"Survive and advance."
Several coaches have jubilantly exclaimed the standard rallying cry while exhaling after a first- or second-round win in the NCAA tournament.
And for the 16 teams remaining, that's exactly what they've done — survive and advance to the second weekend. Which teams will do the same on Thursday and Friday?
There are plenty of story lines behind the remaining survivors. Here's a look at the most pertinent questions.
1. Can underachieving teams hit stride and knock off No. 1 seeds?
Maryland and Iowa State were among the teams projected in November to be Final Four contenders based on talent and returning pieces on their respective rosters. Each has shown flashes of its capability, but neither has fully blossomed. Reaching the Sweet 16 is no easy feat, but the Terrapins and Cyclones had two of the easiest paths needing only to knock of No. 12 and No. 13 seeds to advance. Just because they're in the Sweet 16 does not mean they've reached their potential. Their next matchups — against No. 1 seeds — will allow them the opportunity to do so.
► Can Maryland stun top-seeded Kansas? Probably not ... at least that's the knee-jerk reaction. The more important story line here is whether the Terrapins can beat a top-tier team — which they haven't done all season. Mark Turgeon's team plays fantastic defense, but the offense hasn't fully clicked despite the great starting lineup (on paper). The Terps beat Hawaii on 1-for-18 shooting from beyond the arc. That won't cut it against the Jayhawks. Most of Maryland's wins have featured one player having a standout performance. To beat Kansas, the whole lineup needs to be firing on all cylinders.
► Can Iowa State beat Virginia? It's very possible. The Cyclones have signature wins against Kansas and Oklahoma and shoot extremely well at 50.3%. They also feature two of the best players in the tournament in versatile forward Georges Niang and underrated point guard Monte Morris. Virginia is the best defensive team left in the tournament — allowing 59.5 points a game — but if its offense runs dry, Iowa State can take control. The Cyclones' underachievement is largely a product of the treacherous. Steve Prohm's team looks much more like a No. 2 seed right now, but it might need to play like a No. 1 to knock off the grind-it-out Cavaliers, especially if ACC Player of the Year Malcolm Brogdon is producing.
2. Will remaining No. 2 seeds play like No. 2 seeds?
Michigan State and Xavier are gone, leaving Oklahoma and Villanova. Both teams were in the running for No. 1 seeds for much of February and March and are very capable of cutting down the nets in April. But they have left room for doubt. Villanova, which reached the second weekend for the first time since 2009, has crushed its first two opponents by an average of 24.5 points.
But things get much tougher against Miami (Fla.) on Thursday. Villanova has great guard play with veteran Ryan Arcidiacono and Josh Hart, but the Wildcats have at times struggled against top-notch guards (losing to Oklahoma by 23 points in December). Freshman Jalen Brunson, who went scoreless in the Big East tournament championship loss to Seton Hall, will need to perform against the Hurricanes' dynamic backcourt of Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan; the duo outplayed Wichita State All-Americans Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker in the round of 32.
The Sooners, meanwhile, have been led by electric scorer Buddy Hield, who had 27 points against Cal State Bakersfield and 36 against VCU. If Hield keeps scoring in high volume, it's tough to see Oklahoma losing. But what if he's not on his A-game? When Oklahoma doesn't shoot the ball well as a team, they're vulnerable. In regular-season to Kansas State and Texas Tech, the Sooners shot below 28% from the field.
3. How far will the double-digit seed winner go?
No. 10 seed Syracuse was a bubble team that many believed was undeserving of an NCAA bid. And had No. 11 Gonzaga not won the West Coast Conference tournament title, it would be playing in the NIT. The Orange and the 'Zags are also the only double-digit seeds remaining, meaning only one advances past Friday.
Both of these teams are in a similar situation as Michigan State last year. The Spartans were a No. 7 seed that peaked and outplayed better seeds because the talent was there all along and the chemistry finally was perfect. For Syracuse, freshman Malachi Richardson (21 points against Dayton) and senior Michael Gbinije (23 against Middle Tennessee) have been the keys. Jim Boeheim will need a similar spark to get to the Elite Eight.
Gonzaga is the only mid-major remaining, but no one considers Mark Few's program a Cinderella anymore. This team looks much more like a No. 3 or a No. 4 seed because of a frontcourt of Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer that will be tough for any team to stop. The Bulldogs have had perhaps the toughest path to the Sweet 16 — facing red-hot Seton Hall and No. 4 Utah — and both of those games weren't close. The Final Four team Gonzaga was expected to be in the preseason has arrived in full force.
4. When will the defending champ fall?
“Our house is on a cliff, and we hope it doesn't rain,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after his team's second-round win against Yale, referring to the Blue Devils' depleted lineup. “That's who we've been."
Duke is perhaps the hardest team to figure out in all of the Sweet 16. The Blue Devils beat Virginia and North Carolina this season despite the lack of depth. That also has cost the Blue Devils, mainly in an ACC tournament loss to Notre Dame on the second night of back-to-back games. Oregon has a tendency to wear opponents down under coach Dana Altman's highly efficient system.
Duke won a national title with an eight-man roster last season, but it needed that eighth man to do it. That guy, Grayson Allen, is the No. 1 man now. Allen has been phenomenal all season. He's averaging 21.8 points, scoring from inside and out. But can Duke win with a 6½-man roster? Marshall Plumlee has carried the load inside in Amile Jefferson's absence, but what if he gets into foul trouble? What if any starter gets in foul trouble? The what Ifs make Duke an uneasy pick to repeat.
5. Big Ten or ACC in East?
The East Region has the feel of a ACC/Big Ten Challenge: North Carolina meets Indiana, and Notre Dame faces Wisconsin in Philadelphia. North Carolina has the most talent and experience of any team in the tournament, but Indiana has the best win of the tournament (topping Kentucky in the second round). The Hoosiers are playing with a grit typical of many darkhorse teams, and North Carolina has at times been complacent and lackadaisical this season.
Neither Notre Dame nor Wisconsin were expected to be here, but they're playing at an elite level and riding the high of buzzer-beating victories. The point guard duel between Bronson Koenig of the Badgers and the Demetrius Jackson of the Fighting Irish should be one of the best individual matchups of the tournament.