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What’s better than picking the next round of the NCAA tournament? Picking the next two rounds of the NCAA tournament at once. With that in mind, here are my picks to survive this weekend and head to Minneapolis for the Final Four:
East Region: No. 1 Duke
Surviving Sunday night’s scare against UCF required a bit of good fortune, but being in such a tight game was the result of the Golden Knights’ atypical ability to shut down the paint by packing it around 7’ 6” center Tacko Fall, plus an otherworldly performance from Aubrey Dawkins. Virginia Tech doesn’t present the same unique matchup challenges, and as rich with young talent as LSU is, well, that’s kind of Duke’s thing. Michigan State would present a very steep challenge, given the balance and experience of the Spartans’ talent and their being helmed by an elite coach of their own. But as much as Michigan State is a Final Four quality squad, I think a healthy Duke team is the best in the country. Hard to pick against that.
West Region: No. 2 Michigan
Spartans fans were unhappy with their placement as a No. 2 seed vis-à-vis the Wolverines, a fellow No. 2 seed that Michigan State beat three times en route to winning the Big Ten’s regular season and tournament titles. And this is why—as a result, things set up more favorably for the team with the lesser résumé to reach Minneapolis by way of avoiding Duke until a round later. In my bracket, I have long, athletic Florida State upsetting Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 for the second straight year, but I don’t think the Seminoles would repeat the deed against Michigan, who have the top-level discipline and team defense needed to first get past stifling Texas Tech in the regional semis, then methodically push past FSU too.
South Region: No. 2 Tennessee
The Volunteers escaped the first weekend by the skin of their teeth, blowing a 25-point lead to Iowa before regaining control in overtime. Concerning as that may be, the opening of that lead in the first place shows how dangerous Tennessee can be, and the ability to bounce back so quickly after losing their huge cushion shows a team that will not panic. The Vols are a veteran squad that scores in a few different ways, with the outside shooting and smart, strong passers at forward that is essential to navigating Virginia’s Pack-Line D, should those teams meet in the Elite Eight. Before that, Tennessee will have its hands full with Purdue guard/takeover artist Carsen Edwards, who scored 42(!) points on Saturday against Villanova. It’s easier said than done, but if Rick Barnes can find a way to make the rest of the Boilermakers beat them, his team should fare much better than Villanova.
Midwest Region: No. 1 North Carolina
The Tar Heels’ strongest challenger in the Midwest, Kentucky, took a serious hit when P.J. Washington sprained his foot just before the tournament; he’s been sidelined ever since, forcing the Wildcats to reinvent themselves on the fly without their best player. That should make this region Carolina’s for the taking. While Friday’s matchup with Auburn should be highly entertaining, the Tigers’ subpar work on the defensive boards will leave them vulnerable to second-chance scoring, where the Tar Heels can be lethal. Washington’s absence will create similar issues for Kentucky, which also might need to rely on outside shooting more than it would like. If it’s Houston that makes it through to the Elite Eight, UNC will be facing a more deliberate team that it can make uncomfortable with its typical breakneck pace.
• Which No. 1 will lose first? Who should Duke least want to face? Our college hoops staff dishes their Sweet 16 thoughts.
• Expert picks against the spread for every Sweet 16 game. (By Max Meyer)
• If these four teams want to advance past the Sweet 16, they’re going to need these players to step up. (By Emily Caron)
• UNC has mastered its unrelenting pace, turning it into something almost impossible to counter. (By Michael Beller)
• Five NBA prospects to watch closely in the Sweet 16. (By Jeremy Woo)
• Wednesday's Newsletter: One storyline to follow for each Sweet 16 team. (By Emily Caron)
Best Thing We Saw
One of my favorite sights of the tourney’s first weekend came during a quiet moment in a post-game locker room, while I chatted with a team’s sports information director. A player approached, earnest and full of worry, telling the SID that he had used the word “hell” in an answer to a reporter’s question. His reason for panic? He didn’t want his mother to read him cursing. Here’s hoping it worked out for him.
Tennessee boasts a very strong offense inside the arc, as its 55.6% shooting on twos is the 20th-best mark in the country. Behind the arc, the Volunteers are still a solid 36.2% (82nd), but forcing them to take a lot of threes is how to potentially throw off their offense (324th in 3P attempt rate). Purdue is better defending twos (54th in 2P% defense) compared to threes (138th in 3P% defense, and 316th in opponent three-point attempt rate). The Boilermakers are an extremely efficient offense because they have tons of shooters, including star Carsen Edwards and 7’3” post threat Matt Haarms. They also don’t turn the ball over and do an excellent job crashing the offensive glass (a major weakness for Tennessee of late). The Vols' defense has struggled recently, and the Boilermakers can really make Tennessee’s shoddy perimeter defense pay. — By Max Meyer
Friday night’s UNC-Auburn game is the highest-scoring contest of the tournament, a distinction that currently belongs to Oklahoma’s 95-72 win over Mississippi in the first round. The Tar Heels and Tigers combine to average around the same total, but with the way both teams are clicking lately and can push tempo, the points could pile up fast.
At the Buzzer
Meet the last man on Earth with a perfect bracket. Naturally, he's a neuropsychologist from Ohio. Greg Nigl leaned on the perfect mixture of personal bias, gut instinct and luck to nail 48 straight picks. Via SI's Dan Gartland:
"Not only is Nigl the only person with a perfect bracket at this point in this year’s tournament, he may very well be the only person ever to make 48 correct picks through the first two rounds of March Madness. Since the advent of the easily verifiable online bracket entry system, there has never before been a reported instance of a set of picks remaining perfect as long as Nigl’s has."