No. 7 Michigan vs. No. 3 Oregon, Thursday, 7 p.m., CBS
It’s going to be hard to compete with the UCLA-Kentucky game for an entertaining points-a-palooza, but this one will be awfully close. I feel pretty confident in saying that Michigan center Moritz Wagner (aka Mo Buckets) will not score 26 points like he did in the second round against Louisville because the Ducks have a defender in 6’9” junior forward Jordan Bell, my All-Glue captain, who can guard him inside and out. That should turn the game over to the guards, where Oregon has two of the best remaining in this tournament in 6’7” junior Dillon Brooks and 6’4” sophomore Tyler Dorsey, who scored 51 points and shot 18 for 23 in the Ducks’ first two wins.
Still, no team in the tournament can match Michigan for the sheer number of skilled players it can put on the floor. Derrick Walton Jr., who struggled with inconsistency for three-and-a-half seasons, has grown into an elite point guard before our very eyes. And the Wolverines just feel like a team of destiny, don’t they? They were playing great basketball well before their plane accident and Big Ten tournament title, but now they have that look of a team that has captured some March Magic—and knows it.
Michigan 88, Oregon 84
No. 4 West Virginia vs. No.1 Gonzaga, Thursday, 7:30 p.m., TBS
Gonzaga didn’t look like a dominant No. 1 seed last week in Salt Lake City, but guess what? The Zags are still alive. Now they are set to face the toughest opponent they have played all year.
Everyone will be talking about whether the Bulldogs can handle the Mountaineers’ full-court pressure, but I am more concerned with whether they can guard West Virginia in the half-court. The Mountaineers made 47.5% of their field goals in their wins over Bucknell and Notre Dame, but they have also had some nightmare shooting games, such as their 16 for 60 outing in a one-point win over Kansas State in the Big 12 tournament.
I’m hoping that Mark Few will find a way to keep 7’1”, 300-pound center Przemek Karnowski in the game despite the quick tempo because he really makes Gonzaga’s half-court offense work and he is an expert at getting opposing big men into foul trouble. Also, I doubt that many of you know that Gonzaga is ranked No. 1 nationally in defensive efficiency on KenPom. I’m sure West Virginia is going to be a hot pick, but I have long believed this is a really good Gonzaga team, and now that the early jitters are out of their way, the Zags are ready to prove it.
Gonzaga 78, West Virginia 72
No. 4 Purdue vs. No. 1 Kansas, Thursday, 9:30 p.m., CBS
This is another one of those big-versus-small matchups. Or I should I say, Biggie versus small. The Boilermakers’ Caleb “Biggie” Swanigan has been the most dominant and complete player in the country this season, and between him and the even bigger Isaac Haas (7’2”, 290 pounds), Purdue will have a decided advantage in the frontcourt.
However, the Boilermakers will be in an unfamiliar position of going into a game in which Swanigan may not be the best player. Kansas freshman Josh Jackson is that guy, and his worth to this team was evident when it lost to TCU in the Big 12 tournament while Jackson was serving a one-game suspension for failing to pay parking tickets.
In Thursday’s game, small tends to beat big, and when the small guy running the show is Frank Mason III, whose will to win is as big as it gets, then that’s the team you’ve got to pick.
Kansas 79, Purdue 70
No. 11 Xavier vs. No. 2 Arizona, Thursday, 10 p.m., TBS
Here is one of the oddest stats from the tourney’s first week: In Arizona’s second-round win over Saint Mary’s, the Wildcats had a total of four assists. Four! We knew this was an unconventional, young team playing without a traditional point guard, but that number tells me that Arizona could be vulnerable if it has to execute in the half-court against a disciplined defensive team. That’s why Xavier is such a dangerous opponent. Even though the Musketeers are playing without their own point guard, junior Edmond Sumner, who was lost for the season to an ACL tear, his replacement, 6’4” freshman Quentin Goodin, has become an increasingly steady distributor (though he is not nearly the scorer that Sumner was). Chris Mack mixes in a lot of zone defenses with his man-to-man, and his roster is the eighth-biggest in the country, per KenPom.
In the end, I think Arizona will pull it out because the Wildcats are so big and athletic and I don’t believe Xavier has enough offensive firepower to pull off the upset. But it won’t be easy.
Arizona 68, Xavier 66
No. 4 Butler vs. No. 1 North Carolina, Friday, 7 p.m., CBS
Here’s another dangerous stylistic matchup for the favorite. North Carolina is ranked 52nd in the country in tempo; Butler is 289th. Butler is also 10th in turnover percentage and a respectable 68th in defensive rebound percentage; the Tar Heels, of course, are the best offensive rebounding team in the country. But North Carolina still needs to be able to knock down shots on the first attempt, and that tends to be in short supply because the only guard who can create his own shot is senior point guard Joel Berry.
You know that Chris Holtmann will have his guys geared to lock Berry up the way they did with Middle Tennessee guard Giddy Potts, which will put even more pressure on Justin Jackson to score and place a higher responsibility on UNC’s post scoring. I feel very much the same in this one as I do the Arizona-Xavier game. North Carolina will win because it has a little more scoring pop, but with Butler sure to slow down the tempo, the Heels are going to have to grind it out.
North Carolina 69, Butler 65
No. 7 South Carolina vs. No. 3 Baylor, Friday, 7:30 p.m., TBS
There were ten games this season when South Carolina failed to score 65 points. So it was quite surprising, to say the least, to see the Gamecocks hang 65 points on Duke in the second half. I’m glad casual fans got a gander at South Carolina senior guard Sindarius Thornwell, who was the best two-way player in college hoops this season, but the Gamecocks will not enjoy the same physical advantage in this game as they did against the Blue Devils. Sure, South Carolina’s perimeter defense is sublime, but Baylor doesn’t depend all that heavily on its guards. The Bears butter their bread in the post, offensively with Jonathan Motley and defensively with Jo Lual-Acuil, who led the Big 12 in blocks (2.53 per game). That inside dominance, combined with Scott Drew’s masterful toggling between man-to-man and zone defenses, will be the difference.
Baylor 72, South Carolina 65
No. 3 UCLA vs. No. 2 Kentucky, Friday, 9:30 p.m., CBS
We’ve been waiting for this rematch since Dec. 3, when the Bruins got their statement win at Rupp Arena, 97–92. UCLA won that game despite committing 18 turnovers and a 24-point performance by Wildcats freshman guard Malik Monk.
Monk has looked rather mortal the last three weeks (he shot 6 for 21 and 2 for 7 from three in Kentucky’s two tourney wins), and the Bruins have greatly improved their ability to take care of the ball. They rank ninth in the country in turnover percentage despite being 15th in tempo, and they coughed it up just nine times (to 46 assists) in their wins over Kent State and Cincinnati.
We think about “pressure” coming from a defense like West Virginia’s, but UCLA puts an extraordinary amount of pressure on opponents with its ability to score lots of points really fast. Needless to say, Kentucky will not try to slow down the tempo, so in that respect this will be a comfortable matchup for both teams. In the end, though, UCLA has too much skill at every position. During a season in which the pendulum has swung dramatically towards the offense, the nation’s best offensive team will win the most compelling matchup of the Sweet 16. First one to 90 wins!
UCLA 98, Kentucky 90
No. 8 Wisconsin vs. No. 4 Florida, Friday, 10 p.m., TBS
The Gators have very quietly been one of the toughest defensive teams in the country this season (No. 3 nationally in defensive efficiency), and they continue to be despite having to play without their best interior defender, John Egbunu, who was lost a few weeks ago to a knee injury. Florida also benefits from a balanced offense. The most impressive aspect of the Gators’ wins over East Tennessee State and Virginia is that their leading scorer, KeVaughn Allen, scored a total of 11 points on 3 for 21 shooting.
This is a difficult game to pick because the teams are so stylistically similar, but I’m going to go with the Badgers, who appear to have rediscovered their stride after dropping five out of six games in February. Part of that was the fact that Wisconsin was playing the upper-tier teams in the Big Ten after beating up on the lesser squads, and part of it was because senior guard Bronson Koenig was nursing a bad calf injury. Since that low point, Koenig got healthy and the Badgers got back to basics, rejiggered their blue-collar identity and weathered the storm like the veteran crew that they are. This team has two terrific passing forwards in Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ (those guys can score a little bit, too), and it enjoys the continuity that comes with having the same starting lineup for two full seasons. That’s a great asset to take into the last week of March.
Wisconsin 67, Florida 65