Hey folks! We are really getting down to the last of it, aren’t we? There are only sixteen teams left vying for the National Championship. This year’s edition of the NCAA Tournament has been quite interesting — and very hard to predict.
Raise your hand if you didn’t pick any 12-over-5 upsets.
Or if you had Villanova and Virginia losing before the Sweet 16.
Or if you had UCLA winning its first two games.
The Madness has simply taken a form that most people didn’t see coming. Not one of the four regions has gone chalk. Seven of the Sweet 16 finalists are seeded 5 or lower. With all the upsets and early exits that happen in the tournament, it would be interesting if the NCAA re-seeded the bracket after the first weekend of the tournament. I see the merit in playing the hand you’re dealt, but it just seems silly now that Kentucky, Wisconsin, and Arizona are all on the same side of the bracket. (And, of course, it would completely undermine the institution of filling out brackets.) That said, if I had to re-seed the remaining teams, it would look something like this:
1-seeds: Kentucky, Wisconsin, Duke, Arizona
2-seeds: Gonzaga, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, North Carolina
3-seeds: Louisville, Utah, West Virginia, Wichita State
4-seeds: Xavier, Michigan State, NC State, UCLA
This way, you could send teams to the regions where they really belong, like so:
SOUTH: Kentucky-Xavier and Oklahoma-Louisville
MIDWEST: Wisconsin-Michigan State and Notre Dame-Wichita State
EAST: Duke-NC State and North Carolina-West Virginia
WEST: Arizona-UCLA and Gonzaga-Utah
Even though the committee tries to separate conference foes as much as possible, I think that having these regional rivalries at this stage of the season would make for fantastic basketball. You can’t tell me that you wouldn’t want to watch an Elite Eight that featured Kentucky-Louisville and Duke-North Carolina. Instead, we’re left with a bracket that precludes us from seeing both of those matchups, although either one could potentially be the National Championship game. But there’s simply no way that the NCAA would endanger its brand by reformatting the Big Dance in such a huge way. The sums of money to be made on bracket entries is just too enticing to give up. And if casual fans aren’t filling out brackets, they won’t be watching the Tournament games. In the end, reseeding the tournament makes for a fun game of hypotheticals, but it’s never going to happen. This is the Dark Knight of brackets — it’s the one we deserve, but not the one we need right now.
So, with that off the table, let’s look at the games that will actually be taking place on Thursday:
Kentucky over West Virginia
Yes, yes, we all know about the Quest for Perfection, or whatever people are calling it these days. But look at the actual box score of Kentucky’s win against Cincinnati. On the offensive end, it doesn’t immediately jump out at you. Kentucky shot 37% from the field, under 27% from the arc, and missed eight free throws. They got beat on the boards, giving up 21 offensive rebounds to the Bearcats. There’s a lot of discipline on this team, though, too. They only turned the ball over seven times on more than 80 possessions. Speaking of turnovers, West Virginia forced 23 against Maryland. The Mountaineers stole the ball 15 times in that game, which covered up the fact that they didn’t shoot the lights out. They also pounded the Terps on the offensive boards, so that could be an advantage for WVU against the Wildcats. Even if the Mountaineers manage to shut down one of UK’s stars, like they did with Maryland’s Dez Wells, the Wildcats have the size and depth to handle it all. Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker are more than capable of coming in and taking things over for a while. The biggest factor in this game is that Kentucky holds its opponents to roughly 36% shooting, while West Virginia allows 46%. Juwan Staten will need to find his scoring touch, something that the Wildcats don’t let opponents do very often, if the Mountaineers are going to have a chance against Kentucky. In the end, I expect UK to move on to the Elite Eight. But, hey, that’s why you play the games.
Notre Dame over Wichita State
The Shockers’ not-so-shocking upset of Kansas sent them into the Sweet 16, putting them one win away from a potential rematch with Kentucky. After the Wildcats ended Wichita State’s run at perfection a year ago, how poetic would it be if the tables were turned this time around? Still, they have quite the obstacle in their path: Notre Dame. Though they haven’t had it easy in either of their first two games, the Irish are still standing. The heroics of Pat Connaughton – who has a perfect name to be playing for this team – at the end of the Butler game were remarkable. The mix of guts and discipline that it took to try swatting the potential game-winner and not foul made for one of the best plays of the tournament so far. After close calls against Northeastern and Butler, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Notre Dame come out swinging against Wichita. The Shockers have looked great in wins over Indiana and Kansas, but those were both teams on downswings. Forget the early turbulence – this is still a Notre Dame squad that hasn’t lost in a month, during which time they have beaten fellow Sweet 16ers Louisville, Duke, and North Carolina. All in all, these are two very well-matched teams and it is going to come down to the little things. Wichita State has a slight edge on defense, Notre Dame has a bit of advantage on the offensive end. The tipping point for this game may come at the free throw line. Wichita State averages 17 fouls per game (82nd in the nation) compared to 14 for the Irish (4th). Notre Dame also hits their foul shots at a more consistent pace, outshooting the Shockers 74.4% (25th in the nation) to 69.6% (157th). In a game where everything else is just about equal, the Fighting Irish may hold the all-important trump card.
Wisconsin over North Carolina
The Badgers have been one of the best teams in the nation all year long, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t had to sweat out a few wins. Such was the case when Wisconsin took on Oregon over the weekend. The Ducks threw everything they had at UW, including a 30-point performance from Joe Young, but it still wasn’t enough. With under six minutes remaining, the game was tied at 52. Over the next five minutes, the Badgers shut down Oregon, going on a 10-2 run. At that point, it came down to free throws, where the Badgers are a top-10 team. Over in Jacksonville, North Carolina and Arkansas went head-to-head for a Sweet 16 berth. A Jabril Durham three-pointer put the Hogs up by a point with 11 minutes to play. Then, Marcus Paige took this game over, scoring 17 of his 22 total points after the Durham three. The Heels won the battle of the boards, forced 21 turnovers, got to the line for 37 free-throw attempts, and assisted on over half of their baskets. But don’t expect such undisciplined play from Wisconsin. When it comes to not fouling or turning the ball over, nobody is better than the Badgers. If Carolina has an edge in this matchup, it’s on the boards. Plus, Wisconsin doesn’t force many turnovers on defense. I still don’t think that’s going to be enough to keep one of the nation’s strongest starting fives from making it to the Elite Eight. Look for the Heels to hang for about 35 minutes, before the Badgers put the game away from the stripe.
Arizona over Xavier
I had the pleasure of watching both of Arizona’s first two tournament games in Portland. The Wildcats are really good. They’ve got shooters in TJ McConnell and Gabe York, each of whom scored 19 points in Arizona’s romp over Ohio State. They’ve got dangerous swingmen in Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. They’ve got size and power in big men Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski. Arizona dominated the glass against the Buckeyes, grabbing nearly half of their 40 missed shots on the offensive end. On the topic of missed shots, Xavier is a team that didn’t create many on their way to the Sweet 16. The Musketeers shot a crazy 68% from the field against Georgia State. The team’s marquee big man, Matt Stainbrook, is 12-of-15 in the Big Dance thus far. Myles Davis and Dee Davis (no relation) have combined to hit 11 threes in the two games. The Musketeers don’t really blow you away on paper, but this team is very efficient. They have assists on over 60% of their made field goals in the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately for Xavier, they are just running into the wrong team. Arizona matches up well against everybody, even Kentucky. Expect the Cats to attack Xavier from all angles, be it from downtown, in the paint, in the mid-range game, wherever. Arizona can play and they aren’t going to be beaten by a team like he Musketeers. The Wildcats are legitimate title contenders, but they have a very tough road if they get past Xavier. They would likely face Wisconsin in the Elite 8, Kentucky in the Final Four, and whichever team from the other side of the bracket makes it to the National Championship.
So, there you have it. I will post predictions for Friday’s games either later today or tomorrow morning.
Happy Sweet 16, y’all!