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Lackluster bracket performances leave some March Madness fans bummed

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There haven't been a lot of Cinderella stories at this year's March Madness tournaments. The men's and women's Sweet 16 tip off later this week (ph), and there is only one seed lower than a seven left in either tournament. NPR's Becky Sullivan is here to talk with us all about that. Hey, Becky.

BECKY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK, I do not have a bracket this year. I never have brackets, like, ever. But I guess that's a great thing because my bracket would be totally busted right now, right?

SULLIVAN: Oh, yeah. You and everyone else who did actually make one.

CHANG: Sorry.

SULLIVAN: So just to give you a figure, on ESPN, more than 22 million brackets were filled out for the men's tournament, and zero of them have made it through this first weekend perfect.

CHANG: Wow.

SULLIVAN: In the women's tournament, about 3 million people filled one out. ESPN reports that there are just three perfect brackets left, and at least one of those will be busted by Friday, so you are not alone.

CHANG: All right, so what is going on this year? Why is this happening?

SULLIVAN: Yeah. Well, I mean, it's always basically impossible to make a perfect bracket, but I think what is funny about this year is that we had gotten used to seeing more upsets. Especially in the men's tournament, they had gotten more common. So over the past five tournaments or so, we were seeing these, like, lowest-ranked 16 seeds beating the top-ranked 1 seeds, 15 seeds beating 2 seeds, and that did not happen at all this year. And so there's a lot of reasons that people are thinking could explain this. One of them could be COVID. The NCAA basically let players get extra years of eligibility if they had lost out during the height of the pandemic, and that extra experience had helped a lot of underdogs these last few years, but that effect has started to taper away. Whether that explains it all or not, there were a lot fewer upsets this year.

CHANG: OK, so tell us about who's left. And let's start with the men's tournament, which starts up again tomorrow?

SULLIVAN: Yep, that's right. So in the men's tournament, all of the 1's and 2's seeds are left, like we talked about. That's only the fifth time that has ever happened since the bracket expanded back in the '80s. So we've got the favorite, the top overall seed, Connecticut. They have looked great. They are set to play San Diego State on Thursday in a rematch of last year's title game, which the Huskies won. And so they're hoping to become - you know, win this, win the rest, become the first repeat champions since 2007.

And with them, there's some blue bloods - the usual suspects like Duke and North Carolina. But there are also a lot of strong teams left that are hoping to win their school's first-ever title game, and that includes Iowa State, Purdue, Houston, Tennessee. All of these are 1's and 2's seeds with a good chance.

CHANG: Oh, cool. So tell us about that one low seed left.

SULLIVAN: Yep. So that's in the men's. It's the only double-digit seed left. That's 11-seed North Carolina State. They're very fun to watch in part because of their star player who's this really big guy named DJ Burns Jr., who's listed at 6'9", 275 pounds, which is a very big man for basketball.

CHANG: (Laughter) It is.

SULLIVAN: And so he can move around kind of, like, as he wants down by the basket, but he still has this very light and graceful touch with the ball. And so he's just a very funny guy, great attitude, a lot of fun to watch.

As Cinderellas go, NC State - it's a little underwhelming since they're a power conference team, and they have won it all before. On the other hand, they're getting hot at just the right time, and it's always fun to watch a team doing that. So they play Friday. It's a game I'm pretty excited about in the men's tournament. They'll take on the 2-seed Marquette, who also plays a very fun style of game. And they may be the weakest 2-seed yet, so NC State could have a shot there.

CHANG: And what about the women's side?

SULLIVAN: So the women's has been so good this year, really excited about this Sweet 16. I mean, it's just a fun year for women's basketball altogether because if you think...

CHANG: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: ...If you ask a random person to name a college basketball player right now, I think most people are going to come up with a woman's name instead of a man's, and that's pretty cool.

CHANG: I love it.

SULLIVAN: So all those big stars - Caitlin Clark, JuJu Watkins of USC, Angel Reese of LSU - they're all still in it. South Carolina's the favorite. They haven't lost all season. They won both of their games last weekend by about 50 points. So they'll play tomorrow night against Indiana. Lots of attention, of course, will be on Caitlin Clark and Iowa. They play Saturday afternoon.

And one I'm excited to watch is LSU and UCLA. This is a 3 seed and a 2 seed, respectively. It's the closest game, I think, we'll have this weekend, a very tight game. And if LSU manages to pull it off and if Iowa advances, then we'll be treated to a rematch of last year's women's title game and all of the drama that's surrounded Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark, and that's clearly what the bracket-makers...

CHANG: So cool.

SULLIVAN: ...Were hoping for, so we'll see if it happens.

CHANG: That is NPR's Becky Sullivan. Thank you so much, Becky.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome. 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.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.

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