You may not have watched every game of the NCAA tournament, but don’t worry: We did. We’ll tell you how each team got to the Sweet 16 and why they will or won’t make the Final Four. You can also read about the East, South and West regions.
No. 3 Notre Dame vs. No. 7 Wichita State
Thursday, 7:15 p.m., CBS
Why it’ll make the Final Four: Few teams can handle Notre Dame’s offense. Jerian Grant (16.8 points per game) and company boast the country’s No. 3 attack in adjusted efficiency, per kenpom.com. They don’t turn the ball over (No. 3 in turnover percentage) and hit 58.3% of their two-point field goals, the best mark in the country. The Irish, which could face Kentucky in the Elite Eight, haven’t shied away from college basketball’s bluebloods. They averaged 82 points in wins over Duke and North Carolina to take home the ACC tournament crown and don’t have a bad loss on their résumé. That offense is the primary catalyst behind the program’s rise to its first Sweet 16 since 2003, and it could be what drives Notre Dame to the Final Four.
Why it won’t make the Final Four: The nation’s only undefeated team potentially stands in the way. Notre Dame could face the Wildcats in the Elite Eight, a daunting task for an Irish squad seemingly on a roll. Notre Dame’s offense doesn’t have many holes, but one could be damning against tougher competition: Offensive rebounding. The Irish rank 280th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage (27.7) and grabbed only 11 total offensive boards in their first two tournament games. Notre Dame’s path will be tougher without the opportunity for second-chance points from big men like Zach Auguste—especially against Kentucky and its bottomless rotation of seven-footers.
How it got here: Beat No. 10 Indiana, 81-76, and No. 2 Kansas, 78-65
Why it will make the Final Four: The Shockers were considered a top-10 team a mere two weeks ago. Before falling to Illinois State in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament semifinals on March 7, Wichita State was ranked No. 8 in the country with two of its three losses coming to top-10 teams. It uses balance to wear down its opponents; the program ranks top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, per kenpom.com. The Shockers are rolling after one of the biggest wins in recent history, on Sunday against Kansas. The Jayhawks, which have famously refused to schedule Wichita State in the regular season, were held to 35% shooting in a 78-65 Shockers win. Fred Van Vleet, Ron Baker and company are no stranger to March, either: This team reached the Final Four only two seasons ago.
Why it won’t make the Final Four: Wichita State might’ve gotten this far, but it faces an uphill battle to reach Indianapolis. Coach Gregg Marshall’s roster must first face Notre Dame in the Sweet 16. The Irish rank No. 3 in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, per kenpom.com. If the Shockers survive Notre Dame? They’ll likely face unbeaten Kentucky and the country’s top defense. But Wichita might not even get by the Irish, who shoot a hot 38.9% on three-pointers. That’s where the Shockers’ defense really struggles (217th nationally in three-point percentage defense). For Wichita State to reach its second Final Four in three seasons, it might need its best defensive performance against Notre Dame followed by an offensive clinic against Kentucky.
No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 5 West Virginia
Thursday, 9:45 p.m., CBS
Why it’ll make the Final Four: The first team to start a season 36-0 in Division I history, Kentucky adheres to the old adage of “defense wins championships.” The unbeaten Wildcats boast the country’s top defense in overall efficiency and effective field-goal percentage, per kenpom.com. Against the Bearcats on Saturday, Kentucky shot 37% from the field but survived by holding Cincinnati to 31% shooting and forcing 14 turnovers. Plus, the ‘Cats flat-out understand adversity. Their roster hasn’t always made an unbeaten start look easy; it has escaped upset bids from the likes of Georgia and LSU on the way. Ole Miss and Texas A&M also took the Wildcats to overtime earlier this year. In the end, Kentucky’s balance has helped maintain its unblemished start. Each member of its starting five is a 15-20 point threat on any given night.
Why it won’t make the Final Four: History says Kentucky will eventually lose. It’s been almost four decades since Bob Knight led his Indiana squad through an undefeated championship run in 1976. No team has done it since, which makes an NCAA title an unlikely culmination for the Wildcats. But a loss could happen before they reach the Final Four, especially if they draw Notre Dame in the Elite Eight. The Irish, whhich rank third nationally in offensive efficiency, might have the best offense Kentucky has faced this season. They went a combined 4-1 against Duke and North Carolina this year, beating them on consecutive days to win the conference tournament on March 14. The Wildcats could slip if they find themselves focusing on a spot in Indianapolis and not the task at hand.
West Virginia Mountaineers
How it got here: Beat No. 12 Buffalo, 60-62, and No. 4 Maryland, 69-59
Why it will make the Final Four: The Mountaineers might have the most disruptive defense in the country. They force turnovers on 28.1% of their opponents’ possessions and record a steal on 15.1% of possessions, both tops in the country. Maryland recorded more turnovers (23) than made field goals (20) in its Round of 32 loss to West Virginia. Juwan Staten (14.5 points per game) and the Mountaineers know how to turn those mistakes into points with the country’s 46th most efficient offense, per kenpom.com. That formula has helped the program earn Big 12 wins over the likes of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas and Kansas. Now West Virginia’s ball-hawking defense could be a true threat to the rest of the Midwest Region.
Why it won’t make the Final Four: If the Mountaineers don’t force turnovers, their defense can give up shots. They allow an effective field-goal percentage of 52.6% this season, 301st nationally. That’s the last thing West Virginia needs against the offenses it’ll face en route to the Final Four in Kentucky and Notre Dame or Wichita State. The program notched a number of impressive wins in Big 12 play this year, but its record against top-tier competition could become problematic. The Mountaineers went 3-8 this season against kenpom.com’s top-25 teams. That mark included two losses to Iowa State and three to Baylor. West Virginia won’t reach Indianapolis without stepping up its game against top competition, and first up is Kentucky.