The Sweet 16 begins Thursday with four games that kick off what is regularly the season’s best weekend of college basketball. All this year’s first session of Sweet 16 games has to offer is the hottest team and best story of the tournament, a No. 1 seed with one loss facing the country’s most havoc-inducing defense, the national championship favorite according to betting markets, two National Player of the Year candidates sharing the same floor, one guaranteed lottery pick leading a Final Four favorite, and the only double-digit seed still standing in this year’s tournament. That’s a pretty good day of basketball, wouldn’t you say?
7:09 p.m., CBS
Midwest Region: No. 3 Oregon vs. No. 7 Michigan
The hottest team in the country has lost twice since the Super Bowl. Since then, it has four wins over teams still alive in the Sweet 16, and all it did in its last game was knock off a national title contender in a game where its best player went 3-for-13 from the floor. In a tournament devoid of Cinderellas, Michigan has grabbed the rooting interest of the country. Neither of these teams play fast, but both are incredibly efficient on the offensive end. Oregon will have to figure out a way to contain Derrick Walton that doesn’t compromise the rest of its defense too much. Just ask Louisville, which shut down Walton but had no answer for Mo Wagner or D.J. Wilson. Oregon is looking for its second straight trip to the Elite Eight, while Michigan is trying to get back for the first time since 2014. It would be the Wolverines third Elite Eight in the last five seasons.
7:39 p.m., TBS
West Region: No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 4 West Virginia
The flip side of the lack of upsets is that chalk gives us Sweet 16 matchups like this one. West Virginia’s press gets all the attention, but it showed in last week’s win over Notre Dame what it is capable of offensively. The Jevon Carter-Nigel Williams-Goss matchup will be worth the price of admission alone. On the other side, Gonzaga is equipped to break West Virginia’s press, and then convert easy buckets with Prezmek Karnowski and Zach Collins two of the country’s most efficient two-point scorers. Gonzaga won’t be bothered by a fast pace the way Notre Dame was, with the Bulldogs playing at an adjusted tempo that is just as quick as West Virginia’s, according to kenpom.com. In other words, West Virginia likely won’t be able to simply press their way to victory. The Mountaineers will have to succeed in the halfcourt just as often if they are going to get to their first Elite Eight since 2010.
9:39 p.m., CBS
Midwest Region: No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 4 Purdue
Remember what we just discussed about chalk giving us compelling matchups? Take a look at the nightcap in Kansas City. On one side we have the best backcourt in the country, led by National Player of the Year favorite Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham, and likely top-three pick Josh Jackson on the wing. On the other we have a top-tier frontcourt, led by National Player of the Year candidate and Big Ten Player of the Year Caleb Swanigan, and a cadre of shooters, Dakota Mathias, Vince Edwards, P.J. Thompson and Ryan Cline, all of whom are shooting at least 40% from behind the arc on a minimum of 106 attempts. Kansas ranks 36th in offensive-rebounding rate, while Purdue cleans up its defensive glass better than all but seven teams in the country. Purdue’s perimeter players will have trouble sticking with Mason, Graham and Jackson, while Kansas’s interior players can’t measure up to Swanigan and Isaac Haas. If you can only watch one game Thursday, make it this one.
10:09 p.m., TBS
West Region: No. 2 Arizona vs. No. 11 Xavier
One of these teams was expected to be here. The other needed to beat DePaul just a few weeks ago to feel comfortable about its at-large candidacy. Only one will advance to the Elite Eight. This will be the second time in three years that Arizona and coach Sean Miller meet his former school in the Sweet 16. Despite Xavier’s late-season swoon, this is not a true No. 11 seed. They actually won their first three games without point guard Edmond Sumner. It wasn’t until Trevon Bluiett suffered an ankle injury in a loss to Villanova that they started to tumble down the seed list. Bluiett missed two games, both losses, and then wasn’t himself for his first couple games back on the floor while he was still recovering from the ankle injury. The Musketeers have wins over Butler, Maryland and Florida State over the last 10 days, but this is an entirely different beast. First, they’ll have to deal with soon-to-be lottery pick Lauri Markkanen and Dusan Ristic, a pairing that presents a unique challenge for any team, most of all one like Xavier that doesn’t have much size in its frontcourt. Second, Arizona has lost two games with Allonzo Trier in the lineup this season. Those were to Oregon and UCLA, and they avenged both of those losses in the Pac-12 tournament. From the end of January through the second round of the NCAA tournament, few teams in the country have played as well as Arizona.