in a Sweet 16 thriller. This year, the script is setting up for an encore, with the second-seeded Cavaliers and seventh-seeded Spartans just needing opening-round wins to set up the rematch. Though they’ll be underdogs again, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo has proven to be one of the masters at overachieving in the NCAA tournament, with six Final Fours and a national title in his 20-year run with the Spartans. Conversely, Tony Bennett is 5–4 in the big dance and has yet to make the Elite Eight, though you never know what can happen in March.
5. Iowa/Iowa State; South Region Sweet 16—Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg has won four of five matchups against his in-state rival Hawkeyes, including a 15-point win at Iowa in mid-December 2014, though Iowa still owns a 43–25 advantage overall against their little brother. However, they’ve never matched up in the NCAA tournament. Both teams are well-coached as this would be well worth the price of admission.
6. SMU/Duke; South Region Elite Eight—Larry Brown versus Mike Krzyzewski. It’s been nearly three decades since Brown was at Kansas, and though he stayed only five seasons, he developed a good rivalry with Duke and Coach K. The teams met four times in five years, including twice in the NCAA tournament—the 1986 and 1988 Final Fours. Both games were classics, with Duke winning the former and KU winning the latter. Both have had legendary careers since, but their paths haven’t crossed on the court in nearly 30 years.
7. Georgetown/St. John’s; South Region Sweet 16—It may not be Lou Carnesecca versus John Thompson but these two longtime Big East rivals still have some heat between them—there always is. St. John’s leads the overall series 54–49, and the teams split their two meetings in 2015. Let’s be honest, the Big East may not have the teams it once had but if these two meet in the tourney, they’ll put on a show.
8. Louisville/Michigan State; East Region Elite Eight—Another matchup of great tournament coaches, this one would feature a pair of leaders who have a combined 13 Final Four appearances and three national titles between them. A meeting here would be their third matchup in the last six tournaments, as they also met in the Sweet 16 in 2012 (Louisville won) and the Elite Eight in 2009 (won by Michigan State). Expect a well-played game between these two.
9. Notre Dame/Indiana; Midwest Region Sweet 16—These two in-state rivals have met just three times over the last 10 years, with the Irish winning two of them, yet the Hoosiers have won 20 of the last 27 dating back to the 1979–80 season. Adding to the intrigue is the possibility (albeit faint) of the winner facing another in-state rival—Purdue—in the Elite Eight, though the Boilermakers would likely have to navigate through mighty Kentucky to make that possible.
10. Xavier/Ohio State; West Region Sweet 16—Ohio State head coach Thad Matta coached for three seasons at Xavier before leaving for Ohio State, and the one time he faced his former employer was in the second round of the 2007 NCAA tournament. Matta was booed relentlessly by his former fanbase, before pulling off an improbable come-from-behind win. (They were down 9 with three minutes left.) Things have cooled off somewhat since, though a win over mighty OSU would still make Xavier fans happy.