Sweet Sixteen At A Glance
Ah the NCAA Tournament. Some days, everything goes the way you expect (like Thursday and Saturday). And other days, it all just goes to hell (Friday and Sunday). Chances are, if you were inclined to pick an upset in your bracket, you didn't pick Norfolk State or Lehigh (unless you really really really hate Duke, which considering the audience I'm writing for here, is entirely possible). Before Friday, only 4 15-seeds had toppled a #2 seed since the NCAA Tournament went to a 64-team format. The last two of those, Coppin State and Hampton, were from the MEAC. Norfolk State became the 3rd MEAC team in a row to pull the feat. Then a few hours later a small team from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in the Patriot League (from where Bucknell toppled Kansas a few years back), dropped the biggest upset the tournament had seen in...hours.
Over the next four days, the tournament will whittle down from 16 to 4. Here's a look at the upcoming weekend of basketball.
1. Kentucky vs 4. Indiana
Kentucky has only lost twice this year, and one of those was to the Hoosiers. However, these are two very different teams than the ones that met back in December. Indiana is without senior guard Verdell Jones and Kentucky is, well, still Kentucky. Anthony Davis is a dominant presence inside and their slate of guards is capable of burying any team at any time. Iowa State tied the game with 16 minutes to go, then Kentucky went on a 19-2 run over the next 6 minutes. Indiana won the first matchup on a buzzer-beater, and we can only hope the game stays this close, but my gut tells me that Kentucky will be out for revenge and it's going to take a monster shooting effort from Indiana to keep this one close.
3. Baylor vs 10. Xavier
Tu Holloway said before the season he was going to lead Xavier to the Final 4. Then "The Fight" happened. Now, Xavier is in the Sweet 16 against a very good Baylor team that a lot of people may have forgotten about. If you haven't seen Baylor play this postseason, bring a pair of sunglasses because it looks like they are sponsored by Hi-Lighters. Baylor is a talented squad that should be able to handle Xavier inside and out, as long as they don't get into foul trouble. Baylor has the athleticism to give Kentucky some problems in the Elite 8 as well.
1. Michigan State vs 4. Louisville
Two of the most venerable coaches in college basketball - Tom Izzo and Rick Pitino square off in a battle of two teams that mostly over-achieved this year. Sparty is playing as hot as anyone right now, and Draymond Green is making his case for Most Outstanding Player of the tournament. Louisville has been inconsistent all year, but will come out trying to press and relying on fast break points. Point Guard Peyton Siva is a slicer who can distribute the rock, but is also prone to turnovers in the half court offense. Louisville is at their best when they press, create turnovers, and can get out and run. They are not good in the half court. Michigan State is much better in the half court, and that should give them a slight edge here, assuming they can break the press.
3. Marquette vs 7. Florida
Live by the three, die by the three. You hear it all the time, but for no team is that more true than Florida. They are capable of lighting it up, as they showed against Norfolk State when they dropped 84, connecting on 10 3-pointers. Florida's defense has looked stout so far in the tournament, holding Virginia to 45 and Norfolk State to 50. However, they haven't faced anyone as good as Marquette in the dance thus far. Marquette is stacked with talent around the floor from the front court where Forward Jay Crowder averages 17.6 points and 8.4 rebounds to the back court where Darius Johnson-Odom leads the team in 3-point shooting at 39% and averages 18 points per game.
1. Syracuse vs 4. Wisconsin
Even though the games on Thursday went pretty much according-to-chalk, Syracuse got the biggest scare from 16-seed UNC-Asheville. The crowd in Pittsburgh was up in arms over the officiating that essentially gifted Syracuse extra free throws and an extra possession. The crowd responded by booing every time the Syracuse score was announced the rest of the day Thursday. Cuse looked better against Kansas State, finally finding some rhythm on offense. Wisconsin edged out SEC Champion Vanderbilt to reach the Sweet 16. The Badgers are a solid all-around team that isn't going to run anyone out of the building but has been involved in a TON of close games this year, which should give them the tenacity to hang tough with the Orange and make this an entertaining game.
2. Ohio State vs 6. Cincinnati
Deshaun Thomas' 49 points over two games led the Buckeyes to the Sweet 16. He dropped 31 on Loyola (MD) in the first round then followed it up with 18 against Gonzaga. The Buckeyes got a battle from the Zags but thanks to a big-time performance from Aaron Craft putting the ball on the floor and taking some guys off the bounce, were able to move on. Cincinnati upset a Florida State team that many thought was Final Four-bound to reach the Sweet 16. The Bearcats are an athletic team that should give the Buckeyes a battle, but at the end of the day Ohio State is a better team that is capable of winning even if Jared Sullinger gets in foul trouble.
1. North Carolina vs 13. Ohio
This might be the most anticipated of the Sweet 16 matchups. The big storyline is Carolina PG Kendall Marshall, who fractured a bone in his wrist against Creighton. At this point, it's not likely that Marshall will play, which is a huge blow to Carolina. However, the Tar Heels have 3 other NBA-caliber players in their lineup - Tyler Zeller, John Henson, and Harrison Barnes - that will have to step up and lead the team. Expect to see a lot more half-court sets and a lot less run-the-court breakouts from Carolina as they try to make due at the point guard position until Marshall returns. Ohio is the surprise of the tournament - the MAC champs knocked off Michigan and South Florida (two power conference schools) to reach the Sweet 16. Not bad for a team that didn't even win their league. The Bobcats have been hot from the outside, and will need a stellar shooting performance and to create turnovers to be able to stay with the Tar Heels.
2. Kansas vs 11. North Carolina State
After the way the ACC Semi-Final ended with NC State getting jobbed by the refs, you know the Wolfpack want another shot at the Tar Heels. Standing in their way is the Kansas Jayhawks, who narrowly avoided an upset against Purdue. The Jayhawks are lead by Player of the Year candidate and NBA lottery pick Thomas Robinson, who is a dominant force on the inside. The determining factor in this game will be Kansas point guard Tyshawn Taylor. The Jayhawks can go as far as Taylor can carry them.