The 2013 NCAA tournament’s first weekend was a fantastic display of bracket-busting, last-second finishes and ascendant stars, but with the Sweet 16 teams prepared and ready to go, it’s time to start crowning a national champion.
While the NCAA tournament’s first weekend gets most of the rightful publication due to its abundance of upsets and non-stop titillating action, the second weekend is where the importance truly ratchets up. No matter how small of a chance they have, each of the 16 remaining schools has a chance at becoming a national champion. The chances may vary wildly between the schools, but you don’t become one of the best 16 teams in the nation without unwavering self-belief.
And despite the fun-and-games first weekend, excitement and competition start reaching the apex as the field dwindles. Blowouts should screech to a near-extinction and the level of play should skyrocket starting with Thursday and Friday’s Sweet 16.
Let’s take one more look at our latest picks to each region heading into the Sweet 16.
Midwest: No. 1 Louisville Cardinals
Heading into the Sweet 16, Louisville looks like an unstoppable juggernaut. The Big East champions have now won seven straight contests by 12 or more points and all but one of their 12 straight wins has come by double digits. Rick Pitino has his team peaking at the right time, so much so that only Florida is a bigger favorite in its Sweet 16 matchup than Louisville.
The recipe for dominance has been the same all season: eviscerate teams on the defensive end to create easy buckets. The Cardinals have the best adjusted defensive efficiency in the nation by over two points per 100 possessions, per Ken Pomeroy. They force turnovers on 28 percent of their defensive possessions and get steals over 16 percent of the time.
Only Virginia Commonwealth was better this season—a team that has a brilliant system but far less individual talent than Louisville.
Obviously, the Cardinals’ individual talent begins with Russ Smith.
The junior guard started perhaps his last NCAA tournament with a 23 points and a career-high eight steals versus North Carolina A&T and followed it up with an uber-aggressive 27 points against Colorado State in the round of 32. He is tied with Mark Lyons of Arizona for the highest-scoring player remaining in the field and should do fine against an Oregon squad that ranks 73rd in defensive effective field goal percentage, per Pomeroy.
With apologies to the Ducks, let’s just eliminate them from the equation right now. Their 264th-ranking turnover percentage makes them the best possible opponent for Louisville, a team more ripe for the picking than a Maine apple in September.
That means the winner of Friday’s Duke-Michigan State game awaits. Those are the two teams responsible for the Midwest’s “Group of Death” moniker, and both teams have looked strong enough to give Louisville a down-to-the-wire test.
Nevertheless, the Cardinals have been by far the most impressive team in the Big Dance. They are attacking opposing offenses with a jaw-dropping ferocity, and Smith has given them the type of individual scoring performance that seems to put teams over the top every season.
West: No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes
Aaron Craft’s last-second three-pointer gave Ohio State a trip to the Sweet 16 and the shot may wind up having even longer-term implications for his team. The Buckeyes take on sixth-seeded Arizona on Thursday night, with an advancement to the Final Four looking solid for the victor.
Getting past Arizona is no easy task. The Wildcats have won their two NCAA tournament games by a combined 40 points, looking far removed from the team that lost three of their final five games. Mark Lyons has been nothing short of sensational creating both off-the-dribble opportunities and finally getting his three-point stroke down.
Unfortunately for Lyons, he’ll likely get a healthy dose of Craft Thursday night. The Ohio State guard is arguably the nation’s best on-ball defender, a guy who suffocated Michigan’s Trey Burke during the regular season and forced Iowa State’s Will Clyburn into a 6-of-17 shooting performance in the round of 32. If there is any college player on the big blue marble who can force Lyons to regress to his regular-season mean, it’s Craft.
Assuming Craft keeps Lyons on lock and Deshaun Thomas is able to throw up his third straight 20-point performance—a relatively minor assumption versus Arizona’s mediocre defense—Ohio State should be able to advance on Thursday.
And with their road looking mighty easy at the top of the West Region, the Buckeyes may skate to the Final Four.
Where Louisville gets the toughest possible Elite Eight road, Ohio State should have the easiest. No. 9 seed Wichita State takes on No. 13 seed La Salle in the Sweet 16 in the West Region, neither of which has history on its side in regards to a Final Four berth. La Salle would theoretically be the highest seed in NCAA history to win a region, while Wichita State would join the 1979 Pennsylvania Quakers as the only No. 9 seed in history to make the Final Four.
With all due respect to the Shockers and Explorers, they’re playing for an eighth-place trophy. The winner of Ohio State-Arizona will advance to the Final Four and just about every statistical category points towards a Buckeyes triumph.
East: No. 1 Indiana Hoosiers
Despite being the only region where all four top seeds made the Sweet 16, the East still sets up quite well for top-seeded Indiana. The Hoosiers face off against fourth-seeded Syracuse on Thursday in a matchup that should play right into their hands.
While Jim Boeheim has done a nice job of coaching his team up in March, the Orange have major problems offensively that just cannot be ignored. They rank 129th in effective field-goal percentage and 125th in turnover percentage, both among the worst rates for teams remaining in the Big Dance. Indiana is a precision offense that has been the most efficient in the nation all season long, and the Hoosiers should be able to skate to a double-digit win by simply hitting the 70-point mark.
While Marquette and Miami are difficult matchups on paper for any team in the Elite Eight, they both have a host of problems that could be their undoing.
The Hurricanes’ deficiencies come in the form of injury. Center Reggie Johnson underwent knee surgery earlier this week and would only be able to play if Miami made the Final Four. Johnson is not an offensive threat—he shot just 28 percent over his past 12 games prior to being injured—but does possess the type of size and defensive tenacity necessary to take on Cody Zeller.
Indiana’s star center has only been intermittently effective thus far, averaging only 13 points and five rebounds per game. But Zeller is also one of the nation’s best players, a guy who takes over long stretches offensively for the Hoosiers and will should come out of his funk. Johnson is big-bodied behemoth with NBA-level strength—exactly the type of force Zeller has struggled with.
Meanwhile, Marquette and Syracuse are very similar in their deficiencies. The Golden Eagles rank 234th in the nation in turnover percentage, 99th in effective field-goal percentage and 315th in three-point percentage this season. It’s arguable that they are, in fact, a worse version of the Orange that just happened to get a better seed.
In other words, if Indiana can beat Syracuse, it can defeat Marquette. While it’s no guarantee considering the tough road, the Hoosiers’ talent and skill set on both ends of the floor should earn them a berth to Atlanta.
South: No. 3 Florida Gators
For a team that’s done nothing but play the right way all season, Billy Donovan’s Gators may come into the Sweet 16 as the NCAA tournament’s biggest villain. They will take on the darlings of the 2013 Big Dance, the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles, who became the first No. 15 seed to ever reach the tourney’s second weekend.
Outside of Gators alumni, students and family members of the team, there won’t be anyone rooting for Florida on Friday night. Of course, it ultimately won’t matter because Florida should and will win despite the hopes and dreams of America.
Becoming enamored with Florida Gulf Coast and wondering “what if” this lovable group can win is understandable. The Eagles have almost single-handedly made this tournament worth watching, both because of their historical significance and—perhaps more importantly—their style of play. In an era where over-coaching is as prevalent as dribbling,
Expecting Florida Gulf Coast to win—or even come all that close, for that matter—is a pretty close step to the deep end. Andy Enfield’s squad is a great, fun story that will live on for decades; it will also end at the hands of a vastly more talented team on Friday.
The Gators’ Elite Eight journey could be far more interesting. Michigan and Kansas are two completely different, extremely talented teams that were both considered the best in the country at one point. Trey Burke and Ben McLemore are two of the most outstanding individual talents in the nation, and their surrounding cast of players at Michigan and Kansas respectively have near-All-American pedigrees as well.
Where Florida ultimately squeaks away is with its all-around talent. The Gators are the third-most efficient offense and second-most efficient defense in the country. They outscore opponents 119.4-83.4 in adjusted points per 100 possessions, which is the nation’s best rate by a solid margin. They also rank fifth in effective field-goal percentage both offensively and defensively while knocking down an abundance of three-pointers.
Most importantly, the Gators’ excellence is not predicated on one player. They have eight players scoring five or more points per game, four stars scoring double figures and an abundance of experience.
This is the best team Donovan has had since his back-to-back national championship squads, and he should be able to lead the Gators to the promised land once more.
All advanced stats are via KenPom.com unless otherwise noted.
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