Much like major upsets, blowouts slowly go the way of the dodo as the NCAA tournament progresses. The talent gap between teams closes significantly from the first weekend, and, by and large, teams that reach the Sweet 16 deserve to get there.
However, with so many upsets adorning the first weekend of the 2013 NCAA tournament, the mismatches don’t seem quite over yet. Five seeds No. 6 or higher remain in the Big Dance, and three of them are matched up with legitimate title contenders. Even some of the higher seeds remaining look like they are at strong disadvantages against their more talented foes.
Of course, we have already learned that anything can happen in the 2012-13 college basketball season. Florida Gulf Coast’s ascent from No. 15 seed to Sweet 16 team is more than enough evidence of that.
Nevertheless, a few of Thursday and Friday’s games have potential to get out of hand. With that in mind, here is a complete breakdown of the most likely blowout-producing matchups of the Sweet 16.
Midwest: No. 1 Louisville Cardinals over No. 12 Oregon Ducks
Heading into the Sweet 16, there may be no hotter team in America than Louisville. The Cardinals have been on an annihilative warpath ever since their five-overtime loss to Notre Dame on Feb. 9. Since then, Louisville has won 12 straight games—all but one of which have come by 12 or more points.
In two tournament games thus far, Rick Pitino’s squad has continued pulverizing its opponents. Facing inferior competition, Louisville has a scoring margin of plus-57. It swatted around North Carolina A&T and Colorado State with the ease and ferocity of a car compactor crushing your great aunt’s broken-down Volvo.
Leading scorer Russ Smith has (as expected) been at the crux of Louisville’s run. The junior guard is tied with Arizona’s Mark Lyons for the tournament’s best remaining scorer at 25 points per game, and he set a career high with eight steals in the Cardinals’ opening-game drubbing of North Carolina A&T. Smith has also been efficient, knocking down 54.8 percent of his field goals thus far—over 13 percent greater than his season averages.
The entirety of Louisville’s run has been captivating television. And it has also evoked fear for any unfortunate souls who had Oregon heading to the Elite Eight in their brackets.
Of all the teams remaining in the Big Dance, the Ducks are facing arguably their worst possible Sweet 16 opponent. Louisville’s penchant for forcing turnovers—the Cardinals are second in the nation in turnover and steal percentage—may be a nightmare for an Oregon offense that coughs the ball up 21.5 percent of its possessions, the worst rate among any remaining tournament team.
Most of that comes from the Ducks’ lack of natural leadership at the point guard spot. Dominic Artis leads the team with 3.3 assists per game, but he’s also an inexperienced freshman coming off a game where he went 0-of-7 from the field in 18 minutes versus Saint Louis.
Simply put, the Ducks do not have the ball-handling capabilities to handle Louisville’s relentless on-ball pressure. The Cardinals have a stable of athletes who have confounded opposing coaches all season long.
Look for them to do the same on Friday and more than cover the 10-point spread (per Vegas Insider).
East: No. 1 Indiana Hoosiers over No. 4 Syracuse Orange
While it may seem blasphemous to call one of these two storied programs “blowout” worthy, the Orange walk into Thursday night’s clash vulnerable to their own deficiencies.
Syracuse’s abject destruction of Montana in the round of 64 could be seen a mile away. The Orange play a style that lends itself to pummeling overmatched teams with defensive pressure and creating easy looks in transition. Couple that with Montana being the luckiest team in Division I by a country mile this season, per Pomeroy, and the Grizzlies were destined to look over-seeded from tipoff.
The Orange’s 66-60 win over California in their second game was far more indicative of their season-long trends. They went a whopping 12 minutes without a field goal, made just six shots in the second half and went 26-of-41 from the free-throw line against the Golden Bears. If it weren’t for the referees’ whistle-happy nature and Cal's insistence on bringing a billy club to a basketball game, it’s likely that Syracuse would have been sitting at home this weekend.
It’s fair to say Indiana had its own struggles in the round of 32. The Hoosiers shot just 42.2 percent, were dominated on the offensive boards and allowed Khalif Wyatt to almost single-handedly knock them out of the tournament in their matchup versus Temple. Cody Zeller went a paltry 4-of-10 from the field, and the team needed a dagger from Victor Oladipo to pull the contest out late.
Those are all fair points, but they also ignore the season-long trends.
Indiana heads into Thursday night’s clash scoring an adjusted 122.8 points per 100 possessions this season, best in the nation by a hefty margin. The team also has an effective field-goal percentage of 55.2 (seventh-best) and knocks down 40.8 percent of its three-pointers (third-best). Couple that with a defense that ranks 13th in efficiency (88.7 points per 100 possessions allowed) and 16th in effective field-goal percentage allowed, and the Hoosiers are one of the most complete teams in the nation.
The same cannot be said for Syracuse. The Orange are a top defensive team in just about every category save for offensive rebounding, but their shooting and turnover woes are enough to sink the ship. Their effective field-goal percentage of 49.3 is 129th in the nation, and they turn the ball over on 19 percent of their possessions, ranking 125th.
Those stats are salient when considering how Syracuse plays. Michael Carter-Williams is an intriguing, athletic point guard who has the ability to make plays that no other player in the nation can. But he’s also aggressive to the point of his own detriment and is surrounded by a group of bad shooters other than James Southerland.
It’s the complete package (Indiana) playing against the self-serve station (Syracuse). Syracuse is strong enough to keep the game within relative proximity, but look for the Hoosiers to get a double-digit win to advance to the Elite Eight.
South: No. 3 Florida Gators over No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast Eagles
Let’s get the niceties out of the way. Everyone loves Florida Gulf Coast. They are an extremely fun team to watch and have understandably become the talk of the entire 2013 NCAA tournament.
Coach Andy Enfield has become the face of the burgeoning program and will be on the list for many high-profile vacancies this offseason. Sherwood Brown, for what he lacks in inspirational speech-giving ability, makes up for it in efficient play and leadership on the floor. Teammates Brett Comer and Bernard Thompson also have had plenty of their own moments to shine in the sun.
What the Eagles have done will go down in college basketball history as one of the greatest and most entertaining Cinderella runs in history. They took down Georgetown, one of the nation’s most storied programs in college basketball, and became the first No. 15 seed to make the Sweet 16.
The problem is that, eventually, basketball is a sport of talent. Team work, coaching and camaraderie are all immeasurables that certainly play a factor, but squads without ascendant talent eventually fall in the Big Dance.
The reasons Florida Gulf Coast was a No. 15 seed remain. The team is still a sieve defensively and isn’t what one would call careful with the ball, ranking 221st in turnover percentage. The Eagles survived Georgetown because the Hoyas couldn’t score all season, and they did the same against San Diego State by crushing the Aztecs in transition.
Florida is in a completely different stratosphere than those teams. The Gators rank third in offensive efficiency, third in defensive efficiency and fifth in effective field-goal percentage on both ends of the floor. Though they looked middling at points this year in close losses, the Gators’ largest defeat of the season is six points. That helps make Florida the “unluckiest” team in the tournament, per Ken Pomeroy’s luck rating, and has taken Billy Donovan’s squad to sleeping giant status.
Other than getting to the free-throw line, there are very few things the Gators don’t do well. They are an experienced team that knocks down shots from just about everywhere, and they have a cabal of stars who have been in the Big Dance before.
I hate to be all wet-blankety, but Florida Gulf Coast will probably be in for the biggest rout of the weekend. Florida is just too strong in too many areas for any other result to seem feasible.
All advanced stats are via KenPom.com unless otherwise noted.
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