The Sweet 16 round of this season's NCAA men's basketball tournament was comprised overwhelmingly of power conference squads – six from the Atlantic Coast Conference, three from the Big 12, three from the Big Ten, and one each from the Pac-12, SEC, and the Big East. The lone outlier is mid-major Gonzaga from the West Coast Conference. Of these teams, top seeds North Carolina, Virginia, Kansas, and Oregon emerged victorious from the first two rounds with dominating performances from all.
Overall No. 1 seed Kansas, who dropped 105 points on Austin Peay in its first round game, and who beat their opponents by a combined 38 points in the first two rounds, continued their superior play against fifth seed Maryland, winning 79-63, and advancing to the South region's Elite Eight this weekend. Maryland was rattled by Kansas' ferocious perimeter defense, led by Perry Ellis, who almost single-handedly kept the Terrapins out of the paint. And when they got in, they couldn't rebound (Maryland had only five offensive rebounds on the night). And within the last ten minutes, Maryland, the best free throw-shooting team this season in NCAA Division 1, missed four consecutive from the foul line. In fact, Kansas hit 85 percent (18-21) from the line to Maryland's 70 percent (14-20). Kansas's next game against second seed Villanova promises to be a high-speed and high-scoring game.
Speaking of the Villanova Wildcats, they had no trouble defeating the third-seeded Miami Hurricanes, led by the ball-handling prowess of senior guard Ryan Arcidiacono, whose amazing ballhandling is reminiscent of former LSU and NBA star "Pistol" Pete Maravich, and he has a deadly three-point range jump shot, as well. He's also a rarity in that he has been Villanova's captain since he was a freshman. He and teammate Kris Jenkins each scored 21 points. The Wildcats hit an astounding 63 percent of their field goals (32-51), 67 percent of their three-point shots (10-15) and missed only one free throw in 19 tries (95 percent). They now meet Kansas in the South regional final for a trip to the Final Four this Saturday night.
In the West regional, third seed Texas A&M's miracle finish last weekend against the University of Northern Iowa was only a fond memory as the second-seeded Oklahoma Sooners were hitting shots almost at will to jump out to a 19-point lead at halftime. The Sooners' tandem of guard Buddy Hield and forward Jordan Woodard combined for 39 points to power Oklahoma to a 77-63 victory over the Aggies and a date in the Elite Eight this Saturday.
Also in the West, and with Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant in the house, top seed Oregon faced fourth-seeded Duke in the night's late game. Though the Blue Devils kept it close in the first half, the Ducks flew away in the second, with four of their starters finishing in double figures – led by Dillon Brooks (22 points) and Elgin Cook (16). For Duke, Brandon Ingram (24) and Grayson Allen (15) led the Blue Devils. Oregon will now face Oklahoma for a trip to the Final Four on Saturday.
Friday's Sweet 16 matchups feature the other side of the bracket, with Midwest No. 1 seed Virginia facing fourth seed Iowa State, and the two remaining double-digit seeds, tenth-seeded Syracuse versus No. 11 Gonzaga, meeting in Chicago. The Virginia Cavaliers, having beaten their first two opponents by a combined 44 points, are led by the extraordinary guard Malcolm Brogdon, who has scored 33 points in the first two rounds, and is equally prodigious with assists. The Cyclones, on the other hand, are led by their senior strong forward George Niang, who had 28 points in each of their first two contests. While the Cyclones appear to be on an upswing, the Cavaliers, who had a tough time against Butler in the tournament's second round, are vulnerable. They could be the first top seed to lose.
Gonzaga versus Syracuse is an intriguing matchup. Gonzaga has two big men in Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis, who have made life difficult for their opponents – a more highly regarded Seton Hall team in the first round and a hapless No. 3 Utah in the second. But they're going up against a Syracuse Orange squad that's scrappy and stingy on defense – with their legendary 2-3 zone – and a range of scorers including guard Malachi Richardson, who has no trouble driving the lane and drawing whistles, forward Michael Gbinije, and three-point specialist Trevor Cooney, who round out a lineup that routinely has several scorers in double-figures. If the Orange get that 2-3 zone working on all cylinders, they will be tough to beat.
In the East, the early game pairs No. 6 Notre Dame against seventh-seed Wisconsin. Interestingly, the teams have faced each other 28 times in their history, but never in the NCAA basketball tournament. Each of these teams needed every second against their opponents in the second round – Notre Dame earning their second consecutive Sweet 16 appearance with a last-second triumph over No. 14 Stephen F. Austin and Wisconsin getting two three-point baskets in the last 15 seconds from guard Bronson Koenig to seal the win over No. 2 Xavier. The Irish big men, Rex Pflueger and Zach Auguste, complement prolific outside shooters Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia. The Badgers' two highly adept backcourt veterans, Nigel Hayes and Koenig, are supplemented by the young strong forward Ethan Happ, admirably working to fill the huge space in the paint formerly manned by center Frank Kaminsky. This one, in my mind, is a toss-up. Whoever can exploit the other's weaknesses better – Wisconsin has traditionally had a very low turnover ratio – and can get control of the boards will win this game. Wisconsin also plays a traditional half-court offense, and if they can keep Notre Dame's pace down, that should help the Badgers.
The late East region finale Friday night in Philadelphia pits top seed North Carolina against the No. 5 Indiana Hoosiers. The Hoosiers got to within a game of the Final Four by dismantling 12th seed Chattanooga in the first round, and beating back a furious, 27-point effort by Kentucky Wildcats guard Tyler Ulis in their second round matchup. In that same game, the Hoosiers got a nicely-layered scoring performance from senior guard Yogi Ferrell, and a combined 32 points from center Thomas Bryant and forward Troy Williams. IU showed they could move step-for-step with the young Kentucky squad, and this will help their confidence going into Friday night's contest.
The Tar Heels, on the other hand, are as complete a team as you could want if you were going into this tournament – and particularly as a No. 1 seed. Their 19-point blowout of the well-regarded No. 9 Providence Friars was a lesson in how a complete team dismantles the will of a capable opponent. And North Carolina's starting quartet of forwards Brice Johnson and Justin Jackson, and guards Marcus Paige and Joel Berry, have all scored in double-figures in both prior games. They are also rounded out by reserve forward Isaiah Hicks, who added 25 points in those last two contests. Overall, North Carolina is too big and athletic for the Hoosiers, and with too many offensive weapons. The Tar Heels should move comfortably to the Final Four.