The first four days of the NCAA tournament were insane. The one adverse side-effect of opening-weekend insanity? A watered-down Sweet 16.
That’s true to some extent in 2018. But not completely. A second round riddled with upsets has yielded at least a few intriguing matchups.
So we’ve decided to rank those matchups, 1-8, from the most compelling to the least compelling. What do we mean by compelling? As you’ll see, the definition can vary based on where the intrigue in a given matchup lies.
All game times p.m. ET. Asterisk(*) indicates approximate tip time.
1. Duke (2) vs. Syracuse (11) | Friday, 9:37*, CBS | Midwest region — Omaha
On paper, it’s the most uneven of the eight matchups. Duke is an 11.5-point favorite. So why is it the most compelling? Two reasons.
One is the names. Duke and Syracuse. Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim. Marvin Bagley, Wendell Carter, Grayson Allen and so on.
The other is the prospect of Syracuse and another inexplicable run. The Orange had no business beating Michigan State. Some would say they had no business being in the NCAA tournament in the first place. This actually feels a lot like 2016, when Cuse, a 10-seed, held four consecutive opponents under a point per possession en route to the Final Four.
That 2016 team then came up against North Carolina and got blown away. In some sense, this Duke game feels like the 2018 equivalent. It really should be a blowout. But there’s something about Boeheim and the Orange in March. Weird stuff tends to happen. Expect the unexpected.
2. Villanova (1) vs. West Virginia (5) | Friday, 7:27, TBS | East region — Boston
Villanova looks like the title favorite, but it faces a West Virginia team that, were it on the opposite side of the bracket, it might be considered a Final Four favorite itself. Jevon Carter played out of his mind in San Diego, and his matchup with Jalen Brunson is the most enticing individual showdown of the round. There’s a very good chance this game features the highest quality basketball of the eight.
3. Michigan (3) vs. Texas A&M (7) | Thursday, 7:37, TBS | West region — Los Angeles
Michigan, after its month-long surge that culminated with a Big Ten postseason title, looked relatively pedestrian in rounds one and two. Texas A&M, on the other hand, looked like one of the nation’s elite teams masquerading as a 7-seed. You know about the North Carolina game, but even in the first round, A&M took Providence’s best shot and simply had too much talent.
There are also stylistic contrasts here. A&M is as big and athletic as anybody left in the tournament – Duke and Kentucky included. It doesn’t take or make many 3s – though it did both against Carolina – but it can ravage opponents in the paint. Michigan, on the other hand, will spread the floor, and could give A&M fits with lineups that feature Duncan Robinson at the four and Mo Wagner at the five.
4. Nevada (7) vs. Loyola Chicago (11) | Thursday, 7:07, CBS | South region — Atlanta
It’s Sister Jean vs. Shirtless Musselman. It’s two mid-majors that would pass as high-majors with different names on the fronts of their jerseys. It’s two great stories, two different but successful approaches to program rebuilds, and it’s more or less a toss-up.
5. Purdue (2) vs. Texas Tech (3) | Friday, 9:57*, TBS | East region — Boston
The Isaac Haas injury really sucks. You have to feel for Purdue. Even if mechanical engineering students can come up with a special brace that would enable Haas to play, he won’t be anywhere close to 100 percent, and likely won’t play. But the Boilermakers aren’t just some ordinary team without him. They still have size and a ton of outside shooting. It’ll be fascinating to see how they deal with Texas Tech’s defensive pressure on the perimeter.
6. Kansas (1) vs. Clemson (5) | Friday, 7:07, CBS | Midwest region — Omaha
Clemson looked awesome against Auburn. Then again, most teams still alive on the right side of the bracket could have looked awesome against Auburn. Kansas is surely one of them, and there isn’t much to suggest the Tigers can take down the Jayhawks, especially in Omaha. This has the feel of last year’s Kansas Sweet 16 game against Purdue, where the underdog hangs around for a half, then gets blindsided by a Jayhawk run in the second.
7. Kentucky (5) vs. Kansas State (9) | Thursday, 9:37*, CBS | South region — Atlanta
Kentucky is compelling, as it always is. But Kansas State? Uh, did you watch the UMBC game? It was not pretty. The purple Wildcats are probably the flukiest of the Sweet 16 participants, which is to say they’re the worst. Hopefully Dean Wade returns from his foot injury and injects some life into them.
8. Gonzaga (4) vs. Florida State (9) | Thursday, 10:07*, TBS | West region — Los Angeles
Similar to Kentucky and its matchup, Gonzaga is a legitimate title contender; there’s just not much compelling about the opponent or how the two stack up against each other. Oh, and it will start after 10 p.m. on the east coast. If you’re a night owl, it’s definitely worth watching. But it’s probably not worth pushing your bedtime back two hours for.
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