On Thursday, four teams advanced to the Elite Eight and are just one win away from heading to Indianapolis for the prime spectacle in college basketball. Four more will join them on Friday. The single best weekend of the season continues. Here’s how and when to watch, and what you should be looking for in today's Sweet 16 games.
It’s the “Nobody Believes in Us” showdown in the Sweet 16. On one side is Gonzaga, a team few thought should be in the running for a No. 1 seed, but which has its best chance in a long time to make the Final Four. On the other side is UCLA, the one team that everyone agreed had no business making it in the field at all. Now one of them will be in the Elite Eight.
Gonzaga, fresh off a rout of Iowa in the Round of 32, is a heavy favorite, and with good reason. For one thing, Arron Afflalo and Cedric Bozeman aren’t on this UCLA team, two of the centerpieces of the Bruins squad that knocked off Adam Morrison’s Gonzaga team in this round nine years ago. More importantly, this year’s Bulldogs feature one of the best offenses in the country behind forward Kyle Wiltjer and point guard Kevin Pangos. Like many Gonzaga teams of the past, they have a ton of three-point shooting, but unlike some of their predecessors, they also have a lot of size, with Witljer, Prezmek Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis all measuring 6’10” or taller. The two teams met in Los Angeles this season, with the Zags cruising to a 87-74 victory.
UCLA has earned its way to the Sweet 16 but it's gotten a fair amount of luck. The Bruins benefited from a dubious goaltending call against SMU in the Round of 64, as well as No. 14-seed UAB’s unlikely upset of Iowa State that same day, settng up a favorable Round of 32 matchup. If they’re going to pull off what would be a shocker against the Bulldogs, it will have to be on the strength of Kevon Looney’s play on offense. If there’s one area where the Bruins have the advantage, it’s with the matchup problems the 6'9" freshman forward can create for Gonzaga. Wiltjer doesn’t have the speed to keep up with Looney (and Gonzaga wouldn’t want him burning so much energy on defense, even if he did), and Byron Wesley doesn’t have the size to check him.
Still, everything points to a Gonzaga win. The zone UCLA deploys would play right into the Zags' strength, as they have shot 41% from three-point range this season, third-best in the country, and there’s too much firepower here for the Bruins to advance.
7:37 p.m. ET on TBS
East Regional: No. 4 Louisville (26-8, 12-6 in ACC) vs. No. 8 N.C. State (22-13, 10-8 in ACC)
The Wolfpack pulled off one of the most impressive wins of the opening weekend, upsetting top-ranked Villanova last Saturday to earn a spot in the Sweet 16. The Cardinals, meanwhile, rode their defense to a couple of businesslike wins over UC-Irvine and Northern Iowa.
Despite sharing a conference, these ACC have met just once this year, with the Wolfpack winning 74-65 at Louisville on Feb. 14. The Cardinals actually led that game for most of the first half, and were up by three with about 15 minutes remaining, when N.C. State went on a 17-6 spurt to take control. What’s more Chris Jones had yet to be dismissed from Louisville, and he led the team with 20 points in that game.
If the Cardinals are going to reverse course from that loss, they will have to figure out a way to slow down guards Cat Barber and Trevor Lacey. Louisville's Achilles heel is its offense, and if Barber and Lacey get going, the Cards simply may not be able to score enough to keep up. That makes containing at least one of them the first order of business for Rick Pitino’s team.
On the other side of the floor, Louisville may be able to exploit a rebounding advantage with Montrezl Harrell, Chinanu Onuaku and Mangok Matihang. N.C. State has a strong rebounder of its own in BeeJay Anya, but the Cardinals can crash the boards in waves. It might be too much for the Wolfpack to withstand in the interior. However, the offensive key for Louisville is once again Terry Rozier. The sophomore had 25 points on 8-for-13 shooting in the win over Northern Iowa last Sunday. If he shoots that well again, the Cardinals could very well be playing for a shot to go back to the Final Four for the third time in four years.
Rarely does a No. 1 seed deserve a pat on the back for dispatching a No. 8 seed, but Duke did last week for dismantling San Diego State. The Blue Devils proved they can thrive at a slower pace, scoring 68 points on just 61 possessions, good for 1.11 points per possession, against a team that ranked fourth in the nation in defensive efficiency coming in. Duke got got 16 assists on its 30 made field goals, while turning the ball over only nine times.
It’s that performance, perhaps more than anything else Duke has done this year, that should have Utah concerned, because the Utes play a very similar style to the Aztecs. Utah is going to want to slow this game down and let its defense control the action, just as San Diego State tried to do. In other words, Utah better be more effective at executing its gameplan, or the Blue Devils are going to be headed to the Elite Eight with ease.
Of course, the Aztecs don't have a guard like Utah's Delon Wright or a big man like Jakob Poeltl. Wright ranks 22nd in the country in offensive rating, and is capable of turning a bad offense into a good one all by himself. Poeltl will be one of the toughest defenders Blue Devils freshman star Jahlil Okafor has seen all season, and will also make the All-America work on defense. The Utes also have two very good shooters in Jordan Loveridge and Brandon Taylor.
And yet, Duke might have the advantage there too. So much attention has been paid to the freshmen triumvirate of Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow that senior Quinn Cook has found a way to lurk under the radar. It’s his shooting—40.7% from three-point range—that really pushes the Duke offense to another level, and has been arguably the Blue Devils' most consistent weapon all season long. If Utah doesn’t find a way to run Cook off the three-point line, it’s going home on Friday night.
It’s the second weekend of the tournament, and that has generally meant at least one thing for the better part of two decades: Tom Izzo and Michigan State must be playing. After upsetting No. 2 Virginia last week, the Spartans advanced to the Sweet 16 for the 13th time in the last 17 seasons, including seven of the last eight. That’s a remarkable run of consistency that is to be admired. Oklahoma, meanwhile, is back in the Sweet 16 for the first time since Blake Griffin led the Sooners to the Elite Eight in 2009, and it is just their fourth appearance in this round since 2000.
It’s curious that Oklahoma is the one team remaining in the East Regional that is going unnoticed, especially because the Sooners are the highest-seeded team remaining. They also have the single best player in the region, Big 12 Player of the Year Buddy Hield. He represents a serious matchup problem for Michigan State. Denzel Valentine is going to have to stick him, and while he has one inch and about 10 pounds on Hield, he’s nowhere near quick enough laterally to stay with Oklahoma’s star guard. Michigan State turned its game against Virginia in the Round of 32 into a grab-and-bump fest, not letting any Cavalier cutter get through the paint unscathed. It’ll probably have to do the same to slow down Hield, Jordan Woodard and the rest of the Sooners.
Offensively, the Spartans will need to be effective from outside. Senior guard Travis Trice went 4-for-8 from three in the win over Virginia, and as a team, Michigan State was 6-for-12 from distance, compared to just 11-for-28 inside the arc. No matter how well they play defensively, the Spartans are going to struggle if they aren’t getting triples from Trice, Valentine and Bryn Forbes.
Oklahoma’s big men, Ryan Spangler and TaShawn Thomas, could play a huge role in this game. It’s rare for the Sooners to have an advantage inside, but that’s the case on Friday against Michigan State. Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling are the only Spartans bigger than 6’8”, and neither has a reputation as a banger, especially on the defensive glass. If Oklahoma is creating ample second-chance opportunities, or getting easy buckets inside, Michigan State will be in trouble.