- With a loaded NCAA tournament slate on tap for Thursday and Friday night, who do our writers see advancing to the Elite Eight?
Ready for more basketball? The Sweet 16 gets underway on Thursday night, starting with Gonzaga–Florida State as the first of four games, before continuing on Friday and ending with Kentucky-Houston. Many anticipate these games to be competitive after a more blowout-heavy first two rounds, and the Vegas lines reflect that. Will there be any surprises when it comes to who keeps on dancing into the Elite Eight, or will the chalk rule again?
Our writers' Sweet 16 picks are below, with two people defending their pick for each matchup (all times Eastern):
No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 4 Florida State (Thursday, 7:09 p.m., CBS)
Dan Greene Picks Florida State: The Seminoles are one of the only teams that can match the Zags' size and athleticism up front, potentially neutralizing one of the No. 1 seed's strengths in its two-point efficiency. Gonzaga can shoot fairly well but doesn't like to rely on the outside shot, so forcing it to do so could make the favorites uncomfortable. FSU won by 15 in this same matchup in this same round a year ago. Both teams are better now, and though the margin will be tighter, the result should be the same.
Molly Geary Picks Gonzaga: A lot has been said about what happened when these two sides met last March, but look at the lineup Gonzaga had in that one. Killian Tillie had just gotten hurt, sidelining a crucial floor-spacer and three-point threat, and the Zags essentially played with six men all game, three of whom were underclassmen. Tillie was out, Rui Hachimura was making only his second career start and Brandon Clarke—the Bulldogs' best player this season—was not yet eligible to play. This is a much-improved Gonzaga side, and while Florida State is also better and will be an extremely tough test, the Zags have the offense, the experience and the spacing to write a different ending this time.
No. 2 Tennessee vs. No. 3 Purdue (Thursday, 7:29 p.m., TBS)
Eric Single Picks Purdue: The Vols' subpar three-point defense has allowed lesser teams to shoot their way back into games, and the Boilermakers do not plan to wait until they're behind to start bombing away. Purdue should also be able to throw just a little more size and athleticism at Grant Williams than Iowa could.
Molly Geary Picks Tennessee: This is a difficult matchup for Tennessee, but I think the Vols can do enough to play the way they want to against Purdue. The Boilermakers are good at keeping teams from getting looks inside, but they only rank 194th in defensive field-goal percentage at the rim (per Hoop-Math), while Tennessee's offense ranks 23rd in that area. Few are better at drawing fouls than Grant Williams, and if he can get a few on someone like Matt Haarms, things could open up inside.
No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 3 Texas Tech (Thursday, 9:39 p.m., CBS)
Jeremy Woo Picks Michigan: You’ll see a lot of Charles Matthews on Jarrett Culver in this game, and he’ll do just enough to slow him down and force the Red Raiders’ secondary ballhandlers to step up. This will be low scoring, but Michigan should hit enough threes to make the difference.
Michael Shapiro Picks Texas Tech: The Red Raiders should be able to lock down Michigan in a battle of defensive stalwarts. Texas Tech is kenpom’s No. 1 defense, anchored on the back line by St. John’s transfer and shot-blocking extraordinaire Tariq Owens. Jarrett Culver beat Iowa State with 31 points on March 9 after a 26-point effort against Kansas on Feb. 23. Expect a similar effort on Thursday and a second-straight Elite Eight for Chris Beard & Co.
No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 12 Oregon (Thursday, 9:59 p.m., TBS)
Emily Caron Picks Virginia: The Ducks are riding a strong 10-game winning streak into the Sweet 16, but the reality is that they haven’t yet played anyone as good as Virginia. The Cavaliers’ style of play is designed to slow down teams like Oregon, and the Ducks won’t push the pace enough to force Virginia into panic mode. Dana Altman’s team defends the three well but with a trio of perimeter threats in De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy (plus the occasional contribution from guys like Jay Huff), it’ll be hard for the Ducks' improved defense to keep up with Virginia’s offense.
Max Meyer Picks Virginia: Oregon's defense has been sensational in March, but it's a big jump facing the likes of Wisconsin (61st in adjusted offensive efficiency), UC Irvine (118th) and the Pac-12 compared to Virginia (second). Wisconsin and UC Irvine shot a combined 11 for 48 from three (22.9%) against Oregon, and you can't expect to beat the Ducks without a strong perimeter effort thanks to shot-blocking machine Kenny Wooten down low. Virginia is sixth in three-point percentage, and barring another 0-for-10 effort from Kyle Guy, I think the Hoos will have a much easier time scoring against the Ducks than the Ducks will against the Pack Line.
No. 2 Michigan State vs. No. 3 LSU (Friday, 7:09 p.m., CBS)
Jeremy Woo Picks Michigan State: I think Cassius Winston pilots the Spartans to a close but decisive win and finally starts to get credit for what he’s doing. LSU has the more athletic team, but the Spartans impressed me with their toughness and unified approach in Des Moines and should have enough to win this game.
Michael Shapiro Picks LSU: Will Wade isn’t with the Tigers for their NCAA tournament run, but the SEC regular-season champs still hold the same talented roster from their impressive pre-tournament run. LSU is physical enough to compete with the Spartans, and Tremont Waters should be able to keep up with Cassius Winston. Naz Reid may be the most talented player on the floor. If the freshman can deliver a similar effort to his 26-point performance in the SEC tournament quarterfinal, the Tigers will be set for their first regional final since Tyrus Thomas and Glen Davis defeated Texas in 2006.
No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 5 Auburn (Friday, 7:29 p.m., TBS)
Max Meyer Picks Auburn: Maybe I'm stubborn because I have Auburn advancing in my bracket and because I bet on the Tigers to win the national title, but this is just a gut feeling. It's really tough to beat UNC when matching its fast pace, but if Auburn, which has the No. 1 defensive turnover rate in the country (25.2%), can force a sloppy game, the Tigers will have a shot. The Tar Heels actually committed a turnover on 22.1% of possessions last game against Washington, but the Huskies couldn't keep up on the offensive end. If the Tigers can force a similar number, they will have a legitimate shot to win this one with all of their perimeter firepower.
Michael Beller Picks North Carolina: Auburn has the three-point shooting to stay with North Carolina, but it isn’t just raw scoring that beats the Tar Heels. Teams either need to take them out of their extremely fast pace—as Michigan, Kentucky and Virginia did in regular season wins over the Heels—or be able to play with them at it, as Duke did in its ACC semifinal victory. Auburn isn’t equipped to do either. I’ve got North Carolina advancing to the Elite Eight in relatively comfortable fashion.
No. 1 Duke vs. No. 4 Virginia Tech (Friday, 9:39 p.m. on CBS)
Michael Beller Picks Duke: Some saw Duke’s near-loss to UCF as a crossing of the Rubicon, with their eventual ouster from the tournament now a foregone conclusion. I saw it as a team having the perfect personnel to execute a specifically tailored gameplan, doing so perfectly, and still coming up short. Virginia Tech is going to need one of its best shooting performances of the season to win this one, and even that wouldn’t guarantee victory. The Blue Devils will get right on Friday.
Dan Greene Picks Duke: The Hokies edged a Zion-less Blue Devils team at home a few weeks ago, but this game will be against a full-strength Duke and at a neutral site. Although Tech is capable of shooting like UCF did, it lacks the unique, game-shifting defensive presence of Tacko Fall that forced the Blue Devils away from their strength in the paint and can be vulnerable against Duke's prowess on the offensive glass.
No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 3 Houston (Friday, 9:59 p.m. on TBS)
Emily Caron Picks Kentucky: As much as I'd like to get a little less chalky here and pick Houston, with PJ Washington potentially back on the floor for Kentucky, the Wildcats will likely win this one. The Cougars have depth, experience and a decent defense, but it'll hard for them to stop Kentucky on offense if they’re at full strength. The Wildcats' frontcourt could also pose problems for Houston’s scorers, who rely more heavily on getting points in the paint than at the perimeter.
Eric Single Picks Houston: Even without knowing the status of PJ Washington this weekend, the Cougars are giving up a lot of size to Kentucky—the last time they played a team this tall was Tacko Fall-led UCF, which dealt them their only home loss of the year. But allow me to direct your attention to early-season wins over LSU and Oregon, two other tall high-major teams that happen to be in the Sweet 16, as evidence that Houston can make up for that disadvantage with its dedication to playing tough on the glass (it outrebounded LSU and played Oregon to a virtual draw) and near the arc (the Tigers and Ducks' nightmare nights from long range line up with the Coogs' nation-leading 27.8% three-point field goal percentage allowed).