Oklahoma's late-season slide gave skeptics ammo, and Villanova's run through the Big East regular season didn't look nearly as impressive after Providence and Butler tanked and barely made their way into the NCAA tournament.
Even so, both the Sooners and Wildcats were handed No. 2 seeds, but few gave either team a chance to cut down the nets April 4 in Houston.
Over the first three games, no one has looked more dominant than Jay Wright's team. Nova hasn't even been challenged, as it pounded its three opponents -- UNC Asheville, Iowa and Miami -- by an average of 24 points per game. Let's stop comparing this Nova team to those from the past half-dozen seasons, the teams that couldn't get past the first weekend. These Wildcats are different.
This team boasts senior point guard Ryan Arcidiacono, whom Wright calls "the best leader he's ever had." It has a post presence in Daniel Ochefu, one of the elite wings in the country in Josh Hart, a forward who showed Thursday that he can be a difference-maker in Kris Jenkins and a second point guard in freshman Jalen Brunson.
Miami didn't stand a chance. Nova clicked on every cylinder imaginable, and there's no reason the Wildcats can't keep playing at this level -- sharing the ball, making shots and even guarding effectively. This team has the toughness and unselfishness that Wright was searching for while the program went through a down period.
Oklahoma appeared mortal in a 85-81 second-round victory over VCU. But the Sooners showed Thursday that they can win -- and win easily -- without an A-plus effort from star Buddy Hield, who turned in a mediocre performance, by his standards, with 17 points and 10 boards.
Hield was overshadowed by fellow guard Jordan Woodard, who scored 22 points and went 5-of-6 from beyond the arc. The third guard of the trio, Isaiah Cousins, couldn't do much (1-of-8 from the field), but it didn't matter, as this was never much of a game. The Sooners shut down the Aggies' top two offensive threats, Jamal Jones and Danuel House (7-of-24 from the field combined), and this one was over almost as quickly as it started.
Both Villanova and Oklahoma have been heavily reliant on perimeter shooting. That's usually a recipe for disaster at some point in the NCAA tourney. There's just no way either team can keep this up for six consecutive games.
Well, they are halfway there.
On Thursday, top-seeded Kansas and Oregon looked every bit the part of teams capable of reeling off three more victories, but so did the Wildcats and Sooners. In fact, most viewers were ready for the late games because Villanova and Oklahoma were so dominant early -- and the games were downright ugly.
Now Villanova gets a shot at Kansas with a spot in Houston on the line. Oklahoma will face Oregon for a Final Four berth. I'm not guaranteeing anything, other than that Saturday night's matchups won't be snoozers like we saw Thursday, but both No. 2 seeds can win.
After the shocking loss by Michigan State to Middle Tennessee in the first round, Kansas became the de facto favorite to win the national title. However, Villanova's guards can match up with the Jayhawks' backcourt of Devonte' Graham and Frank Mason. Hart is a terrific defender who will be able to give Perry Ellis resistance. Ochefu is better than anything KU has up front. Sure, the Jayhawks have more depth, but that hasn't really come into play for coach Bill Self in the tournament.
Nova won't go in as the underdog -- not if you've been watching the Wildcats over the past week and change. The same can be said for Oklahoma, even though the Oregon bandwagon is filling up quickly following the Ducks' resounding victory over Duke.
Lon Kruger's Sooners will boast arguably the top three guards on the court, with Hield, Cousins and Woodard. That's two seniors and a junior. Oregon's Tyler Dorsey is still a freshman. The key will be whether Oklahoma can contain Dillon Brooks and find a way to keep Ryan Spangler on the floor.
When Oklahoma dropped three of four in February and then couldn't get past West Virginia in the Big 12 tournament final, the Sooners became a second-tier team. Villanova's league setbacks to Providence, Xavier and, in the Big East tourney, Seton Hall had the same effect for the Wildcats.
But these two teams have as much a chance as the top seeds to cut down the nets.