The NCAA tournament started with 68 teams nine days ago. It's now down to 16. By the end of this weekend, four teams will be on their way to Indianapolis with a national championship in their sights. Below is a look at Thursday's quartet of Sweet 16 games.
This should be one of the most exciting games of the tournament. Both of these teams played thrilling Round of 32 games, though for different reasons. Notre Dame fought through late-game lapses in judgment and, thanks in part to a Pat Connaughton block at the end of regulation, knocked off fellow Hoosier State school Butler in overtime. Wichita State picked up bragging rights in its state, too, defeating Kansas with a dominant second-half performance. Now the two meet with an Elite Eight berth on the line.
Both the Fighting Irish and the Shockers have legitimate stars at point guard with Jerian Grant and Fred VanVleet, respectively. Notre Dame features the third-most efficient offense in the country, utilizing three shooters around Grant who each connect on at least 40 percent of their threes in Connaughton, Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia, and Zach Auguste holding down the paint. The Shockers fill in around VanVleet with Ron Baker, Tekele Cotton, Darius Carter and Evan Wessel, giving them an offense that ranks 16th in adjusted efficiency, according to kenpom.com.
Even though Wichita State’s defense is 13th in the country in adjusted efficiency, expect the offenses to own this game. Both teams play at deliberate paces at take care of the ball. Notre Dame is 222nd in tempo but third in turnover rate, while Wichita State is 286th in tempo and seventh in turnover rate. The 6'10" Auguste gives the Irish a decided height advantage, and we've seen what happens when they get hot from behind the arc. The Irish, however, play a very short bench, and the Shockers are adept at drawing fouls. If anyone on Notre Dame gets into foul trouble, the advantage could swing to Wichita State.
Both teams enter the game playing their best basketball of the season. The Shockers had their single best performance of the year in their surprisingly easy 78-65 win over the second-seeded Jayhawks last week, while the Irish have wins against Louisville, Duke, North Carolina and Butler since the calendar turned to March.
7:47 p.m. ET on TBS
West Regional: No. 1 Wisconsin (33-3, 16-2 in Big Ten) vs. No. 4 North Carolina (26-11, 11-7 in ACC)
This feels like a classic Sweet 16 matchup, with the best team from one of the power conferences facing off with a very good team from quite possibly the best conference in the country. Wisconsin, the Big 10 regular season and tournament champions, survived a challenge from Oregon in the Round of 32, while North Carolina, one of five ACC teams in the Sweet 16, held off Arkansas in one of the most entertaining games of the opening weekend. The Tar Heels suffered a loss at the very end of that matchup could have a significant effect as they try to upset the Badgers.
Wisconsin presents a really bad matchup for North Carolina, and that will only be exacerbated if the Heels are without 6'9" forward Kennedy Meeks. The sophomore has been trying to work his way back from a knee sprain that occurred late in the win over Arkansas. He is vital to Carolina's chances of advancing to the Elite Eight. The Heels don’t have any player taller than 6'10”, but with Meeks, Brice Johnson (6'9") and Justin Jackson (6’8”) in the starting lineup and Isaiah Hicks (6'8") and Joel James (6'10") coming off the bench, they rarely face a team that can match their size. That will be the case on Thursday even if Meeks is able to play, when they go up against the 7-foot Frank Kaminsky, 6’9” Sam Dekker, and 6’8” Nigel Hayes. One of North Carolina’s strengths on offense, rebounding, is also one of Wisconsin’s strongest points on defense. UNC is fifth in the nation at offensive rebound percentage, grabbing 40.3% of its missed shots, but the Badgers have the fifth-best defensive rebounding rate in the country.
Wisconsin has the most efficient offense in the country, with good shooters around Kaminsky and three different players who can regularly score in the post. Expect the Heels to take a page out of Oregon’s book and double Kaminsky in the post when he puts the ball on the floor. That wrinkle from Oregon took Wisconsin out of its rhythm and nearly led to an upset. Still, the Badgers always have the advantage when they have the ball, and if Meeks is out the Heels could be vulnerable inside, especially with Kaminsky forcing Johnson to guard him on the perimeter.
The point guard matchup here is one of the best in the Sweet 16. Marcus Paige is absolutely the key for North Carolina. The Tar Heels will likely need their junior guard to replicate his 24-point output from the Round of 32 and not take so long to get going—22 of those points came in the second half. Bronson Koenig, meanwhile, has sparked the Wisconsin offense since replacing the injured Traevon Jackson in the starting lineup back in January, and has been easily the team’s most consistent long-range shooter this year. Speaking of Jackson, he says he plans on playing for the first time since breaking his foot. If he does, he’d at least give the Badgers some backcourt depth.
If the key to beating Kentucky is throwing something at them they haven’t seen this season, then the Mountaineers could have the kryptonite needed to finally slay the undefeated Wildcats. John Calipari's team isn't usually loose with the ball, ranking 35th in the country in turnover rate, but it hasn't seen anything like West Virginia's press this season. If the Cats can handle it, they will likely win by double-digits. If they don’t, their season could end earlier than anyone expected.
The Mountaineers have to win this game on the back of their press, because it's hard to imagine them scoring consistently enough to win in with their offense. Kentucky's defense is a nightmare for plenty of teams, but it is a particularly bad matchup for one that struggles to score like West Virginia. Other than getting after the offensive glass, there really isn’t anything the Mountaineers do well on that end of the floor. Juwan Staten is the heartbeat of the offense, but he’s 6’1” and will go up against either one of Aaron or Andrew Harrison, both of whom are five inches taller than him. Devin Williams was a force inside in the Big 12, but he never had to deal with Willie Cauley-Stein or Karl-Anthony Towns or Dakari Johnson, much less all three of them.
Assuming Kentucky can handle the West Virginia press, it should have a field day on the other end of the floor. The Mountaineers’ defensive numbers are inflated because of the times their press was successful. When it wasn’t, like in three losses to Baylor or two losses to Iowa State, they get burned. The Wildcats have had four days to prepare for West Virginia’s press, and have handled everything thrown at them this year. Don’t expect that to change on Thursday.
This has the potential to be the most lopsided game of the Sweet 16. Xavier has had one of the easiest roads to this point, drawing a Mississippi team that barely made the field and had played two nights earlier in the Round of 64, and then getting No. 14 Georgia State in the next round. That’s not to say the Musketeers don’t belong, just that plenty of other teams that have already gone home could have reached the Sweet 16 if they were lucky enough to get the draw that Xavier did.
The Musketeers' offense—the 21st-most efficient in the nation, according to kenpom.com—has been underrated all season, but the Wildcats, who rank third in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, are a superior defensive unit. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson just shut down Ohio State star D’Angelo Russell in the Round of 32, holding one of the best players in the country to nine points on 3-for-19 from the floor. If a soon-to-be NBA lottery pick like Russell couldn’t solve Hollis-Jefferson, what chance does Trevon Bluiett have? Matt Stainbrook is the Musketeers’ leading scorer and has been great thus far in the tournament, but it’ll be a whole different ballgame for the 6'10" senior against Arizona’s interior duo of 6'9" Brandon Ashley and 7-foot Kaleb Tarczewski, both of whom are long and athletic.
The Wildcats aren't an explosive offensive team, but they won't have to be to win this game. First of all, Arizona has the best player on the floor in freshman wing Stanley Johnson. He struggled against Ohio State, going 1-for-12 from the floor, but there isn’t anyone on Xavier who can handle him one-on-one. Second, expect the Wildcats to use their size and skill to dominate the glass. They rank second in the nation in rebounding margin.
So how does Xavier pull the upset? Well, Myles Davis is going to have to put on a virtuoso performance from long range. At 38.5% from beyond the arc on a team-high 161 attempts, he’s the Musketeers' best hope for providing the outside scoring necessary to counteract Arizona's advantages elsewhere. If he can knock down some shots and force the Wildcats to adjust to him, it could open things up for Stainbrook and Bluiett. If he can’t, the Musketeers are likely headed home on Thursday night.