The Elite Eight will begin with a matchup of the largest combined seeds ever to face off this late in the NCAA tournament. It will end with what we’ve come to expect from this round—a game between the top two seeds in a region.
But the numbers in front of the names don’t matter at this point. The winners will head to the Final Four, and the losers will go home. “So much is matchups, and there's so many good teams not playing this weekend,” said Kansas State coach Bruce Weber, whose ninth-seeded team will face No. 11 seed Loyola-Chicago on Saturday in Atlanta. “That's what I kept emphasizing to our guys. I don't care how we got here, we're playing.”
South Region, Atlanta
No. 9 Kansas State vs. No. 11 Loyola-Chicago
To have picked this matchup before the tournament began probably would have required throwing darts at a board. Kansas State beat Creighton and then won the tournament’s first game between a No. 16 and a No. 9 seed when it beat UMBC, which had beaten No. 1 overall seed Virginia by 20 points two days earlier. Thursday, an injury to forward Dean Wade and foul trouble for three forwards left Kansas State with only a five-guard lineup against No. 5 seed Kentucky, which starts five future NBA players and brings more off the bench. Kansas State frustrated Kentucky with its defense, and Barry Brown made a critical layup late to break a tie.
Loyola-Chicago, meanwhile, is the darling of the tournament. The Ramblers have won three games by a combined four points, and their biggest cheerleader is a 98-year-old nun named Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt who e-mails scouting reports to the players before each game. What makes Saturday’s matchup so interesting is that Kansas State is the lowest seeded team Loyola-Chicago has faced in the tournament. No. 6 Miami and No. 3 Tennessee probably had more raw talent than the Wildcats, and the Ramblers dispatched them anyway. The question is whether an offense led by guards Clayton Custer and Marques Townes can still maintain its superb spacing and ball movement against quick, tough defenders such as Brown and 6'4" guard Cartier Diarra.
Big 12 play prepared the Wildcats for games against talented, well coached teams. Meanwhile, the Ramblers may fit all the Cinderella stereotypes, but they’ve beaten better teams than the one they’ll face Saturday by playing a variety of styles. Perhaps that’s why Loyola-Chicago’s celebration seemed so subdued after they beat No. 7 seed Nevada on Thursday. Or perhaps not. “Trust me, these guys are bouncing off walls,” Ramblers coach Porter Moser said. “They're so excited. They're embracing it. But it's just kind of been who we are, about the next game. They've wanted more.”
West Region, Omaha
No. 3 Michigan vs. No. 9 Florida State
If Michigan keeps shooting the way it did Thursday against Texas A&M, prepare to watch the Wolverines in the national title game. Michigan made 14 of 24 three-point attempts in a clinical destruction of the Aggies, who aren’t that different from the Seminoles.
Like Texas A&M, Florida State will be one of the longer, more athletic teams the Wolverines have faced. But also like Texas A&M, Florida State has been wildly inconsistent. The Seminoles lost five of their last eight games heading into the tournament, and they are prone to occasional defensive lapses. But they also can go 11 deep, and when they are guarding well the waves of fresh players can debilitate an opponent. In Thursday’s 75–60 win against Gonzaga, Florida State held the Bulldogs to 33.9% shooting from the field while blocking nine shots and racking up eight steals.
Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton preaches what he calls a “junkyard dog” philosophy on defense. He wants his players constantly harassing opponents and protecting the area around the rim. “We adopted the junkyard dog principle because that's the way we want to play,” Hamilton said. “We want to be consistent. We want to be like junkyard dogs that really want to protect their yard. It doesn't always work now. Sometimes we run into some junkyard lions, elephants.”
Or perhaps junkyard Wolverines? Eight different Michigan players made three-pointers Thursday against Texas A&M as the Wolverines delivered a clinic on finding open shooters. Michigan also has proven it can win close, beating Houston in the second round on Jordan Poole’s buzzer-beater. But it will have to find a way to to quiet the junkyard dogs. “They remind us of a lot of teams in the Big Ten,” Michigan guard Zavier Simpson said. “It just feels like it's going back to August when coach was teaching us just to be the boss with the ball and make smart plays and smart passes. We feel like if we do that, we'll be in good position.”
East Region, Boston
No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 3 Texas Tech
The South and West regions, whose champions will face off in one national semifinal next week in San Antonio, have a combined seed total of 32. The East and Midwest, whose champs will face one another in the other national semifinal, have a combined seed total of seven. (The lowest possible is six.) Three of these teams are blue bloods, and the one that isn’t finished second in the Big 12, which put three of its 10 teams in the Elite Eight.
Texas Tech is the only team on this side that doesn’t have a rich NCAA tournament history. This is the first time the Red Raiders have gotten this far, but they have the players to keep going. Guard Keenan Evans averages 17.8 points a game, and his attacks on the basket tend to help his teammates get open. He scored 16 Friday as Texas Tech beat a second-seeded Purdue team that had to play without star center Isaac Haas (elbow). Afterward, Red Raiders coach Chris Beard had some fun with the historic moment for his program.
“We just made the—what's it called? The Great Eight?” Beard asked the Texas Tech players who joined him on the interview dais.
“Elite,” Evans said.
And Texas Tech will face elite competition. Villanova won a national title two years ago and spent much of this season at No. 1 in the polls. It only feels as if guard Jalen Brunson took over leadership of the Wildcats from Ed Pinckney. (Or maybe just Kyle Lowry.) Brunson is only a junior, but he has played more than a career’s worth of huge NCAA tournament games. Friday, he scored 27 in a back-and-forth affair against West Virginia that Villanova finally broke open and won 90–78.
The Red Raiders had better hope Villanova freshman Omari Spellman is done eating souls after Friday night.
Midwest Region, Omaha
No. 1 Kansas vs No. 2 Duke
This is the lead-in to 60 Minutes that CBS executives were looking for. Two brand names had great seasons, and now they’ll square off for a place in the Final Four. Once the matchup was set, everyone wanted to stroll down memory lane. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was asked specifically about playing Kansas for the national title in 1991. That was when Grant Hill slammed home one of the greatest alley-oops in college basketball history and Krzyzewski collected the first of his five national titles.
“I don't remember anything except this game right now. I'm 71,” Krzyzewski cracked after the Blue Devils beat Syracuse on Friday. “I have a hard time. What’s my wife's name?”
Krzyzewski will need to concentrate on this matchup, because Kansas has the pieces to poke a few holes in the 2–3 zone Duke has employed for much of this season. Senior guards Devonte’ Graham and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk average 40.4% and 45.5%, respectively, from three-point range. Sophomore seven-footer Udoka Azubuike, meanwhile, can overpower opponents inside.
But the Jayhawks will have to hope Azubuike stays out of foul trouble. He fouled out of Friday’s win against Clemson and committed four fouls in the Jayhawks’ second-round win against Seton Hall. If Azubuike isn’t there to protect the rim, Kansas may struggle with 6'11" Duke freshman forward Marvin Bagley III, who has scored 22 points in each of Duke’s three NCAA tournament wins. Duke’s offense runs through senior Grayson Allen, who averaged 9.2 minutes a game as a freshman on the Blue Devils team that won the national title in 2015. Allen would like to win national titles in his first and last seasons, but first he must reach the Final Four. The Jayhawks’ Graham, meanwhile, was bounced from the tournament in the Elite Eight in both seasons he has played. “I think about it all the time,” Graham said Friday night. “I just told the guys in the locker room that I've been here the last two years and this year we’ve got to get over that hump.”