The NCAA tournament operates on its own internal clock. Call it the Brackadian Rhythm.
The first weekend is a tat-a-tat burst of lighthearted fun. You pick your bracket and watch four wall-to-wall days of hoops. You revel in the upsets, acquaint yourself with small schools and quirky stories. You shrug whimsically at your Michigan State-over-Virginia-in-the-Midwest-region prediction because oh well, right? It's the first weekend! It's crazy!
The second weekend, though -- that's serious business. The field mercilessly whittles itself down to the most essential elements. Sweet 16 stragglers are summarily dispatched. Epic Elite Eight matchups are born. Final Four spots are won.
There are deviations from this pattern, sure. No one's internal clock is perfect. Generally speaking, though, the Brackadian Rhythm is reliable.
Not this year. Not Saturday, anyway.
Thanks to some combination of performance, selection and seeding weirdness, and plain old dumb luck, Saturday's schedule is as good a round-of-32 slate as any the NCAA tournament has offered in recent memory.
Consider this: Of the 16 teams set for action Saturday, just four were unranked in the preseason. Just two of those teams -- No. 12 seeds Yale and Arkansas-Little Rock -- went the length of the regular season without featuring in at least one poll. Another, Miami, spent the whole season hovering around the top 10; the fourth, Providence, is led by a surefire NBA lottery pick (Kris Dunn) and reached as high as No. 10 in the AP poll in January.
Not impressed? Fine. Dismiss the merits of polls if you like (though you sleep on the preseason poll at your own risk). Ignore the past five months entirely. That's cool.
We can still agree that Saturday's games feel bigger, and more epic, than your average round of 32. None more so than ...
Indiana. Kentucky. Shelter in place. Conflicted? You should be. On the one hand, the idea that this game, between two teams this good, would take place in just the second round of the NCAA tournament -- and not, say, the Elite Eight -- feels almost criminal.
This is a Kentucky team, flawed as it might be, led by one of the best, purest ball/off-ball 1-2 combo that college basketball has offered in recent seasons. The Wildcats frontcourt has suddenly started to provide a consistent core, and this team is coached by a man who has taken the Wildcats to four Final Fours since arriving at Kentucky in 2009.
This is an Indiana team, flawed as it might be, led by a senior guard putting the finishing touches on one of the best statistical careers in the history of his storied school. The Hoosiers' early-season defensive woes have long since been sanded away without sacrificing any of their death-by-a-thousand-cuts offense, and this team is led by the only coach in the Big Ten to win two outright titles since he arrived in Bloomington eight years ago.
The seeds say very little about how good these teams are, how deep they could go and how good this game should be.
Even better? If these two were unacquainted programs with sparse basketball histories, all of the above would be true. They are not, of course. This is Indiana and Kentucky. Or Kentucky and Indiana. This game is much, much, much more.
Should it be happening in the second round? Of course not. Are we counting the seconds until tip? Duh.
People in Des Moines are spoiled. That's right, residents of the capital of our home state! We said it. What, your pod couldn't get by with just one matchup of historically elite, brand-name basketball programs? Kentucky and Indiana weren't enough for you? You had to have No. 1 Kansas and No. 9 Connecticut, too? OK, sure, so KU-UConn isn't quite at the level of the matinee. But it does feature an underrated UConn interior (and a Huskies team riding a five-game winning streak) trying to stop a well-rounded, Perry Ellis-led Jayhawks attack. Meanwhile, KU fans, IU fans and UK fans will be in the same building -- and the same adjacent establishments -- on the same day. That's either exciting or frightening. Maybe both.
Wichita State has revealed its true form. Is Miami next? Now that the Shockers -- the most woefully misinterpreted and underseeded team in recent NCAA tournament history (trademark pending) -- have handled Vanderbilt and dominated Arizona, it is impossible to look ahead to Saturday's game against No. 3-seed Miami as anything but a meeting of equals. Indeed, in every sense except their seeds, this is more or less a meeting of two top-15 teams, and two who match up well in terms of personnel (both are led by their point guards and shooting guards) and style (Wichita State is the nation's best defense; Miami is one of its most efficient offenses). Neither outcome will be a surprise. Say it with us: Wichita State is not an underdog. See? Doesn't that feel nice?
You want actual underdogs? Saturday's got actual underdogs. And each of their matchups are fascinating. And far from foregone.
There's No. 4 Duke vs. No. 12 Yale, and while plenty will frame the matchup as some sort of elite academic throwdown (did your professor even win a Nobel Prize, bro?!), more relevant is the fact that it pits the Blue Devils against a team almost perfectly built to stop them. Duke is a great offensive team that struggles on the defensive end, and especially on the defensive glass; Yale is a great defensive team that rebounds everything on both ends of the floor. Just ask Baylor.
Then there's Arkansas-Little Rock, which is inherently interesting, but will also try to pressure the turnover-averse Iowa State Cyclones with hectic half-court defense. Providence is an underdog with a lottery-pick point guard facing a North Carolina team intent on returning to the Final Four. Gonzaga is an underdog that has Domantas Sabonis to throw up against Utah's Jakob Poeltl meat grinder.
And then, of course, there's Butler. Which is Butler.
No, seriously: Is this still the first weekend of the tournament? Are we sure?