You won't find this road to Tampa, Florida, in any Rand McNally atlas. No two teams travel it quite the same way.
For No. 1 seeds Connecticut, Maryland, Notre Dame and South Carolina, their roads in the first two rounds were mostly free of traffic, the Terrapins and Fighting Irish forced to tap the brake lights a couple of times in the second round but still on schedule.
For some, such as No. 3 seed Arizona State, the road was a white-knuckle uphill climb through a snowstorm with the check engine light on, while for others, such as third-seeded Iowa, it was a drag race down an empty country highway.
For 11-seed Gonzaga, it was that back route that no one else seems to know.
For No. 7 seed Dayton, a new bypass around congestion.
For No. 2 seed Kentucky and No. 3 seed Oregon State, it was a dead end.
But as those roads converge one more time at the Sweet 16 with seven of the top eight seeds still motoring along toward the Final Four in Florida, where does this year's bracket stand?
One way to get a basic measure of the first week's chaos is to look at the cumulative seeds. If chalk held without exception, the top four seeds in each region advancing to the Sweet 16, the sum of all the seeds would be 40. If it was chalk except for a No. 5 seed beating a No. 4 seed to advance, the cumulative total would be 41 (at the extreme end, if the Nos. 13, 14, 15 and 16 seeds advanced in each region -- and wouldn't that be fun? -- the total would be 232).
It's not very precise, and it doesn't tell the whole story, but it's a reasonable back-of-the-envelope measure.
The bigger the number, the more likely it is that your bracket is in shambles.
Entering this season's tournament, the average total for the Sweet 16 teams this century was 57, although the total most often fell between 58 and 62, including each of the past six years. Add up the remaining seeds after the first two rounds this season and you get 54. Considering this was the first season of a return in format to the top four seeds in each region hosting first- and second-round games, that's about what we could have expected. In fact, had No. 11 seed Arkansas-Little Rock held on against No. 3 seed Arizona State on Monday night instead of surrendering the lead in the final minute and losing 57-54 in Tempe, Arizona, the total would have tied the second-largest since 2000.
Instead, with No. 11 Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 for the fourth time since 2010 (more often in that span than Georgia, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Penn State or Purdue, to name a few), and No. 7 Dayton here for the first time, the first two rounds offered at least our minimum annual allowance of surprise and further evidence of the game's growth.
And if the presence of those mid-majors in the Sweet 16 is good for the sport, so, too, is the presence of 13 female coaches, running the gamut from past champions Brenda Frese, Muffet McGraw, Kim Mulkey and Tara Vanderveer to Gonzaga's first-year head coach Lisa Fortier, who is so young that South Carolina's Dawn Staley, no old soldier, was already well into her head-coaching career when Fortier finished playing college basketball in 2004.
A closer look at each region:
No. 1 Connecticut vs. No. 5 Texas, No. 3 Louisville vs. No. 7 Dayton
It seems we're contractually obligated to end up with a final between Connecticut and Louisville every couple of years, albeit a potential regional final in this case for the former Big East and (briefly) American Athletic Conference rivals who twice played for the national championship in recent years. The Cardinals have missed this round just twice since 2008 under Jeff Walz and earned their way here by literally going on the road to Tampa, the lone top-four seed that couldn't host the first two rounds because of scheduling conflicts. But don't count out Dayton, which upset Kentucky despite playing the final eight minutes without Andrea Hoover, its best player, because of foul trouble.
Texas won't subscribe to the theory, and woe to he or she who suggests otherwise to Longhorns coach Karen Aston, but this looks like a team that succeeded just by advancing to the second weekend after a season-ending injury to senior star Nneka Enemkpai amid myriad other injuries across the roster. With basically everyone who will be on the court in Albany, New York, set to return next season, this is in all probability advance work for 2015-16 for the Longhorns.
Oh, and Connecticut, you ask? We'll get back to you when someone gets within 30 points of the defending champion.
No. 1 South Carolina vs. No. 4 North Carolina, No. 2 Florida State vs. No. 3 Arizona State
One of these teams is going to the Final Four, and unless it's North Carolina, which has been there a bunch, that's kind of big news. There is nothing surprising about seeing this quartet make it to Greensboro, North Carolina, although Arizona State and North Carolina had to sweat in earning second-round wins in the final minute of their respective games, but when it comes to the historical perspective, the top three seeds are 0-for-12 in making it out of regionals.
Geography aside, South Carolina versus North Carolina is about some score settling. The Tar Heels beat the Gamecocks twice a season ago, including in this round in the NCAA tournament. That means the team from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is responsible for more than a quarter of South Carolina's losses the past two seasons. The two didn't play in the regular season this time around, so the memories of last March had plenty of time to fester.
The most interesting thing about the game between Florida State and Arizona State is that, despite the seeds, neither team was ranked when the season began. Arizona State is the only Sweet 16 team that didn't even receive a vote in the preseason AP Top 25, while Florida State received fewer votes than unranked Gonzaga and the 13 teams still alive that were ranked in that poll. Also of note: Neither team has a player averaging more than 12.3 points per game.
No. 1 Notre Dame vs. No. 4 Stanford, No. 2 Baylor vs. No. 3 Iowa
It's the only region in which all four programs have been to a Final Four, although Iowa is sort of the odd one out there with its solitary trip back when C. Vivian Stringer was in Iowa City. The other three teams have been regular visitors to the Final Four over the past decade, but at least two of them are going to have to do without this year.
The game a lot of people will hope to see is Baylor and Notre Dame, a rematch of last season's regional final in South Bend, Indiana, in which Baylor coach Kim Mulkey was none too pleased about some of the calls (then again, that might be most games) and in which Notre Dame remained unbeaten but lost Natalie Achonwa for the remainder of the postseason. Any chance to see first-team All-Americans Jewell Loyd and Nina Davis on the same court would be a good thing. But don't discount Iowa, which could offer the potential for a first-to-90-wins game should it meet the Fighting Irish with NCAA triple-double leader Sam Logic playing in the building usually home to Russell Westbrook.
The wild card in the quartet is Stanford, which this month alone lost to Oregon, won the Pac-12 tournament, struggled at home in the first round against Cal State Northridge and scored 85 points in a second-round win against Oklahoma, its best production in regulation since beating hapless UC Santa Barbara nearly three months ago. And, of course, Stanford pulled its ultimate Jekyll (or would that be Hyde?) when it beat Connecticut early this season.
No. 1 Maryland vs. No. 4 Duke, No. 2 Tennessee vs. No. 11 Gonzaga
A rematch of the 2006 national championship game, not to mention countless intriguing ACC encounters, and the quintessential David versus Goliath encounter, with the twist of playing on David's turf. What more could you want?
History aside, Duke enters wounded, fortunate to escape Albany in the first round and lacking the guards to deal with Maryland's Lexie Brown, Laurin Mincy and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, especially if they shoot anything like they did in the second round against Princeton. At least the Blue Devils still have size, and freshman Azura Stevens will be a matchup problem for the Terrapins and every other team for the three seasons that follow this one.
Gonzaga is the only double-digit seed to ever reach a regional final, and it did that in Spokane, Washington, where it owns five NCAA tournament wins in the past decade. This game won't be on its home court, but home-court advantage still applies. And with Tennessee missing Isabelle Harrison because of injury, Gonzaga finds itself on at least equal footing, if not an advantage, in size on the Lady Vols. The Bulldogs are big on the blocks with 6-foot-5 Emma Wolfram coming off a particularly good first two rounds, and on the wings. The Lady Vols proved impressively resilient after losing Harrison, but impressive play from Bashaara Graves in the first two rounds didn't make for entirely convincing team wins.