March Madness moves forward when the 2013 NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 action kicks off on Thursday evening in what promises to be an extremely competitive slate of games.
Several of the tournament's top seeds are in action but are battling dangerous, marquee programs coming off of massive victories. Another matchup pits two outstanding mid-major squads vying for an unlikely spot in the Elite Eight.
Here is a breakdown of each game, including projections as to which team will come out on top in each contest.
(2) Miami Hurricanes vs. (3) Marquette Golden Eagles
It was an outstanding display of resilience from Buzz Williams' Marquette squad in Lexington. The Golden Eagles had to gut out consecutive victories in the final moments of their opening two games against the sharpshooting Davidson Wildcats and formidable Butler Bulldogs.
After struggling to come out on top in close games throughout the year, Marquette has won its past four games that have been decided by three points or less. All of those have occurred within the team's most recent seven contests.
That bodes well for this matchup with the Hurricanes, who will be favored despite a closer call than expected in Round 3 against Illinois.
Both teams deploy three guards in the starting five, and that should be an interesting battle to watch. However, Miami should have a massive advantage in the frontcourt. Julian Gamble is an intimidating paint presence, and Kenny Kadji's ability to stretch the floor to the three-point line will be problematic for the Golden Eagles to defend.
If Vander Blue can't have a third consecutive spectacular game, there aren't other surefire scoring options for Marquette. Plus, the Golden Eagles are the worst three-point shooting team remaining, which can be a big X-factor.
The Hurricanes won't win this in blowout fashion, but the ACC champions should jump out to a big lead that will prove to be insurmountable for the Golden Eagles—despite Blue's best efforts.
Prediction: Miami 65, Marquette 60
(2) Ohio State Buckeyes vs. (6) Arizona Wildcats
A trendy upset pick in the second round had the Wildcats getting bounced in their opener, but Sean Miller's squad put any speculation to bed with an 81-64 thumping of Belmont. Another stunning blowout followed against Harvard in which Arizona completely shut down the No. 14 seed Crimson.
Ohio State will prove to be the Wildcats' toughest test by far in the tournament to date, but the Buckeyes struggled just to get out of Round 3. A clutch three-pointer by Aaron Craft broke a tie just before the final buzzer in OSU's 78-75 triumph.
When Craft can find his shot, the Buckeyes offense is much more versatile and difficult to stop. The Big Lead's Jason McIntyre summed up what the savvy point guard brings to the table well:
Aaron Craft is the consummate college player - makes others better, smart w the ball, great defender, "leader" - he's Mateen Cleaves— Jason McIntyre (@TheBigLead) March 24, 2013
Ohio State is one of the best defensive teams, but had difficulty containing Iowa State's high-octane attack. The senior duo of Mark Lyons and Solomon Hill lead the way for the Wildcats and can put up points in bunches.
Lyons has been particularly hot, averaging 25 points through the first two tournament games while sinking 20 of his 32 shots from the field.
Unfortunately for Lyons, he will draw Craft—one of the country's premier perimeter defenders—as his matchup. That should translate to a rough day for Lyons and a victory for Ohio State in the Staples Center.
Prediction: Ohio State 75, Arizona 68
(1) Indiana Hoosiers vs. (4) Syracuse Orange
The typically explosive Hoosier offense was surprisingly dormant in an uninspiring third-round win over Temple. The 10-0 run that Indiana went on to emerge victorious against the Owls, though, is just the type of adversity a championship-caliber team needed to face to precede a deep tournament run.
That lackluster offensive performance does not bode well entering a contest with the Orange, who boast one of the best defenses in the country thanks to Jim Boeheim's trademark 2-3 zone.
Syracuse was playing rather poorly down the stretch of the regular season and were dismantled in the Big East tournament final.
Which underdog has the best chance of winning on Thursday?
But this looks like a completely different team in the Big Dance, as the Orange have dismissed notions of distraction amidst an NCAA investigation.
The Big Ten champions have looked like the best team in college basketball at several points in 2012-13, and it would be surprising to see Tom Crean's bunch fall after the way the Hoosiers rallied to keep their dream season alive.
In a matchup that should come down to the clash between Cody Zeller and Syracuse's C.J. Fair in the paint and the ball-handling of Indiana's Victor Oladipo and the Orange's Michael Carter-Williams, I like the Hoosiers' duo to get it done.
Not many players can lock up athletic swingman James Southerland of Syracuse, but Christian Watford can.
Indiana also has superior outside shooting, and if Jordan Hulls and Oladipo can knock down shots from beyond the arc against the Orange's zone, this should be a convincing win for the Hoosiers.
Prediction: Indiana 72, Syracuse 64
(9) Wichita State Shockers vs. (13) La Salle Explorers
The ninth-seeded Shockers stunned everyone with their upset over AP No. 1-ranked Gonzaga this past weekend, thanks to seven consecutive three-pointers late. Freshman guard Ron Baker led the charge despite shooting just under 31 percent from deep entering the game.
La Salle finally hushed Marshall Henderson and Ole Miss in Round 3, and ESPN Stats & Info points out just how unlikely bracketologists figured the Explorers' chances were of reaching this stage:
1.3 percent of brackets (out of 8.15 million) predicted LaSalle to reach the Sweet 16— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 25, 2013
Tyrone Garland was the hero whose layup with two seconds left proved to be the difference in the Explorers' 76-74 victory. It was the second straight nail-biter for the Explorers, as Ramon Galloway led the way with 24 points and six three-point buckets.
Wichita State should have the edge on the boards, but they did give up 20 offensive rebounds to the Bulldogs, which may neutralize that advantage.
Thanks to Galloway and Tyreek Duren, the Explorers definitely have the advantage in shooting from the outside. It shouldn't be enough against the physically superior Shockers, though, who have Cleanthony Early and Malcolm Armstead who can get to the rim at will and also have exceptional range.
The Shockers won by attacking the rim in the opener, then by devastating the nation's top-ranked team on the perimeter. Expect a combination of those to push them to the West regional final.
Prediction: Wichita State 77, La Salle 65
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