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March Madness action resumes with the Sweet 16

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

March Madness - the NCAA basketball tournament began last week with the chaos of 68 teams.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Just 16 teams are left in both the men's and women's Division I college basketball tournaments, and it's still wide open.

INSKEEP: Which is why we have called up NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman, who's been watching. Hey there, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. The men's tournament, we're down to 16. Normally, you would have a good sense of who's favored to win at this point.

GOLDMAN: Normally. But this year is kind of hard to pin down. There are two No. 1 seeds left in the last 16 - Alabama and Houston. Neither has looked like the hands-down best team. Two other No. 1 seeds, Purdue and defending champion Kansas, are out, as are two No. 2 seeds. That opens things up for teams not used to getting this far. Eleven conferences are represented in the Sweet 16. That's a lot. And some blue-bloods of men's college hoops are no-shows - Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky. This is the second time in the last three years not one of them got to the Sweet 16. Before that, from 1980 to 2019, at least one got this far each of those years.

INSKEEP: Which implies the talent is more spread out among other teams. Why would it be more spread out than in the past?

GOLDMAN: It does imply that. I think, certainly, the transfer portal system is having an impact. Since 2021, it has allowed athletes to switch schools and play immediately. Last year, about 1,650 Division I men's college basketball players went into the portal. It had a big impact on spreading talent among schools. This week, Tom Izzo, the longtime Michigan State head coach and transfer portal critic, talked about the pluses and minuses. Here he is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM IZZO: The portal is not all bad. I mean, you have to - every place isn't for everybody. But to me, what's bad about it is the fact that every kid who has a bad day just thinks about leaving. And at this level, if you're half in, you're nowhere.

GOLDMAN: And despite this criticism, Izzo has taken advantage and benefited this tournament. He's gotten big contributions from a couple of players who transferred from other schools.

INSKEEP: OK. So a shifting talent pool. Which teams might surprise us in this final 16?

GOLDMAN: Princeton is your main Cinderella story as a 15 seed. I was at the Tigers' first two tournament wins, and they are not your old-fashioned Princeton from yesteryear. They play the modern game well. In their win over Missouri, they shot the lights out, outrebounded Missouri with a shorter, ultra-aggressive team. Then there's Florida Atlantic, another lower-seeded underdog in their first men's tournament since 2002. A lot of fans calling FAU a Cinderella team, but they're not having it. They say they're better than people think. And their next chance to prove it is today against a very good and physical defensive team, Tennessee.

INSKEEP: OK. What are you looking for on the women's side, the final 16?

GOLDMAN: You know, we've got parity, which is great. For too long, the women's game has been defined by the best players and teams at the top without much depth in the game. But again, thanks to the transfer portal, thanks to the women's game growing in popularity, more good players are emerging. You're seeing the results. Two No. 1 seeds - Stanford and Indiana - lost before the Sweet 16. That's the first time that's happened since 1998. Defending champion South Carolina still is the heavyweight. The Gamecocks, so far, are rolling. But there are some worthy challengers remaining - Perennial power UConn, LSU powered by forward Angel Reese, Iowa with guard Caitlin Clark. There's enough skill out there, Steve, to catch South Carolina, but it's going to be tough.

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks. It's always good to talk with you.

GOLDMAN: Good to talk to you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tom Goldman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.