LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The NCAA Tournament men's basketball selection committee was close to perfect in its seeding.
The top 12 teams in the field remain in the Sweet 16 along with the fourth seeds in the East and West brackets. Fifth-seeded Auburn knocked out No. 4 Kansas in the Midwest region to leave only No. 12 Oregon as a true longshot to win the national title.
Oregon’s two wins on the opening weekend came by nearly identical scores against opponents viewed as opposites. The Ducks defeated fifth-seeded Wisconsin 72-54 in the first round before beating 13th-seeded UC Irvine 73-54 two days later.
“It’s up to the committee to do the seeding and up to us to play the games,” Oregon senior Paul White said. “We just look at the team we are facing next.”
That would be top-seeded Virginia (31-3), which faces Oregon (25-12) Thursday night in a South Region semifinal at approximately 7 p.m. at the KFC YUM! Center.
“Anybody can beat anybody, that is what March is all about,” Oregon senior guard Ehab Amin said. “But we are the No. 12 seed and they are the No. 1 so it will be a challenge and we will be underdogs. We’ve been the underdogs since the Pac-12 Tournament because we finished sixth in the conference so nobody expected us to be here.”
Virginia coach Tony Bennett certainly won’t take comfort in the seeding because the Cavaliers are a No. 1 seed for the fourth time in the past six seasons, but fell short of the Final Four by losing to a team seeded fourth or lower during each of their previous three times on the top line of a region. Last year, the Cavaliers famously became the first top seed to lose in the first round against a 16th seed with a loss to UMBC. Virginia also trailed 16th-seed Gardner-Webb 28-14 in the first round last week before winning 71-56.
“It was ironic, we were a No. 1 seed again in that setting and then to be down 14 points,” Bennett said. “Burdened, unburdened, doesn’t really matter in my opinion. You just step up to the challenge that is there. … Obviously, everyone here is desperate to advance.”
Oregon coach Dana Altman has either been the No. 1 seed or faced a top seed during five of his six trips to the NCAA Tournament with the Ducks.
His first trip to the tourney at UO in 2013 looked a lot like the current journey when the Ducks were a No. 12 seed that won twice in San Jose, Calif., to reach the Sweet 16 against top-seeded Louisville, which beat Oregon 77-69.
Two years later, Oregon was an eighth seed when it stayed with top-seeded Wisconsin until the final minutes before losing 72-65. The Ducks were the top seed in 2016 when they reached the Elite Eight before losing to second-seeded Oklahoma.
Oregon beat No. 1 seed Kansas 74-60 in the Elite Eight of the 2017 tournament before losing to top-seeded North Carolina, 77-76, in the Final Four.
“Virginia is a good team, we are a good team, so go play,” Altman said. “I think there is enough motivation to be in the Sweet 16 with an opportunity to go to the Elite Eight. If I have to motivate them, then they don’t have a competitive spirit and this group does. They want to compete and you see that.”
Oregon has won 10 games in a row, including the last six when a loss in any of them would have ended its chance of continuing in the NCAA Tournament or making the field.
“I’d like to say I had it all figured out and that was the plan, but I have been pleasantly surprised how the guys have done that,” Altman said.
Virginia has been targeted for a deep NCAA run since starting the season 16-0. The Cavaliers lost twice to top-seeded Duke were also defeated by Florida State, which is in the Sweet 16.
The Cavaliers have the stingiest defense in the nation that allows 55.0 points per game and also ranks among the leaders in field-goal percentage defense at 38.1.
De’Andre Hunter, a 6-foot-7 sophomore, leads the Cavaliers with 15.2 points per game followed by junior guards Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome at 15.1 and 13.0, respectively. Oregon is allowing 54.2 points during its 10-game winning streak.
“We have been keying in on teams’ best players and trying to limit them as much as possible,” White said. “Virginia has a lot of talent, there is not just one or two players who are good on their team so we have to make them as uncomfortable as we have been making the others.”