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NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16 Showdowns Set To Begin

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

March Madness is back after a few days off. The Sweet 16 starts tonight with four games in the NCAA Men's Division I basketball tournament. And tomorrow the women start their round of 16. NPR's Tom Goldman is with us now to talk about this. Hello.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hello, Kelly.

MCEVERS: All right, so let's start with the men. We're down to the final 16 teams.

GOLDMAN: Yes.

MCEVERS: Is there a clear favorite?

GOLDMAN: Kelly, there is not, and that's what makes this exciting. You have three No. 1 seeds left. Kansas, by virtue of a 20-point win in its last game, appears to be the strongest of the bunch, but the Jayhawks play a good, big Purdue team tonight. And when I say big, I mean it. Purdue has 6-9 Caleb Swanigan. He's a finalist for the national player of the year. Add to that 7-foot-2 center Isaac Haas, and that is a lot for the talented Kansas players to get around and over.

But it is such a competitive tournament. It's not far-fetched to think that Wisconsin could win it all or Baylor or UCLA or - stop me before I name all 16 teams.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

GOLDMAN: Some (laughter) obviously have a better chance, but it is pretty wide open.

MCEVERS: Well, there's got to be some interesting underdogs in all this. I know the one you want to talk about is Michigan.

GOLDMAN: Sure. Michigan has a rather interesting story that many people have heard about. A couple of weeks ago on their way to the Big Ten tournament in Washington, D.C., their airplane aborted a takeoff and skidded off the runway in Michigan. Everyone on the team was fine. One of the players had a few stitches in his knee.

But since that incident, Michigan swept its four games on the way to the Big Ten tournament title, and Michigan has won two games in this tournament. Now the popular assumption is that the accident was this catalyst that brought the team together...

MCEVERS: Oh.

GOLDMAN: ...Made them unbeatable. In fact, you know, after a not-so-great regular season, Michigan started rolling at the end. They won six of their final eight regular season games. And really the team has built on that momentum.

I asked Kevin Santo - he covers the team for the school newspaper. I asked him about the impact of the plane accident, and he said, if anything, it's made them a tighter group. But they already were pretty tight-knit, and they were winning when the incident happened. Tonight Michigan plays Oregon, and it really is a toss-up who's going to win that game.

MCEVERS: Let's talk about the women now. Of course there is UConn...

GOLDMAN: Yes.

MCEVERS: ...Which hasn't lost a game since 2014.

GOLDMAN: Yeah.

MCEVERS: Does it hurt the tournament when it seems everyone else is playing for second place?

GOLDMAN: (Laughter) Well-put. Some say it does, but for those who watch the women's tournament closely, there is no shortage of excitement and a lot of it in the Pacific Northwest. You've got both Oregon and Oregon State in the Sweet 16. Oregon State is not a surprise. Oregon State got to the Final Four last season.

But Oregon is a surprise. The Ducks upset Duke to get to the Sweet 16. They have a bunch of freshmen who are playing great. And then you've got the sublime Kelsey Plum from Washington. She's the nation's top scorer. We will see if Mississippi State can slow her down in a Sweet 16 game tomorrow night.

MCEVERS: Is there any chance that any team could beat UConn this year?

GOLDMAN: There's always a chance of anything happening I suppose.

MCEVERS: Yeah.

GOLDMAN: There are a few teams that could. One of them - a No. 1 seed Notre Dame, though, is dealing with the loss of its best player. Top scorer and rebounder Brianna Turner is out of the tournament after a knee injury she suffered in Notre Dame's last game. It's devastating for her and the team. We'll see how they do without her.

But even if Notre Dame can push through this adversity, get to the Final Four and even the title game, they would most likely face Connecticut, which, by the way, has won its first two games of this tournament by an average of 45-and-a-half points.

MCEVERS: Wow. That's NPR's sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Thank you very much.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome, Kelly.

(SOUNDBITE OF GORDON JAMES SONG, "CARAVAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.