This year’s “Sweet 16” round in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament features sixteen strong teams from power conferences. The lowest seed left, No. 11, belongs to UCLA. But the Bruins, who many believed never should have been included in the tournament, are playing inspired basketball with a fire that only a chip on their collective shoulder could have fueled. However, don’t doubt for a minute the importance bracket-busters like Alabama-Birmingham and Georgia State had in creating this year’s regional semifinals. Their second round wins loom large in where the tournament now stands – which includes UCLA’s fortunes.
UCLA (22-13) will take on No. 2 seed Gonzaga (34-2) in one South region semifinal Friday night. This will prove a very difficult challenge for Steve Alford’s young Bruins squad. The Bulldogs of Gonzaga are filled with experienced juniors and seniors who, when they visited UCLA in Los Angeles this past December, routed them by double digits.
Gonzaga just has too many scorers for the Bruins to contend with – senior USC transfer Byron Wesley, junior Kyle Wiltjer, and senior Kevin Pangos are outstanding shooters from the perimeter. Junior center Przemek Karnowski can score in the paint and, at 288 lbs., is a defensive presence that is difficult for any team to contend with. This is one of the best Gonzaga squads Mark Few has ever coached, and it will show on Friday.
Also in the South region in Houston, No. 1 seed Duke (31-4) comes in after a systematic and virtually effortless 19-point demolition of San Diego State University, 68-49, last Sunday. The Blue Devils are led by the perimeter trident of Justise Winslow, Quinn Cook, and Tyus Jones, who helped Duke hit 43 percent of their threes against the Aztecs, and have one of Division 1’s best big men inside in Jahlil Okafor, who scored 26 points against the Aztecs and had three blocks. In the end, this will prove too much for the Utah Utes (26-8) to handle. To get the victory in their last game with the fourth-seeded Georgetown Hoyas, the Utes had to hit 57 percent of their three-point shots. This was an outstanding performance, but against a Blue Devil backcourt whose defense on the perimeter resembles flypaper, Utah will most probably not be nearly as successful.
The Kentucky Wildcats, at 36-0, will play West Virginia Thursday night in a Midwest region semifinal. The fifth-seeded Mountaineers (25-9) just came off what some would call an upset third round win over Maryland, 69-59, and are hoping that the less experienced, yet taller and more athletic Wildcats will allow the weight of an undefeated record to creep into their consciousness. West Virginia’s Big 12 Conference coach of the year, Bob Huggins, hopes to use a hard press against the Kentucky backcourt to neutralize the perimeter play of the outstanding Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron. The interior, however, is another story. The trident of seven-footers Dakari Johnson and Willie Cauley-Stein and 6’ 11” Karl-Anthony Towns, are as imposing as redwood trees, and most opponents have wilted in their presence. This will pose a significant challenge for the Mountaineers, who will need to play their best game – and then some – if they want to reach the "Elite Eight."
No. 3 seed Notre Dame and the seventh-seeded Wichita State Shockers will meet in the other Midwest region semifinal game on Thursday night, with the Fighting Irish (31-5) having survived an overtime win last weekend against scrappy Butler University, 67-64. The Wichita Shockers (30-4), on the other hand, had a solid double-digit win over second-seeded Kansas last Sunday, and are riding into Cleveland on a high note. Wichita State’s three-point specialist Ron Baker, forward Evan Wessel, and point guard Fred VanVleet pose a significant perimeter challenge for the Irish. They can also draw a significant number of fouls, as they did against the Kansas Jayhawks last weekend. Additionally, the trio effectively swarm their opponents on defense. On Sunday, the Shockers forced 14 Jayhawk turnovers – five against guard Frank Mason III.
On the inside, very few teams have been able to figure out Shockers forward Tekele Cotton, who can penetrate the paint seemingly with ease. He will likely make life under the basket difficult for the Irish. Against Kansas, all five Wichita State Shockers scored in double figures, so their versatility and spreading of the ball are main assets for them. Notre Dame has its own integral players such as forward Zach Auguste, who had 13 rebounds against Butler. But if VanVleet, Baker, and Wessel can connect consistently on their shots from the outside and Cotton establishes himself on the inside, the Shockers should convincingly win a slot in the regional final.
The West region's No. 1 seed Wisconsin Badgers (33-3) have progressed comfortably through their first two games against Coastal Carolina and Oregon – though less so against the Ducks – earning them their seventh sweet 16 appearance (to go with four Big 10 conference championships) since 2001 under current coach Bo Ryan. Led by 7-foot senior Frank Kaminski, forward Sam Dekker, and guard Bronson Koenig, the Badgers are solid both in the paint and from beyond the three-point arc. They are also careful with the ball, rarely turning it over, and are meticulous about not committing unnecessary fouls.
On Thursday night in Los Angeles, they will meet the North Carolina Tar Heels (26-11) in the West region semifinal. Wisconsin is 0-2 against UNC since 2005. But the Tar Heels have been shaky in this tournament, surviving their second-round match against Harvard, 67-65; but faring better against Southeastern Conference runner-up Arkansas, 87-78. Wisconsin’s Traevon Jackson and North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks have been sidelined with injuries of late, so their questionable participation may prove to be a wash. But all other factors considered, Wisconsin is bigger, faster and more efficient with the ball.
In the other West region matchup, second seed Arizona meets the underdog No. 6 seed Xavier Musketeers in Los Angeles on Thursday night. The Wildcats (33-3) have rolled through their first two games, demolishing Texas Southern, 93-72, and then handily defeating the Ohio State Buckeyes by fifteen points last weekend. In their game with Ohio State, the Wildcats’ tandem of Rondae-Hollis Jefferson and Stanley Johnson grabbed 20 rebounds between them, and the team had a mammoth 41 boards.
One of the more interesting back stories of this game is that Xavier (23-13) is led by Chris Mack, who was previously top assistant at Xavier for Sean Miller, the Wildcats’ head coach since 2009, when he took over for the legendary Lute Olson. Mack and Miller have a friendly relationship, and talk frequently. The bottom line is that Arizona’s status as one of the elite teams in the country with a Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) figure of 5 (Xavier’s is 31), and all the athleticism that world-class recruits can bring to the Wildcats’ program, will not make this as much of a blowout as one might think. These teams know their opponent’s coaching style well, and will have to make adjustments for that. However, the Wildcats should prevail on their way to their third "Elite Eight" since 2011.
The No. 7 seed Michigan State Spartans (25-11), regardless of some of the more head-scratching losses they often sustain in the depths of winter, always seem, under coach Tom Izzo, now in his 20th season at Michigan State, to show up big for the postseason. Having defeated the Georgia Bulldogs in the second round and felling the East region’s No. 2 seed, the Virginia Cavaliers, last Sunday, the Spartans meet third seed Oklahoma in Syracuse late on Friday night. The Sooners (24-10) outlasted the No. 14 seed Albany Great Danes in the first round, 69-60, and pulled away late in their game last Sunday against the Dayton Flyers, 72-66.
Overall they’ve been playing well enough to win, but the Sooners’ two reliable scorers, Jordan Woodard and Buddy Hield, will have problems matching up with the Spartans' Travis Trice, who has upped the level of his game significantly in the team’s two past outings. Oh, and they’re now hitting a lot more free throws than they’ve previously made. This one will go to the wire but given all other statistics being close, coaching will make the difference. Look for Michigan State to advance in a squeaker.
In the East region’s other matchup between the eighth-seeded North Carolina State Wolfpack and the No. 4 seed Louisville Cardinals, Rick Pitino’s Louisville (26-8) squad meets a Wolfpack team on the upward swing. In fact, it largely started with their win over Louisville, on Denny Crum Court in February, where NC State won, 74-65 – their first road win against a Top Ten school since 2002. And after that game, the Wolfpack went 5-1 to close out their season, largely due to the superior play of their point guard Cat Barber.
Add to this NC State’s defeat of No. 1 seed Villanova in their third-round matchup last weekend, and you have the ingredients for an upset. The Cardinals, who have had some early tournament exits in years past, squeaked past the University of California, Irvine Anteaters in the second-round, 57-55, but got some equilibrium in defeating the fifth-seeded University of Northern Iowa (31-4), a team that many picked to go deep in the tourney, 66-53, last weekend. The Cardinals’ Pitino is a master of the full-court zone press, and will likely ramp it up this Friday evening, when they meet the Wolfpack in Syracuse, N.Y.