Wisconsin versus Syracuse: Thursday, 7:15 p.m. Eastern, East Region, Boston.
Syracuse has been nothing if not resilient throughout this season. Jim Boeheim’s Orangemen have endured both scandals and injuries to achieve thirty wins and defy predictions that they’d be in the Sweet 16 at all. Even without standout Fab Melo, Syracuse has achieved a balanced offensive attack anchored by point guard Scoop Jardine. Jardine, originally from South Philadelphia, came to Syracuse with exceptional talent, but also a work ethic needing considerable improvement. Boeheim has praised Jardine’s leadership and how very hard he’s worked this year to assume his leadership position with the team. He’s a major reason why Syracuse, despite the dour predictions at the beginning of the NCAA tournament, has righted itself after a scare in their opening East regional game against UNC Asheville.
Bo Ryan’s fourth-seeded Wisconsin Badgers have had a less linear path to the tournament. They’re currently ranked 23rd nationally, with a 7-7 record against the RPI top 50 teams. And last week, they just barely eked past a talented Vanderbilt squad that pushed them the entire forty minutes. But Wisconsin’s a strong outside shooting team that works the post equally hard. Syracuse will likely try and diffuse the Badgers’ inside game with their 2-3 zone which has been very effective this year; but against a Wisconsin team that’s patient with the ball and can hit threes, this will be a very close game. The edge should go to No. 1 seed Syracuse.
Indiana versus Kentucky: Friday, 9:45 p.m. Eastern, South Region, Atlanta.
This matchup features another four versus one seed matchup. The Kentucky Wildcats have everything going for them. They’re healthy, they have arguably one of the best big men to appear in the NCAA in a generation in center Anthony Davis, and are exceedingly well-coached by John Calipari, who’s won 77% of games in his career, and is the only coach in NCAA history to take three one-seeded programs to the NCAA tournament (the others being the University of Massachusetts and Memphis).
Kentucky came into the tournament as the overall one seed, but had lost to the Hoosiers last December in one of only two losses during the season. In that case, Indiana got Davis into foul trouble early, and they’ll try to keep him off the floor again on Friday. But the Hoosiers will not have the services of their exceptional guard Verdell Jones, who injured his right knee in the first half of Indiana’s win over Penn State in the Big Ten tournament earlier this month. As a result, the Hoosiers’ prospects are considerably dimmed because, as has been said in various quarters, “Indiana needs Jones.”
Indiana’s last victory was an emotional one and got them to their first Sweet 16 since 2002. In the process, the Hoosiers battled back against a Virginia Commonwealth team that was poised to once again rip their bracket apart en route to the later rounds. Still, it took a narrowly-missed VCU three-pointer to seal the win. Indiana big men Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller (brother of UNC star Tyler Zeller) were instrumental in the outcome, but will certainly have a tall task in trying to pick up the slack from Jones’s absence in Friday’s contest. Even so, they are not the same team that defeated the Wildcats this past winter. With the final buzzer on Friday night, Kentucky should be one step closer to another Final Four.
Louisville versus Michigan State: Thursday, 7:47 p.m. Eastern, West Region, Phoenix.
The fourth-seeded Louisville Cardinals are anchored by guard Peyton Siva, who this season has matured into a versatile and effective team leader. Reportedly, at mid-season, after the Cardinals had sustained a particularly difficult stretch of losses in the Big East, coach Rick Pitino told Siva to watch the Phoenix Suns’ star ball handler Steve Nash. Pitino’s counseling was both timely and prescient, and Siva responded almost beyond Pitino’s fondest wishes. Now Louisville has won six post-season games, including the Big East tournament title, and is on the verge of making the Elite Eight for the first time since 2009 after some major tournament disappointments the past two seasons.
The one obstacle is West region top seed Michigan State University, which excelled during the regular season – sharing the Big Ten conference title despite playing the strongest schedule in all of Division 1 basketball. The Spartans’ efficient yet underpublicized backcourt includes Keith Appling, Travis Trice and Brandon Wood. They will meet significant resistance against Siva and his fellow backcourt turnover specialists. This is one area where Michigan State could face real problems. Appling, Trice and Wood’s collective turnover percentage is over eighteen percent, and if Pitino can initiate his intimidating 2-2-1 zone press, Michigan State could become completely flummoxed. However, the Spartans’ trump card is and has always been the talented power forward Draymond Green, who Pitino himself has suggested he currently has no real answers for on the inside. Even if Louisville’s zone is effective on the perimeter, can it be enough to stop Green? Unlikely. Coach Tom Izzo's Spartans should get to the next round in a very tight match.
Florida versus Marquette: Thursday, 10:17 p.m. Eastern, Midwest Region, Phoenix.
Third seed Marquette is coming off a hard-fought slugfest last Sunday against sixth-seeded Murray State. The Golden Eagles’ power forward Jae Crowder was once again the man of the hour, scoring six of the team’s fourteen points in a 14-2 run late in the second half. He also contributed thirteen rebounds. The difficulty here is they now play a Florida team with momentum who dropped an anvil of 84 points against upstart Norfolk State last weekend.
The seventh-seeded Gators are a point-scoring machine, averaging nearly eighty points per game, most of which are usually distributed amongst guards Kenny Boynton, Erving Walker and Bradley Beal – with Mike Rosario chipping in strongly off the bench. And this quartet can rebound, too: among the four, they managed twenty-two defensive boards against Norfolk State. Crowder will have to fight at both ends of the court, as he typically and by far is their most productive rebounder. But he will definitely have his hands full in this one. Though Marquette is a force in the major conference Big East, Florida should should still comfortably move on to the next round.
Thursday's fourth game features Cincinnati vs. Ohio St. The other three regional semifinals - Xavier vs. Baylor, Ohio U. vs. North Carolina, and North Carolina State vs. Kansas - will take place on Friday night.