NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Preview
Friday, March 27
As you read in my Thursday Sweet 16 Preview, this weekend is bound to provide more drama and better finishes than the opening rounds. Friday's four games feature five coaches with National Championship rings in Rick Pitino, Jim Boeheim, Roy Williams, Bill Self, and Tom Izzo. They will be crucial in their team's Sweet 16 success.
An astonishing 14 of the tournament's 16 top seeds advanced to the second weekend and Friday's games will feature seven of those 14 teams. The other being the only double-digit seed remaining, the Arizona Wildcats. Arizona was perhaps the last team chosen for the tournament field and, although publicly scrutinized, they have shown up to play in a big way. Will they keep their unlikely run going or will the top seeds continue their stranglehold on the underdogs?
On to the picks...
No. 1 Louisville vs. No. 12 Arizona
Friday, March 27 at 7:07 p.m. ET
Spread: Louisville -9.0
Backcourt Advantage: Louisville—The Cardinals have more speed and depth in the backcourt than Arizona and will put pressure the Wildcats with their full-court press. Arizona junior Nic Wise has been lights out in the tournament thus far, scoring 50 points in the first two rounds on 15-for-26 shooting, including a perfect 17-for-17 from the foul line. The Cardinals will work to limit Wise's touches and force the ball elsewhere.
Frontcourt Advantage: Even—Senior Terrence Williams, Louisville's All-American point forward, will be the best player on the court in this game. The offense will run through Williams and he will undoubtedly fill the stat sheet, averaging 18.5 points, 11 rebounds, and 3.5 assists in the tournament. Arizona will have a size advantage inside, which should lead to a rebounding edge. Chase Budinger will spread the defense with his outside shooting, while Jordan Hill will pound the glass and score inside.
Momentum: Louisville—Despite a close second-round win over Siena, Louisville has been arguably the best team in the nation in March. They have won 12 games in a row and Coach Pitino knows how to win deep in the tournament. Arizona stumbled into the tournament, but has been playing to its potential so far in the tourney, beating Utah and Cleveland State in the first two rounds. Interim coach Russ Pennell will have his work cut out for him though against a Louisville team that is by far the best team Arizona will have faced this season.
Bottom Line: It's been a nice run for Arizona, who hushed the naysayers about their inclusion in the Big Dance, but the Cardinals should roll through the inconsistent Wildcats. After surviving a scare against Siena, Pitino will have his team ready and focused to play Arizona. They will not take the Wildcats lightly.
Shaun's Pick: Louisville -9.0
No. 2 Oklahoma vs. No. 3 Syracuse
Friday, March 27 at 7:27 p.m. ET
Spread: Oklahoma -1.0
Backcourt Advantage: Syracuse—The Orange feature a very talented backcourt led by point guard Jonny Flynn, the fiery Eric Devendorf, and sharp-shooting Andy Rautins. Syracuse has yet to be really challenged in the tournament, but they can expect a grueling effort from the Sooners. Freshman guard Willie Warren and senior Austin Johnson will be the primary ball-handlers for Oklahoma against the Syracuse 2-3 zone. The x-factor will be junior Tony Crocker, who has the ability to catch fire from behind the arc, but he has been cold as of late, going 1-for-15 from three-point range in his last five games, including 0-for-6 in the first two rounds of the tournament. Oklahoma will need his hot hand to help stretch the zone.
Frontcourt Advantage: Oklahoma—There is no doubt that Blake Griffin has been the best player in college basketball this year. If there was, Griffin has proved otherwise with his play in the tournament thus far, averaging 30.5 points and 15 rebounds in his first two games. Syracuse's 2-3 zone could cause problems for Griffin though. However, Syracuse's defensive success will rely on forwards Arinze Onuaku, Paul Harris, and Rick Jackson staying out of foul trouble against Griffin, who will be very physical inside. Harris fouled out, while Jackson had four fouls, against Pittsburgh's DeJuan Blair, a similar player to Griffin, earlier this season in a 78-60 loss to the Panthers. Coach Boeheim is hoping his team can learn from that experience and pull off a minor upset against the two-seeded Sooners.
Momentum: Syracuse—The Orange have been one of the hottest teams in the country this month, clawing their way to the Big East final and then rolling through the opening weekend of the tournament. Jim Boeheim is as good a coach as any in the country and he will give his team a distinct advantage over Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel. The Sooners were dominant in the mid-season, but stumbled down the stretch and into the tournament. Oklahoma even struggled against Michigan a little bit before putting them away in the second round.
Bottom Line: In what could be the best game of the Sweet 16, Syracuse should have the late-game advantage in a close contest as Boeheim out-coaches Capel down the stretch.
Shaun's Pick: Syracuse +1.0
No. 2 Michigan State vs. No. 3 Kansas
Friday, March 27 at 9:37 p.m. ET
Spread: Michigan State -2.0
Backcourt Advantage: Even—Senior Travis Walton picked a great night to have his best game of the season, scoring 18 points on 8-for-13 shooting in the Spartans' 74-69 second-round win over USC. Walton is MSU's defensive stopper on the perimeter, but if he continues to score like that, the Spartans will be tough to stop. He will be helped in the backcourt by their leading-scorer, sophomore Kalin Lucas. The defending champion Kansas Jayhawks will be led by their scoring leader, junior Sherron Collins. Collins has been sensational this year in leading his young team, unranked in the preseason, to a number three seed in the tournament and into the Sweet 16 for the third straight season. Collins will be the heart and soul of the Jayhawks' attack and he will have the ability to take over this game.
Frontcourt Advantage: Even—This game will be a slugfest inside. Michigan State will be led inside by senior center Goran Suton and a pair of talented forwards, junior Raymar Morgan and freshman Delvon Roe. The Jayhawks' frontcourt attack starts and ends with 6'11" sophomore Cole Aldrich. Aldrich recorded the sixth official triple-double in NCAA tournament history by scoring 13 points with 20 rebounds and 10 blocks in his team's 60-43 win over Dayton in the second round. Michigan State will clamp down on Aldrich and force his young supporting cast to make shots, but Aldrich's biggest impact will be made on the defensive end.
Momentum: Michigan State—These two teams met in January, where Michigan State prevailed 75-62. The Jayhawks raced out to an early lead before a Kalin Lucas three-pointer triggered a 19-1 Spartan run. Michigan State led 37-18 at halftime and held off a late Kansas surge to win by 13. The young Jayhawks are prone to long scoring droughts, which have plagued them this season. They score in bunches, so a comeback is never out of the question, but a mid-game lapse could put this game out of reach. Michigan State is a disciplined team that will make their opponents pay for their mistakes.
Bottom Line: Tom Izzo and Bill Self are outstanding coaches who have both won national championships. The young Jayhawks are much-improved since their regular season loss to the Spartans, but Michigan State should still win the rematch. Their depth and balanced-scoring attack will be the difference.
Shaun's Pick: Michigan State -2.0
No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 4 Gonzaga
Friday, March 27 at 9:57 p.m. ET
Spread: North Carolina -8.5
Backcourt Advantage: North Carolina—Carolina's star point guard Ty Lawson returned to the court in a big way in their 84-70 second-round win over LSU. Lawson exploded for 21 of his 23 points in the second half as he sparked a decisive run to clinch the victory for the Tar Heels. Wayne Ellington also had 23 points after scoring 25 points in their first-round opener. Ellington is leading the Tar Heels in scoring with 24 points per game in the tournament on 20-for-32 shooting, including 6-for-11 from behind the arc. Gonzaga senior Jeremy Pargo has been just as hot for the Bulldogs. Pargo is only scoring 13.5 points per game, but has done so while shooting 11-for-16 from the floor, including 4-for-5 from three-point range. Pargo, along with Matt Bouldin, Steven Gray, and Kansas transfer Micah Downs, will be able to score with the Tar Heels, so this game should stay close throughout.
Frontcourt Advantage: Even—All-American Tyler Hansbrough will be the best frontcourt player on the floor without a doubt, but the Bulldogs will be able to bang around with him inside. 6'11" senior Josh Heytvelt and 6'11" sophomore Austin Daye will be a handful in the paint for Hansbrough and the Tar Heels. Carolina freshman Ed Davis has really stepped up for the Heels in the tournament, especially on the defensive end. Davis and Deon Thompson will work around Hansbrough to give the Tar Heels good balance inside against the Gonzaga big men. This will be a great battle inside.
Momentum: North Carolina—Coach Roy Williams and these Tar Heels have been here before. This is UNC's third straight Sweet 16 appearance, while Gonzaga is back in the Sweet 16 after being eliminated early in the past two years. Coach Mark Few knows how to pull off the big upset though and this is perhaps his most talented team ever. The Bulldogs will not be afraid of the mighty Tar Heels.
Bottom Line: With Ty Lawson healthy, North Carolina is perhaps the best team in the country. While no one doubts his ability to take over a game, his toe injury is still a concern. Gonzaga will keep this game dangerously close, but the Tar Heels should still find a way to win.
Shaun's Pick: Gonzaga +8.5
Check out my picks for Thursday's games.