The first week of the NCAA tournament had everything—crazy endings, wonderful storylines, powerhouse performances.
The second week? Not so much.
Georgia State? Gone. UAB? Toast. Wichita State? Not exactly Cinderella. Yes, we have one double-digit seed remaining, but that’s UCLA. When your biggest underdog is a program that owns 11 NCAA tournament titles, your bark far exceeds your bite.
But that’s O.K., because this time of year, we want to see the titans clash. Five of the eight top seeds are still alive, and two of the remaining sleepers are coached by a current Hall of Famer (Rick Pitino) and a very-near-future one (Tom Izzo). So savor these four days and let the hoops fall where they may. Given the way things have gone, I hope you don’t mind if I keep it chalky, for the most part. Just callin’ them as I see ‘em.
It’s hard to say anything about the Wildcats is underrated, but how come no one is talking about how this team has performed at the free throw line? On Saturday, UK made 71% of its foul shots and outscored Cincinnati from the line, 20-9. That’s an 11-point margin in a game the Wildcats won by 13 points. This has been a recurring theme for a team that is ranked 30th in the country in free throw rate and makes 72.2% overall from the line. Four of Kentucky’s top five scorers are shooting 77% or better.
Why is that so relevant in this game? Because West Virginia is ranked dead last in the entire country in defensive free throw rate. That’s a tough deficiency to overcome. This will be the first time all year that Kentucky is playing a team with more depth. The Mountaineers’ fullcourt pressure may be unrelenting, but after surviving the meat grinder against Cincinnati, I think the Wildcats will be salivating at the chance to get out and run, run, run.
Kentucky 78, West Virginia 64
Notre Dame vs. Wichita State (Thursday, 7:15 p.m., CBS)
This is the most intriguing game of the Sweet 16—and also the hardest to pick. Playing in the ACC, Notre Dame lost to a very efficient defensive team in Virginia on Jan. 10, but Wichita State will be the most disruptive D the Irish have gone up against. Plus, because the incomparable Fred VanVleet pilots the Shockers, they do an excellent job of taking care of the ball. Wichita State ranks seventh in the country in turnover percentage, but on defense they are 26thnationally in steals percentage. They’re also sixth in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio, with VanVleet’s 3.21-to-1 ratio ranking seventh.
Still, Notre Dame is one of the few teams in the country that can score frequently and efficiently in the halfcourt. The Irish are third nationally in offensive efficiency, and for all their three-point prowess they lead the country in two-point field goal percentage (58.3). They are a demonstrably better defensive team than they were even a month ago; you don’t beat Duke and North Carolina to win the ACC tournament if you’re weak defensively). And in 6’10” junior forward Zach Auguste, they will have the only bona fide post scorer in this game. That should be enough—barely.
Notre Dame 67, Wichita State 66
Kentucky vs. Notre Dame
The Irish might have the inside edge on Wichita State, but if they face Kentucky they will be overwhelmed up front. Auguste has height but not a lot of strength, and he has shown a tendency to get into foul trouble (though he was much better in that category during the second half of the season). The Elite Eight would be the furthest Notre Dame has gone during Mike Brey’s 15 years as head coach, but his team won’t go any further. This is Kentucky’s tournament. The rest of us are just watching it.
Kentucky 74, Notre Dame 65
Wisconsin vs. North Carolina (Thursday, 7:47 p.m. ET on TBS )
It’s often said and always true: The NCAA tournament is about matchups. North Carolina got a favorable one in the third round against Arkansas. The Razorbacks are largely ineffective unless they are running at a breakneck pace, and the Heels were happy to play along. That will not be the case against Wisconsin, which is ranked first nationally in both defensive free throw rate and turnover percentage, and is 346th in tempo. These Badgers give you absolutely nothing. You have to beat them to beat them, and you have to do it their way.
Sure, the Tar Heels can win if Marcus Paige goes off—but Wisconsin has one of the best perimeter defenders in the country in Josh Gasser. North Carolina has a deep frontline—but Wisconsin has four guys 6’7” and taller whom Bo Ryan can rotate alongside 7-foot senior Frank Kaminsky. The Heels have the biggest X-factor in the game in 6’8” forward Justin Jackson—but is a freshman really mentally ready to carry his team past a No. 1 seed? I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it sure ain’t likely.
Wisconsin 71, North Carolina 64
The hallmark of a great NCAA tournament team is the ability to play well when it’s not playing well. Arizona is as good as it gets in this department. Wildcats forwards Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson shot a combined 4-for-24 in the second round against Ohio State, yet this team is so good defensively (the Wildcats held the Buckeyes to 39% shooting) and at the free throw line (20-for-24), that it didn’t matter. Gabe York’s season-high five three-pointers off the bench were a huge help. You can be sure that at some point this weekend, York will make a timely three-pointer or two that will give the Wildcats just enough breathing room to advance.
Xavier, on the other hand, has drawn a bad matchup here. The Musketeers’ biggest weapon, literally and figuratively, is 6’10” senior center Matt Stainbrook. Xavier was able to win a lot of games because of Stainbrook’s size and feel, but in 7’0” junior center Kaleb Tarczewski, Arizona has someone who exceeds Stainbrook in both those areas. Throw in the Wildcats’ withering defensive pressure on the wing, and you’ve got the makings of a decisive victory.
Arizona 75, Xavier 60
Wisconsin vs. Arizona
If this game is half as good as last year’s meeting in the regional final (won by Wisconsin in overtime), then it may be twice as good as any other game this week. When teams are this evenly matched, it will come down to the vagaries that decide such games—lucky bounces, lucky whistles, that sort of thing. For me, the difference is Arizona’s Brandon Ashley, the 6’9” junior forward who missed last season’s meeting because of a broken foot. Frank Kaminsky was so unguardable in that game that Arizona coach Sean Miller had to park Tarczewski on the bench. Ashley, however, has both the size and the agility to stick with Kaminsky wherever he goes. He won’t be able to shut down the Tank totally, but he’ll be able to bother him just enough to let Arizona’s athletic advantage decide the game. Can’t wait to watch.
Arizona 70, Wisconsin 69 (overtime)
Louisville vs. N.C. State (Friday, 7:37 p.m. on CBS)
The meeting between these teams in Louisville on Feb. 14 offers a template for what we could see. The Wolfpack won the game because their perimeter trio of Anthony "Cat" Barber, Ralston Turner and Trevor Lacey combined for 45 points. And that was before Louisville’s best perimeter defender, Chris Jones, was kicked off the team. Barber and Lacey have shown a maddening tendency to play up or down to the level of their competition, but in the upset over Villanova, the Wolfpack’s big men provided the difference. They outrebounded the Wildcats by 13 and held their center, Daniel Ochefu, to a single field goal.
During Louisville’s second-round win over Northern Iowa, the Cardinals executed their halfcourt offense as well they have all season. Part of that is due to the ascent of freshman guard Quentin Snider, who made two three-pointers and scored 10 points in the win. (He also scored 16 points in the second-round win over UC Irvine.) The Cardinals were able to overwhelm Northern Iowa with their team speed, but they won’t have that advantage here. I have a feeling Louisville will revert to where it played down the stretch of the regular season, which will allow the Pack to prevail.
N.C. State 67, Louisville 64
For most of the season, Virginia has been one of the top defensive teams in the country. On Sunday, however, the Cavaliers were the second-best defensive team on the court. Michigan State was that good, but the Spartans also performed on the offensive end well above what they had done during the regular season. Looking back, it’s apparent this engine has been gaining steam for several weeks. The Spartans have now won six of their last seven games, including a road win at Indiana and a victory over Maryland in the Big Ten tournament. The lone defeat came in overtime against Wisconsin in the final. The Spartans don’t have great pieces, but they are peaking at just the right time. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised, given who coaches them.
Oklahoma is a good team with a great player in 6’4” junior guard Buddy Hield, who led the Big 12 in scoring (17.5 ppg) and was named the league’s Player of the Year. But I don’t believe the Sooners are prepared to deal with Michigan State’s physical and mental toughness. Throw in the pinpoint three-point shooting of Denzel Valentine and Travis Trice, and you’ve got the makings of a Spartan victory.
Michigan State 71, Oklahoma 65
Michigan State vs. N.C. State
Nothing like a regional between a No. 7 seed and a No. 8 seed to make you realize that March Madness has struck again. If the Spartans remain locked in defensively, then that should help negate the effectiveness of the Wolfpack’s perimeter trio. Nor should we expect N.C. State to be able to beast Michigan State on the boards the way it was able to do to Villanova. A lot of people have gone broke betting against Tom Izzo in March. It would be wise to avoid that mistake again here.
Michigan State 72, N.C. State 68
Duke vs. Utah (Thursday, approx. 9:35 p.m. on CBS)
Is it possible that Duke will only have the second-best freshman center in this game? O.K., that’s a stretch, but I do like the chances for Utah’s 7-foot Austrian pivotman Jakob Poeltl to present a unique challenge. Jahlil Okafor can count on one (very large) hand the number of times he has gone up against a player who as big and athletic as he is. And if Poeltl should falter, Larry Krystowiak can bring in the bigger (but slower) 7’0” senior center Dallin Bachynski off the bench. If you like big guys battling in the paint, then this is the game for you.
Still, even if the Utes are able to neutralize Okafor (big if), they will still face the challenge of locking down the Blue Devils’ three-point snipers, Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones. And even if they do that (or hope those guys have an off-shooting night), they will still have to contend with Justise Winslow’s flights of fancy in transition. And even then Utah may find itself having trouble scoring enough points to keep up. This is going to have the feel of a heavyweight fight, but Duke is far more accustomed to being in those. The few times Utah has stepped into the ring under such bright lights (twice vs. Arizona, and at UCLA), the Utes faltered. I expect them to do so again here.
Duke 75, Utah 65
Gonzaga vs. UCLA (Thursday, 7:15 p.m. on CBS)
Did you happen to see the video of Gonzaga coach Mark Few celebrating in the locker room with his players after his team’s second-round win over Iowa? He looked like a man who had just gotten a new lease on life. As much as Few tried to dismiss the pressure of falling short in the NCAA tournament, it is obvious that he and his team are very much relieved to be back in the Sweet 16. I think they will play footloose and fancy free in Houston, which should mean lots and lots of buckets.
To be sure, the Bulldogs will be facing a very different UCLA team than the one they manhandled in Westwood back on Dec. 13. That was the first of five straight losses for the Bruins, and not even the most optimistic UCLA fan would have guessed the teams would meet again in the Sweet 16. For example, UCLA center Tony Parker only played five minutes in that game because of foul trouble. Parker has grown into a much more disciplined and effective weapon—witness his 28-point, 12-rebound, nice-bracelet-by-the-way performance in the win over UAB—but he is going to have a much harder time running roughshod over Gonzaga’s front line of Przemek Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis. It is truly remarkable that UCLA is in the Sweet 16, but keep in mind the Bruins squeaked by SMU partly because of a really bad late goaltend call, and they were fortunate to draw the fourth-place team from Conference USA in the Round of 32. The level of competition will rise dramatically here.
Gonzaga 78, UCLA 68
Duke vs. Gonzaga
Once again, we will have two evenly matched teams playing with a chance to go to the Final Four. I like Duke because I think Okafor can get Karnowski into early foul trouble, and because of the Blue Devils’ overall speed on the perimeter. Duke has looked beatable at times this season, but the bigger the game, the bigger the possession, the better this team has played. I say the Devils have at least one more big-stage performance in them.
Duke 77, Gonzaga 74