Are you kidding me? This tournament has been one of the most exciting to watch that I can ever remember. Between the upsets, the buzzer-beaters, the star performances, and the charismatic teams that have taken America by storm on college basketball’s biggest stage, this year’s iteration of the Big Dance has had it all.
Florida Gulf Coast? Really? I knew the team had some talent, but these guys have dispatched two good teams with relative ease. Meanwhile, another group of Eagles – Marquette – have survived in the most dire of situations on big-time plays late in their first two games. Speaking of clutch baskets, look at La Salle, the newest poster-child for the play-in game. The Explorers took care of Marshall Henderson and a fiery Ole Miss team by punching back during the Rebels’ late push and scoring a game-winner with three seconds to play. Out in San Jose, Oregon eschewed any notion of being at a disadvantage due to their 12-seed, which was given to them because the NCAA couldn’t reckon a way to render a bracket otherwise. In turn, the Ducks clobbered Oklahoma State and Saint Louis, two very talented teams, and now have a date with Louisville for a trip to the Elite Eight. Oh, and there’s a team from Wichita who had a pretty good weekend, too, if memory serves. The one in Spokane? Not so much.
I’ll get into all of these teams in a little more depth below, but just take a moment to soak in this year’s tournament. If the first couple rounds are any indication, we are in for another wild weekend. Now, let’s get into the nitty gritty on the Sweet 16.
(#1) Louisville vs. (#12) Oregon
Man, the Ducks have really looked good in their first two games. I completely wrote them off, falling under the spell of Marcus Smart and the highlight-reel Cowboys of Oklahoma State. After watching Arsalan Kazemi and Carlos Emory destroy OSU on the boards, I predicted a similar fate for the Saint Louis Billikens and was right. Oregon has brought a great mix of bullying their opponents down low while also getting big-time shots from their outside threats. Dominic Artis and Daymean Dotson have played with a lot of gusto and senior E.J. Singler has made big plays for the Ducks. While all of this is true, they now run into what is probably the best team in the country. My opinion of Louisville remains the same as before the tournament started – I think this team is going to win the national championship. Louisville did get a break in a walkover against North Carolina A&T, but the Colorado State team that they obliterated is no joke. They handled their business like the nation’s best team, though, never looking like they were in trouble. Russ Smith has been playing like a man possessed, and I don’t think the Ducks have an answer for him defensively. Also, I don’t think Gorgui Dieng and the other Cardinal big men will get pushed around by Kazemi and Emory like we saw in the Ducks’ first two games. The experience of Peyton Siva and Smith is going to be hard for the Ducks to account for in the backcourt, and that’s probably the turning point for this game. It’s been a magical run, but if a double-digit seed is going to make it to the Elite Eight, it’s not going to be Oregon. The luck of the draw is just not on their side, and the country’s best squad is going to move on.
Prediction: Louisville 77, Oregon 66
(#3) Michigan State vs. (#2) Duke
Okay, so I was wrong about Duke. As an admitted fan of Coach K and his team, I can’t say I’m too disappointed. I didn’t think Doug McDermott would struggle so much, and the performance of Amile Jefferson off the bench got the Blue Devils out a jam when Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee started picking up fouls. But where McDermott is more of a finesse player who is best served away from the basket, Duke may have its hands full with a player like Michigan State’s Derrick Nix. The big, bruising forward has certainly been a handful for the first two opponents that the Spartans have demolished. They have amassed an 85-45 rebounding advantage through two games, thanks in no small part to Nix’s efforts. One worry for the Spartans is the health of Keith Appling, who suffered an injury in the win over Memphis, but Appling says he is okay and will play in the Sweet 16. Denzel Valentine filled in admirably off the bench, though, tallying nine points, six rebounds, and six assists. Duke has turned the ball over 20 times in two games, while Michigan State has committed 35 errors. Duke’s rebounding advantage is not nearly as dominant as the Spartans’. The coaching matchup is a complete push – Tom Izzo and Mike Krzyzewski are two of the game’s most experienced and proven coaches, absolute legends in the sport. This is going to a be a slow-paced, physical, Big Ten style game, but Duke is built to be able to withstand that. They need Kelly and Quinn Cook to return to form quickly, though. Whichever tandem produces more out of the backcourt – Seth Curry and Rasheed Sulaimon or Appling and Gary Harris – may indeed decide this game. This is a tough one to call. In a very closely contested game, Duke pulls out the victory.
Prediction: Duke 62, Michigan State 58
(#9) Wichita State vs. (#13) La Salle
The poise that Wichita State showed in weathering Gonzaga’s best efforts to spoil Saturday’s upsets was a very telling character trait for Gregg Marshall’s team. These Shockers have the exuberant look of a potential Final Four team, and they remind me a lot of the George Mason and VCU teams that made their runs earlier in the 2000s. A slew of shooters, a forceful big man, staunch defense – this squad has it all. They also play a kind of undefinable intensity, and you can tell they absolutely love playing together. All of that showed as they demolished a really good Pittsburgh team in their first game and, of course, when they beat Mark Few’s Bulldogs. La Salle has had to work their way past three capable teams in Boise State, Kansas State, and Ole Miss. Despite being one of the final teams selected for the tournament, the Explorers stand alone as the Atlantic 10’s sole representative in the Sweet 16. Popular picks like Saint Louis, VCU, and Butler have fallen by the wayside, while Temple put up a great fight in their upset bid against Indiana. Still, Ramon Galloway has led La Salle to where no other A-10 team could make it this season. Jerrell Wright, Tyreek Duren, and Tyrone Garland have all turned in big scoring performances in the various games, with Garland’s layup in the final seconds sending La Salle into this game. The Explorers have survived being outrebounded in all three games, just as Wichita survived being out-boarded by the Zags. The Shockers have held their opponents to 35% shooting in the first two rounds, and they have the look of a team who is not yet done making noise in March. Cleanthony Early has provided a good scoring punch in their contests thus far, and as long as at least one of the other Wichita players gets hot – it was Malcolm Armstead against Pitt and Ron Baker against Gonzaga – they should win this ballgame.
Prediction: Wichita State 66, La Salle 59
(#6) Arizona vs. (#2) Ohio State
Now that Arizona has made it to the Sweet 16, it’s time to stop feeling stupid over messing up that entire portion of the bracket and start previewing Sean Miller’s team. In two games, Arizona has grabbed 81 rebounds to their opponent’s 46, with a 42-15 advantage spelling the demise of Belmont. The Cats have also shot very well from beyond the arc, making nine 3-pointers in each of their games at about a 56% clip. Mark Lyons has been the big scorer for Arizona, dropping 23 and 27 in the opening rounds. Lyons has received backup from Solomon Hill, Kaleb Tarczewski, and the rest of the cast. Brandon Ashley has been an important big body off the bench, grabbing 15 rebounds so far in 40 total minutes of work. Ohio State survived an upset attempt from Iowa State, leaning on their junior leader Aaron Craft in the final seconds with the game on the line. Craft surely did not disappoint, burying the game-winner with less than a second on the clock, sending the Buckeyes to Los Angeles. While the location of this game could cause Buckeye fans some concern, keep in mind that Thad Matta’s boys are 7-0 in neutral site games this year, including the last five games of their current 10-game streak. Deshaun Thomas has been a beast on the scoreboard for Ohio State, but hasn’t been as effective a rebounder as the team needs. In fact, Iowa State absolutely crushed OSU on the boards. While Arizona is equipped to do the same, Ohio State obviously lived through it once – I don’t see why they can’t do it again. Aaron Craft has stepped up in his leadership role so far, and in a newly wide-open West, this will likely be the Buckeyes’ biggest test on their way to Atlanta. I think Ohio State advances, extending their winning streak with yet another big play late in the game from Craft.
Prediction: Ohio State 72, Arizona 70
(#1) Kansas vs. (#4) Michigan
Michigan is led by Player of the Year candidate Trey Burke, but they get a lot of great support from the rest of the six-man rotation. Despite the youth of this team – the Wolverines start three freshmen, a sophomore, and a junior – they have played beyond their years in the tournament thus far. They were slow out of the gates against a good South Dakota State team, but recovered to win decisively. Against VCU, they made shots, dominated the boards, hit their free throws, and shut down Shaka Smart’s Havoc style with efficient and generally careful play. The Wolverines’ Mitch McGary was 10 for 11, scoring 21 points and pulling down 14 rebounds against an undersized Rams squad. McGary also put in 13 and 9 against South Dakota St. If he can continue this type of play inside, he could be a big factor in handling Jeff Withey in a Sweet 16 matchup with Kansas. Speaking of Withey, the guy has been a monster through two games. He has Tim Duncan’s Big Dance blocks record in his sights after recording 12 swats leading up to the Sweet 16. He has also poured in 33 points and 22 rebounds, fulfilling all the expectations I had for the Jayhawks’ big man. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Kansas’ wins is the ineffectiveness of the backcourt outside of Travis Releford. Ben McLemore had only two points against the Tar Heels, while Elijah Johnson has had five in each game. Michigan has one of the nation’s best backcourts, and I think this might be what tips the scales for the Wolverines. Tim Hardaway Jr. has been solid through the first couple games, while Trey Burke found his form against VCU – although his seven turnovers were worrisome. Still, the way Michigan is playing – especially their decimation of Shaka Smart and the Rams – gives me the idea that this team is well on their way to Atlanta.
Prediction: Michigan 73, Kansas 67
(#3) Florida vs. (#15) Florida Gulf Coast
I don’t mean to take anything away from Steve Fisher’s ability to coach or prepare for a basketball game – but I’ve got to believe that he and the rest of the San Diego State team were not really expecting to play Florida Gulf Coast. The Aztecs hung with the Eagles for much of the game, but FGCU’s late run proved to be the difference. Brett Comer, Sherwood Brown, Bernard Thompson, Chase Fieler, and the rest of the Eagles have captured the spotlight as America’s Cinderella du jour, becoming the first 15-seed to ever advance this far in the tournament. These guys can certainly play, but I’m a little worried that this cooling-off period may be their worst enemy, as it gives Billy Donovan a chance to develop a gameplan for Florida Gulf Coast. It would be easy to say that the Gators have had it easy in the first two rounds, facing a 14- and an 11-seed, but Northwestern State was the country’s top-scoring team this year and Minnesota is certainly no slouch. Florida held the Demons to just 47 points – a full 34 below their season average – and were never seriously threatened by the mercurial Gophers. Erik Murphy has been very effective for the Gators, and Mike Rosario really took over Sunday’s game against Minnesota. Just like Billy Donovan was unfazed by the magical run of George Mason in 2006, he will have his team ready for this game against their in-state neighbors. The presence of Murphy and Patric Young inside will be a little more than the Eagles will be able to handle, and unless Florida Gulf Coast pulls out a 21-2 run like the one they had against San Diego State, I’m afraid their glorious story ends here. I’d be lying, though, if I said I won’t be rooting wholeheartedly for the Eagles in this one.
Prediction: Florida 74, Florida Gulf Coast 61
(#1) Indiana vs. (#4) Syracuse
In a rematch of the 1987 NCAA Championship game, Jim Boeheim will look to end up on the right side of this matchup. His team looked amazing in the obliteration of Montana, holding the Big Sky champs to just 34 points on 20% shooting, while also forcing 17 turnovers. The Orange struggled only slightly to close out a feisty Cal team that had eyes on an upset. This game could’ve been a bigger win for Syracuse had they not missed 15 free throws, lowering their tournament percentage to 66.7%. That being said, they still have gotten to the line 81 times in two games, but they come up against an Indiana team that is extremely disciplined when it comes to fouling. James Madison and Temple combined to shoot 12 total free throws against the Hoosiers. Despite the same six-point margin of victory, Indiana had a much tougher time getting to the Sweet 16 than Syracuse. Khalif Wyatt and Temple had them within an inch of their life before Victor Oladipo’s cold-blooded three saved the Hoosiers’ season. I can’t be the only one who has been underwhelmed by the performances of Cody Zeller. He struggled to find his groove so far and the Orange’s stable of big men could prove a problem. The matchup of the backcourts will be the big determiner of how this game goes. While I love Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche, they might be in some trouble against the disciplined group of Oladipo, Jordan Hulls, and Yogi Ferrell. Syracuse has been fortunate to capitalize on a lot of mistakes from their opponents, but I don’t see the Hoosiers giving them the same kinds of opportunities. In what could be one of the best games of the tournament, I foresee Indiana playing up to their midseason form and taking out the Orange in the nation’s capital.
Prediction: Indiana 69, Syracuse 62
(#3) Marquette vs. (#2) Miami (FL)
Well, it’s fitting to save the Marquette game for the very end, since they’ve likewise been leaving things to the last second in their first couple games. Vander Blue saved them from early elimination at the hands of Davidson, hitting a game-winning layup with one second remaining. After trailing for much of their next game against Butler, Buzz Williams’ team finally turned the corner and got the edge on the Bulldogs, thanks to Blue’s 29-point outburst and his three-pointer with 90 seconds left which tied the game. After taking the lead, Blue’s turnover with seconds remaining opened the door for another memorable Butler buzzer-beater, but the end result was pretty anti-climactic for Brad Stevens’ squad. Miami, on the other hand, kept their matchup with Illinois a little more exciting than they would have liked. The Illini held the lead with as little as 1:24 left, but Shane Larkin hit a huge three that gave the Canes the lead back with a minute to play. After a controversial call that gave Miami the ball after a missed D.J. Richardson three-point attempt, the Hurricanes closed out the game and advanced to the Sweet 16. While winning in any fashion is nice, the Hurricanes were not nearly as dominant against Illinois as I expected, due in large part to the shooting struggles of Larkin and Durand Scott. Luckily for them, Rion Brown came off the bench to lead Miami with 21 points and Larkin stepped up in the clutch when his team needed him. I am very much looking forward to The Shane Larkin-Vander Blue Show in this round – these two guys could easily trade 30-point games. I give Miami the edge in this matchup due to a size advantage inside, although the Canes’ big men have been far from dominant so far. Both teams have proved to have the poise to survive in the late going, but I think Marquette may have used up all of their magic in staving off Davidson and Butler, so I’m sticking with Miami here.
Prediction: Miami (FL) 81, Marquette 79
LOOKING PAST THE SWEET 16
(#1) Louisville vs. (#2) Duke – Now that Gorgui Dieng is back in the fold, will the Cardinals avenge their first loss of the season against Coach K and the Blue Devils?
(#9) Wichita State vs. (#2) Ohio State – The Shockers knocked off top-seeded Gonzaga, but will they have what it takes to keep the magic alive against Aaron Craft and the Buckeyes?
(#4) Michigan vs. (#3) Florida – Can these young Wolverines outplay the experienced Gators and earn a trip to Atlanta, or will Billy Donovan’s boys cut down the nets?
(#1) Indiana vs. (#2) Miami (FL) – Who prevails in this clash of old-school and new-school: one of the country’s most storied programs or Jim Larranaga’s upstart Hurricanes?
The way this tournament has been going, it seems like a waste of effort to continue to predict past the Sweet 16, since I’ll probably end up having to do a rewrite on just about every matchup. But hey, at least my national championship of Louisville and Miami is still in play, and I think Louisville tops Ohio State and Miami bests Michigan in the Final Four to get there.
While some might find such blood-boiling, bracket-busting, bad behavior to be downright offensive this time of year, I revel in it. That’s the joy of the tournament. That’s what makes these Cinderella runs so meaningful – the fact that people “in the know”, or so they think, completely write them off. So, as one of those clueless voices contributing to the din, let me extend a thankful hand to these 16 teams. I’ve never enjoyed being so wrong so much.