INDYCAR’s Sweet 16 Shares Traits with NCAA Hoop Standouts

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The NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament rolls to its Sweet 16 round this weekend in Indianapolis, and the NTT INDYCAR SERIES wants to play along in an effort to find the best matchups.

What follows is purely for fun, and it should be received that way. INDYCAR.com aligned the teams still competing for the national championship with the NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver set to begin the season Sunday, April 18 with the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst at Barber Motorsports Park.

Let’s jump it up between team and driver.

No. 1 SEEDS

Gonzaga: This has long been considered the team to beat since the season began, and in our INDYCAR world, the favorite will be reigning series champion Scott Dixon. Yes, Dixon has six more season titles than the annually strong Zags, but Gonzaga and Chip Ganassi Racing’s lead driver are No. 1 until proven otherwise.

Baylor: Scott Drew’s Bears have earned the right to be on the tournament’s top seed line despite never winning a season title. The same is true for Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi, the 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner presented by Gainbridge who has twice finished in the top three of the season standings.

Michigan: Like the Wolverines, Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud is a one-time season champion with talented teammates and a deep roster. Juwan Howard’s team is good enough to win it all; so is Pagenaud’s.

No. 2 SEEDS

Alabama: The Crimson Tide play fast – they scored 96 points in Monday’s rout of Maryland -- and are poised for a spot in the Elite Eight, maybe even the Final Four. Sound familiar? That bears a strong resemblance to Team Penske’s Will Power, whose 62 career poles ranks No. 2 in the history of the sport. Power is similarly a good bet to finish in the top four of this INDYCAR season.

Houston: In the Phi Slama Jama days of the 1980s, Houston was as good as any team in the nation, but it never won an NCAA tournament despite two runner-up finishes. INDYCAR has a driver with a similar background. Helio Castroneves, who now drives for Meyer Shank Racing, has won 30 races, 50 poles and has finished second in the championship four times without capturing the crown. Can Houston and/or Castroneves win this year’s Big One? Yes.

No. 3 SEED

Arkansas: Coach Eric Musselman’s team used late-game playmaking Sunday at Hinkle Fieldhouse to beat Texas Tech, 68-66. Takuma Sato of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing used similar late heroics in last year’s Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge to hold off Scott Dixon.

No. 4 SEED

Florida State: The Seminoles had a terrific season last year, although they didn’t get the chance to compete for the tournament crown amid the start of the pandemic. Again this year, this is a young team to be reckoned with. Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta fits both categories in INDYCAR (third in last year’s standings and 20 years old until Tuesday).

No. 5 SEEDS

Villanova: Like Jay Wright’s Wildcats, Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden has two recent INDYCAR championships and looms as the powerhouse still overshadowed by others. But make no mistake: The perennial Big East champion and Newgarden are solidly in the hunt for 2021 titles.

Creighton: The Bluejays are one of the NCAA tournament’s most exciting teams, with deep-shooting guards Marcus Zegarowski and Mitch Ballock. Arrow McLaren SP’s Pato O’Ward is similarly small in stature but getting larger by the season in INDYCAR, and he could take down the giants of his sport as Creighton could Gonzaga on Sunday.

No. 6 SEED

USC: Graham Rahal, a noted Ohio State fan, might not prefer to be linked with another college football blueblood, but both the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver and those Trojans from SoCal compete well above their respective seed.

No. 7 SEED

Oregon: Like Oregon, Tony Kanaan is a one-time season champion – the Ducks in the first NCAA tournament (1939), the Brazilian in 2004. Both have worn a lot of green and are competitive in all seasons.

No. 8 SEED

Loyola (Chicago): The Ramblers have the characteristics of Sebastien Bourdais: former national champions who don’t get the credit they deserve. Also, both win a lot with less. Bourdais’ past six INDYCAR wins have come with smaller teams. He will drive for AJ Foyt Racing this season.

No. 11 SEEDS

UCLA: The Bruins won seven consecutive NCAA tournaments under John Wooden (1967-73), and Jimmie Johnson won five consecutive NASCAR Cup Series championships for Hendrick Motorsports (2006-10). Both have Alabama on their minds. UCLA faces the Crimson Tide on Sunday; Johnson’s first INDYCAR race will be the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama on April 18 at Barber Motorsports Park, a road course in Birmingham.

Syracuse: Like the Orangemen, Ryan Hunter-Reay is an annual threat to win the championship and in one case won it. Coach Jim Boeheim’s team captured the NCAA tournament in 2003; Hunter-Reay gave Andretti Autosport another INDYCAR title in 2012.

No. 12 SEED

Oregon State: The Beavers are one of the surprises of the Sweet Sixteen. Ed Carpenter Racing’s Rinus VeeKay might be the surprise of the INDYCAR SERIES season, a possible first-time race winner.

No. 15 SEED

Oral Roberts: Like the Eagles – only the second 15 seed to reach the Sweet Sixteen -- people might soon be asking, “Where did Scott McLaughlin come from?” (The answer to the latter: the Australian V8 Supercars series, which Team Penske’s newest INDYCAR SERIES driver won each of the past three years. ORU plays in the Summit League, which most U.S. sports fans similarly don’t follow.)

From the fans