Can West Virginia upset No. 1 Villanova? Will Loyola-Chicago or Nevada win the the clash of the Cinderellas? Picking winners for every Sweet 16 game.
After an opening weekend that featured two No. 1 seeds going down before the Sweet 16 for the first time in 14 years, the largest comeback in NCAA tournament history, no region advancing its top-four seeds, and, oh yeah, the greatest upset the tourney has ever seen, the field of 68 is now a field of 16. The NCAA tournament resumes on Thursday with the Sweet 16. By time the weekend wraps up, the Final Four will be set. It’s time for the madness to continue.
South Region: No. 11 Loyola-Chicago vs. No. 7 Nevada
Thursday, 7:07 p.m., CBS
Loyola-Chicago advanced to the Sweet 16 after winning both of its first two games in the final five seconds. Nevada, meanwhile, staged come-from-behind victories in the first and second round, the latter of which was a 22-point comeback over No. 2 Cincinnati. After Thursday, either the Ramblers or Wolf Pack will be one win away from the Final Four. The Ramblers have done a great job of forcing their first two opponents, Miami and Tennessee, to play to their pace, holding both to 62 points. However, neither of those teams really had the desire to get out and run. The opposite is true of Nevada, which also has the size on the wings and in the backcourt to create matchup issues for the Ramblers. If Loyola-Chicago’s dream run is going to continue, it will need to control the pace even more effectively this weekend than it did last weekend. The bet here is that the Ramblers and Sister Jean aren’t going home just yet.
Loyola 68, Nevada 66
West Region: No. 7 Texas A&M vs. No. 3 Michigan
Thursday, 7:37 p.m., TBS
This is the least surprising matchup of Thursday’s four Sweet 16 games, which is saying something considering the Aggies had to beat No. 2 North Carolina to get here. They played possibly their best game of the season in that one, scoring 1.1 points per possession while holding the Tar Heels to 0.83. The Wolverines, meanwhile, are enjoying a run that dates back to early February, winning 11 straight games and 13 of their last 14. These are two of the most efficient defenses left dancing, with the Wolverines ranking third in kenpom.com’s adjusted efficiency and the Aggies slotted in the ninth position. We can expect both teams to play well defensively, which could mean that the difference in the game comes on the other end of the floor. This has the feel of a game where a singular scorer, like Mo Wagner for Michigan or Tyler Davis for Texas A&M, puts his team on his back.
Michigan 72, Texas A&M 69
South Region: No. 9 Kansas State vs. No. 5 Kentucky
Thursday, 9:37 p.m., CBS
With all due respect to Kansas State, everything is coming up Kentucky in the South Region. One week ago at this time, it looked like Kentucky would need to beat Arizona and potential No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton just to get to this point. Thanks to Buffalo, that was not the case. Then, it appeared they’d have to get through ACC champ and No. 1 overall seed Virginia to advance to the Elite Eight. UMBC’s historic upset removed that hurdle, as well. Now, John Calipari and his Wildcats need to beat Kansas State and one of Loyola-Chicago or Nevada to march on to San Antonio, and while no game is guaranteed, it seems like a much easier task than what they were looking at seven days ago. Kansas State will likely get Dean Wade back on Thursday, but needs him at or at least near his best to have a chance to upset Kentucky. The fifth-seeded Wildcats are playing their best basketball of the season, winning nine of their last 10 games, while finding a ceiling on offense that eluded them for most of the season. If one game on Thursday is a blowout, it will be this one.
Kentucky 80, Kansas State 67
West Region: No. 9 Florida State vs. No. 4 Gonzaga
Thursday, 10:07 p.m., TBS
The first slate of Sweet 16 action wraps up with what should be the fastest-paced game of the night. Both Florida State and Gonzaga typically get up and down the floor, but both teams pick up the pace when the game demands another gear. The difference in this matchup could come down to the backcourts, specifically how well Florida State’s guards play defensively against Josh Perkins and Silas Melson. The Seminoles clamped down on the perimeter in their upset of Xavier, holding Trevon Bluiett and Quentin Goodin to a combined 14 points on 4-of-13 from the floor. J.P. Macura got going in that game, but they could live with one of the three living up to his billing. The formula for knocking off Gonzaga will be similar: remember, it took a late-game run for the Seminoles to get past Xavier. Even with Bluiett and Goodin neutralized, Xavier may be the team opposing Gonzaga had Macura not fouled out.
Gonzaga 84, Florida State 75
Midwest Region: No. 5 Clemson vs. No. 1 Kansas
Friday, 7:07 p.m., CBS
The way Clemson picked up the pieces after Donte Grantham tore his ACL is one of the most impressive feats of the 2017-18 college basketball season. The Tigers looked like a true Final Four threat with Grantham, and more than a few teams would have crumbled after losing a player of his stature. Not only did the Tigers not go in the tank, they enjoyed one of the strongest opening weekends of any of the Sweet 16 teams. With all that said, it’s hard to see how their season extends beyond Friday. As good as the Tigers looked last week, they beat 12th-seeded New Mexico State and an Auburn team that was on borrowed time. Kansas is neither a 12-seed nor a team punching above its weight. The Jayhawks have been a machine on offense most of the season, but particularly over the last six weeks. Any team that is going to beat them needs to have at least one player who can consistently get buckets himself, or create easy ones for his teammates. Kansas’ short rotations always put it at risk should someone get into foul trouble, but Grantham was the Clemson player most likely to force that issue. Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk are both shooting lights out, and Udoka Azubuike could be a real problem for Clemson’s frontcourt.
Kansas 80, Clemson 70
East Region: No. 5 West Virginia vs. No. 1 Villanova
Friday, 7:37 p.m., TBS
West Virginia-Villanova is the most intriguing matchup of the Sweet 16 round, and the battle between Jevon Carter and Jalen Brunson shapes up the best individual matchup of the weekend’s first two days of games. There’s little doubt that the Wildcats can handle the Mountaineers’ press. They rank 11th in the country in turnover rate, and Brunson is one of the most sure-handed point guards in the country. As great as he has been, though, it might be Mikal Bridges who gives the Mountaineers the most trouble. Put simply, it’s hard to see either Wesley Harris or Esa Ahamd as an effective primary defender against the future lottery pick. West Virginia has one of the best team defenses in the country, but once Villanova gets into its sets, it has the weapons to attack the Mountaineers’ half-court defense. Bob Huggins’s team may make its name on the defensive end of the floor, but realistically, it can’t hope to shut down Villanova’s offense. If West Virginia is going to pull off the upset, Carter will have to once again show why he’s arguably the best two-way guard in the country.
Villanova 84, West Virginia 77
Midwest Region: No. 11 Syracuse vs. No. 2 Duke
Friday, 9:37 p.m., CBS
The Midwest and East Regions played much more to script than the West and South. Syracuse is the lone surprise Sweet 16 team playing on Friday and the Orange simply cannot match Duke’s top gear. If the Blue Devils are able to get out in transition with any consistency, this won’t be much of a contest. Syracuse obviously wants to figure out a way to slow this game down and turn it into a rock fight, but there’s one major problem with that strategy: Duke is likely better at that style of play, too. The Blue Devils turned their defense around once they committed to a 2-3 zone and they are now one of the best in the country on both ends of the floor. These teams played in late February, with Duke suffocating Syracuse en route to an easy 60-44 victory. It’s hard to build a case for why this meeting could be different. Syracuse may have shut down Michigan State in the second round, but the Spartans were prone to offensive lulls all season. The same cannot be said for Duke. This is the easiest game of the weekend to call.
Duke 68, Syracuse 53
East Region: No. 3 Texas Tech vs. No. 2 Purdue
Friday, 9:57 p.m., TBS
Isaac Haas’s elbow injury significantly changes the outlook of this game. The Boilermakers can still play their four-out, one-in offense with Matt Haarms, but he simply isn’t the scoring threat that Haas is. The Boilermakers made 11 of their 24 three-point attempts against Butler in the second round and needed every single one of them in the 76-73 win. Texas Tech, however, is a much better defensive team, ranking fourth in kenpom.com’s adjusted efficiency. The Red Raiders also have the most electric scorer in this matchup in the form of senior point guard Keenan Evans. Games rarely come down to a singular element, but if the Red Raiders can run the Boilermakers off the three-point line, they’ll likely move on to the Elite Eight. If Purdue gets going from distance—and, remember, Carsen Edwards, Vincent Edwards, Dakota Mathias, P.J. Thompson and Ryan Cline all shoot at least 40% from behind the arc on at least 100 attempts this season—the Boilermakers will place themselves one win from the Final Four.
Purdue 75, Texas Tech 74