Sweet 16 roundtable: Intriguing matchups, predictions for NCAA tournament regionals

With a wild first weekend of the 2018 NCAA tournament in the books, the ensuing mid-week lull coming to a close, and the Sweet 16 approaching, Yahoo Sports convened a few of its college basketball writers for a roundtable.

We put six questions to them – three looking back on rounds one and two, and three looking ahead to the regionals, which begin Thursday. Here’s how they responded …

1. Other than Virginia, what pre-tournament opinion are you willing to admit you were wrong about?

Jeff Eisenberg: I was most wrong about Michigan State. I thought the Spartans were a national title threat if they got past Duke in the Sweet 16. They instead didn’t even make it to that game, falling to Syracuse amid a hail of turnovers and rushed 3-pointers. In retrospect, while the Spartans boasted two lottery picks and considerable talent around them, they only beat three NCAA tournament teams all season — Purdue, North Carolina and Bucknell. Perhaps the pieces didn’t quite fit together well enough for Michigan State to meet expectations.

Syracuse flummoxed Michigan State’s offense in the round of 32. Can it do the same to Duke in the Sweet 16?
Syracuse flummoxed Michigan State’s offense in the round of 32. Can it do the same to Duke in the Sweet 16?

Henry Bushnell: I’ll second everything Jeff just wrote about Sparty, then raise him North Carolina. I thought the Tar Heels’ newfound inside-outside balance and stretchiness, with Luke Maye and Cam Johnson, would get them back to the Final Four. Instead, those were the principle causes of their downfall when they turned into 3-pointer dependence and interior inferiority against Texas A&M.

Zach Pereles: I was really high on St. Bonaventure. The Bonnies boasted a terrific senior-led backcourt, shot it well from 3 and defended the 3 well on the other end. I had them in the Sweet 16. But Jaylen Adams and backcourt mate Matt Mobley struggled mightily against Florida, combining to shoot 5 for 19 (and just 1 of 12 from 3). Adams and Mobley were thoroughly outmatched by Florida’s talented backcourt.

2. What else – team, player, trend, anything – really surprised you from the first two rounds? Again, non-UMBC-Virginia division.

Eisenberg: Buffalo emptying its bench in a 20-point blowout of Arizona was not something I saw coming. Yes, Arizona was flawed defensively all season. Yes, Arizona had a lot of off-court baggage. But getting run off the court in the first round at the hands of the MAC champion? That surprised me.

Bushnell: Florida State came out of a nowhere for me. An early Xavier loss didn’t, but there was nothing about the Seminoles that screamed upset potential. We’ll see how legitimate or fluky their run is against Gonzaga on Thursday.

I also didn’t see Nevada coming at all. It had looked pretty ordinary in March prior to the NCAA tournament, losing twice to San Diego State and struggling with UNLV. (Frankly, it looked pretty ordinary for about 60 of the 85 minutes it played last weekend, too.) But I suppose this is a lesson in not letting recency bias cloud out an entire season. The Wolf Pack have a top-10 offense nationally, and when they get hot, they get hot.

Pereles: How about the Texas A&M Aggies? I’m not necessarily surprised at the level at which they’ve played — the Aggies can be about as good as anyone when they want to be — but they’ve had serious mental lapses and issues with giving effort throughout the regular season. They then lost their first game at the SEC Tournament. It’s a testament to Billy Kennedy’s coaching that he has Robert Williams III playing like the potential lottery pick he can be, Tyler Davis dominating inside and a host of skilled players around those two playing high-level basketball. It’s a pleasant surprise to see Texas A&M finally putting it together.

3. If there were a first weekend MOP award, who’d be at the top of your ballot?

Eisenberg: While Gonzaga’s Zach Norvell, Texas A&M’s Tyler Davis and Kentucky’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander belong squarely in the conversation, I’ll go with West Virginia guard Jevon Carter. You know him for his ferocious perimeter defense, but he averaged 24.5 points and 6.5 assists in the first two rounds while leading the Mountaineers to blowout wins over Murray State and Charleston.

Bushnell: With honorable mentions to Carter, Norvell and Cody Martin – and to Rob Gray despite Houston’s heartbreak – I’m going with Gilgeous-Alexander. Every time 3-pointer-less Kentucky needed a play against Davidson, the smooth freshman combo guard stepped up. He then put up a cool 27-6-6 line on 12 shots against Buffalo like it was no big deal. He averaged 23 points, 7 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 3.5 steals per game over the first weekend, and continues to do it all for John Calipari.

Pereles: Nevada’s Cody Martin takes home the MOP award so far. While twin brother Caleb was the Mountain West Player of the Year, Cody has been terrific in the tournament. He’s averaging 20 points per game on over 55 percent shooting. In the final 11 minutes of Nevada’s historic comeback against Cincinnati, he registered 11 points, three rebounds, two assists and a steal. He had two traditional three-point plays and hit a shot from behind the arc, too. Eric Musselman’s ability to transform two former highly-touted yet inconsistent NC State players into the cornerstones of a Sweet 16 team has been magnificent.

4. Which individual matchup are you most looking forward to on Thursday or Friday night?

Bushnell: I can’t wait to watch Villanova’s guards, led by Jalen Brunson, against two-time Big 12 defensive player of the year Jevon Carter, shot-blocker extraordinaire Sagaba Konate and the West Virginia Mountaineers’ defense. Statistically, this is actually Press Virginia’s worst defensive unit in four years. But it’s still disruptive and tough as nails. Nova takes care of the ball – enabling it, on paper, to neutralize West Virginia’s strength – and kills opponents from beyond the 3-point arc – enabling it to perhaps exploit West Virginia’s weakness – but its top-ranked offense will be tested.

Pereles: Michigan’s Mo Wagner versus the Texas A&M frontcourt of Robert Williams III and Tyler Davis. It took three halves before the Wolverines’ big man got going, but he scored 10 big points over the final 20 minutes of Michigan’s win over Houston. And he’s a matchup nightmare for the Aggies.

Williams III and Davis could, of course, overpower Wagner on one end. But neither defends well in space. Wagner shoots it at over 40 percent from deep, and can put the ball on the deck to get to the basket. Even if Wagner isn’t getting the ball on the perimeter, he draws a shot-blocker away from the rim. In a similar matchup during the regular season against Michigan State’s Nick Ward, Wagner scored 27 points on 13 shots. He’ll need a similar performance Thursday night.

5. Which of the following teams is most likely to make the Final Four: Kansas State, Loyola Chicago, Nevada, Florida State, Clemson or Syracuse?

Eisenberg: They don’t have the friendliest draw among the underdogs mentioned above, but Clemson is the best team of the bunch. They have three guards who can score, they defend the paint and they’re peaking at the right time. Clemson is not a team who can exploit Kansas’ thin frontcourt, but the Jayhawks will have to play better than they did in previous rounds to move on to the Elite Eight.

Bushnell: This is going to sound crazy, but I’m going with Loyola. The Sweet 16 game could go either way, but if the Ramblers win it, their defense is capable of giving Kentucky fits. They have the shooting Davidson had in a tight first-round battle with the Wildcats, and they have the athleticism and switchable defense Davidson didn’t have.

Pereles: Nevada. The Wolf Pack have length all over, the Martin twins can really score, and Kendall Stephens is one of the tournament’s most under-appreciated players. Eric Musselman’s squad should be able to overwhelm Loyola with its size, athleticism and skill, then compete with Kentucky for similar reasons. Plus, couldn’t we all go for more shirt-ripping and f-bombs?

6. Give us your “second chance bracket.”

Eisenberg: Kentucky over Nevada; Gonzaga over Michigan; Duke over Kansas; Villanova over Texas Tech. Duke over Gonzaga.

Bushnell: Kentucky over Loyola; Gonzaga over Texas A&M; Villanova over Texas Tech; Duke over Kansas. Villanova over Gonzaga.

Pereles: Nevada over Kentucky; Michigan over Florida State; Duke over Kansas; Villanova over Purdue. Villanova over Michigan.

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