The Sweet 16 begins Thursday with the West Regional in Los Angeles and the Midwest Regional in Cleveland. Below is a preview and prediction for all four games.
No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 5 West Virginia: Even though Kentucky is a heavy favorite to advance to the Final Four and win the national championship, this game is compelling if only because West Virginia will throw a different look at the Wildcats. Kentucky will have to avoid turning the ball over against a physical full-court press that forces 19.6 turnovers per game. The Wildcats will also have to emphasize rebounding against a Mountaineers team that makes up for errant outside shooting by leading the nation in offensive boards per game. Adding to the intrigue is that Bob Huggins is 8-2 all-time against John Calipari including a stunning upset in 2010 when West Virginia toppled the John Wall-DeMarcus Cousins Kentucky team in the Elite Eight.
A 1-3-1 zone got the best of the cold-shooting Wildcats that day, but this Kentucky team is better equipped to handle a pressing team than that one was a packed-in zone. Predicted winner: Kentucky.
No 3 Notre Dame vs. No. 7 Wichita State: A berth in the Elite Eight won't be Wichita State's only incentive to beat Notre Dame on Thursday. If the Shockers win, they'll likely earn a rematch with the same Kentucky team that ended their undefeated season last March in the NCAA tournament. To get there, Wichita State will have to summon the same intensity it displayed in a convincing victory over Kansas last Sunday. Notre Dame has surged in March, capturing the ACC tournament with back-to-back wins over Duke and North Carolina and validating those by advancing to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. Both these teams are loaded with guards. Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton combine to average 38 points per game and complement each others' skill sets perfectly, but Notre Dame's Jerian Grant, Pat Connaughton and Demetrius Jackson are every bit as dangerous. Predicted winner: Notre Dame.
No. 1 Wisconsin vs. No. 4 North Carolina: Of the three remaining No. 1 seeds in this field, none have a tougher remaining draw than Wisconsin. The Badgers face a North Carolina team that is peaking in March on Thursday and then could get a highly motivated Arizona team in front of a pro-Wildcats crowd in Los Angeles on Saturday. For Wisconsin, the key to avoiding an upset against the Tar Heels may be controlling the tempo. North Carolina is deadly in transition, but the Badgers are difficult to run against since they play at a slow pace, they don't turn the ball over and they score so efficiently that opposing teams often have to try to get fast breaks off makes instead of misses. Another big factor in this game is the availability of Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina's top low-post scorer and second-leading rebounder. Meeks may not play if he still feels the sprained knee he suffered against Arkansas in the previous round is limiting him too much. Predicted winner: Wisconsin.
No. 2 Arizona vs. No. 6 Xavier: The matchup on the sidelines could be as compelling as the one on the floor since it pits Xavier's current coach Chris Mack against predecessor Sean Miller. Mack will try to devise a way of attacking an Arizona team that is elite at rebounding, outstanding defensively and more capablet than it has been any other season under Miller offensively. Xavier will probably play through the post with Matt Stainbrook, a senior who's an excellent low-post scorer and also passes well out of double teams to open shooters. The Musketeers aren't as strong defensively as they are on offense, but they do have the capability of switching between a pack-line man-to-man and a 1-3-1 zone. Arizona shredded Ohio State's zone in the second half last Saturday when Gabe York sank four of his five threes, but the Wildcats can be prone to occasional cold spells from the perimeter. Predicted winner: Arizona.
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