Sweet 16 Preview: Ranking the Teams and Breaking Down the Matchups
The numbers next to the teams represent the one through 16 ranking I've assigned to each of the remaining teams based on how they've played so far.
Indiana (6) vs. Syracuse (4)
This game is a matchup between the effort and execution of Indiana versus the length, athleticism and talent of Syracuse.
The Orange are loaded with pro talent, but they've had a tendency to get complacent and lose big leads.
The size of Michael Carter-Williams at the point should cause some major problems for the smaller Indiana guards, while Syracuse's length inside will make it hard for Cody Zeller and company to finish around the basket. C.J. Fair has flown under the radar all year, and he will be a matchup nightmare for the Hoosiers as well.
This game will likely come down to the foul situation.
James Southerland has developed a pattern of getting into foul trouble, and his presence on the floor is vital to Syracuse's success. The Orange need his outside shooting to keep the defense honest and to space the floor to create driving lanes for the guards. Center Baye Keita needs to avoid foul trouble as well, as the Orange need his length and energy to keep Zeller in check.
Syracuse has been hiding freshman and future pro Jerami Grant on the bench for most of the season, and he could play a major factor if anyone is hampered with fouls.
I truly believe Syracuse is the more talented team, but their tendency to let teams hang around concerns me. Indiana has proven to be a very difficult team to put away, and I expect to see Syracuse with a late lead and the Hoosiers making a big charge with time running out.
This one's going to be close, but I think Syracuse pulls it out and goes on to the Final Four.
Miami (7) vs. Marquette (16)
Marquette is extremely fortunate to still be playing in this tournament, and I think this is the game where their luck finally runs out.
Slashing guard Vander Blue was fantastic in both games, but he has to have more help for the Golden Eagles to have any chance to move on to the elite eight. Jamil Wilson has been very good over the past few weeks, and his matchup may be Marquette's biggest advantage.
Marquette has struggled to get consistent production from anyone else all season, and they'll need to have a few other players step up if they want to get out of this one with a win.
Devante Gardner is Marquette's best option inside, but he starts every game on the bench. He'll have a big size advantage with Reggie Johnson out, but Miami's other big men are long and athletic and could give Gardner problems. Johnson's absence could be a blessing in disguise for Miami, as it seems they're a much more efficient team with Julian Gamble playing most of the minutes at center.
Miami is a very skilled team with two-way players at every position, led by their point guard Shane Larkin. The ACC Player of the Year takes care of the ball, plays great defense and can get to the rim or knock down shots from the outside. Durand Scott is a lock-down defender, and if he can limit Vander Blue, then Marquette has almost no chance.
Rion Brown and Trey McKinney-Jones give Miami great shooters on the wings, and I just think the Hurricanes have too many weapons for the Golden Eagles to overcome.
Ohio State (5) vs. Arizona (14)
Arizona has had the easiest path of anyone to reach the Sweet 16, easily beating two teams that couldn't match their size and athleticism.
While Ohio State doesn't have great size inside, they make up for it with speed and toughness. The Buckeyes rarely turn the ball over and they're arguably the best defensive team in the country.
Point guard Aaron Craft sets the tone for Ohio State, and I expect his defense to frustrate Mark Lyons and take him out of his game. Craft's intensity rubs off on his teammates, and it just seems like this team is destined for the Final Four. Deshaun Thomas is an offensive machine, as he led the Big Ten in scoring and rarely has an off-game. His matchup with Soloman Hill will go a long way in deciding this game, and I give Thomas the big edge.
It will take a dominating effort from the Arizona bigs down low for the Wildcats to win this game.
Kaleb Tarczewski must control the boards and finish his easy opportunities around the basket, and freshman Brandon Ashley needs to avoid foul trouble and be a big factor for Arizona to move on.
In the end I think Ohio State's speed, athleticism and defensive pressure wears out the Wildcats, and the Buckeyes advance to play the winner of Wichita State and LaSalle.
Wichita State (12) vs. LaSalle (15)
When the West bracket was revealed on Selection Sunday, I had a feeling this upper half was up for grabs. It's not much of a surprise that two unexpected teams are playing in this game, and there's no telling who will come on top.
Wichita State plays very tough defense, and they shot the ball extremely well to pull the upset against Gonzaga. The Shockers have the size and experience advantage, but they still rely heavily on their guards and forward Cleanthony Early. Early has been dominant at times this season, but foul trouble has been an issue. He scored 39 points in a game earlier in the year, and he'll need to be the best player on the floor for the Shockers to move on. He's a matchup nightmare for an undersized LaSalle team.
LaSalle is here after back-to-back two point victories, with senior shooting guard Ramon Galloway leading the way. He's been on fire from three-point land, and he's also shown the ability to take it to the basket. Fellow slasher Ty Garland made the game-winner against Ole Miss, and he'll need to stay on the attack for the Explorers to be at their best.
I really think this one's a toss-up, and anyone's guess is as good as mine. Wichita State has struggled to score at times this year, and if they have an off-night, then LaSalle's speed and outside shooting could be the difference.
If the Shockers shoot it well, then they probably move on.
Kansas (2) vs. Michigan (3)
This clash is worthy of a final four game.
Kansas hasn't played well in its first two games of the tournament, but the Jayhawks showed what they're capable of in the second half against North Carolina. Ben McLemore, many people's No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, has been invisible so far in the tournament, and he'll have to get back to playing like an All-American for Kansas to pull out the win. He's had a tendency to disappear on the road and in big games, and this is the biggest game of the season.
Michigan will have the best player on the floor in point guard Trey Burke, and it's going to take a team effort from the Jayhawks to keep him out of the lane. Kansas center Jeff Withey will make it difficult for any Wolverine to finish around the basket, and it will be up to freshman Mitch McGary to neutralize Withey on the boards. McGary brings great passion and energy inside for Michigan, but he'll need to avoid foul trouble to keep Michigan in the game.
Kansas has the size, strength and length advantage at nearly every position, but Michigan has extreme skill and talent on the perimeter. The Wolverines will need to get out in transition and run the Jayhawks as much as possible, and likely knock down a healthy amount of threes to win this game.
Since I have Kansas winning it all in my bracket, I'm saying they win a close one. However, I'm not feeling confident in that pick right now, and a Michigan win wouldn't surprise me.
Either way, I think the winner goes on to the Final Four.
Florida (11) vs. Florida Gulf Coast (9)
Florida Gulf Coast is the unquestioned Cinderella of the tournament, but this team is no fluke. The Eagles are led by senior and Atlantic Sun player of the year Sherwood Brown. He's become somewhat of a celebrity over the past weekend, as his pregame speeches and on-court antics have drawn more attention than anything else in this tournament.
Florida Gulf Coast is legit, as they beat Miami early in the year and played Duke well for most of the game in Durham. The Eagles play with great effort and intensity, using a swarming defense and run and gun offensive style to wear opponents down. Brett Comer is a flashy point guard with great vision and a wide variety of shots in traffic, and sophomore guard Bernard Thompson has played as well as anyone in this tournament so far. While Gulf Coast is mostly guard oriented, their bigs are athletic and have shown the ability to finish around the rim.
Florida is extremely well coached and has a plethora of good shooters on the perimeter, but their advantage is on the inside. Patric Young and Erik Murphy have a size and strength advantage down low, but both have their deficiencies. Young is very physical but lacks a polished offensive skill set, while Murphy often shies away from contact and prefers to play on the outside and shoot threes. They'll both need to have good games for the Gators to put an end to the magical run of Florida Gulf Coast.
I'm really not sure who to take in this one. This game could go either way, but I'm picking with my heart. Florida has the experience and basketball pedigree, but I have a feeling this Florida Gulf Coast team isn't done yet.
Eagles win with a buzzer-beater!
Louisville (1) vs. Oregon (13)
I have to admit that I doubted Oregon all along and they continue to prove me wrong.
The Ducks dismantled a sloppy Oklahoma State team, and then dissected a Saint Louis squad that had played great all year long.
Louisville is a different animal.
Louisville has looked better than anyone through the first weekend of the tournament, as their swarming full court press has completely taken both opponents out of what they wanted to do. Louisville has extreme speed in the backcourt with devastating length and athleticism on the inside. The Cardinals are forcing 22 turnovers per game in the tournament, and it will be up to the freshman duo of Dominic Artis and Damyean Dotson, along with junior Johnathan Loyd, to take care of the ball against the intense Louisville pressure.
Oregon's Arsalan Kazemi has been an absolute beast on the boards all season long, but he'll have to contend with 6'11” Gorgui Dieng and a host of other Louisville bigs in the post. Kazemi will need some help from starting center Tony Woods, who's been a non-factor in the first two games. Woods will need to grab his share of rebounds and play solid defense inside for the Ducks to have any chance.
Oregon has been the biggest surprise of the tournament for me so far, but Louisville's experience, depth and pressure will be too much for the Ducks to overcome.
I look for Louisville to march on with relative ease, and likely take out the Michigan State/Duke winner to get to their second consecutive Final Four.
Michigan State (7) vs. Duke (10)
Now to the game where I struggle to be objective.
As a UNC graduate, I despise Duke and enjoy watching them lose. Every year they win 30-plus games and enter the tournament as a No. 1 or No. 2 seed, but I always feel they are outclassed athletically by many of the other top teams. This is exactly one of those situations, as Michigan State is the tougher, more physically gifted team.
The Spartans are very good defensively, and Tom Izzo's squads are notorious for dominating the glass. Gary Harris will be the most talented player on the court, but he's a freshman so who knows how he'll respond in such a pressure-packed game. He's risen to the occasion time and time again this season, so I expect him to deliver another big performance.
Duke will have to be hot from three-point range to escape this game with a victory. Duke has shooters all over the floor, with Quinn Cook, Seth Curry and Rasheed Sulaimon all capable of lighting it up from downtown. Ryan Kelly has been extremely quiet after returning from a foot injury with two huge games, and he'll need to make a reappearance to give the Blue Devils a chance. Mason Plumlee got in foul trouble against Creighton, and he'll have to avoid the same fate in this one to help neutralize Michigan State on the boards.
Duke is the higher seed, but I think Michigan State gets the win. Adreian Payne and Denzel Valentine had major impacts last game, and I look for them to make the difference again in this one.
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