Sweet 16 is packed with good teams

We'll always have Ron Hunter.

We'll always have his son, R.J. Hunter, swiping a Baylor inbounds pass in stride, streaking to the rim, slicing into the Bears' lead, unnerving a team that seemed headed for certain victory. We'll always have the image: R.J. burying that deep game-winning 3-pointer, sending his dad -- stool-bound, thanks to an Achilles tear suffered in a postgame celebration just a week before -- tumbling to the floor, helpess with joy.

We'll always have Ron Hunter's emotion: How gleefully he soaked up the rare spotlight. How happily he coasted on his mobility scooter. How openly he wept when the "best week of [his] life" ended Saturday afternoon, when he talked about how much he loved his son.

We'll always have UAB, the Blazers' William Lee sending a previously unflappable Cyclones squad flapping all the way back to Ames. We'll always have Hampton coach Ed Joyner staking his chances against Kentucky on a direct line to Jesus. We'll always have D'Angelo Russell gliding through VCU; Arkansas and UNC heading off Wofford and Harvard; Cincinnati's Troy Caupain spinning a sports-movie shot in at the buzzer; and Belmont's Craig Bradshaw banking in that 3 against Virginia and racing back down the court telling the crowd, and the cameras, that he called it.

The first weekend of the NCAA tournament is always when the quirky memories are made, when the surprises come in all shapes and sizes -- from Thursday's record-setting breadth of thrillers to Friday's historic chalk.

We'll always have that. But it's over now. Now the real hunt for the national title begins.

When all was said and done, and all that wild fun gave way to results, the 2015 NCAA tournament's first weekend yielded a rather remarkable Sweet 16 -- one packed to the eyeballs with predictable national title contenders, brand-name programs, legendary coaches, tournament-tested insurgents and, above all, just plain good teams.

Five of the seven clear national title contenders -- Kentucky, Wisconsin, Duke, Arizona, and Gonzaga -- are here. (All apologies to Villanova and Virginia, who left the East region with a top-two this weekend.) So is a healthy cadre of next-tier squads that spent most of the season hovering around the top-15: Utah, Wichita State, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, North Carolina. As for the rest, no team in the Sweet 16 ranks lower than 32nd in adjusted efficiency. Twelve rank in the top 20. Eight rank in the top 10.

There are no total outliers here, no teams that rode hot weekends into March before summary second-weekend dismissals. Unlike in previous seasons, there are no Daytons or Stanfords (2014), Florida Gulf Coasts (2013), Ohios (2012), Richmonds or Florida States (2011), Cornells or Saint Mary's (2010).

The average seed of this Sweet 16: 4.4.

There are two No. 7-seeds weighing that average ever so slightly. The first happens to be Michigan State, which is making its 13th Sweet 16 appearance in 20 years under Tom Izzo. Here's a fun fact: Izzo has more Final Four appearances (six) than first-weekend exits (five) to his name. It's a startling and yet somehow unsurprising statistic. It explains why every Selection Sunday features so much Spartans-related cliche -- and Michigan State, after knocking off a dominant Virginia team Sunday, will not arrive at this late-March perch unaccustomed to the view.

The other No. 7? Wichita State. Perhaps you've heard of them. Two years ago, the Shockers rode a No. 9 seed past heavily favored Gonzaga and Ohio State en route to the Final Four, where they came two possessions short of stopping Louisville's 2013 national title run in its tracks. The very next year, the Shockers took their first loss of the season -- after a 35-0 start -- in the NCAA tournament. Gregg Marshall's team threw folks off the scent in 2014-15, losing to Utah early, followed by defeats to George Washington, Northern Iowa and Illinois State before the committee sent them to play Indiana and Kansas in Omaha as the No. 7 seed. But as the close observers knew all along -- and everyone else was reminded on Sunday -- this Wichita State is not much different from a year ago. They entered Sunday's matchup with Kansas -- a team the Shockers have desperately tried to schedule in recent years -- not remotely an underdog. Little brothers? Pfft.

Xavier, a No. 6 seed, is making its fifth Sweet 16 appearance in eight years. The No. 8-seed, NC State, is making its second trip in four. The Wolfpack have plenty of their own long-term brand recognition, and plenty of talent to back up that reputation. Trevor Lacey is one of Division I's purest scorers -- few are better in isolation in all of Division I basketball -- playing alongside lightning quick guard Anthony Barber and the stocky, physical front line that dominated dominant, two-loss, top-seeded Villanova.

And there's West Virginia, with coach Bob Huggins, coming in as a No. 5 seed. Look at the Mountaineers, a team that is headed to the Sweet 16 for the fifth time in 10 years.

Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Utah are all programs with varying degrees of historical success coming off great seasons. One, Notre Dame, is breaking through after years of unrewarded solidity under Mike Brey. The Utes and Sooners, meanwhile, are enjoying returns to national prominence.

Oh, and there is one double-digit seed in the mix: No. 11 UCLA. It's a small program with minimal history. The scrappy upstart type. It's OK if you haven't heard of it.

The names involved read like a who's who of the past decade -- or the past several -- in college basketball. Kentucky. Duke. North Carolina. Michigan State. Louisville. Arizona. Wisconsin. Gonzaga. UCLA.

The coaches are a pack of Hall of Famers: Mike Krzyzewski, he of the 1,000-plus wins. Roy Williams, now tied with Dean Smith for all-time tournament wins. Rick Pitino, unparallelled defensive genius. Bo Ryan, synonymous with death and taxes.

Mark Few, who never misses a tournament. Lon Kruger, the only man to take four different programs this deep in the tournament. Sean Miller, the best coach yet to reach the Final Four. Bob Huggins, avatar for windbreaker-clad realism.

Izzo, who is Izzo.

And then there is John Calipari. Kentucky's coach is not only a messaging savant whose unprecedented salesmanship has netted him an unfathomable wealth of talent, but also a deft molder of parts into wholes. In five full seasons at Kentucky, Calipari has not only sent several full NBA rosters worth of talent to the next level; he has also netted three Final Fours, two national title appearances and one national title. His current team is 36-0 and chasing history. And everyone else is chasing them.

Can Kentucky be stopped? If there was any 16-team pool from which to choose, this may well be it. In nearly every way -- from the styles and familiarity of the Wildcats' potential opponents to the sheer number of strong teams standing between UK and the national title -- this is a dream Sweet 16. If UK wants immortality, it will have to earn it. Would you want it any other way?

Of course you wouldn't. The first weekend is always a blast, a four-day rush of thrilling basketball and heartwrenching turns. The first weekend always gives us scrappy underdogs rising above their systemic disadvantages, stories begging to be told. The first weekend always creates unforgettable moments, always freezes those moments in time.

But then the Sweet 16 comes, and the real business begins. Rarely has that been truer than in 2014-15. That first weekend gave us Ron Hunter and UAB and a desperate phone call to Jesus, and we'll always be thankful for that.

Now, though, it's time to say goodbye, and get down to the business of crowning a champion. Now, with this heavyweight Sweet 16 locked in, the tournament truly begins.