March Madness brackets are all busted, but the Sweet 16 beckons

By Bill Chappell

It takes alchemy to produce a strong March Madness bracket. Only the right blend of random luck, basketball geekery and intuition can predict what might happen when college kids face off on the national stage.

The winning blend is in short supply this year, with a flurry of wild finishes.

ESPN says that out of 20,056,273 bracket entries on its site, none are perfect. Yahoo says it only took 24 games to ruin all its users’ bracket entries. CBS Sports says predictions on its site were quickly obliterated for both the men’s and the women’s tournament — which has also seen early upsets, such as Ole Miss shocking Stanford.

If your bracket is all-too-imperfect, don’t fret: so is everyone else’s. In fact, the NCAA says the chances of a perfect bracket are 1 in 9,223,372,036,854,775,808 if you choose randomly, and 1 in 120.2 billion “if you know a little something about basketball.”

But all these busted brackets also suggest good things for college basketball. A flood of upsets mean that parity is alive and well, even in an age of conference consolidations. And for fans who love underdogs, their affections are being rewarded at this year’s tourney.

Here’s a summary of what’s happened in the men’s tourney, and what’s next:

Cinderella team makes history

Fairleigh Dickinson University became only the second No. 16 seed ever to beat a No. 1 seed, by ousting Purdue. And yes, that makes them just the second No. 16 to ever win a single game in the Big Dance. They did it despite being seeded No. 68 overall; they had to win a “First Four” game to reach the field of 64.

But the FDU Knights ran into another history-making squad. Florida Atlantic University won its first-ever March Madness game over Memphis on Friday, and now it’s the Owls who are still dancing, reaching their first Sweet 16 after sending FDU home, 78-70, Sunday night.

The favorites’ ‘chalk’ is wiped out

For the second time in three years, four of the top “blue blood” programs — North Carolina, Kansas, Duke and Kentucky — are not in the Sweet 16.

That’s fitting for the 2023 tournament, in which “chalk” — the betting term for big favorites — has repeatedly been erased and written over.

Of the eight matchups in this round, only three games follow the NCAA bracket-makers’ blueprint: No. 2 UCLA and No. 3 Gonzaga; and No. 2 Texas and No. 3 Xavier.

In a way, this year’s Sweet 16 resembles 2021, when UCLA, Gonzaga, Alabama, Houston, Creighton and Arkansas were all in the mix. That year’s champion, Baylor, has already been eliminated this year.

Four games will be played on both Thursday and Friday, with the first tipoff at 6:30 p.m. ET. Thursday’s first game pits No. 3 Kansas State against No. 7 Michigan State on TBS. It’s followed by:

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 start with No. 1 Alabama against No. 5 San Diego State at 6:30 p.m. ET on TBS. Up next:

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 set for Saturday, April 1, with the national championship game on Monday, April 3.

Tigers try on the tiara

No. 15 seed Princeton is now the lowest-ranked team alive — and yes, we know: it’s one of the rare instances where this school finds itself on the wrong end of a statistical disparity. The Tigers stunned No. 2 seed Arizona in the first round before waltzing past Missouri, 78-63, Saturday night.

It’s the first time Princeton has made it to the Sweet 16 since 1967. Its coach, Mitch Henderson, played point guard during some of the program’s most storied moments in the 1990s, including the stunning upset of defending champion UCLA in the 1996 NCAA tournament’s first round.

The percentage of brackets that predicted Princeton’s 2023 success (1.86 percent) is lower than the percentage of college applicants recently accepted at Princeton (3.98 percent), according to the NCAA.

This is the third year in a row with a No. 15 seed reaching the Sweet 16. Other recent Cinderellas include Saint Peter’s — which reached the Elite Eight last year — and Oral Roberts.