The NCAA Tournament bracket announcement is one of the most intense hours in all of sports. In the span of 30 to 45 minutes, dozens and dozens of stories emerge. There is nothing quite like it — not in the revelation of the NFL schedule, not in the NBA Draft, not in the unveiling of the Wimbledon draw.
The NFL schedule is certainly interesting, but you already know which opponents each team will face when the previous regular season ends. You know that a team will play six division opponents and four rotating interconference opponents. The order of games played and the featured television slots are the news-value components of an NFL schedule release.
The NBA Draft is certainly a huge night of stories, but in many cases, it is KNOWN in advance which player a team will get. Moreover, picks 45 and later don’t move the needle the way the first-round picks do. Also, the gap in time between picks creates a drawn-out experience unlike the half-hour in which the brackets are announced. The NCAA Tournament and Selection Sunday create a more intense night than NBA Draft night.
A Wimbledon (or U.S. Open) draw contains plenty of interesting stories, and this is indeed a bracketed tournament, but the casual sports fan simply isn’t electrified by whom the No. 23 seed plays in the first or second round. Tennis draws focus the sports fan’s attention on “Whom will Federer or Nadal play in the quarterfinals/semifinals before the final?”, or “Where is Serena Williams in the bracket?”
The NCAA Tournament’s Selection Sunday is simply a more intense experience of an avalanche of news in a short time. Why? The brackets shape stories. The brackets carve out the path on The Road To The Final Four.
The South Region is the most powerful example of this reality… for the second straight year.
Before diving deeper into the South Region, let’s step back and realize a few things about how the brackets shape stories at the 2019 NCAA Tournament:
Virginia and Tennessee can’t both make the Final Four. Same for Michigan State and Duke, for North Carolina and Kentucky, and for Gonzaga and Michigan. There will be some blue-blood-filled Sweet 16 or Elite 8 games, but maybe not any Old Money national semifinals. The brackets created these stories.
(This is why it’s pointless to pick the Final Four before the brackets come out. The bracket defines some realities. The rest is taken care of by the 67 games in the NCAA Tournament.)
Now, let’s deal with the South Region, starting with the story in 2018:
The 2018 South Region featured teams which had not been to the Final Four in a long time:
Virginia was the 1 seed, Cincinnati the 2, Tennessee the 3, Arizona the 4, Miami the 6, Nevada the 7… and then the regional final matched Kansas State (the 9 seed) and Loyola-Chicago (the 11 seed).
Of those various teams, Arizona (1997) had the most recent Final Four… which meant that a 21-year Final Four drought was the smallest of all the teams listed. Kentucky was the 5 seed, the only top-9 seed from that region which had been to the Final Four in the 21st century. Texas, the 10 seed, had been to the Final Four in 2003.
Kentucky was the only team with a Final Four appearance in the past 14 years among the top 11 seeds in that region. Loyola’s Final Four marked the Ramblers’ first Final Four since their memorable and historically resonant 1963 run to the national title.
In 2019, you can see that among the top seven seeds, Virginia, Tennessee and Cincinnati are back in the South Region. Purdue is there as the 3 seed and Kansas State is back as the 4.
Once again — as in 2018 — the No. 5 seed in the South is a team with a very recent Final Four appearance: Wisconsin (2015). This time, the 6 seed is also a team with a very recent Final Four: defending national champion Villanova.
If the Badgers or Wildcats don’t make the Final Four, and unless No. 9 seed Oklahoma catches fire, a very long Final Four drought WILL be snapped in the South Region.
Virginia hasn’t been to the Final Four since 1984. Tennessee has never been to the Final Four. Purdue’s last trip: 1980. Kansas State: 1964. Cincinnati: 1992. Ole Miss (the 8 seed): never. Iowa (10 seed): 1980. Saint Mary’s (11 seed): never.
Unless Villanova, Wisconsin or Oklahoma win this region, a Final Four drought of at least 27 years — more than a quarter of a century if you do the quick math — will end.
Brackets. Shape. Stories.
A Kentucky-Duke national title game would blow the roof off the national sports scene, but unless that blockbuster occurs, the biggest game of the 2019 NCAA Tournament — if it happens — could be Virginia-Tennessee in the South Regional final.
Virginia, the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed, could gain its chance for ultimate redemption and validation. Tennessee, one of the best college basketball programs to have never reached the Final Four, could finally break through. What a poignant, powerful, enduring moment that will be if it happens.
Brackets. Shape. Stories. For the second straight year at the NCAA Tournament, the South Region embodies this reality more than any other region.
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