No. 3 Miami vs. No. 2 Villanova (South)
Thursday, 7:10 p.m., CBS
These teams mirror each other more closely than in any other game of the Sweet 16. Both depend on tough, smart senior guards who can be suspect as shooters. Villanova shot 34.4% from three this season (that ranked fifth in the Big East) while Miami made 36.6% (fourth in the ACC). However, the Wildcats shot 23 for 47 from behind the arc in their two games in Brooklyn, which is a big reason why they won both games by blowout scores. On the other hand, Miami senior guard Angel Rodriguez had some tough shooting nights during the regular season yet he set two consecutive season highs by scoring 24 and 28 points, respectively, against Buffalo and Wichita State. Throw in the dead-even matchup at center between Miami’s Tonye Jekiri and Villanova’s Daniel Ochefu, two seniors who are defense-oriented but have improved as scorers, and you can see why this one is basically a coin flip. I’ll go with Villanova because I think they are the better defensive team—kenpom.com has them ranked eighth nationally in defensive efficiency, while Miami is 32nd—but I wouldn’t bet the ranch on it.
Villanova 77, Miami 74
No. 3 Texas A&M vs. No. 2 Oklahoma (West)
Thursday, 7:37 p.m., TBS
A team should not be able to make the Final Four by being so heavily dependent on a single player—unless that player is Buddy Hield. Not since Jimmer Fredette has college hoops been witness to a scorer who can erupt with such ferocity at precisely the moment his team needs him to. That was the case on Sunday against VCU, when Buddy Love scored 19 of his 36 points in the final eight minutes to lift the Sooners to a four-point win. On the other hand, maybe it’s a problem that Oklahoma needs that kind of heroism to edge out a No. 10 seed. (Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard also scored 15 and 17 points, respectively, in the win, but they were a combined 2 for 10 from three-point range.) As for Texas A&M, the Aggies were my pick to win this region when the bracket first came out, and of course they were extremely fortunate to get by Northern Iowa. The Aggies have a great individual defender in senior guard Alex Caruso, who is the NCAA’s steals leader among active players, but it will take a team effort to shut down Hield, and very few teams have managed to do that this season. I’ll go with the hot hand in this one.
Oklahoma 78, Texas A&M 70
No. 5 Maryland vs. No. 1 Kansas (South)
Thursday, 9:40 p.m., CBS
Kansas has some very good players, but the Jayhawks are a classic case of a team’s whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Maryland has had the opposite problem—really good pro prospects but the pieces haven't fit well together. Still, when we get to the later rounds of the NCAA tournament, talent usually wins out. I like the way Maryland senior guard Rasheed Sulaimon has taken over the leadership of his team, and although I don’t like the way sophomore guard Melo Trimble has been shooting the ball the second half of the season, at least he is getting back to his primary strength, which is to butter his bread at the foul line. (He was a combined 22 for 23 from the stripe during the Terps’ two wins in Spokane.) Moreover, I like the matchup in the frontcourt, where Maryland can rotate five big men to defend Kansas senior forward Perry Ellis without needing help. That’s potentially 25 fouls and zero double teams, which should leave the Terps’ guards to close out more aggressively on Frank Mason, Devote’ Graham and Wayne Selden. Finally, I am encouraged by the spark of life I’ve seen over the last month from Maryland senior forward Jake Layman, who struggled with his shot for much of the season but erupted for 27 points (5 for 8 from three) in the first-round win over South Dakota State. Maryland has the lower floor of these two, but it also has the higher ceiling. I have a hunch the Terps are ready to reach it.
Maryland 80, Kansas 78
No. 4 Duke vs. No. 1 Oregon (West)
Thursday, 10:07 p.m., TBS
We all know the NCAA tournament is often decided by matchups—e.g., how one team’s strengths correlate with another’s weaknesses. Duke has some obvious weaknesses, but the Ducks are not well suited to exploit them. The best way to beat the Blue Devils is to crush them on the offensive glass, but Oregon is only a marginally better offensive rebounding team than Duke. (The Ducks grab 34.1% of their misses, compared to Duke’s 33.7%.) Oregon obviously has some very good players, but Duke will have the two best in the game in sophomore guard Grayson Allen and freshman forward Brandon Ingram. How often do you pick against the team you say that about? Of course, that doesn’t mean Allen and Ingram will play their best, but if they are operating at maximum capacity, there won’t be much the Ducks can do about it. Given the way the rest of the Pac 12 performed during opening week, perhaps we should be a bit suspicious about the Ducks’ prowess in winning that league. Finally, there’s the Coach K factor. Give that guy five days to prepare his guys for a big game, and they usually come through.
Duke 79, Oregon 74
No. 4 Iowa State vs. No. 1 Virginia (Midwest)
Friday, 7:10 p.m., CBS
I love this contrast. Iowa State is one of the best offensive teams in the country (ranked second nationally in offensive efficiency), and Virginia is as tough as they come on D (fourth in defensive efficiency). Virginia is also one of the slowest teams in the country (331st in tempo) while the Cyclones are one of the fastest (56th). In that respect, the matchup will favor Virginia, because it is much easier to slow a team down that wants to run than speed a team up that wants to play slow, especially in this tournament. I’m really hoping that Tony Bennett assigns senior guard Malcolm Brogdon to cover Cyclones’ forward Georges Niang, but either way, it’s safe to say that Virginia will be the toughest defensive team that the Cyclones have faced all season. The difference is that Virginia has evolved into a really good offensive team as well.
Virginia 69, Iowa State 63
No. 7 Wisconsin vs. No. 6 Notre Dame (East)
Friday, 7:27 p.m., TBS
The one prediction I feel confident making is that Wisconsin junior forward Nigel Hayes will play better—if only because he could hardly play any worse. Over his last three games, Hayes has shot just 7 for 37 from the floor and missed 17 straight three-point attempts. It’s remarkable the Badgers were still able to beat Pitt and Xavier, but I am a firm believer that if a team is going to advance late into the tournament, it needs all hands on deck. So the question becomes which one of these teams will be able to bottle a little more of that March Magic. Notre Dame is awfully difficult to guard because it has so many shooters and coach Mike Brey spreads the court beautifully, but I have a feeling the difference in this one will be Zach Auguste, the 6’10” senior forward who had a combined 26 points (on 12 of 14 shooting) and 27 rebounds in the Irish’s two wins in Brooklyn. The best compliment I could give Auguste is that he would have made a great Badger.
Notre Dame 66, Wisconsin 60
No. 11 Gonzaga vs. No. 10 Syracuse (Midwest)
Friday, 9:40 p.m., CBS
What a pair of Cinderellas, huh? Frankly, I am shocked that Gonzaga was able to win its last three games (the WCC final over Saint Mary’s plus wins over Seton Hall and Utah in the tourney) in such convincing fashion. As far as matchups go, the Zags have one giant problem in 6’11” sophomore center Domantas Sabonis, who is the best post scorer remaining in the tournament. This is a major concern because the biggest weakness that Syracuse has defensively is in the post. (Rakeem Christmas is not walking through that door.) Still, while Gonzaga has gone up against its fair share of zone defenses this season, there is no way to simulate what it is like to go up against Syracuse’s version for the full 40 minutes. This is the only defense the Orange play—and they are really, really good at it. When Syracuse has had problems this season, it has come mostly from missing shots and getting into foul trouble, which forces coach Jim Boeheim to dip into the thinnest bench in the country. So while Gonzaga’s guards have come a long way, they are still no match for the Orange’s trio of Michael Gbinije, Trevor Cooney and Malachi Richardson. Unless those guys have one of those ultra cold shooting nights, Syracuse should have enough firepower to advance.
Syracuse 71, Gonzaga 65
No. 5 Indiana vs. No. 1 North Carolina (East)
Friday, 9:57 p.m., TBS
Yes, I have been skeptical about North Carolina the last few weeks, but I’m coming around. In the first place, while so many of us have been fixating on senior guard Marcus Paige’s shooting woes, the team’s point guard, 6-foot sophomore Joel Berry, has been playing his tail off. (Although it would help if he made a couple of long-range shots himself. Berry was a combined 1 for 12 during the Tar Heels’ first two NCAA tournament games.) I love the way North Carolina has been defending with purpose, and I really love the way their deep and talented frontcourt matches up against the Hoosiers’ lone five man, 6’10” freshman Thomas Bryant. Bryant is skilled and uses his size well, but he is also young and prone to turnovers as well as foul trouble. Indiana is a scary team because the Hoosiers spread the floor and run so well. If they are hot from three, they can score virtually at will. But running and gunning is a comfortable way of playing for North Carolina, and in the end the Heels have too much size, depth and experience up front.
North Carolina 95, Indiana 85