The Sweet 16: College Basketball's Avengers Assemble - Rolling Stone
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The Sweet 16: College Basketball’s Avengers Assemble

Can Michigan State, Wisconsin, Duke or any of the NCAA’s mightiest heroes stop Kentucky on its quest for perfection?

Ron BakerRon Baker

Ron Baker leads the Shockers back to the Sweet 16. Can they take down Kentucky?

Ronald Martinez/Getty

Around the time your NCAA tournament bracket collapsed in on itself, a man named Ron Hunter was literally collapsing off his chair, creating the lasting image of the early rounds of the 2015 tournament, the one that will stick in those pre-game montages for decades to come, nestled in among those iconic shots of Bryce Drew and Tate George and U.S. Reed.

Hunter, the coach at Georgia State, was already hobbled by an Achilles tendon he’d torn while celebrating his team’s conference tournament victory; when his son R.J. hit the game-winning 3-pointer to lead the 14th-seeded Panthers over No. 3 seed Baylor on Thursday, his fall catapulted himself and his team and his seat to instant viral fame. In the process, he annihilated several million brackets, and cleared the way for the inevitable eventuality that every bracket in America would wind up with at least one red line through it.

This is the beauty of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. Every year, it annihilates the notion that sports can be fully quantified. It is a modest little rebellion against the sabermetric revolution; it is driven almost entirely by emotion, which is the one thing that has always separated college sports from professional sports. It was a hell of a four days, and I’m glad we got what we were seeking out of those four days, because what comes next in this tournament is something entirely different.

What comes next is essentially an attempt by the 15 remaining teams to bring down to the most unstoppable force in college basketball in at least a couple of decades, a Kentucky team so controversially astounding that they could potentially alter the future of college basketball, one way or the other.

So it feels right that there are no serious underdogs remaining in the Sweet 16 this year (the closest thing is probably Wichita State, a team that went undefeated during the regular season last year before losing to eventual national finalist Kentucky in the tournament). The average seed of this year’s Sweet 16 teams, ESPN’s Eamonn Brennan points out, is 4.4; no Sweet 16 team ranks lower than 32nd in the adjusted efficiency statistic, twelve are ranked in the top 20 and eight are ranked in the top 10.

On Sunday, two of the most iconic coaches in the sport – Louisville’s Rick Pitino and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo – led their teams to difficult wins over a very good Northern Iowa team and a suffocating Virginia squad, respectively, and this was good, too, because it feels like the collective brainpower required for somehow short-circuiting Kentucky will be immense. It is the right year for the collective iconography of college basketball to be fully represented (even UCLA, which probably didn’t deserve to make the tournament in the first place, feels like it belongs here), because history is at stake, because a college basketball team hasn’t gone undefeated and won a national championship in nearly 40 years.

So it should be difficult, and it should run through a historic gauntlet. Which is why I won’t really begrudge Kentucky anything if they wind up winning it all against a field like this. It seems patently idiotic to me that Virginia’s Tony Bennett – whose team lost to Michigan State on Sunday – was somehow voted national coach of the year on Monday ahead of John Calipari, who deserves the unquestioned credit for molding the Wildcats into the juggernaut that they are. Calipari has done what he was hired to do; most of my concerns about Kentucky extend beyond the individuals themselves and into the more philosophical notion of what we want college basketball to be.

Still, on the first weekend of the tournament, we got what we wanted from the sport, a couple of upsets for the ages and several other games that came down to the wire, a sense that our attempts to rationalize this bracket are largely futile. But on this second weekend, the tournament morphs into something deeper. On this second weekend, there really is something bigger at stake, a referendum on both and the past and the future of a sport that’s still charting out its identity in the modern age. I hope Ron Hunter’s public collapse was only the prelude.

Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb

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