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Leonard: NCAA basketball title chase heats up
Sweet 16 full of exciting stories
0326Gonzaga
Gonzaga's Byron Wesley puts up a shot against Iowa during the second half of an NCAA tournament college basketball game in the Round of 32, Sunday, March 22, 2015, in Seattle. - photo by TED S. WARREN

Section of state road opens

Sweet 16 schedule

Thursday

Midwest Region

Notre Dame vs. Wichita State, 7:15 p.m., CBS

Kentucky vs. West Virginia, 9:45 p.m., CBS

West Region

Wisconsin vs. North Carolina, 7:47 p.m., TBS

Arizona vs. Xavier, 10:17 p.m., TBS

Friday

South Region

Gonzaga vs. UCLA, 7:15 p.m., CBS

Duke vs. Utah, 9:45 p.m., CBS

East Region

Louisville vs. N.C. State, 7:37 p.m., TBS

Oklahoma vs. Michigan State, 10:07 p.m., TBS

The race for college basketball’s national championship heats up Thursday night.

Most of what people think of when they refer to “March Madness” happened last weekend. Now, in the Sweet 16, the true contenders for a national title will begin to emerge.

Don’t get me wrong. It was incredible watching Georgia State shock Baylor — and send injured coach Ron Hunter falling out of his chair as his son R.J. sank the game-winning 3-pointer.

UAB, N.C. State, UCLA and Cincinnati joined the Panthers with one-point wins in the round of 64, setting a record with five one-point games in a single day. That’s a vital part of why basketball fans and casual observers love March.

But there remains this very important function of the NCAA Tournament that begins in earnest Thursday: Crowning a champion. With that in mind, here are four reasons to get excited about four days of basketball that will narrow the field to the Final Four heading to Indianapolis:

1. Mid-majors could break through: Wichita State made the Final Four in 2013 and could return with wins against Notre Dame and No. 1 Kentucky (most likely).

But the mid-major teams that could break through in the largest way — making their first Final Four — are Gonzaga and Xavier.

Xavier actually has more Elite Eight appearances, having reached that round in 2004 and 2008. The Musketeers are in their fifth Sweet 16 in eight seasons. Coach Chris Mack’s group would have to beat No. 2 seed Arizona before likely facing No. 1 seed Wisconsin for a Final Four berth.

Gonzaga, meanwhile, is in its first Sweet 16 since 2009 and only third since making three straight from 1999-2001. The Bulldogs’ only Elite Eight trip came in 1999. Gonzaga’s path to the Final Four includes No. 11 seed UCLA before a probable matchup with No. 1 seed Duke.

2. ACC gets a barometer: The Atlantic Coast Conference is soaking in its finest first weekend of the NCAA Tournament in two decades. Five ACC teams (Duke, Notre Dame, Louisville, North Carolina and N.C. State) are in the Sweet 16, tying the Big East’s record from 2009.

It’s the first time since 1995 the league has sent four or more teams to the second weekend of the Big Dance, which has caused the ACC’s coaches to rightfully proclaim the strength of their conference.

A better way to back up their argument would be to keep adding to their 11-1 record in the 2015 NCAA Tournament.

It’s hard to argue with a league that sends multiple teams to the Final Four or produces a national champion. Doing so won’t be easy, but it would certainly bring validation to a conference that hasn’t reached the Final Four since Duke’s 2010 national championship.

3. Kentucky faces pair of unique challenges: Everybody wants to know whether Kentucky will finish undefeated. Most people who don’t cheer for the Wildcats want them to lose as early as possible.

It won’t be an easy weekend for the 36-0 SEC champion. First comes a Thursday matchup with the nation’s best defense at forcing turnovers: West Virginia. If Kentucky survives that test, it will take on matchup problem and 3-point specialist Notre Dame or Wichita State. The Shockers would have the motivation of trying to return the favor of the Wildcats ending their perfect season in the 2014 tournament.

4. Up for grabs in East: The East Region may have the most unexpected set of four teams remaining. Most expected No. 1 seed Villanova to reach the Final Four. And if they didn’t, they probably went with No. 2 Virginia or No. 5 Northern Iowa. None of those teams are still playing.

No. 8 seed N.C. State faces No. 4 seed Louisville in a rematch of a 74-65 Wolfpack road win on Feb. 14. The Wolfpack is seeking its first Elite Eight appearance since 1986 as Louisville, the 2013 champion, is in its fourth straight Sweet 16.

On the other side of the East are No. 7 seed Michigan State, a perennial contender for Final Four berths, and No. 3 Oklahoma. The Spartans are the trendy pick to win this region now based on their history, but this group likely doesn’t merit such faith based on its results thus far and personnel.

No matter what happens, this could be the most competitive region.

Clark Leonard: cleonard@gainesvilletimes.com; 770-718-3418; twitter.com/SportTimesClark

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