NCAA Tournament: 8 Teams That Will Be One Game Closer to Cutting Down the Nets
And then there were sixteen. The NCAA Tournament resumes again tonight and tomorrow with eight can't miss Sweet Sixteen matchups.
This year's sweet sixteen has it all, from perennial heavyweights, to in-state rivalries and of course surprising Cinderellas still hoping that slipper fits for a couple more weeks.
Here's a quick game by game breakdown and prediction on what to expect.
Syracuse Orange vs Wisconsin Badgers
Just days before the NCAA Tournament began, Syracuse received some untimely news that starting center Fab Melo would be suspended from the tournament due to academic issues. Perceived as a final four contender, the question became how soon will Syracuse fall as opposed to how far can they go.
The answer: The Elite Eight. I expect Syracuse to squeak by Wisconsin tonight because of their athleticism and the fact that Wisconsin doesn't really have a dominating big man or much of an interior game to expose Syracuse's loss in the middle.
Wisconsin plays a grind it out style of game, a style they've perfected in recent years in the Big Ten, however this year especially its had to rely on its defense and slower tempo because points can be at a premium with this group of Badgers.
Wisconsin has the shooting range from just about everyone on the court to hurt Syracuse's zone defense but also has shown the inability to shoot it consistently, and thus have long scoring droughts.
Prediction: Syracuse 63, Wisconsin 58
Michigan State Spartans vs Louisville Cardinals
The first game in Phoenix Thursday night features two of college basketball's finest coaches in Michigan State's Tom Izzo and Louisville's Rick Pitino.
For Tom Izzo, he has led his Spartans to fifteen straight NCAA Tournament appearances, and never missing the Final Four when awarded a #1 seed. Rick Pitino has enjoyed similar success in his career taking Louisville to the tourney nine out of the last ten seasons and is the only coach in history to lead three separate programs to the final four (Providence, Kentucky, and Louisville)
Michigan State is led by senior forward Draymond Green who is the Spartans' Mr. Do It All. The Big Ten Player of the Year is the heart and soul of Michigan State and led a team that started the season unranked to a #1 seed in this year's tournament. However, for the Spartans, against a team like Louisville that likes to press and trap on defense, it's important that the role players especially the guards like Keith Appling and Brandon Wood take care of the basketball and tear apart Louisville's press.
Louisville doesn't have a prolific scorer on offense or much of a wow factor in the boxscore, but their team defense has the potential to force a lot of turnovers and rattle young players new to this stage of the tournament. Gorgui Dieng is their big man in the middle who has the shot blocking and shot altering ability to turn Michigan State into a jumpshot shooting team and take away their inside presence.
Prediction: Michigan State 62, Louisville 56
Ohio State Buckeyes vs Cincinnati Bearcats
The Battle for Ohio takes place in Boston Thursday night when Ohio State takes on Cincinnati. The Bearcats have looked good in their first two games with wins over Texas and Florida State, however advancing past the Buckeyes could be a tougher roadblock.
Ohio State presents matchup problems against most teams with their starting five, however they're not a very deep team. Cinicinnati's best bet in a game like this is to play physical. Jared Sullinger is prone to getting into foul trouble and while Ohio State has enough scoring around him, they don't have the inside presence or anyone to slow down Yancy Gates aside from him.
For Ohio State, the x-factor is going to be William Buford. A senior now, Buford has played in many big games, and has a deadly 3-point stroke when he is on his game. Expect him to show up big tonight for the Buckeyes and potentially into further rounds.
Prediction: Ohio State 74, Cincinnati 62
Marquette Golden Eagles vs Florida Gators
The final game Thursday night features a couple teams flying under the radar but potentially peaking at the right time.
The Florida Gators under coach Billy Donovan have turned into a perennial powerhouse out of the SEC showing that Florida isn't just a football state. Marquette is led by Jae Crowder who has had two fantastic double-doube games so far this tournament.
Both these teams have exceeded my expectations thus far in the tournament and have hurt the West Region in my bracket immensely. I really like Marquette's athleticism and 1-2 punch of Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom but I like Florida's deadly 3-point shooting ability and interior play of Patric Young a little bit more.
Florida is a team that lives and dies by the three without a doubt, the backcourt and experience of Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker has them living by it for at least another couple of days.
Prediction: Florida 74, Marquette 69
Baylor Bears vs Xavier Musketeers
Friday night's games start off with two teams whose frequent inconsistent play makes them hard to figure out. The Baylor Bears are a team that on paper appear to have as much talent as a team like Kentucky. However, in the biggest of games up until the Big 12 Tournament they seemed to fold up. Xavier seemed more like a team focused on having a "tough guy" reputation than winning basketball games but buckled down enough down the stretch to make the NCAA Tournament and is playing some good basketball thus far in the tournament.
Baylor is a very athletic, very talented team that has the potential to made a deep run in this tournament. Perry Jones III is a freakish athlete with a frame and athleticism that rivals Kentucky Freshman Anthony Davis. Baylor has too much size and depth up front for Xavier and should wear down the Musketeers. With five players averaging double digits in scoring for the season, and four that shoot free throws very well, Baylor should have no trouble advancing to the Elite 8.
Xavier is led by their backcourt that features two guards in Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons that can get to the rim and hit big shots seemingly at will. Xavier has a 7-footer in Kenny Frease down low who plays hard and has the potential to be a scoring threat but won't be enough to have a big impact on the size and athleticism of the big men for Baylor.
Prediction: Baylor 73, Xavier 60
North Carolina Tarheels vs Ohio Bobcats
I'm not sure if there's such thing as a good time to lose a player to injury, but I know March is definitely not it. North Carolina's NCAA Tournament started with an untimely injury to 6'11" forward John Henson, (who has since returned to the starting lineup) and Sunday night dealt the team a potentially bigger blow when point guard Kendall Marshall fractured his wrist.
Marshall's status remains unknown for Friday's game against Ohio, but his impact to the team cannot be replaced. The NCAA Tournament is no place to look past an opponent but the Tar Heels may have caught a break when looking at their Sweet Sixteen opponent.
Ohio came into the tournament as a 13-seed and played a great game start to finish beating 4-seed Michigan before defeating 12-seed South Florida thanks to a strong second half. Led by Junior guard D.J. Cooper, the Bobcats will look to take advantage of an inexperienced point guard (if Marshall is unable to play) and get Cooper as many looks at the basket as possible.
North Carolina as always seems to have a lineup of future NBA players, and similarly to their past couple NCAA Championship teams all came back to play another season under coach Roy Williams in pursuit of a championship. Harrison Barnes is a talented small forward who reminds me a lot of Kevin Durant during his college days, however he isn't asked to do so much given the talent around him. Tyler Zeller and John Henson down on the low blocks will be too much for Ohio to handle defensively. Both are double-doubles waiting to happen and Henson's shot blocking ability on the defensive end will potentially keep Ohio's Cooper outside the paint and not scoring as easily inside as he is used to.
Prediction: (without Kendall Marshall) North Carolina 72, Ohio 57
Kentucky Wildcats vs Indiana Hoosiers
On December 10th earlier this season, these two teams met in Bloomington, Indiana. Two historic programs, both 8-0 going into the game, and the result was perhaps the best game of the season. Indiana's Christian Watford hit a 3-pointer as time expired to give the Hoosiers a 73-72 victory. Some three and a half months later and we get a rematch in the Sweet Sixteen.
Up until Kentucky's loss in the SEC Tournament Championship to Vanderbilt, the Hoosiers were the only team that had defeated the Wildcats this season. The Hoosiers meanwhile went on to lose eight games, seven in the Big Ten Conference in a season that brought the Hoosiers back to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2002.
Kentucky, like North Carolina, has a startling lineup that could all be poised for the NBA next year, and in my opinion is the most talented team in the country. Indiana has a talented Freshman in Cody Zeller and the chemistry of guys that have helped rebuild the Hoosier program these past few years. However, Indiana doesn't have Verdell Jones III, possibly their best defender due to an ACL tear during the Big Ten Tournament.
Anthony Davis is the likely candidate to be named Player of the Year this year and can dominate at both ends of the floor. With Terrence Jones, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Doron Lamb all able to get to the rim as well it makes for a very tough matchup for Indiana without Jones.
The Wildcats are way too talented and Calipari has potentially his best chance at an NCAA Championship with this squad, Kentucky won't let it be Indiana that get's the best of them again.
Prediction: Kentucky 76, Indiana 65
Kansas Jayhawks vs North Carolina State Wolfpack
The final Sweet Sixteen features a Cinderella story team that is very much reminiscent of a VCU team that knocked off Kansas last year in the NCAA Tournament. That team is North Carolina State and again it's Kansas who has to play the role of Goliath.
Kansas needed a late rally to get by Purdue on Sunday night and needs another big game from its All-American Thomas Robinson. Kansas has a tendency to get sloppy and turn the ball over too often and it could be the achilles heel against a poised NC State team that is playing really great ball as of late.
NC State is led by C.J. Leslie down low and could present an issue for Kansas if he equals the production of Robinson. The Wolfpack has more balanced scoring than Kansas so it's pivotal that the Jayhawks contain NC State and don't allow any one player to go off and fill up the stat sheet.
For Kansas, Robinson is going to get his, Tyshawn Taylor needs to be a leader and play like a Senior should. Jeff Withey needs to clog the middle as he has all year and create transition offense for the Jayhawks off his blocked/altered shots.
NC State has had a good run in this NCAA Tournament and fit perfectly into that Cinderella slipper of their's however I think they've worn out the bottoms and will be narrowly defeated by the Jayhawks.
Prediction: Kansas 71, NC State 69