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With a few 1 seeds, Cinderellas and underdogs left, this Sweet 16 has everything

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Sweet 16 round of the men's NCAA tournament picks back up today. The first weekend was anything but dull. And if you say your bracket's in good shape, well, ESPN, Yahoo! and CBS Sports all say there aren't any remaining perfect brackets in their pools. Our next guest, Nicole Auerbach, had a number of teams on upset alert last week, so maybe her bracket is solid. She's a senior writer with The Athletic and has been covering March Madness. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

NICOLE AUERBACH: Yeah, thanks for having me. And don't worry, the bracket is in shambles, just like everyone across America.

CHANG: (Laughter) I was just going to ask you how your bracket was doing. Well, you know, the last time we spoke, you gave us your Final Four predictions. They were Alabama, Indiana, Marquette and Kansas. Only Alabama remains. So I don't know. What do you think that says about how even all these teams are right now?

AUERBACH: Well, there is a lot of parity in the sport right now. And, you know, when you ask coaches, they have a lot of different reasons for it. But one of the main ones is the transfer portal because you're seeing really talented players at schools that are not just riding the bench at the best schools in the country. You know, if they're not getting playing time, they're going somewhere else, and they're playing. There were definitely some surprises in the opening weekend, but I can say we have seen these double-digit seeds get all the way to the Sweet 16 a lot more frequently in the last couple of years. And so Princeton is actually just part of a trend and not an aberration. And they believe that they belong.

CHANG: That's so interesting. OK. Well, then of the 16 teams who've made it this far, tell me, like, whose storyline for you is the most captivating on the men's bracket.

AUERBACH: Well, there are so many. And I think, you know, Florida Atlantic is into the Sweet 16 as a nine seed. And they were just in a situation against No. 16 seed FDU where, like, the world was rooting against them. And that's so shocking for a beloved mid-major that we've been excited to see in the big dance all along. But they're through. Last weekend, I was in Greensboro, so I had an up-close view to Kansas State, and I think that they also have an incredible story to get here with a first-year coach in Jerome Tang. They weren't even sure that they could get to an NCAA tournament, and now here they are in the Sweet 16.

CHANG: OK. So can you just further break down tonight's matchups for us? Like, who's coaching against whom? Who do you think has an advantage?

AUERBACH: You have Florida Atlantic, a team that has been a mid-major darling all season long with Dusty May - rising star in the profession - against Rick Barnes in Tennessee. And we know how physical that they can play. And if they can muddy the game, then Tennessee is going to be in good shape. Then you have Kansas State and first-year head coach Jerome Tang. This was a team that only had two players last spring and had to rebuild the entire roster. And he'll be up against a coach whose name is synonymous with the month of March in Tom Izzo. People love to say January, February, Izzo...

CHANG: (Laughter).

AUERBACH: ...Because his teams are so good at this time of year. And then you flip over to Las Vegas, and you've got two fiery coaches in Eric Musselman and Danny Hurley. These are two coaches you're going to want to keep an eye on the sidelines in this game because they get heated. You saw Eric Musselman. He was the one who took off his shirt and was running around after they made the Sweet 16.

CHANG: (Laughter) I love it. And then his last name is Musselman.

AUERBACH: And his last name is Musselman. So that one's going to be really fun and could end up being the best game of the entire round just because I think of how evenly matched they are in the styles of play.

CHANG: So let me ask you - tomorrow, the women's Sweet 16 starts, and you said that this tournament was South Carolina's to lose. Are you still standing by that?

AUERBACH: I do still stand by that because they're just so deep. We saw them struggle a little bit early against South Florida, and then they just turn on the jets. It's so hard to play them because they just continually have bodies and some of the best players in the country. Aliyah Boston is relentless. She is the piece that makes that team go.

CHANG: Well, before I let you go, let me ask you about the coach at Ole Miss. She seemed to have a great story. She said that she was not the school's first choice. Is that right?

AUERBACH: So Coach Yo is one of the great personalities in women's basketball. She is so full of life and has had an unlikely path to get here. And this was obviously a breakthrough moment for them to beat Stanford on their own home court. This put Ole Miss on the map. And Coach Yo has been chasing Dawn Staley. She loves her. She considers her a mentor. And this is a big statement for her along the rise of getting up to the point where you can beat South Carolina.

CHANG: Nicole Auerbach is senior writer with The Athletic. Thank you so much.

AUERBACH: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.