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A runway-model caliber Sweet 16 awaits when NCAA tournament resumes

Kentucky will strut its stuff in the Sweet 16. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Maybe these Sweet 16 participants should enter the four arenas via red carpets rather than concrete hallways.  It’s a starry matter even if the clothes remain uninteresting.

It has five teams from the obsessive basketball kingdoms of Kentucky (two) and North Carolina (three). It has six of the top nine programs in Final Four appearances (North Carolina, UCLA, Kentucky, Duke, Louisville, Michigan State), and while only 14 schools have won multiple national titles — hello again, San Francisco Dons! — this Sweet 16 boasts seven of those (the six above, plus North Carolina State).

It has the top four active coaches in NCAA tournament winning percentage (Mike Krzyzewski, John Calipari, Rick Pitino, Roy Williams); it has the guy ranked No. 6 (Tom Izzo); and it has 15 coaches with Sweet 16 experience — Welcome, Larry Krystkowiak, an 11-letter “Coach K” to accompany the familiar 10-letter Coach K — nine of whom have coached in Final Fours, including that quiet Lon Kruger of Oklahoma, who quietly has taken four schools to Sweet 16s while remaining pretty quiet all told.

Not quietly, this Sweet 16 in a freshman era has 14 of the 24 McDonald’s all-Americans from 2014 — four from Jahlil Okafor’s Duke, and four among the nine rock stars of Kentucky. It has UCLA from Los Angeles and Magic Johnson University from East Lansing, Mich., and that old mainstay from Cincinnati, Xavier, present in five of the last eight Sweet 16s.

It has its resident mastodon, Kentucky, trying to become the first unbeaten champion since Indiana in 1976, and it sustains the possibility of a final in Indianapolis on April 6 between Kentucky and D-D-Duke, a concept that could enthrall even the half-interested. It has even that fresh concept of the 2010s, Wichita chic, seeing as how the nouveau titan from the state of Kansas, Wichita State, just spent a telltale second half romping through its kid-brother program from somewhere cross-state.

“Your best is good enough,” the Great Plains basketball curator Gregg Marshall told his Shockers in the pre-Kansas locker room, and actually, their near-best was, unsurprising given their 95-14 three-year record and the way they alarmed the Louisvillians at the 2013 Final Four. The Shockers aren’t shockers even if senior Tekele Cotton did say of beating Kansas, “To me, I mean, I’m speechless.”

They’ll head off to Cleveland, which will lure the stars starting Thursday along with Los Angeles, Houston and Syracuse (also known as Jim Boeheim’s Hollywood). There, Wichita State will find Notre Dame, a representative of the drought-familiar teams, a renowned March klutz that finds its first Sweet 16 in 12 years. Similarly, Gonzaga finds its first after five straight round-of-32 stall-outs. Asked if he’d grown tired of hearing about that, Coach Mark Few said, “Personally, yes.”

Coach Sean Miller of Arizona also knows the ticklish questions of late March, having defended on occasion his perfectly stellar record of three previous final-eight appearances against his thus-far record of zero Final Four appearances. “I feel good about us,” he said on the way to Los Angeles, just up the 5 freeway from Anaheim, where last year he came “within a bounce” (his words) of the Final Four, losing in overtime to Wisconsin, which itself heads again for Los Angeles.

“Getting to the last 16 teams left in college basketball is obviously a good feeling,” Wisconsin’s giant star Frank Kaminsky said, “but we’re a 1 seed for a reason. . . . We’ve seen it before, we know what it takes, we know what we need to do, on and off the court.”

That’s different from Utah’s Krystkowiak, the nine-season NBA veteran who reached this Sweet 16 and said, “Just a little bit surreal at this point,” and from Michigan State’s Izzo, who wept over a once-unexpected trip to Syracuse, and from the Cleveland-bound West Virginia Coach Bob Huggins, who fielded a question about mighty Kentucky up ahead and said, “Can I just enjoy this and not worry about that?”

At 61, Huggins knows March droughts, having once gone eight of nine seasons with early-round exits at Cincinnati even in a career strewn with seven Sweet 16s. Oklahoma’s Kruger, 62, said of his four-school distinction, “It obviously doesn’t make a lot of difference in people’s lives. Certainly won’t in mine.” And among the gurus with ages like 68 (Krzyzewski) and 67 (Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan) and 64 (Williams), stands Louisville’s March master Pitino, who at 62 knows the value of 16. He earned the graciousness award when he said of the Northern Iowa his team had just felled, “Sometimes I hate these press conferences because you listen to the other guys [opponents] up here first and you just bleed for a group like Northern Iowa, who, the reason we played so well tonight is the amount of respect we had for them.”

Pitino just engineered one of his late-season reorganization projects, lending his big name to this Sweet 16 roughly one month after booting his starting point guard, Chris Jones, from a program that won the 2013 national title and very well might have won again in 2014 had it held onto a 64-57 lead with 4 minutes 45 seconds remaining against Kentucky. Some adaptation also marked Houston-bound Duke, which in late January saw Coach Krzyzewski’s first banishment with junior guard Rasheed Sulaimon.

That kind of plot twist can go forgotten when a star player, Okafor, goes 21 for 27 in the first two tournament games, and when another coveted freshman, Justise Winslow, starts to glow from the box score with 13 points and 12 rebounds against San Diego State, which “just takes us to a whole other level,” Krzyzewski said.

Krzyzewski also said of his players, “They aren’t mentally tired, they aren’t physically tired.”

Add that to the present and future worries around the overarching theme of the tournament, Kentucky, which has taken its profound collaboration among nine former prep stars to within four wins of something bigger than ever: 40-0.

In that vein, one prediction is foolproof: Cleveland is about to get very, very blue. Asked by a Cleveland reporter what Clevelanders should expect from Kentucky fans, the Kentucky junior 7-footer and philosopher Willie Cauley-Stein said, “They’re going to flood your streets.”

Quick: How many teams have gone into March Madness undefeated? How many Americans will bet on the NCAA men's basketball tournament? Here are some of the most mind-blowing numbers about March Madness. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)
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