Some evaluations and judgments are hard to make. The statement that the South Regional semifinal between the Purdue Boilermakers and Tennessee Volunteers is the most pressure-filled Sweet 16 game for both teams is not a hard call to arrive at.
I am bothering to write a piece in support of this thesis, so here is the point-by-point explanation as we move to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
Oregon-Virginia is a huge pressure game… for one team, not two. Oregon has stolen money by getting to the Sweet 16 as a 12 seed for the second time under Dana Altman. Oregon can play loosely and freely without a care in the world. The Ducks have exceeded expectations in March and made some win-share money for the Pac-12.
Virginia Tech is playing with house money against Duke. LSU, its program shrouded in uncertainty, will try to win a game against Michigan State, but basketball isn’t even the second- or third-most important sport at LSU behind football. Baseball is a clear second, and I would argue gymnastics is third. That LSU-MSU game just doesn’t mean the same for the two schools involved.
In the Midwest Regional, Auburn and Houston would love to beat the blue-bloods, North Carolina and Kentucky, but Auburn has already enjoyed a terrific NCAA Tournament at a program where these kinds of runs are rare. Sure, Auburn would dearly love to beat Carolina, but Bruce Pearl will not be skewered on local talk radio if he loses. Sweet 16s at Auburn are precious jewels.
Houston has a glorious basketball history, but a distant one which is only now being revived by Kelvin Sampson. It was a central goal of the Cougars to get back to the Sweet 16 after the Jordan Poole shot broke their hearts a year ago. They can certainly give Kentucky problems, and it would mean a lot for Houston to win, but the Cougars are not “under pressure” to beat Big Blue on Friday night. They have very little to lose. Kentucky — not in the Final Four since 2015 — is playing with all the pressure, and no Kentucky fan would dispute this. Final Fours are expected at UNC and Kentucky. They are not — at least not today — at Houston or Auburn.
In the West, Gonzaga made the Final Four in 2017. There is not nearly the same amount of pressure on the Zags today as there was two years ago to win a Sweet 16 game and get to the Final Four on the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Yes, the Zags do need to make a second Final Four to shut people up, so on the scale of pressure-filled Sweet 16 games, Gonzaga-Florida State probably rates as No. 2 on this list. Florida State has a team capable of making the Final Four. Leonard Hamilton will be an underdog in this game, but there is certainly a measure of urgency attached to this moment in Anaheim.
Nevertheless, FSU’s underdog identity and Gonzaga’s 2017 Final Four erode the long-term historical weight of this game just enough to put it in second place on this list as opposed to first.
Texas Tech has so dramatically exceeded expectations under Chris Beard that a loss to Michigan would not be a massive disappointment. It would end a magical run and bring about a certain degree of heartbreak, but no one would look at this game and say, “Damn, Texas Tech HAS to win this, or else!”
Michigan has made three straight Sweet 16s. The Wolverines expect to be in the Elite Eight and compete for a Final Four, but John Beilein’s turnaround of this program and his recovery from the lost seasons of 2015 and 2016 has been so substantial that Michigan fans love him anyway (as they definitely should). This is not a “win-or-else” game for UM, not after a run to the title game a year ago.
There is only one game of the eight upcoming regional semifinals which means everything to BOTH teams, not just one: Purdue-Tennessee.
The neat (and I do mean neat, as opposed to cluttered or messy) thing about this thesis is that the arguments are lack any complexity whatsoever.
All I need to tell you is that Purdue hasn’t made the Elite Eight since the year 2000 or the Final Four since 1980. This is in a basketball-mad state where, as a side note, Indiana has been to the Elite Eight and Final Four only ONCE since 1993 (in 2002). People in Indiana have been losing their minds over their two big basketball programs failing to make the Final Four for decades, and to get to the Final Four, you have to get to the Elite Eight first. Neither Purdue nor IU can manage that these days.
Purdue has made a third straight Sweet 16 under Matt Painter. This is the program’s fifth Sweet 16 game under Painter. It is 0-4 in regional semifinals. Yeah, this game is huge.
As for Tennessee: The Vols have never been to a men’s Final Four. They have a veteran team back for one final pursuit of glory. They are in a region where Oregon, interestingly enough, is the only team which has made a Final Four in recent years (recent being either the past three years OR the past 34 years, take your pick). They aren’t playing Duke or North Carolina. They aren’t playing Michigan State and Tom Izzo or John Beilein and Michigan. They aren’t playing Gonzaga. This region is very winnable. Tennessee has a better offense than Virginia does. This South Regional is an “if not now, when?” moment for the Vols, just as it is for Purdue.
Several Sweet 16 games are monstrous pressure cookers for ONE team. This is the only Sweet 16 game which matters a ton to both teams in equal measure.
We will see how Purdue and Tennessee respond to a game which could shape legacies and careers. The atmosphere in Louisville for this contest will be soaked not in Kentucky bourbon, but in Old Demon Pressure.
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