Breaking Down the Sweet Sixteen

We decided to take a closer, more in-depth look at this year’s Sweet Sixteen field because, how could you not. After an exhilarating, stunning first two rounds, it couldn’t possibly get any crazier in the college basketball world, could it? Let’s find out.

East

This region was so straightforward it bordered on boring amidst all the chaos elsewhere in the tournament. Villanova managed to escape to the Sweet Sixteen without experiencing much drama, as did West Virginia and Texas Tech. Purdue suffered a tiny, momentary setback against Butler but managed to right the ship in the end. I will say this about the East: it will house the highest quality of play in the next two rounds.

Villanova’s Jalen Brunson vs. West Virginia’s Jevon Carter is my favorite Sweet Sixteen matchup and the most darling storyline: AAU teammates to NCAA Tournament opponents. I love a good old-fashioned guard-driven game. And since I have to say it because everyone else is, expect turnovers to be a major key in this contest. But really it will be Mikal Bridges vs. a big old question mark that will be the difference maker. Expect Nova to come out on top.

As for the Red Raiders vs. the Boilermakers, Tech’s Keenan Evans will be pushing it, probably real good and forcing Purdue to run with him. But Purdue ranks second in the nation in 3-point efficiency so Tech will have to keep an eye on the perimeter. In the end, Red Raiders win a close game and move on, only to fall to Nova in another nail biter.

Midwest

This region is just weird. Kansas making it all the way to the Sweet Sixteen with other top seeds falling left and right feels strange – like I’m about to be Iced by someone in the next room I enter. This region is also scary: three ACC teams and a Big 12 champion. These games are going to be closer than any other region – no large leads, no comeback runs just shot-for-shot, rebound-for-rebound.

Kansas vs. Clemson in Omaha is a big advantage for the Jayhawks as KU fans travel well and will pack the house for sure. And I think ultimately experience will win out, as this is a familiar situation for Kansas. Sure, Clemson is riding a blowout win over Auburn but KU’s Malik Newman is coming off a 28-point game against Seton Hall. Plus there is Devonte’ Graham. And the Jayhawks fifth best adjusted offensive efficiency in the country. So yeah.

And, like everybody else in the world, I’m excited to see Duke’s 85-points-a-game-offense vs. Syracuse’s suffocating zone defense. Syracuse’s path led them through Arizona State, TCU and Michigan State, giving up 56, 52 and 53 points. And since you know I love my numbers, here is how they match up: Duke is shooting 55 percent in the tournament, and 45.1 percent from the 3-point line. This ought to be interesting. Syracuse is allowing 34.3 and 28.9 percent. I think we see a Duke vs. Kansas matchup in the Elite Eight and I gotta go Jayhawks because Rock Chalk.

Fun fact: Syracuse’s three opponents put up 44 3-pointers in the second half but made only nine of them.

South

This is easily the most exciting, loveable region, housing fan favorites like Loyola-Chicago and Nevada. Both teams have had incredible runs and boast equally inspiring storylines. It’s truly a shame one of them will be eliminated Thursday. But it will absolutely be the most entertaining game of the entire tournament. Both teams are filled with fighters and honestly this game might just go to triple-overtime. I do like Nevada to emerge victorious for four reasons: Cody Martin, Caleb Martin and the two turnovers the Wolfpack committed against Cincinnati. But the Ramblers have a secret weapon in the form of a blessing from Sister Jean. And come tournament time, it’s always good to have God on your side.

Kansas State vs. Kentucky will also be fun to watch, because both teams boast athletic squads, which will make for a fun and fast game. It’s going to be a scintillating inside-outside match – Kentucky owns a +30-point in the paint differential, which will prove difficult for K-State, who lacks the dynamic presence inside to compete. But Kentucky will need to shore up it’s inside the perimeter defense – in the first two games of the tournament, Kentucky’s opponents shot over 50 percent inside the arc. Ultimately, I think K-State will have to play Kentucky’s brand of basketball, which won’t bode well for Kansas State. Kentucky vs. Nevada in the Elite Eight will be a great game with the Wildcats moving on.

West

This region is my least favorite despite the fact that it hosts one of my now defunct Final Four teams: Michigan. And honestly, I think Texas A&M used up its best game against North Carolina to get here. Plus, Michigan has just been playing some type of way. Expect a very defensive basketball game, with few points but lots of action. And I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that we are going to see another Michigan buzzer-beater.

The other game, Florida State vs. Gonzaga is going to be fast. Like quick. Like up-and-down the floor more times than you ever thought humanely possible. Florida State is strong and aggressive and the Noles take big shots, which makes them dangerous. They are also balanced – 10 players average at least 10 minutes per game compared to Gonzaga’s seven. Plus the Seminoles have three players averaging double-digit points: Phil Cofer (13.0), Braian Angola-Rodas (12.8) and Terrance Mann (12.7). Second-chance points will be key for the Zags, as that is one thing Florida State struggles with. Slowing down the game and playing half-court offense will also be important for Gonzaga. But I think we see Florida State edge the Bulldogs in a surprising upset. And then fall to a feisty and cohesive Michigan squad.

As with all NCAA Tournament ponderings and predictions, take what we say with a very refined grain of salt. Our brackets were burned the moment Virginia lost to UMBC and statistics and analysis of a team’s tournament play can only take us so far. At the end of the day, it’s in the hands of the hardwood higher power.

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