Mar 17, 2018; Dallas, TX, USA; Loyola (Il) Ramblers guard Clayton Custer (13) celebrates with teammates after hitting the game-winning shot to defeat the Tennessee Volunteers in the second round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament at American Airlines Center.

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Will the Madness continue?

Previewing the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16

Seth Dunlap
March 19, 2018 - 6:31 pm
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Wow!  What a thrill ride that first week of the NCAA basketball tournament was.  From UMBC’s all-time shocker, to an incredible season saving shot for Michigan, we were served everything that was promised, and more.

I could live in the past 96 hours forever.  Seriously.   There is no other sports tournament in the world that provides these kind of moments on repeat for three weeks.

Well, that’s probably embellishing a bit.  Usually, the “Madness” lasts through the first weekend and then the traditional powers begin to dominate.   The first weekend is usually all about the Cinderella’s.   The next two weeks are about the royalty of the sport.

That’s not to say increasing parity in college basketball isn’t real.  It is, as evidenced by the amount of lower seeded teams making the Final Four recently.   There has been at least one 7 seed, or lower, make the Final Four in six of the past seven years. 

So what can we expect during the second week of this incredible tournament?  Let’s preview it, again region by region.

 

SOUTH

It’d be a glaring case of burying the lead if I started anywhere else.  The South Region is completely nuts.   Out are #1 Virginia, #2 Cincinnati, #3 Tennessee, and #4 Arizona.   This is the first time the top four seeds in one region have all been eliminated in the first two rounds since the field expanded to 64.

The chaos has cleared the way for a traditional blue blood to come out of this region.  Kentucky, traditional college hoops royalty but previous tournament afterthought this year, now has just Kansas State and then either Loyola-Chicago or Nevada in their path.   I’m not sure why anybody is surprised by the Wildcats’ late season surge anymore.  Coach John Calipari has done this before, most notably in 2014 when #8 seeded Kentucky played for the national championship.

The most intriguing team here is Nevada.  Coach Eric Mussleman’s squad is playing as well offensively as anybody in the country.  They put up 75 points on Cincinnati, previously the nation’s second most stout defensive unit.  That was after putting up 87 points against Texas in their tournament opener.   They are incredibly efficient both inside and outside, and are clear favorites in their Sweet 16 game against Loyola-Chicago.

 

WEST

The wild, wild West hasn’t received as many headlines as the shockers in the South Region did, but this bracket has also opened wide up.  Both #1 Xavier, and #2 North Carolina have been bounced, leaving in place Gonzaga as the consensus favorites to make a trip to San Antonio.

Let’s talk about Gonzaga here.  First, I’m glad we’ve finally moved past labelling the Zags as “mid-major”.  There’s nothing mid-major about this program anymore.  They’ve just made their fourth consecutive Sweet 16 and are coming off a near miss against North Carolina in last year’s national championship game.   Head coach Mark Few is perhaps the best pound for pound tournament coach in NCAA history – nobody has met or exceeded their seed expectations like Few has the past decade.   They are the ultimate combination of balance, veteran leadership, and explosive youth that you often see make a wild run to a championship.   Could this be the year Gonzaga finally is crowned the king of college hoops?

Standing in their way is perhaps the hottest team in the country, Michigan.  The Wolverines used a time-expiring three to shock Houston in the second round and once again advance to the Sweet 16.   John Beilein is one of the most underrated coaches in the country and has his team playing in the second weekend for the third time in five years.   If Michigan isn’t a co-favorite in the West Region with Gonzaga, then they are a very close second best bet.

Texas A&M is intriguing.  They dominated UNC in the second round, but have been the poster child of inconsistency this season – remember they started 0-5 in SEC conference play. 

Florida State is in a terrible matchup with Gonzaga.  The Seminoles have a really tough time scoring from the perimeter, shooting only 33% from behind the arc on the season.   They are big and physical inside, but those are usually the kinds of teams Gonzaga eats up. 

 

EAST

Finally we get to the regions where the favorites remain intact. 

Villanova are both favorites in this region, and also in the entire tournament.  That hasn’t changed since last week. The Wildcats have an interesting matchup in the Sweet 16 against West Virginia.  Like I mentioned in that article, this is no longer the Press Virginia team we are used to.  Yes, coach Bob Huggins still emphasizes a defense first approach that can wreak havoc on lesser skilled teams.   However, that press has been less reliable this year than in years past.   Villanova has the guards to handle the pressure, and enter that game as comfortable favorites.

While Texas Tech and Purdue both have played some exceptional basketball in stretches this year, it’s hard to see them getting by Villanova in an Elite 8 matchup.

In short, the East is Villanova’s to lose.

 

MIDWEST

Finally, another bracket where, with the exception of one notable upset, chalk has dominated.

Let’s discuss that upset first.  Syracuse was one of the last teams to receive an at-large berth from the selection committee and as such were rewarded with a play-in game against Arizona State.  The Orange, and their trademarked zone defense, stymied the Sun Devils and then was equally oppressive against TCU and Michigan State.   Syracuse had to win three games last week to even make it this far, and now their rewarded with a game against Duke.

Those Blue Devils have rocketed up the betting boards to become co-Vegas consensus favorite with Villanova.  That shouldn’t surprise anybody who watched Duke’s dismantlings of Iona and Rhode Island last week.   Frankly, I’d be much more surprised to see Duke’s season end than to see them playing next week in San Antonio.   That means they would have to beat. . .

. . . #1 seed Kansas.   For the third time in two weeks I’m going to write this – it would be very fitting for the Jayhawks to win the whole tournament during the one year where so few think they can actually do it.  Yeah, we are talking about a 1 seed who is having problems generating any headlines in this tournament right now.   I’m sure that’s just the way Bill Self wants it.

Kansas-Duke in the Midwest Regional Final could be the game of the tournament.  Stay tuned. . .

 

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