NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 preview

March Madness returns on Thursday night with the start of the Sweet 16

Jon Simon
March 27, 2019 - 10:47 pm

Photo: Jeffrey Becker - USA TODAY Sports

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March Madness kicks back up on Thursday night with a four-game slate for the start of Sweet 16 action.

The Sweet 16 continues on Friday with the Elite Eight games on Saturday and Sunday. The top-three seeds in each region all survived and advanced to the Sweet 16. The 12-seed Oregon Ducks are the only double-digit seed left in the tournament.

Check out a preview of the eight matchups here: 

 

East Region: Friday, March 29th, Washington, D.C.:

(2) Michigan State vs. (3) LSU – 7:09 p.m. (CBS):

The Friday night double-header in the nation’s capital starts with a matchup between two regular season conference champions. Both teams ran into some trouble against double-digit seeds in the first round. The second-seeded Spartans trailed the 15-seed Bradley Braves at halftime and the third-seeded Tigers managed to beat 14-seed Yale by five despite being out-scored by 11 points in the second half. Michigan State disposed of 10-seed Minnesota with ease in the Round of 32, besting their Big Ten rivals by 20. LSU’s second round game went a little differently; the Tigers edged-out the 6-seed Maryland Terrapins 69-67 on a last-second layup by Tremont Waters. The head coaches of both Michigan State and LSU have been talked about a lot during this year’s tournament. The Tigers have been playing without their head coach Will Wade, who was suspended indefinitely at the end of the season due to a recruiting scandal investigation. On the other side, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo was caught on camera getting in the face of Michigan State freshman Aaron Henry during a timeout in the game against Bradley. Current and former Michigan State players, including Henry, along with many other athletes, coaches and media have come to Izzo’s defense, but it was one of the hottest topics from the tournament’s first weekend. Come tip-off, all the outside noise won’t matter, and this game should be a good one. Both sides were among the top-40 scoring teams in the nation during the regular season (LSU 23rd with 81.4 ppg. – Michigan State 37th with 79.2 ppg.) and top-30 in rebounding (Michigan State eighth with 41.0 rpg. – LSU 29th with 38.8 rpg.). There’s a lot of individual talent on both sides in this game as well; but the matchup to watch is between the point guards. Michigan State’s Cassius Winston and LSU’s Tremont Waters both led their respective teams in scoring and assists this season. One odd stat about this matchup, the last time each of these teams made their most-recent Sweet 16 appearance (Michigan State: 2015, LSU: 2006), they went on to the Final Four.

(1) Duke vs. (4) Virginia Tech – 9:39 p.m. (CBS):

A rare inter-conference matchup will take place in the second game on Friday night with an ACC battle. The top-seeded Blue Devils may be still be counting their blessings after escaping the Round of 32 with a one-point win over UCF. The fourth-seeded Hokies, who defeated 12-seed Liberty 67-58 in the second round, are making the program’s first appearance in the Sweet 16 since 1967. Duke has played in 26 Sweet 16 games since Virginia Tech’s last appearance with 25 coming under coach Mike Krzyzewski, so they have a leg up in the experience department. But, Virginia Tech defeated Duke in their lone meeting during the regular season 77-72 in Blacksburg, VA. There is a bit of an asterisk next to that win, however. Duke’s freshman phenom Zion Williamson was out due to injury for that first matchup, and his presence will certainly alter the Hokies’ game plan for the Blue Devils the second time around. Williamson led Duke with 32 points in the win over UCF and scored 25 in the first round against North Dakota State. The Blue Devils’ other star freshman, RJ Barrett, who scored the game-winning basket against UCF, finished with 16 against the Knights but led Duke with 26 points in their first round victory. Barrett also scored a team-high 21 points in the loss to Virginia Tech earlier in the season. Kerry Blackshear Jr. led the Hokies with 23 points in the win over Duke. The junior forward also led Tech in scoring with 19 in the win over Liberty on Sunday. Sophomore Nickeil Alexander-Walker is another player to watch from Virginia Tech. The guard led the Hokies with 16.4 points per-game this season and scored a team-high 20 in their win over Saint Louis in round one.

 

West Region: Thursday, March 28th, Anaheim, CA:

(1) Gonzaga vs. (4) Florida State – 7:09 p.m. (CBS):

This could arguably be the most intriguing of all the Sweet 16 matchups, considering these two teams met in the same round just one year ago. Last year as a 9-seed, Florida State defeated the fourth-seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs 75-60 to advance to the school’s first Elite Eight since 1993. The top-seeded Bulldogs are once again the higher ranked team this season, but won’t be taking the fourth-seeded Seminoles for granted after last year’s loss. Florida State only beat 13-seed Vermont by seven in the first round, but came out and wiped the floor with 12-seed Murray State, winning 90-62 in the Round of 32. The Seminoles will have a big hill to climb if they want a repeat result from last year’s matchup. Gonzaga was the highest-scoring team in the nation during the regular season, averaging 88.8 points per game, and have scored 80-plus in their first two NCAA tournament games as well. Florida State only gave up 80 points or more three times this season, but were 1-2 in those games. The win was 95-81 victory over North Florida on December 19. The Seminoles can definitely score 80-plus points, which is something they may have to do in order to advance; they’ve done it 14 times so far this season. The key players to watch from Florida State are senior Terance Mann and sophomore Mfiondu Kabengele. The latter was the Seminoles leading scorer in both of their tournament wins so far, scoring 21 points against Vermont and 22 against Murray State. Mann is Florida States’ leading rebounder this season and is tied for the most games played in program history. On the Gonzaga side, Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke lead a talented Bulldogs group. Hachimura was the Zags’ leading scorer in the regular season with 20 points per game. The junior also scored a team-high 21 points in the first round win over 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson. Clarke had one of the more impressive individual performances of the tournament so far against 9-seed Baylor in the Round of 32. The forward finished with 36 points on 15-of-18 shooting, along with eight rebounds, five blocks, three assists and two steals. If Clarke and Hachimura turn in their usual performances, there’s a good chance Gonzaga will avenge last year’s defeat and get back to the Elite Eight. 

(2) Michigan vs. (3) Texas Tech – 9:39 p.m. (CBS): 

Thursday night’s game between the second-seeded Wolverines and the third-seeded Red Raiders will feature two of the nation’s top defensive teams. Michigan and Texas Tech finished second and third in scoring defense and were two of just four teams to give up less than 60 points per-game. Texas Tech also finished first in adjusted defensive efficiency while Michigan finished second. Both the Wolverines and Red Raiders got through the first weekend with dominant wins. Michigan defeated 15-seed Montana 74-55 in round one and knocked-off 10-seed Florida 64-49 in the Round of 32; while the Red Raiders rolled past 14-seed Northern Kentucky 72-57 in their opener and proceeded to run through 6-seed Buffalo on Sunday, besting the Bulls 78-58. Thursday’s game will come down to which side can get the edge in scoring, which will be no easy task; both teams have held their opponents to 37-percent shooting from the field or less in their first two tournament games. It won’t be a high-scoring affair, but Michigan and Texas Tech will be quite a grudge match. Both the Wolverines and Red Raiders will be looking to make a return to the Elite Eight. Last year Michigan advanced to the Final Four with a win over Florida State in last year’s west regional finals. Texas Tech came up just short of a Final Four birth last spring, falling to the eventual-champion Villanova Wildcats. Zavier Simpson is without a doubt Michigan’s impact player. The Wolverines’ point guard rarely leads the team in scoring, but facilitates the offense and sets the tone on defense. Simpson led the team in assists and steals this season. Senior Charles Matthews, junior Jon Teske, sophomores Jordan Poole and Isaiah Livers, and freshman Ignas Brazdeikis round-out Michigan’s core. Sophomore Jarrett Culver has led Texas Tech in the scoring department all season. Culver led the Red Raiders in points against Northern Kentucky and Buffalo with 29 and 16 respectively. All five Texas Tech starters finished in double figures against the Bulls, so Michigan’s defense can’t focus too much attention on Culver. Guards Davide Moretti and Matt Mooney are two more Red Raiders who can put up some points.

 

South Region: Thursday, March 28th, Louisville, KY:

(2) Tennessee vs. (3) Purdue – 7:29 p.m. (TBS):

The third-seeded Boilermakers will be making their third consecutive Sweet 16 appearance on Thursday night. However, Purdue failed to advance past the Sweet 16 the last two years and will have to beat a tough Tennessee team if they want to finally advance to the Elite Eight. The second-seeded Volunteers barely avoided being upset by 10-seed Iowa in the round of 32; the Hawkeyes took the Vols to overtime after overcoming a 21-point halftime deficit. If Tennessee wants to have any shot of beating Purdue, they cannot play the type of game they did in the second half against Iowa. While the Volunteers struggled at times during their first two tournament games, Purdue rolled through the first weekend. The Boilermakers won both of their first and second round games by double-digits, one being a dominant 87-61 victory over the defending champion Villanova Wildcats in the Round of 32. Junior guard Carsen Edwards, who scored a career-high 42 points in the drubbing of Villanova last Saturday, has been the Boilermakers leader all season and will be the player to watch in black and gold on Thursday night. Edwards doesn’t have a ton of scoring help around him, but guard Ryan Cline and center Matt Haarms can put up some points to help carry the load. Tennessee’s duo of Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield will need to make a big impact if the Volunteers want to make their first trip to the Elite Eight since 2010 (their only appearance). Schofield missed some time down the stretch and didn’t play in overtime against Iowa due to foul trouble. The senior finished with 19 points against the Hawkeyes despite playing just 24 minutes. Schofield was Tennessee’s second-leading scorer this season and is one of their more versatile defenders. Williams was the Volunteers’ leading scorer during the regular season, averaging 19 points per-game. The junior guard scored 19 points in the win over Iowa, but also finished with seven rebounds, five assists, four steals and three blocks. Williams, like Schofield, is a solid defender and both of them will most likely take turns guarding the dynamic Edwards. Tennessee has a bit more scoring depth than Purdue. If Edwards, Schofield and co. can control Edwards, the Vols should be able to take this game. But, there is no reason to count out Purdue. The Boilermakers have looked really strong in the tournament after a so-so end to the regular season. If Purdue knocks-off Tennessee, they’ll be heading to their first Elite Eight since 2000.

(1) Virginia vs. (12) Oregon – 9:57 p.m. (TBS):

The Oregon Ducks are the only double-digit seed left in this year’s tournament. In fact, they’re the only team left that is higher than a 5-seed. Despite the numbers, the 12-seed Ducks are one of the scariest teams in this tournament. Oregon appears to have the appearance of a team that has nothing to lose. A loss would end the Ducks’ season, but many believed they didn’t even belong in this tournament and that’s only added fuel to Oregon’s fire. The Ducks have won 10 games in a row and got an automatic bid after winning the PAC 12 tournament. Oregon went on a tear in the second half to shock 5-seed Wisconsin by 18 in round one and then dismantled 13-seed UC Irvine by 19 points in the Round of 32. Virginia is still a heavy favorite despite the Ducks’ recent surge. The top-seeded Cavaliers are nine-point favorites on Thursday night and ESPN’s basketball power index is giving them a 93-percent chance to win. It’s a bit surprising that Oregon is being overlooked like this. Virginia had trouble with 16-seed Gardner-Webb in round one and trailed the Bulldogs by six at half. The Cavaliers would end up defeating Gardner-Webb by 15 and then handled 9-seed Oklahoma in the round of 32 by a 63-51 score. Virginia will rely heavily on winning the game with their defense. Virginia had the highest scoring defense in the country this season, and held teams to less than 39-percent shooting from the floor and under 28-percent from three. Oregon has shot extremely well so far in the tournament. The Ducks shot 55-percent from the floor and 47-percent from three against Wisconsin and 47-percent from the field and 52-percent from three against UC Irvine. It’ll be hard for Oregon to have another performance like those against Virginia, but if they can shoot in the low-40’s and adjust to Virginia’s tempo, the Ducks have a great shot to steal this game and go to their second Elite Eight in three years. Virginia has a number of players who’re capable of leading the team in scoring. De’Andre Hunter and Mamadi Diakite were the leading scorers in the first and second tournament games respectively. Hunter was the team’s leading scorer in the regular season with 15.6 points per-game. The Ducks have been without their star big man and top NBA prospect Bol Bol since the new year began, but have relied on guys like Payton Pritchard, Louis King and Paul White to take over the offense. Pritchard led the Ducks in scoring in both of their tournament wins last weekend, finishing with 19 against Wisconsin and 18 against UC Irvine.

 

Midwest Region: Friday, March 29th, Kansas City, MO:

(1) North Carolina vs. (5) Auburn – 7:29 p.m. (TBS):

The matchup between the top-seeded Tar Heels and fifth-seeded Tigers is one that a lot of people should make sure they turn into. Both North Carolina and Auburn boast a ton of talent and athleticism, and this game could be a bit of a barn burner. North Carolina cruised by 9-seed Washington 81-59 in the second round after getting a bit of a scare from 16-seed Iona in their first game. Auburn squeaked passed 12-seed New Mexico State, defeating the Aggies 78-77 in the first round. In the Round of 32, the Tigers bested 4-seed Kansas by 14. North Carolina and Auburn both came into this year’s tournament riding some hot streaks as well. The Tigers took home the SEC tournament championship and have won their last 10 games. The Tar Heels come into this game having won 10 of their last 11, the blemish during this streak was a one-point loss to Duke in the ACC tournament semifinals. North Carolina has a deep roster with a lot of talent. Senior Luke Maye is a walking double-double and an All-American talent. Fellow senior Cam Johnson was the Tar Heels top scorer this season, averaging 17 points per-game. Johnson also scored a team-high 21 points in the first round win over Iona. Freshman Coby White is also a big offensive threat for North Carolina. The guard finished second on the team in points per game this season with 16 and was first in assists with 4.2 per-game. Bryce Brown was Auburn’s leading scorer this season with 16 points per-game. Brown also scored a team-high 25 points in the win over Kansas. Jared Harper averaged 15 points per game during the regular season and is another scoring threat for the Tigers. Harper led Auburn with 17 points in the win over New Mexico State. The Tigers will be looking to advance to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1986, the program’s lone appearance. If North Carolina comes out on top, the Tar Heels will clinch a spot in the Elite Eight for the 29th time in program history. 

(2) Kentucky vs. (3) Houston – 9:57 p.m. (TBS): 

The matchup between the 2-seed Wildcats and 3-seed Cougars is one between a team that has “been here before,” and one who is looking to return to prominence. Kentucky is making their third consecutive Sweet 16 appearance and eighth under head coach John Calipari, who is in his 10th season at UK. Houston will be playing in their first Sweet 16 since 1984, the same year the Cougars won their last national championship. P.J. Washington, Kentucky’s leading scorer has missed the last two games with an injury. Washington had a walking boot on his foot last week, but on Tuesday had a cast taken off and was walking without a boot. The game isn’t until Friday so the Wildcats catch a break with him getting an extra day to recover. Calipari has not announced if Washington will play. If he does, Kentucky will be getting a huge boost to their offense and the sophomore’s presence could prove to be the difference maker. Kentucky will need the extra scoring help, Houston boats the seventh-best scoring defense in the nation, averaging just 61 points against per game. The Wildcats’ defense ranks pretty high in scoring defense as well; Kentucky averaged 64.5 points against per game, good enough for 28th in the country. Through their first two NCAA tournament games, Houston has allowed an average of 57 points and Kentucky has allowed just an average of 50. The Wildcats had an incredible defensive showing against Wofford in the Round of 32, holding the Terriers to 37.5-percent shooting. Kentucky also held the NCAA’s leader in career three pointers, Wofford’s Fletcher Magee to 0-for-12 shooting from behind the arc, the most threes taken in a game without a make in NCAA tournament history. The Wildcats will have to focus on Houston’s top scorer, Corey Davis Jr. The senior guard averaged just over 17 points per game during the regular season and scored a team-leading 21 in the win over Ohio State last Sunday. Kentucky as a program may have more experience in the later rounds of the tournament, but this Houston team is loaded with veterans and have won an NCAA-best 33 games so far this season. 

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