Even without a slew of upstarts, these 16 look sweet

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If there’s a lesson to be learned from Week 1 of the 2016 NCAA tournament, it’s this: Don’t get too accustomed to cuddly underdogs — because they won’t be around long. (Oh, and this, too: Even cuddly underdogs can look like choking dogs if they throw the ball in the corner against a press.)

Texas A&M is still playing. Michigan State and Xavier are not. Utah, the most overseeded team in the bracket, played that way and is gone. Wichita State, the most underseeded team in the bracket, won twice and nearly a third time. A game that should have been played this Thursday or Friday — SEC champ Kentucky against Big 10 regular-season champ Indiana — left the Wildcats by the weekend wayside. And Baylor lost again to another double-digit seed.

Friday’s doings — Middle Tennessee over Tom Izzo, Stephen F. Austin over Huggy Bear, Northern Iowa over Texas from halfcourt — recalled March 14, 1981. In the span of two hours, the nation’s No. 1 team (DePaul), the defending NCAA champ (Louisville) and the West’s No. 1 seed (Oregon State) were felled on last-second shots. (By, in blurry-fast chronological order, John Smith’s layup for St. Joseph’s, U.S. Reed’s halfcourt fling for Arkansas and Rolando Blackman’s corner jumper for Kansas State.) That Saturday is widely regarded as the best NCAA day ever. Last Friday was almost as good. Sunday night came close.

Stephen F. Austin's Thomas Walkup (0) and Trey Pinkney (10) leave the court after a second-round men's college basketball game against Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament, Sunday, March 20, 2016, in New York. Notre Dame won 76-75. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

I’ll miss Thomas Walkup. And so will you. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

As Northern Iowa was blowing a 12-point lead in 40 seconds against A&M, Wisconsin’s Bronson Koenig was felling Xavier, the East’s No. 2 seed. Then Oregon, No. 1 in the West, fell behind St. Joseph’s — yep, the Hawks again — and you figured, “This thing cannot possibly get crazier.” As if on cue, a bit of normalcy crept back into our lives. Oregon rallied and won.

The four No. 1 seeds remain. The Sweet Sixteen has been lessened by the absences of Michigan State and Xavier — though not of Utah or Cal or West Virginia — but not really diminished. The Midwest Regional features two double-digits seeds (Syracuse versus Gonzaga) in a Friday semi and a not-very-special Iowa State team opposing Virginia, but that’s the only tepid quadrant.

The West has Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4 still going, with the promise of an Oregon-Oklahoma guards-versus-guards final. The South has Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 5, and Kansas-Villanova would make for a splendid Elite Eight game (now that the Wildcats have cleared their Round of 32 hurdle). And the East, which has lost its Nos. 2, 3 and 4 seeds, nonetheless has two ACC-Big Ten semis: North Carolina shouldn’t sleep on the hurryin’ Hoosiers — pretty sure all Tar Heel fans recall the 1984 Sweet Sixteen game in the old Omni, the night Dan Dakich guarded Michael Jordan — and Wisconsin-Notre Dame has to-the-wire potential.

On a personal level, I’d have enjoyed seeing Northern Iowa and Stephen F. Austin — and Thomas Walkup, noblest Lumberjack of them all — play some more. But they lost Sunday, the latter honorably on a Irish tip-in, the former in a way that made you feel as if Somebody Up There stopped liking NIU for no real reason. But that’s why they call it March Madness: This month needs no stinkin’ reasons.

Further reading:

Six Sweet Sixteen teams: Is the ACC that good?

Tweet this! Texas A&M and the SEC are still alive – somehow.

Texas Western-Kentucky: The losing side of a historic upset.

Middle Tennessee over Michigan State – the biggest upset ever.

Can the SEC ever become a basketball league?

Identifying five potential Round 1 upsets (four of which happened, FYI).

SEC commissioner Sankey: Three NCAA bids isn’t enough.

Beware of these potential bracket busters.

Bracket tip from Tech prof: Go with Kansas.

Yes, Charles. The NCAA Selection Show was indeed ‘turrible.’

What a Fiasco! I’m picking Kansas (again).

Can March Madness save us from college hoops?

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