The final spots in the Elite Eight will be handed out Friday in some can't-miss games, highlighted by Kentucky's matchup with UCLA.
The South and East Regions, which take the floor for the Sweet 16 on Friday, are a study in contrast. Chalk reigned supreme in the South, with the top four seeds advancing to the second weekend. That has resulted in high-profile, compelling matchups, with four of this season’s most consistent teams, including three of college basketball’s blue bloods. The East, meanwhile, veered totally off script, with its top two seeds, No. 1 Villanova and No. 2 Duke, going down in the second round. In their place are No. 8 Wisconsin and No. 7 South Carolina, creating a pair of Sweet 16 matchups few saw coming.
These two regions, one so pristine and the other so unpredictable, perfectly capture the beauty of the NCAA tournament.
7:09 p.m., CBS
South Region: No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 4 Butler
Quick, guess which one of these teams won more top 50 games in the regular season? Sorry, that was a trick question, they both won 10. Quick, guess which one had a better record against the top 25? North Carolina won more games, but Butler went 4–0 against top 25 opponents, including a sweep of Villanova and a neutral-floor win over Arizona. The Tar Heels went 5–4.
The Bulldogs will not be cower in front of the mighty Tar Heels. As is always the case for a team playing North Carolina, Butler’s handling of its defensive glass will be key. The Tar Heels are the best rebounding team in the country, and while Butler has frontcourt players who can bang with Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks—most notably Andrew Chrabascz, Kelan Martin and Tyler Wideman—North Carolina has a sizable rebounding advantage in every game it plays. That puts the onus the Bulldogs to be efficient offensively, with Avery Woodson’s three-point shooting their best weapon. Click here for more on the crucial matchup between point guards Kamar Baldwin and Joel Berry.
7:29 p.m., TBS
East Region: No. 3 Baylor vs. No. 7 South Carolina
It’s hard to overstate just how unlikely South Carolina’s first ever trip to the Sweet 16 is. Not only that the Gamecocks are here after losing six times in their last nine games in the regular season, including twice to Alabama and once to Mississippi, but the way they did it. First, the Gamecocks scored 93 points, their second highest total of the season, in a first-round win over Marquette. Then, they upset Duke in the second round, scoring 65 points in the second half. This seems like a good time to mention that South Carolina is ranked 122nd in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com.
Unfortunately for the Gamecocks, they aren’t in South Carolina anymore. In a puzzling move by the selection committee, the Gamecocks played their first two tournament games in Greenville, S.C., about 100 miles from campus. Now they’ll meet Baylor, a team that is still getting overlooked, in New York. The Bears are rightfully big favorites to advance to their first Elite Eight since 2012.
9:39 p.m., CBS
South Region: No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 3 UCLA
If a poll were taken after these two teams met in early December asking in which round of the NCAA tournament a theoretical rematch could take place, it’s safe to say “Sweet 16” wouldn’t have been the winner. The Bruins won, 97–92, in Lexington that day in one of the season’s most entertaining games. They wouldn’t suffer their first loss until the end of the month at Oregon. Kentucky, meanwhile, bounced back with a victory over North Carolina two weeks later. It seems impossible these two teams are meeting again with just a berth in the Elite Eight on the line, but that’s the reality of this year’s tournament.
This should be a fast-paced game, with Kentucky and UCLA ranking 22nd and 15th, respectively, in kenpom.com’s adjusted tempo. The Wildcats may be comfortable playing at such a quick rate, but the Bruins are one of the few teams in the country who can turn that against them, given UCLA’s ruthless efficiency on offense. Oh, and in addition to two of college basketball’s name brands, both of which play an incredibly entertaining style of basketball, we also have two possible top five NBA draft picks in UCLA’s Lonzo Ball and Kentucky’s Malik Monk. You won’t want to miss this game.
9:59 p.m., TBS
East Region: No. 4 Florida vs. No. 8 Wisconsin
At the opposite end of the spectrum from Kentucky and UCLA, we find Florida and Wisconsin. The first team to 60 could win this one. While Florida’s pace is merely slow, Wisconsin’s is glacial, ranking 334th in adjusted tempo. Florida just eviscerated a Virginia team that plays at a similar pace, but the Badgers have more playmakers, both inside and on the perimeter, than the Cavaliers.
Florida’s excellent perimeter defense could be a problem for Bronson Koenig, but the Badgers’ interior duo of Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes likely have the advantage with the Gators’ John Egbunu out. Wisconsin has allowed opponents to connect on 37.7% of their threes this season, the 47th-highest percentage in the country. That could make KeVaughn Allen and Devin Robinson, the Gators’ two most dangerous three-point shooters, even more central to their offense than they typically are.