Sweet 16 Guide: Preview & Predictions
Welcome back everyone! After a couple days hiatus, the NCAA basketball tournament is back in action later today! This coming weekend we will see the field whittled down to just the Final Four. The opening weekend of the tournament was as exciting as ever, however, if the Sweet Sixteen seems a bit "chalkish", that's because, well, it is. The complete left side of the bracket consists of the top 4 seeds in each region (Duke, Michigan State, LSU, & Virginia Tech in the East; Gonzaga, Michigan, Texas Tech, & Florida State in the West). In fact, there are only two teams seeded outside the top 16 that made it out of the opening weekend - 5-seed Auburn & 12-seed Oregon. Now it gets very real, as each of the remaining squads has a real chance of cutting down the nets. Before tomorrow's games tip-off, I've got you covered, with a complete Sweet Sixteen preview & predictions. Let's get to it!
We start in the East Region, where the top-seeded Duke Blue Devils were mighty lucky in their 1-point victory over Central Florida on Sunday. It took another massive game out of Zion Williamson, foul trouble for UCF's Tacko Fall (even though he still made a huge impact on the game in his 25 minutes), and an offensive-rebound put-back for the Dukies to snag a 1-point victory. Oh yea, and they had the fortune of UCF's last-gasp put-back to win it at the buzzer go in and out - literally. Anywho, so are the fortunes of the NCAA tournament, you just have to survive & advance.
1 DUKE vs 4 VIRGINIA TECH
Duke: Defeated (16) North Dakota State W 85-62; (9) UCF W 77-76
Virginia Tech: Defeated (13) Saint Louis W 66-52; (12) Liberty W 67-58
The Hokies were able to get past a pair of double-digit seeds to punch their ticket to the Sweet 16. Obviously, the path gets much more difficult with a showdown with top-seeded Duke up next on Friday night. VT did defeat the Dukies once during the season, a 77-72 home victory with Williamson out. Tech is on an 8-3 stretch currently, and of course are plenty battle-tested themselves. They are playing solid defense, and have been very efficient on the offensive end. This should be a terrific matchup between a pair of the ACC's best. The question now is, can Virginia Tech knock off the Blue Devils again, but this time with Williamson in the lineup?
Look for a close game between these two. I don't see this game ballooning in one direction or the other. I expect a 4-6 point game, with this one going right down to the end just like Duke's round of 32 victory over Central Florida. While I believe Virginia Tech is fully capable of pulling off the win and advancing to the Elite Eight, I see Duke pulling out a close affair right at the end once again.
2 MICHIGAN STATE vs 3 LSU
Michigan State: Defeated (15) Bradley W 76-65; (10) Minnesota W 70-50
LSU: Defeated (14) Yale W 79-74; (6) Maryland W 69-67
The Spartans struggles against Bradley in their opening game were well-documented. Especially the ridiculous antics of head coach Tom Izzo. Izzo of course, is a legendary coach, who has been extremely successful throughout his career, and has enjoyed many deep runs into March Madness. It appeared as though he was going to completely lose it as he had to be restrained from one of his players on multiple occasions. Sparty's second game against fellow Big TEN foe Minnesota, was a much more relaxed affair as MSU raced out to a 20-point lead in the first 8 minutes of the game and never looked back.
LSU, meanwhile enjoyed large leads in both of their opening games, only to have opponents come roaring back in the second half. The Tigers squeaked out both victories, including the 2-point victory over Maryland on Saturday. It took a contested layup through traffic with 1.6 seconds left for LSU to pull-that one out after blowing a 15-point second half lead. Both of the these teams have had their scares already in this tournament, making this an intriguing matchup.
LSU has looked very, very good in the first half of their last 3 games now. The problem in all three of those games? They blew those big first half leads. They managed to win the last two, unlike the loss to Florida in the SEC tournament, but Michigan State will be a much tougher opponent. I don't envision the Tigers racing out to a double-digit lead on Izzo and co., so it will be interesting to see how this one unfolds. LSU is extremely athletic & talented, but you have to like the Spartans down the stretch if this is a close game, which I believe it will be. Look for a good one, with a bit of a back and forth in the first half, with MSU pulling away in the final 3-4 minutes of regulation.
1 VIRGINIA vs 12 OREGON
Virginia: Defeated (16) Gardner-Webb W 71-56; (9) Oklahoma W 63-51
Oregon: Defeated (5) Wisconsin W 72-54; (13) UC-Irvine W 73-54
The Cavaliers got off to another less-than-desirable start when they trailed 16-seed Gardner-Webb by double-digits early in their opening round game. Flashbacks of last year's shocking loss to UMBC must have been replaying in the minds of the Cavaliers & head coach Tony Bennett. UVA got a big three right before the halftime intermission to cut it to 6 and then went on a complete tear to start the second half and pull away for a rather comfortable 15-point win. Their second round game against Oklahoma was far-less dramatic as they pretty much cruised throughout that one. They held Gardner-Webb to just 20 points in the second half of their opening game, and held the Sooners to under 30 points in each half of their second round game. That is Virginia basketball at its best and more of what we expect to see out of the Cavaliers.
Meanwhile, the Oregon Ducks came into the tournament on a tear, but that didn't necessarily translate to many thinking the Ducks could make a run in the big dance. It is one thing to make a run through the Pac-12 tournament, which was viewed as having a horrendously down year, and actually was in danger of only landing 1 team in the field. Alas, Dana Altman's group broke through, and after winning 8 straight to get in, have kept that winning streak going. They were in a tight game with Wisconsin, before the Badgers went on a scoring drought late that allowed the Ducks to pull-away down the stretch. They nearly defeated UC-Irvine by an identical margin. That game was very similar in the fact that it took another late charge for Oregon to pull-away for the win. They actually trailed UC-Irvine early in the second half of that one.
Oregon has been able to dominate the last 10 minutes of their last four or five games now. That trend will be much more difficult to continue against the Cavaliers. Virginia plays better defense, takes better care of the ball, and limits tempo, which are all factors that will make it nearly impossible for the Ducks to dominate the closing ten minutes of this game. Tony Bennett's squad appears to be back to playing Virginia basketball, and they are extremely difficult to beat when they are not beating themselves. Oregon has plenty of confidence & momentum, which will make this an entreating game, but I believe Virginia grinds out a close one and wins by 4-6 points.
2 TENNESSEE vs 3 PURDUE
Tennessee: Defeated (15) Colgate W 77-70; (10) Iowa 83-77
Purdue: Defeated (14) Old Dominion W 61-48; (6) Villanova W 87-61
Staying in the South region, we have another 2 vs 3 matchup on tap for Friday. The Volunteers got a bit of a test from Colgate, but were able to pull-out that first round upset bid and grind out a 7-point victory. Their second round game with Iowa was much more all-over-place as the Vols jumped all over the Hawkeyes. They completed dominated Iowa, leading by over 20 points for much of the first half, while taking a 21-point lead into the locker-room. Iowa came out and unexpectedly dominated the second half, completely erasing the 20+ point deficit in the process, and actually forcing overtime. It was an impressive second half effort from the Hawkeyes, but in overtime, the Vols seemed to resort back to how they started the game, and took care of business for the 6-point win.
The Boilermakers on the other hand, had a little bit more of an easy go of it over their first two games. They jumped out early on Old Dominion, held-off a second half rally attempt, and were never really threatened in their opening game. Their second round game against Villanova offered plenty of surprise, mainly for how easy they blewout the defending Champs. Jay Wright's bunch came into the tournament playing some of the best ball in the country, and after they struggled with Saint Mary's a bit in their opening game, many figured this would be a heck of a battle. Carson Edwards went completely off and scored 42 points in the romp. For some reason, that pounding of a very quality Villanova squad is being a bit overlooked.
This may be one of the toughest matchups to try and call out of the Sweet Sixteen round. You have to like what both teams did to get to this point. Tennessee looked unbeatable at times, and then lost at times. Purdue looked vulnerable at times in their opener and then completely dominant against the Wildcats. This should be more of a tightly contested matchup. Purdue of course, can't count on Edwards to score 40+ points again, but if he does, this things is a wrap. That being said, I believe Tennessee has the edge in athleticism, but both teams are solid defensively. Whoever does the better job of taking care of the ball will have a big advantage in this one. This game could provide a few 8-10 point leads for both sides, I think this game will have more scoring runs, etc. I'm leaning toward Tennessee pulling out a 2-4 point victory, but don't sleep on Purdue - the Big TEN has enjoyed great success to this point in the tournament, can the conference keep it going now?
1 NORTH CAROLINA vs 5 AUBURN
UNC: Defeated (16) Iona W 88-73; (9) Washington W 81-59
Auburn: Defeated (12) New Mexico State W 78-77; (4) Kansas W 89-75
The Tar Heels had a relatively easy time with both of their opponents. The Huskies figured to be an interesting second round matchup after winning the Pac 12 regular season title with ease. That didn't happen though as Washington fell behind big early and never threatened the Tar Heels in an easy second round victory. Roy Williams' squad once again has their eyes on a run to the Championship game, and if they play like they did in their first two games, they very well might be there again.
Auburn, on the other hand had a bit more of adventure to get to this point. The Tigers were up big on the Aggies in their opening game, only to see New Mexico State come roaring back in the closing minutes. NMST even had a chance to win it at the end, but a corner three was off the mark, as the Tigers struggled mightily to put the game away in the closing moments. After surviving that one, they got a banged up Kansas squad in their second game. The Jayhawks were a popular pick to get upset heading into the tournament, but ended up thrashing Northeastern with ease. Auburn ended up running all over Bill Self's group, and the Jayhawks just didn't have the firepower to keep up. The dominate victory has Bruce Pearl's bunch looking both motivated & hungry to keep this run going.
While all three of Roy Williams' National Championships have come with the Tar Heels being a 1-seed, just like they are now, I don't believe this year's team will become his fourth National Title winner. Their first two matchups did nothing to prepare them for the high-flying Auburn squad, and the Tigers are playing their best basketball of the season. Now plenty battle-tested, Auburn is fully capable of giving the Tar Heels all they can handle and some. I believe Auburn has the talent, experience, and ability to knock off UNC and send make the Tar Heels the first 1-seed to go home in this year's tournament. Also, keep this tidbit in mind: since the field expanded to 64 in 1985, there was NEVER once been an Elite 8 that consisted of (4) #1 seeds & (4) #2 seeds. At least one (1)-seed & one (2)-seed are going down in this round, but which ones?
2 KENTUCKY vs 3 HOUSTON
Kentucky: Defeated (15) Abilene Christian W 79-44; (7) Wofford W 62-56
Houston: Defeated (14) Georgia State W 84-55; (11) Ohio State W 74-59
John Calipari's youngsters have continued to show rapid improvement as the season's progressed and are knocking on the door of another Final Four appearance. Of course the big question mark is P.J. Washington and whether or not he will be able to go come Friday. Kentucky had no problem getting past Abilene Christian without him in their opening game, but found the sledding much tougher against Wofford on Sunday. They grinded one against the Terriers, but UK won't want to count on Houston's talented backcourt going 0-for, which is exactly what happened to Wofford's three point specialist Fletcher Magee as he went 0-12 from long range against Kentucky. Imagine if he just hit 25% from 3-point range, Wofford would have won the game.
Houston had a much easier go of it all-the-way around as they blew past Georgia State and then dispatched the over-achieving Buckeyes by a comfortable 15-points. This is a team that feels as though they have unfinished business from last year and are on a mission to go all-the-way to the final 4. They lost last year on a buzzer-beater by Michigan and are looking to cut the nets down when it's all done. Their talented backcourt can score the ball with the best of em'.
I'm going all "underdogs" and picking Houston to move on. As much as Calipari and Washington like to kid and insist that he's day-to-day even though he's in a walking boot, I'm not buying it. Washington will most likely be out and Kentucky won't quite have enough fire-power to keep up with Houston. Cougars by 6-8 points in this one...
1 GONZAGA vs 4 FLORIDA STATE
Gonzaga: Defeated: (16) Farleigh Dickinson W 87-49; (9) Baylor W 83-71
Florida State: Defeated: (13) Vermont W 76-69; (12) Murray State W 90-62
After demolishing poor FDU to open things up, the Zags got a little more of a test from Baylor, but still nothing to really fret about. The top seed in the West has looked very good to this point, but the Seminoles will be a completely different beast all-together. Mark Few's boys have now made it five consecutive Sweet 16s, but now they want the one thing that has eluded them - the ultimate prize - to be cutting down the nets as National Champs when it's all said & done.
Florida State will make that goal very difficult however. The team that knocked Gonzaga out of last year's tournament now awaits the Bulldogs again. The Seminoles will once again be a difficult opponent as Leonard Hamilton has an array of weapons at his disposal. FSU is deep, and they can getting scoring from a variety of players on any given night making them very difficult to prepare for & matchup against. FSU has been on an absolute tear as well. They lost in the ACC title game to Duke, but even including that loss, they are a sparkling 16-2 overall in their past 18 games.
Well this may very well be the matchup of the Sweet Sixteen round. I agree with several of the pundits out there that the winner of this one will go on to the Final Four out of the West region. FSU got their's last year, and I believe it is Gonzaga's turn this year. Things are setting up for a possible run to the National Title game like two years ago, and I believe the Bulldogs are ready after bowing out to FSU last year. It won't be easy, this should be a phenomenal game, but in the end, the Zags grind out a 3-7 point victory.
2 MICHIGAN vs 3 TEXAS TECH
Michigan: Defeated (15) Montana W 74-55; (10) Florida W 64-49
Texas Tech: Defeated (14) Northern KY W 72-57; (6) Buffalo W 78-58
The Wolverines were awarded a repeat showdown with Montana to start the NCAA tournament. The Grizzlies fell to the eventual runners-up 61-47 as a 14-seed. This year as a 15 it was an even tougher go of it. John Beilein once again has a squad on the verge of a deep run. This bunch doesn't shoot the ball from long range quite as well as last year's group, but can still score and play tough, efficient defense as evidenced by the 52.5 points per game they've surrendered thus far in their two tournament games.
The Red Raiders, meanwhile, seem to have put their puzzling loss to West Virginia in the Big XII tournament where they were badly exposed in certain areas, well behind them and have cruised through their first two game to this point. What was especially impressive was Tech's 20-point rout of a very good Buffalo team that won over 30 games this year. The Red Raiders appear to playing more like the version that was dominant down the stretch while capturing a share of the Big XII regular season Title. Guard Jarrett Culver is averaging 22.5 points, 9.0 rebounds, & 6.0 assists through two tournament games, while being over-looked a bit in the process. All five of Tech's starters scored in double-figures last time out against Buffalo, making for an interesting matchup with the Woverines.
Prediction: Michigan has the size advantage, while Texas Tech has the backcourt advantage led by Culver. Both teams have played well to this point in the tournament, making this game a very close call in mu opinion. The Wolverines have had a ton of success, especially of late, but I believe they come up a tad short in this one. It's tough to envision an Elite 8 without at least one Big XII team. The Red Raiders are playing like the version of themselves that were blowing everybody out over the final 2-3 weeks of the regular season. That doesn't bode well for Michigan. Texas Tech wins a fun one.
Well boys & girls there you have it, your guide to the Sweet 16. Now take those predictions with a grain of salt of course, I've been known to be wrong a time or two. As always, thank you all for your support and I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section. Who do you like to advance? Enjoy all of the great games ahead of us as we trim the field all the way down to the Final Four! As always, happy reading & writing!