In a year in which most of the NCAA tournament’s slingshot-wielding underdogs missed their mark, the Sweet 16 is lacking small-conference charm.
Fifteen of the remaining teams hail from the six power conferences. The 16th is Gonzaga, which long ago shed its mid-major label.
The only double-digit seed left is Xavier, which upset Maryland and Florida State to make its seventh Sweet 16 appearance since 2004. The other major surprise is South Carolina, which beat Marquette and Duke for its first NCAA tournament wins in 44 years.
Aside from the Musketeers and Gamecocks, much of the rest of the field consists of teams that expected to make a run at a Final Four when the tournament began. Here’s a look at each of the eight Sweet 16 matchups ranked from most to least compelling:
1. Kentucky (2) vs. UCLA (3) (Friday, 9:39 p.m., CBS): The South Region going to form so far is a fortunate break for viewers this week. It ensures a Sweet 16 rematch pitting second-seeded Kentucky against third-seeded UCLA, the two blue bloods with the most national titles in college basketball history. In the first meeting between the Wildcats and Bruins this season, UCLA announced its return to national prominence with a 97-92 victory at Rupp Arena. Isaac Hamilton scored 19 points, T.J. Leaf had 17 points and 13 rebounds and UCLA shot 53 percent from the field. Defending UCLA’s prolific offense will be Kentucky’s greatest challenge, but the Wildcats pose major problems for UCLA too. The Bruins must protect the ball better, limit the Wildcats’ second-chance points and not give Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox or Isaiah Briscoe easy baskets in transition.
2. Gonzaga (1) vs. West Virginia (4) (Thursday, 7:39 p.m., TBS): While West Virginia forces a higher percentage of turnovers than any other team in the nation, the Mountaineers showed in their second-round win that their vaunted full-court press isn’t the only reason they’re good. They carved up Notre Dame’s defense off the dribble and sank 8 of 14 attempts from behind the arc, a huge reason the Irish were never able to mount a serious comeback bid. Gonzaga’s elite defense is better equipped to contain West Virginia’s half-court offense, but the Zags could also be more susceptible against the press. Gonzaga hasn’t seen an opponent this big and athletic in months, let alone one as swarming and aggressive as West Virginia. Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins will have to control tempo and make smart decisions with the ball.
3. Kansas (1) vs. Purdue (4) (Thursday, 9:39 p.m., CBS): The Midwest Regional will be a neutral site in name only. Thousands of Kansas fans are expected to descend on Kansas City, turning the Sprint Center into Allen Fieldhouse East. The battle on the court could be closer than the one in the stands if Purdue can exploit its massive edge in size on offense without it becoming too big a disadvantage defensively. Big Ten player of the year Caleb Swanigan and 7-foot-2 Isaac Haas will both be challenges for a Kansas team with few trustworthy big men behind Landen Lucas. At the same time, playing both big men at the same time puts Purdue at risk of foul trouble because Swanigan is not quick enough to defend Josh Jackson. The lineup the Boilermakers will probably use most often would feature four shooters surrounding Swanigan. Whether Kansas can contain Swanigan without double teaming may be the difference.
4. Oregon (3) vs. Michigan (7) (Thursday, 7:09 p.m., CBS): Since the plane taking Michigan to the Big Ten tournament skidded off the runway in terrifying fashion, the surging Wolverines have not lost a single game. They won four games in four days to capture the Big Ten tournament title, then dispatched of Oklahoma State and Louisville to reach the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16. Thursday night’s game against Oregon figures to be high-scoring because of the mismatches that both teams can exploit. The Ducks should be able to spread Michigan out, attack off the dribble and hurt the Wolverines on the offensive glass. At the same time, Michigan is unlikely to be bothered by Oregon’s sporadic traps and presses and the Wolverines will have an easier time getting points in the paint with Chris Boucher sidelined by a knee injury.
5. North Carolina (1) vs. Butler (4) (Friday, 7:09 p.m., CBS): The last hope for the ACC is a North Carolina team lucky to still be playing. Eight of the ACC’s nine NCAA tournament teams failed to survive last weekend, but the Tar Heels used a late rally to thwart Arkansas’ upset bid. The key to beating North Carolina as usual is to limit its transition opportunities, keep its big, athletic frontline off the offensive glass and hope its 3-pointers aren’t falling. Those are fairly reasonable goals for a Butler team that plays at a methodical pace, doesn’t turn the ball over and does a credible job limiting second-chance baskets. Butler has beaten Villanova twice this season as well as Sweet 16 teams Xavier and Arizona, so the Bulldogs certainly shouldn’t be intimidated facing an elite foe. They’ll need a big game off the bench from the sometimes erratic Kelan Martin to keep pace with the Tar Heels.
6. Florida (4) vs. Wisconsin (8) (Friday, 9:59 p.m. TBS): Has any senior class in college basketball accomplished more than Wisconsin’s? The quartet of Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes, Vitto Brown and Zak Showalter have reached the Sweet 16 four times in four years and still have a chance to get to their third Final Four. Standing in the Badgers’ way is a Florida team that proved it’s one of the better defensive teams left in the field by holding Virginia to 39 points on Saturday. The Gators extend their defense, choke off the passing lanes yet give up little easy at the rim. For Wisconsin to win, Koenig and Hayes must continue to play at a high level. Koenig has 11 threes in two NCAA tournament games and Hayes has excelled by going aggressively to the paint rather than fading to the perimeter.
7. Arizona (2) vs. Xavier (11) (Thursday, 10:09 p.m., TBS): For the second time in three years, Sean Miller’s quest to reach his First Final Four will require knocking out the school that gave him his first head coaching opportunity. Arizona eliminated sixth-seeded Xavier in the 2015 Sweet 16, but very few key players from that game will participate in this one. This Arizona team isn’t of quite the same caliber as that one, but the Wildcats are peaking at the right time. Allonzo Trier has shaken the rust off from his 19-game suspension, Lauri Markkanen has emerged from a February shooting slump and Rawle Alkins and Kadeem Allen are making significant contributions at both ends of the floor. Many counted Xavier out after a February tailspin, but the Musketeers have found a way to win without Edmond Sumner. They’re solid defensively, they’re excellent on the glass and they lean heavily on Trevon Bluiett, who has scored 50 points in two NCAA tournament victories.
8. Baylor (3) vs. South Carolina (7) (Friday, 7:29 p.m., TBS): Baylor dropped six of its final 11 games entering the NCAA tournament. South Carolina lost six of nine. Somehow both teams have found their stride at the right time, setting up a surprise Sweet 16 matchup in New York. One of the keys to this game will be whether Manu Lecomte and Jake Lindsey can handle the ball cleanly against an aggressive South Carolina defense, something that was a major problem for Baylor late in Big 12 play. The Bears have an All-American forward in Johnathan Motley and one of the best offensive-rebounding front lines in the sport, but they have to be able to take care of the ball to take advantage of that. On the flip side, South Carolina is a poor outside shooting team that could struggle against Baylor’s zone if it can’t score before the defense is set. Thus this game could come down to whether the Gamecocks can force turnovers and turn them into transition opportunities.
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