- Our Sweet 16 roundtable tackles a number of topics, including Virginia vs. Oregon, which team Duke should least want to see and more.
The Sweet 16 starts Thursday, with college basketball fans everywhere hoping it brings more drama than the first two rounds did (for the most part). Our writers already made their revised predictions for the rest of the bracket, but now it's time to get a little deeper into our forecasts. Which No. 1 seed do we think will fall first? Can Oregon actually beat Virginia? After narrowly escaping UCF, what team should Zion Williamson and Duke least want to see between now and the final? We answered those questions in more in our Sweet 16 roundtable.
Biggest disappointment of the first two rounds?
Dan Greene: The sheer amount of games without much drama. Sunday helped make up for it with Iowa’s furious comeback and a UCF-Duke game that we’ll remember for a while, but too many games were comfortably decided.
Eric Single: No one was ready for Ja Morant's triple double in Murray State's tournament opener, but Marquette got worked at every position on the floor, not just in the matchup between Morant and sharpshooter Markus Howard, who needed 32 shots (including field goals) to score 26 points. The Golden Eagles had a Big East title in their hands with two weeks left in the regular season and ended the year in a Washington Generals-like role.
Michael Beller: I’m sure a lot of people find the lack of upsets disappointing, but I’ll take a tournament like this any day of the week. By any reasonable accounting, 15 of the 16 teams still dancing have been among the best teams all season. There is some unbelievable basketball in store the next two weeks. In a tournament dominated by the big guy, I’ll say my biggest disappointment is Wisconsin. The Badgers and Kansas State were the power conference representatives in the lone pod that didn’t send a team that has been ranked inside the top 20 for most, if not all, of the season to the Sweet 16, but we can excuse the Wildcats considering they didn’t have Dean Wade in their loss to UC-Irvine. Wisconsin got outclassed by Oregon, especially in the second half when the Ducks outscored the Badgers 47–29. The Big Ten had an excellent opening weekend and put three teams in the Sweet 16, but Wisconsin did not pull its weight.
Emily Caron: The UCF tip (x2) in not going in at the end to take down Duke. There was so much chalk in the first two rounds the only thing that could’ve made up for it would have been a second-round exit for the national title favorites. The lack of madness in itself could be the biggest disappointment, but for the sake of sticking to one single game it has to be the ending of Duke-UCF.
Max Meyer: There aren't a lot of teams to choose from given all the chalk that took place this past week, but I'll go with Iowa State. The Cyclones were just coming off an impressive Big 12 tournament run and have a strong collection of talent. Ohio State, on the other hand, doesn't have that great of a roster (Chris Holtmann is a wizard). Despite the talent mismatch, Iowa State had another early exit in the NCAA tournament, which it seemingly does every year after being labeled as a darkhorse to win the region.
Molly Geary: The fact that only one No. 13 seed or lower won, and it was the one (UC Irvine) that was probably the easiest to see coming given the Anteaters' strengths and Dean Wade's absence for Kansas State. No. 12 seed upsets are cool, but we're pretty accustomed to them, and they don't move the shock needle the way a No. 13, 14 or (gulp) 15 or 16 winning does. We got spoiled last season between UMBC, Buffalo and Marshall.
Jeremy Woo: Honestly, I was hoping for a greater volume of compelling early games (although I don’t know what I was expecting, and when you’re covering the tournament on the ground it’s admittedly difficult to get a grasp on the scope of things). I’m O.K. with having better regional matchups—there’s going to be a ton to watch this week, no matter what—but romantically speaking, one or two surprise Sweet 16 teams would have been nice. Where art thou, Wofford?
Michael Shapiro: Iowa State’s performance against Ohio State. The Cyclones entered March Madness as a sneaky bet for a regional final in the Midwest, armed with a wealth of scoring options and the Big 12 tournament championship. They fell flat against the Buckeyes, though, going 6 for 22 from three in a 62–59 defeat. Virginia transfer Marial Shayok stepped up with a game-high 23 points, but Talen Horton-Tucker and Nick Weiler-Babb combined to go 1 of 14 from the floor. Ohio State big man Kaleb Wesson ate the Cyclones’ lunch on the other end, bruising his way to the second round. Houston didn’t have much trouble with Ohio State in the second round. Iowa State could have provided one of the weekend’s most dramatics finishes.
Can Oregon beat Virginia?
Greene: Sure, especially since the Ducks defend the three well. But I don’t think they’ll pull off the upset—their pace won’t make the Cavaliers uncomfortable, and ever since getting past the early scare from Gardner-Webb, Virginia doesn’t seem to be playing with any monkey on its back.
Single: No. The average kenpom rank of the seven opponents Oregon has beaten during its current 10-game winning streak is 86.7, with the Ducks' first-round win over Wisconsin the most impressive pelt collected. For all their March faults, the Cavaliers are on another level. De'Andre Hunter should neutralize most of the athletic advantages Oregon has imposed on its first two tournament opponents.
Beller: No? I mean, sure, they can. The Ducks have an 18% chance to win according to kenpom.com, and one in five is likelier than it sounds to most ears. Additionally, if someone told you in November that Oregon would be a Sweet 16 team, you wouldn’t have batted an eye. This team always had the talent to get to this spot, but never found its stride and seemed adrift from the moment Bol Bol went down for the season. That they put things together over the last month is a testament to that talent and Dana Altman. Among all the No. 1 seeds, though, Virginia is likely the worst matchup for Oregon. The Ducks want to slow teams down and grind away with their defense. No team is better at playing that style than Virginia. The teams that have defeated Virginia this year—Duke and Florida State—sped them up a bit and made them uncomfortable on offense. Virginia is likely to be right at home playing against a team that wants to work long possessions on both sides of the floor. Oregon deserves a ton of credit for getting to this point, but the dream ends on Thursday.
Caron: Here’s the thing: both of these defenses are good. It could look a little gridlocked from time to time on that front, but the reality is that while Oregon has hit a stride down the stretch offensively and defensively, it still hasn’t faced a team like Virginia. The Ducks beat a bad Wisconsin team in the first round and a surprising second-round survivor in UC Irvine, but they have still not played anyone of the Cavaliers' caliber. Their improved offense won’t be able to outsmart the Pack Line and even a glitch like Kenny Wooten won’t be able to stop all of Virginia’s front court weapons. De’Andre Hunter can finesse his way around even the best defenders in the paint, Jack Salt has the size and Mamadi Diakite has muscled his way to the rim many a time this postseason. Payton Pritchard can’t contain both Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome if they get going from deep. It could happen but I just don’t think the Ducks, despite their depth and development, are playing at the same level as Virginia.
Meyer: Dana Altman has done as impressive a coaching job as anyone in the country this season. Oregon's defense has also been one of the best in the country in the month of March. That being said, facing Virginia's second-ranked adjusted offensive efficiency is a major jump from the likes of Wisconsin (61st), UC Irvine (118th) and the Pac-12. The Ducks can keep this game within single digits, but this would easily be the most surprising No. 1-seed upset in the Sweet 16.
Geary: The big key in this game, I'd say, is Virginia's three-point shooting. The Ducks have the nation's sixth-best three-point defense, but their defense is predicated on closing off the paint and two-point jumpers more than the perimeter. The Hoos will get looks from the outside (Wisconsin, for example, took 30 threes in its loss, and made only six), and if they knock down a fair amount, it's hard to picture them having much trouble given their other advantages. But if Oregon keeps up its own hot shooting of late (it has shot 48.1% from three over its last three games, two of which were against top-20 defenses), the Ducks could hang around and make things interesting. Ultimately, I think Virginia takes this one, but neither it being by a comfortable margin nor a narrow one would surprise me.
Woo: I’d give them a reasonable chance, although not necessarily a probable one. The Ducks are obviously streaking, and they have shooting, an athletic frontline, and the right type of decision-making guard in Payton Pritchard to keep the game close. Virginia’s weakness, as always, is their narrow scoring tree, and while it will probably take bad shooting nights from Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy for Oregon to pull this off, remember that the Ducks have been one of the better teams in the country defending beyond the arc. This will probably be closer than you think.
Shapiro: Oregon is a lively No. 12 seed, rolling into the Sweet 16 with 10-straight victories. The Ducks crushed Washington in the Pac-12 tournament final, then registered double-digit wins over Wisconsin and UC-Irvine over the weekend. Virginia is very much on upset alert. Oregon forward Kenny Wooten is swatting everything in sight, and Dana Altman is a seasoned tournament coach. I’ll stick pick the Cavaliers in a close one, but can the Ducks pull an upset? Absolutely.
Who will be the first No. 1 to lose?
Greene: Gonzaga. The Seminoles' athletic front can match up with Gonzaga's and force the Zags out of their game plan. Just like last year, I think FSU sends the Bulldogs home in the Sweet 16.
Single: North Carolina appears to be the most at risk, with a Sweet 16 game against an Auburn offense willing to follow its own high-flying attack into the 80s and a potential Elite Eight matchup looming against Houston or Kentucky, which boast two of the best defenses in the tournament. One of those extremes will trip up the Heels.
Beller: I’ve got Florida State advancing to the Elite Eight, so I’m going with Gonzaga. The Seminoles’ size at all positions can counter the Bulldogs’ pace and extreme efficiency on the offensive end. Tennessee provided the blueprint for Florida State back in December with its 76–73 win over Gonzaga. The Volunteers got 30 points from Admiral Schofield and 16 from Grant Williams in that game, keeping the pace under control by feeding their big men. The Seminoles are equipped to do the same.
Caron: I’m going to go with Gonzaga on this one. Florida State is on fire and already has a history of upsetting the Zags in the big dance. Even if they make it past this weekend, the country’s most efficient offense will have one of the tournament’s top-two defenses waiting for them in the Elite Eight. It’s not an easy road for any of the remaining contenders, but the Bulldogs might have the toughest time when it comes to matchups.
Meyer: It's not a great matchup for Auburn since North Carolina usually handles teams that play at a fast pace. But I'm a believer in the Tigers with their propensity to launch threes and generate turnovers. That's a strong formula to win many games, as evidenced by Auburn being just one of two teams (Oregon) to be undefeated in the month of March while playing multiple games. Vegas has this game as the smallest spread (UNC -5) of any game featuring a No. 1 seed in the Sweet 16, and that's because of how dangerous a threat this Tigers team is.
Geary: I continue to have a fair amount of faith in Gonzaga getting out of the loaded West Region, though I do get why Florida State is a popular upset pick. I also think Duke's case against Virginia Tech isn't a slam dunk, mainly because the Hokies force a higher three-point rate than all but one team nationally, and the Blue Devils' struggles from outside are well documented. But ultimately, I'll go with North Carolina. I actually have the Tar Heels in the national championship game, and still believe they can get there, but their upcoming battle with Auburn may be the scariest/toughest Sweet 16 matchup for any of the No. 1s. UNC lets teams take plenty of threes—its last 13 opponents have all taken at least 20, and nine of those have attempted at least 29. That plays right into the Tigers' hands. This is going to be a fast-paced game with plenty of possessions, and Auburn doesn't necessarily need to shoot amazing from three to keep it close. It does, however, need to find a way to limit the Tar Heels' offense, which is what this game will likely hinge on.
Woo: I think Florida State is a really tough draw for Gonzaga, and my gut says this is the game where it happens. On paper, the matchup gives me flashbacks to December, when Gonzaga lost at North Carolina (a game I attended) due large in part to the fact that the Tar Heels’ frontline was able to wear down Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura. The Seminoles have the same type of interior size and depth to keep fresh bodies in the game and try and keep Clarke off the glass, and when you take away Gonzaga’s interior advantage, they become reliant on the three, and the game falls into the occasionally unsteady hands of Josh Perkins. This just smells like a tricky one.
Shapiro: Duke is the only No. 1 seed that feels safe in the Sweet 16. We made the case for Oregon above. North Carolina will likely be in a track meet with Auburn, and Gonzaga faces an imposing unit in Florida State. With three No. 1’s in danger of a premature exit, I’ll take the Bulldogs to lose first. Gonzaga faces one of the tournament’s most physical teams in the Sweet 16. A win, and it’ll face either defensive stalwart Texas Tech, or Michigan, the reigning West regional champion. North Carolina and Virginia could fall in the Sweet 16, but I’d still take the ACC’s schools to survive longer than Gonzaga.
Which 3-seed or lower has the best shot of winning it all?
Greene: Texas Tech. That defense will keep the Red Raiders in any game—remember, they came closest to knocking off Villanova’s humming offensive machine last March—and they have a top-five NBA draft pick who can be the kind of star that pushes a very good team to greatness.
Single: Texas Tech looked perfectly comfortable waiting for its offense to show up in the second half of its first two tournament games, a testament to the confidence with which the Red Raiders play defense. If they get past a similarly stingy Michigan team in the Sweet 16, they could jam the gears of the dynamic offenses that may be waiting in the wings.
Beller: I’m going to stick with the Seminoles here. I already think they’re making the Elite Eight, and that’s more than I can say for Oregon, Purdue, LSU, Texas Tech, Houston, Virginia Tech or Auburn. Should they beat Gonzaga, they’d get the Michigan-Texas Tech winner in the Elite Eight. No matter which team it is, that’s a matchup in which the Seminoles should be comfortable. We know exactly what they can be when they’re at their best, as they proved in wins over Virginia, Purdue, LSU and Virginia Tech. This is unquestionably a championship-caliber team, with a friendlier road to the Final Four than any other team seeded third or lower.
Caron: Florida State. The Seminoles had 10 players post points in their 90–62 dispatch of Ja Morant’s Murray State. We’ve talked about their length and athleticism often this season, but it’s the Seminoles depth that could take them all the way this tournament. They shot 56.8% from the field and 40.7% from deep while holding the Racers to 30.2% from two and 39.8% from three. They can smother and score, which might be just what a team needs to take this year’s title in a field of chalky but talented teams.
Meyer: Despite residing in by far the toughest region, I'm going with Texas Tech. The Red Raiders have an elite coach in Chris Beard, one of the country's best defenses and a legitimate star (Jarrett Culver) who will wind up as an NBA lottery pick. The problem is Texas Tech will have to go through grueling battles of Michigan and Gonzaga/Florida State just to make it to the Final Four. In the end, though, whoever wins the title is going to have to play several tough contests, so despite Texas Tech's tricky path, I think that the Red Raiders are clearly the best team of the No. 3 seeds or lower.
Geary: I'll go ahead and stick with Auburn. Texas Tech, Florida State and Purdue have a case here too, but the first two are in what I view as the toughest region and the Boilermakers' offense is a bit too inconsistent for me to bank on it. The Tigers are boom-or-bust, but they've been booming for a while now and, offensively, have ripped through a number of pretty good defenses. If they can keep up their three-point shooting, they'll be a tough out.
Woo: This might end up looking stupid, but I’m paying attention to Houston. I think they can knock off Kentucky (who might be without PJ Washington again), and I think their depth, experience and the consistency of their defense bodes well against whichever of North Carolina or Auburn they’d play after that. Of the lower seeds, I think their route is the most favorable.
Shapiro: I remain impressed by Texas Tech following its 20-point blowout of Buffalo in the second round. The road to Minneapolis will be tough, with potential battles against Duke and Gonzaga awaiting before the national title game. Yet the Red Raiders hold the profile of a national title contender, armed with Kenpom’s No. 1 defense. If Jarrett Culver heats up over the weekend, a Final Four could be followed by a top-five selection in June’s NBA draft. The Red Raiders lost to Duke at Madison Square Garden in December. An upset could be in play if we get a rematch.
Who should Duke least want to see from now until the final?
Greene: Either of the Michigan teams. They’re both disciplined, talented squads with experience and elite coaches; Michigan State can outshoot the Blue Devils by a good margin, and Michigan is among the very best at preventing the kind of live-ball turnovers that can be fatal for Duke opponents. There’s a good chance any Blue Devils title run would have to go through both.
Single: Gonzaga. The Bulldogs' frontcourt made the difference against a full-strength Duke squad in Maui before Thanksgiving, and Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura have only gotten better. Gonzaga's elite offense would demand offensive contributions from Tre Jones and Cam Reddish, who have been less than consistent on that end.
Beller: It’s one of the two teams from the state of Michigan that could be in Duke’s path that it least wants to see, and I’ll go with the Spartans ever so slightly over the Wolverines. UCF dared Duke to shoot threes, packed the paint to close off Duke’s driving lanes, and made nine of its 18 threes from behind the arc. Any team can mimic those first two points, and Michigan State is certainly dangerous from distance, ranking 24th in the country in three-point percentage. I thought Michigan State should’ve been a No. 1 seed, so, in my estimation, this is the best team the Blue Devils can see between now and the national championship, even before considering matchups. Add in the Spartans’ shooting ability and Tom Izzo’s track record in the second game of a tournament weekend—Izzo is 21–6 in the second round, Elite Eight and national championship combined—and they could spell doom for the Blue Devils.
Caron: Michigan State. The Spartans are one of the few teams in the tournament that boast as much balance as Duke does. They can keep up with the Blue Devils on both sides of the floor and drew the short end of the stick when it came to seeding and bracketing, meaning they’ve probably been preparing (at least mentally) for a matchup with Duke from the beginning. Tom Izzo mirrors Mike Krzyzewski in not being afraid to light a fire under his players with a few choice words to get them going either. Their teams are tough with tough coaches, and the talent is there for both.
Meyer: Gonzaga has beaten a healthy Duke already this season, and the Zags can do it again in the Final Four if those two teams make it that far. The big man tandem of Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura can give the Blue Devils fits on both ends. Gonzaga is one of the best two-point defenses in the country, and if it can force Duke to have to rely on three-point shots more than usual, the Blue Devils would have a hard time keeping up in this one.
Geary: A rematch with Gonzaga. The Bulldogs have the frontcourt to measure up, like it did against Duke in Maui, when Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura combined for 37 points and nine blocks. Killian Tillie didn't play in that game, and at 6'10" he provides more length and another three-point shooting threat.
Woo: I think drawing LSU in the Elite Eight would be a legitimately tough matchup for the Blue Devils, due in no small part to the fact that the Tigers have been riding an emotional high all tournament. When their group plays with composure, their aggressiveness, athleticism 1-thru-5 and general mean streak stands out, and they certainly won’t back down in a prove-it game like this. NBA scouts are hoping for this matchup, and so am I.
Shapiro: With all due respect to Texas Tech’s defense, Gonzaga is the top contender on the left side of the bracket. The Bulldogs beat Duke in Maui and have cruised since, winning 23 of their last 24 before Thursday’s matchup with Florida State. Gonzaga has the requisite size to keep Duke off the offensive glass and a worthy foil to Zion Williamson with Rui Hachimura. A pair of Big Ten programs may have a case for the top challenger, but for now, Gonzaga presents Duke’s clearest obstacle en route to the national final.
Finally, give a bold prediction about the rest of the tourney
Greene: No game is decided by more than 10 points. That’s right, just 15 competitive contests from here on out. We deserve it.
Single: Virginia Tech–Duke comes down to the last shot. The Blue Devils' UCF scare on Sunday wasn't a focus issue or a bad matchup that can be completely ascribed to the looming presence of Tacko Fall. Duke can't obliterate tournament teams with Zion Williamson alone, and the Hokies' athleticism (and lingering confidence from their regular-season win in Blacksburg) will keep things nip-and-tuck in D.C.
Beller: My chalky Elite Eight, Final Four and national championship are all intact, so I don’t see anything too bold happening in terms of winners and losers the rest of the way. Instead, I’ll focus on one game in particular. Thanks to North Carolina’s pace and Auburn’s ability to shoot the three, I’ll say that we get the 19th game in NCAA tournament history, and first since 2008, to hit the 200-point mark.
Caron: Duke doesn’t play in the national championship game. See above answer.
Meyer: Even with all four No. 2 seeds in the Sweet 16, none of them will reach the Final Four.
Geary: After an incredibly chalky Sweet 16, no more than two No. 1 seeds make the Final Four.
Woo: No ACC teams make the Final Four. Spicy, right?
Shapiro: Houston returns to the Final Four for the first time since 1984. Houston feels undervalued beneath the public favorites North Carolina and Kentucky, but don’t discount the Cougars. Kelvin Sampson’s crew is 33–3 on the season, ranking seventh in points allowed. Armoni Brooks and Corey Davis Jr. form a collegiate version of the Splash Brothers, with each player attempting eight-plus triples per game. Houston is a favorable matchup against Kentucky, especially if PJ Washington remains out of the lineup. The Cougars will then have to outlast Auburn or North Carolina in an Elite Eight shootout. Count on Brooks and Davis to survive the battle.