The Sweet Sixteen is chock full of top-tier match ups between some of the country’s most elite teams. Which games are the most compelling?
When it comes to the NCAA tournament, upsets and unlikely teams making deep runs are not only a staple but something just about everyone openly roots for. That’s not news to anyone, and that’s part of the reason that many described the first round of this year’s tournament as lackluster.
Although there were many great basketball games played during the first round, no team higher than a 12-seed won a game, and only five double-digit seeds in total advanced to the second round to the disappointment of some. There were no Cinderella stories. There were no buzzer beaters. Just good, solid basketball.
Yet this only helped to provide even better basketball during the second round. South Carolina beat Duke, Wisconsin upset Villanova, and Kentucky-Wichita State; Iowa State-Purdue; and Michigan-Louisville were all tightly contested matchups that we would not have existed had been a crazy first-round upset.
And now we’re left with eight great Sweet Sixteen games. All eight games provide intriguing matchups, and some of the top talent in the game. There are only really good teams left in the tournament, and thanks to that, this Sweet Sixteen has the potential to be better than any Sweet Sixteen in recent memory.
But in case you were in need of a Cinderella story heading into the second weekend, look to Xavier. After beating Florida State to the tune of 91-66, the Musketeers are the only double-digit seed remaining, and by advancing, a double-digit seed, has now reached the Sweet Sixteen for ten straight years. So thank you, Xavier, for keeping the streak alive.
8. Arizona vs. Xavier
How long can Xavier keep this up? After point guard Edmond Sumner tore his ACL in late January, the Musketeers went into a tailspin. They dropped six games in a row and went a full month without a win against any teams other than DePaul, which finished the season 9-23. But Xavier has now returned to its December and January form when it was a top-15 team.
Arizona, though, has been one of the hottest teams in the country over the past month. The Wildcats earned a share of the regular season Pac-12 title and won the Pac-12 tournament. They’ve also picked up a tournament win against a very talented Saint Mary’s team, are ranked 33rd in field goal percentage, 20th in three-point field goal percentage, and 39th in points allowed per game. Arizona is also 17th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 24th in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com.
Allonzo Trier and Lauri Markkanen should be able to take a over the game and give Xavier too much to handle, but Trevon Bluiett — Xavier’s leading scorer — is liable to go off at a moment’s notice. He put up 29 points against Florida State last weekend and is averaging 25.0 points per game during the tournament, which is what makes this game interesting. Arizona should win handily, but Xavier has already beaten two teams better than it during the tournament and has a player that can completely take over a game. That can make all the difference in the tournament.
7. UNC vs. Butler
The Tar Heels avoided a potential scare against Arkansas. After blowing a 17 point lead, North Carolina shut out the Razorbacks over the final 3:30 of the game to seal the victory. Roy Williams’ squad needs to be a little more consistent down the stretch if it actually wants to win a title. Arkansas is a strong team, but not nearly as strong as Butler or any other potential teams down the road.
Butler is 24th in overall adjusted efficiency margin, 21st in adjusted offensive efficiency, and 31st in field goal percentage. The Bulldogs also won’t fall into North Carolina’s trap of constantly tyring to run the floor. Butler ranks 288th in adjusted tempo. Its offense is going to try and slow things down and force the Tar Heels to take care of the ball and make each possession count. North Carolina averages 12.0 turnovers per game, which could potentially hurt against Butler, which ranks inside the top 20 in turnover margin.
North Carolina’s enormous advantage comes on the boards. The Tar Heels are first in the country in rebounds per game and Butler is way on the other side of the spectrum at 323rd. Justin Jackson versus Kelan Martin on the wing will be the most interesting matchup in the game. Jackson was the ACC Player of the Year and averages 18.1 points, and 4.7 rebounds per game. Martin averages 16.0 points, and 5.8 rebounds per game himself, and is an effective on-ball defender.
The Tar Heels have more talent than Butler, but sometimes that doesn’t matter, especially in the tournament. If the Bulldogs can control the flow of the game, force some turnovers, and mitigate the damage inside, they’ll have a shot.
6. Baylor vs. South Carolina
Like scoring? Too bad! You’re not going to get any in this game featuring two teams that play a ton of defense, can be offensively challenged at times, and don’t run the floor. But don’t dismiss this game entirely — all that defense doesn’t necessarily mean the matchup will be boring.
At the very least, this game will be close. Both teams rank in the top 15 in adjusted defensive efficiency, the top 35 in points allowed per game, and the top 25 in field goal percentage allowed. Although neither team is potent offensively (Baylor and South Carolina rank 169th and 179th in points per game respectively) Baylor is much more efficient. While the Bears are 20th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 35th in field goal percentage, the Gamecocks are 124th and 296th in those categories.
South Carolina has been great offensively the past two games. The Gamecocks put up 93 points against Marquette and 88 points against Duke, with SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell averaging 26.5 points per game and 50 percent from three-point range during tournament play. If South Carolina wants to keep this run going, it will need Thornwell and the rest of the offense to keep humming along even though Baylor has by far the best defense the Gamecocks have faced during the tournament.
No, this will not be the highest scoring game of the tournament, but you will get to see some high quality defense! Oh, and Johnathan Motley. He’s pretty good, too. What’s not to love?
5. Wisconsin vs. Florida
The East region has suddenly become the all defense region. Wisconsin and Florida both rank in the top eight in adjusted defensive efficiency, the top 40 in points allowed per game, and top 40 in field goal percentage allowed. Both are also coming off a momentous win. Florida absolutely dismantled Virginia 65-39, and Wisconsin took down No. 1 overall seed Villanova.
The Gators have done a good job recovering from the loss of center John Egbunu, but his absence will make it difficult to account for both Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes. Happ is a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award finalist and Hayes was the Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year. Both have had solid years for the Badgers. Happ is averaging 13.8 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game, and Hayes is averaging 13.8 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 2.7 assists per game. The pair will create a difficult matchup inside for Florida, but the x-factor for this game is Bronson Koenig.
Koenig went 8-for-17 from three against Virginia Tech, a school-record for threes in an NCAA tournament game, and he went 3-for-6 from deep during the upset of Villanova while leading the offense as the primary point guard. One of several senior leaders on this team, Koenig has been to the Final Four twice before, and he and Hayes desperately want one more chance at a title.
Florida will do its best to prevent that. Junior forward Devin Robinson is averaging 19.0 points per game and he will be tasked with guarding either Happ or Hayes throughout this game. Sophomore guard KeVaughn Allen will need to step up, though. He is the leading scorer on the season for the Gators but he has scored just 11 points total and had only five assists in two games so far. Wisconsin has the edge inside in this one, but Florida could have the advantage on the perimeter if Allen can return to his regular season form.
4. Oregon vs. Michigan
Michigan has looked like one of the best teams in the country since its runway scare before the Big Ten tournament, and Oregon is performing well despite losing Chris Boucher for the year with a torn ACL.
Dillon Brooks is one of the most clutch players in the game, and Tyler Dorsey has been balling out during the tournament (25.5 points per game). The pair, along with senior Dylan Ennis, will go toe-to-toe with Michigan guards Derrick Walton Jr., Zak Irvin, and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman who are all averaging double-digit points during this tournament.
The Ducks have done well so far without Boucher, but the loss could prove pivotal with how well both Michigan forwards Moe Wagner and D.J. Wilson have been playing of late. Wilson is averaging 18.0 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks per game, and Wagner dropped 26 points against Louisville on Sunday. Overall, Michigan’s offense is third in adjusted offensive efficiency, 18th in field percentage, and 33rd in three-point field goal percentage.
Oregon is a very talented team with some very talented players, but its lack of depth inside due to the loss of Boucher may hurt its chances at ending Michigan’s incredible run. Either way, points will be scored in this game and some of the most exciting players around will get another shot to put on a show.
3. Gonzaga vs. West Virginia
Can Gonzaga silence the haters and reach its second-ever Elite Eight under Mark Few? Not if Huggy Bear and the Mountaineers have anything to say about it.
The Bulldogs look like the most complete team in the nation. They have depth in both the front court and the back court, they rank first in adjusted overall efficiency, and they are second in the country in both field goal percentage and field goal percentage allowed. Center Przemek Karnowski is a seven-foot, 300-pound behemoth that is nearly impossible to mitigate on either side of the ball. Point guard Nigel Williams-Goss is just as effective scoring the ball as he is distributing it.
West Virginia, famous for its press, is going to try to do everything in its power to disrupt Gonzaga. The Mountaineers were very successful in doing that against Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish are second in the nation in turnovers per game with 9.5, and West Virginia forced 14 on Saturday, and 10 in the first half alone. The Mountaineers are very good at forcing you to play their style of basketball, which is erratic, ugly, and supremely effective.
Gonzaga doesn’t mind running the floor –- the Bulldogs rank 71st in adjusted tempo -– but the team does so in a controlled way. West Virginia’s defense is just as strong as Gonzaga’s so whichever style wins out (chaotic or controlled) will be the victor.
2. Kansas vs. Purdue
Kansas-Purdue is a battle of conflicting strengths. Kansas is loaded with incredibly talented guards and wings that can score in a variety of different ways. Purdue is stacked with big men that can bruise you on the boards and beat on the low block as well as in the paint with power and finesse. Additionally, the two leading candidates for Naismith Player of the Year will be facing off in this one.
Frank Mason III and Caleb Swanigan are both incredibly dominant. Mason is averaging 20.8 points, 5.2 assists, and 4.2 rebounds per game while shooting 48.6 percent from the floor and 47.2 percent from three. Swanigan is averaging 18.5 points, 12.6 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per game while shooting 52.7 percent from the field and 43.2 percent from distance. They are both amazing. That cannot be understated.
Kansas does not have the big men to slow down Swanigan and his peers in the Purdue front court and Purdue does not have the guards or wing players to stop Mason, Devonte’ Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk, and especially NBA prospect Josh Jackson. The future lottery pick is putting up 16.6 points and 7.1 rebounds of his own, and the Boilermakers possess zero wing players capable of singlehandedly stopping him completely. The goal will be to simply slow him down as much as possible as a unit.
I have absolutely no idea which side will win out in this cataclysmic clash of opposing strengths, but I do know one thing: Boy, is it going to be fun to watch.
1. Kentucky vs. UCLA
This could very well be the best game of the tournament. There’s a chance this is the greatest college basketball game of the last decade. The stakes, the scoring, the pace, the stars — everything adds up to what should be one hell of a basketball game.
Here is how the two teams compare offensively:
Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox, and Co. are one of the only units in the country that can keep up with Lonzo Ball, Bryce Alford, and the rest of the UCLA scoring machine. In their early-season matchup at Rupp Arena, the Bruins came away victorious by a score of 97-92. There is no reason to suspect this one won’t be as high scoring.
Although he can be a streaky shooter at times, Monk is averaging 20.0 points per game, and he is assisted by one of the best driving scorers in the country. Fox is spectacular at getting to the rim, and his explosiveness with the ball in his hands is unparalleled at the college level. Then of course we have Ball, the potential No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NBA draft. Ball is averaging 14.7 points, 7.6 assists, 6.1 rebounds, and 1.9 steals per game. He’s also shooting 55.6% from the floor and 42.0% from three.
Both of these teams can score the rock, but Kentucky has the edge defensively. The Wildcats rank seventh in adjusted defensive efficiency as compared to UCLA which ranks 77th. Kentucky also hasn’t lost since being embarrassed against Florida in Gainesville more than a month ago; if either team has a slight edge heading into this game, it’s the boys from Lexington.
All of the Sweet Sixteen games are between some of the best teams in the country and provide intriguing matchups that warrant your attention. But of all the games coming up this week, Kentucky-UCLA should be, by far, the best one.
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