LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Welcome to the NCAA men’s tournament South Regional, the epicenter of a bizarro March Madness where mid-majors are playing by their own rules.
On Sunday, a No. 5 seed from the Mountain West Conference appearing in its first Elite Eight will battle a No. 6 seed after both advanced past the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history.
The matchup between San Diego State and Creighton marks just the second time a No. 5 and No. 6 seed have met in the Elite Eight since the tournament field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Whichever team cuts down the nets at the KFC Yum! Center will advance to the Final Four for the first time in program history.
The stakes have never been higher than they will be Sunday for Greg McDermott, who is in his 13th season at Creighton. But there will be no bad blood between the opponents, who while in different regions of the country are not unfamiliar with each other.
Months ago, the Bluejays and San Diego State shared a chartered flight to the Maui Invitational. McDermott said he sat across from Aztecs coach Brian Dutcher and talked about wanting to face off in the championship because “we would be OK with one of us winning and one of us losing.”
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Little did they know their meeting this season would be on a bigger stage.
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There’s a chance the team that emerges from the South Regional could face No. 9 Florida Atlantic in the national semifinals at Houston’s NRG Stadium. If not the Owls, then No. 3 Kansas State, which was picked in the preseason to finish last in the Big 12 by the league’s head coaches.
Mad enough for you?
“It’s just parity. That’s what it is,” Dutcher said after the Aztecs knocked out No. 1 overall seed Alabama 71-64. “There’s not a lot of difference between the best team in the country and the worst team in the country.”
McDermott said the current tournament landscape is a reflection of how the transfer portal and name, image and likeness (NIL) have affected roster construction.
“It’s going to be tough to predict on any given season who is good and who is not because of who is coming and who is going,” said McDermott, who had South Dakota State transfer Baylor Scheierman score 15 points in the Bluejays’ 86-75 win against No. 15-seeded Princeton.
This is the first year since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 that a No. 1 seed has failed to reach the Elite Eight.
“Everybody is good,” Dutcher said. “I mean, anybody in our conference could have beat us this year. We had 1,000 close games, and we found a way to win them.”
Mad enough for you? In finding a way to take down No. 1 Alabama, San Diego State didn’t look the part of underdog. The Aztecs punched above their weight class.
They used a 12-0 run to turn a nine-point deficit with 11:40 to play against Alabama in the second half into a three-point lead heading into the final eight minutes and change. Their defense made life hell for the Crimson Tide, who turned the ball over seven times and had seven shots blocked in the second half alone.
Their inspiration? Muhammad Ali, the Louisville native who knocked out George Foreman in 1974 to reclaim the world heavyweight championship and quipped: “Never make me the underdog until I’m about 50 years old.”
“We talked about confidence, and the key to confidence is being fearless,” said Dutcher, 63. “I thought we were fearless tonight.”