Sweet Sixteen Storylines to Watch

Only two rounds of the NCAA Tournament have concluded, and everyone’s bracket is pretty much busted.

A one-seed and two two-seeds went down, opening the door for some mid-level squads that are hoping to make the glass slipper fit.

Who Comes Out of the East Region?

After walking through to easy first round wins, #1 overall seed in Villanova and the best #2 seed in Duke both fell in stunning fashion. The final four teams remaining in the East are Baylor, Florida, Wisconsin and South Carolina. All four teams sputtered down the stretch, but have played well in the tournament (obviously).

Wisconsin has done it with executing down the stretch, using its experience in March to knock off the defending champs. Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig played inspired basketball for the Badgers as the end of the game grew near against Nova.

Baylor’s offense has combined for 173 points in just two games, with Jonathan Motley recording back-to-back double doubles to open his tournament. However, Manu Lecomte was the hero for Baylor in their four point win over USC, scoring all of his 12 points in the final minutes of play.

Florida’s defense has been a major storyline in the tournament, despite being without center John Egbunu, who is out with a torn ACL. The Gators held Virginia to just 39 points their blowout win.

South Carolina has had monstrous second half’s, dropping 54 second half points on Marquette in the opening round and then scoring 65 on Duke in their massive upset of the Blue Devils. Sindarius Thornwell is finally getting known on a national level, and is one of the most valuable players in the country.

With all that being said, I like South Carolina to make a run to the Final Four. Defense wins championships, and despite giving up 81 to Duke, they forced almost 20 turnovers. Their trap defense gives opposing offenses fits, especially offesnes that like to play fast. Along with Thornwell, PJ Dozier, Duane Notice and Chris Silva are good contributors on the offensive end.

They’ve beaten arguably the most talented roster already, and will now face another huge test against a Baylor team looking to finally break through in March.

Most Impressive Team So Far?

To me, this is obvious. The Xavier Musketeers are the only double-digit seed remaining in this year’s tournament, and have been unstoppable in the first two rounds. Despite struggling in February and being without Edmond Sumner, Xavier has reeled off two quality wins.

After a sluggish start against #6 Maryland, Xavier dominated the second half, winning by 11. Trevon Bluiett led the comeback effort, scoring 18 points in the second half after going 0/7 in the first half. In that win, they were able to limit Melo Trimble. In the round of 32 against #3 Florida State, Xavier dominated the full 40 minutes in a 91-66 rout. Bluiett once again led the charge, scoring 29. However, role players such as Tyrique Jones (13 points), Kaiser Gates (14 points) and Sean O’Mara (11 points) stepped up big time providing the Muskies with some much-needed depth.

Xavier was able to limit potential top-five pick Jonathan Isaac to just eight points. Dwayne Bacon scored 20, but couldn’t hit a shot from outside, thanks to Xavier’s zone pressure. With a date against #2 Arizona coming up, Xavier will have to choose to limit either Allonzo Trier or Lauri Markkanen, who can hurt from them from all over the court. Another potential matchup to watch will be Trevon Bluiett going up against Khadeem Allen, an All-Pac 12 defender. Arizona defeated Xavier 68-60 in the Sweet Sixteen of the 2015 tournament. Now, Chris Mack will look to defeat and get revenge against his mentor, Sean Miller, for a trip to the Elite Eight.

Offense Will Own The Sweet Sixteen

Everybody knows the phrase “defense wins championships”. However, there are plenty of high-powered teams that remain in the Sweet Sixteen.

Xavier and Arizona should be a high scoring affair, but the matchup between Oregon and Michigan could see record numbers. Both teams are hot, with Oregon’s only two losses in their last 14 games coming to UCLA and Arizona. Both games were decided by three. Tyler Dorsey was the hero against URI, hitting the go-ahead three with under 15 seconds left to give Oregon the three point win. Dorsey hit 9/10 shots, with Dylan Brooks shooting just 7/20. While Michigan doesn’t like to attack the basket, losing Chris Boucher is a huge blow for a team without much of a rim protector behind him. Alongside Dorsey and Brooks, freshman Payton Pritchard has been good as a pass-first point guard.

Michigan won the BIG 10 tournament, beating four teams in four days behind the leadership of Derrick Walton. The Wolverines are full of shooters, and hit 38% of their threes as a team. Zak Irvin is starting to live up to the five-star billing, and Moritz Wagner hits over 40% of his threes. However, the lack of rebounding and an inside presence will do Michigan in.

In the South region, NBA scouts and fans will flock to the UCLA-Kentucky matchup on Friday. Lonzo Ball, and his dad, has been talked about ad nauseam, but this UCLA team is loaded from top to bottom. Fellow freshman TJ Leaf leads the Bruins in points and rebounds. He’s also a great passer and has hit 45% of threes. Bryce Alford is a three-point marksman and secondary ball-handler. The coach’s son has hit 43% of his triples. Isaac Hamilton is a Swiss-Army knife at the small forward spot, while Aaron Holiday is the best sixth man in the country. Thomas Welsh does most of his damage inside, but is shooting 100% from three on the year. Ike Anigbonu adds rim protection from the bench, as Welsh is not much of a defensive presence.

Kentucky’s backcourt duo of Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox will feature two top-ten picks in the summer, but for now, they’re the best combination of shooting and passing as a backcourt. Isaiah Briscoe is a good defender and rebounder from the third guard spot. Senior Derek Willis’s recent play has opened up the floor for Kentucky. Willis gives the Wildcats another shooter, which helps spread the floor for Bam Adebayo, who has seen an uptick in production since the calendar turned to March.

Kentucky is certainly not as deep as UCLA, but the Wildcats can actually play defense when they buckle down. UCLA has yet to prove that over a stretch of games. John Calipari is always lauded for his ability to land big time recruits, but he’s also one of the best motivators in college basketball. These teams played back in early Novemeber at Rupp Arena, with UCLA winning by five in a high scoring affair. Now, with both teams jelled and clicking, both squads could break 100.

Tough Matchups for Each One Seed

Villanova has already lost, which leaves Kansas, North Carolina and Gonzaga to carry the #1 seed torch to the Final Four.

Gonzaga was challenged by Northwestern, and got bailed out by an awful missed goaltending call on Zach Collins. Northwestern was called for a technical foul after the incident during the middle of an impressive comeback, and Gonzaga went on to regain momentum and win by six. Now, the Zags draw West Virginia, who was able to suffocate every member of the Fighting Irish outside of Bonzie Colson. Javon Carter hit numerous big shots down the stretch to keep Notre Dame at bay.

Now, Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins will have to find a way to limit his turnovers against the notorious press put on by Bob Huggins. If Gonzaga is able to break that press and get into their sets, it could be a cakewalk for an efficient offense. However, if West Virginia is able to capitalize on Gonzaga turnovers and limit second chance opportunities, another one seed could fall.

In the Midwest region, Kansas’s guard heavy offense will face off against the powerful front line of Purdue. Five out of Kansas’ top six scorers play in the backcourt (counting Josh Jackson, who can also play shooting guard), including the top four. Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham are incredible, while Josh Jackson is a jack-of-all-trades, who has turned up his level of play despite a one-game suspension. Jackson’s ability to knock down the three ball recently has opened up options within the Jayhawks’ offense.

Landen Lucas will have his hands full trying to deal with doube-double monster Caleb Swanigan as well as Isaac Haas. Even small forward Vince Edwards will be a tough matchup, and it should be exciting to see him go up against Josh Jackson, two players who are very similar to each other. If Edwards and Dakota Mathias can get the ball to those two guys early and often, Kansas will be in trouble.

The final one seed, North Carolina, may be the best top-to-bottom team remaining in the field, but they have one major issue. Playing with authority, and knowing they’re the better team. Ever since Tyler Hansbrough left, UNC has lacked physicality and emotion, mixed with swagger. Very rarely will you see them play a dominant full 40 minutes. They have a lineup that can run 10-11 deep. Justin Jackson, Joel Berry and Kennedy Meeks are all great talents, but rarely play like they can be NBA stars.

One the other hand, Butler is a team that consistently gets slept on, but they love being the underdog. Kelan Martin is their go-to scorer, but the rest of the role players around him just do their job. Nothing really jumps out in terms of numbers about this team, but they somehow find a way to win games year in and year out. Butler plays tough, and smart for a full 40 minutes every night. North Carolina could be caught overlooking a less than intimidating Butler team in anticipation for a game against UCLA or Kentucky. If that happens, the Tarheels could disappoint once again.

Cover Photo via The Michigan Daily

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