Thursday evening’s quartet of games were titillating, hard-fought contests that helped determine half of the Elite Eight teams, but Friday's Sweet 16 slate boasts easily the best storylines of the 2013 NCAA tournament.
That, of course, starts with the most captivating aspect of this year's Big Dance, the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles. Led by coach Andy Enfield, Florida Gulf Coast became the first No. 15 seed in tournament history to advance to the second weekend. The Eagles have become instant celebrities, appearing across just about all national platforms in the lead up to their game against third-seeded Florida.
The Midwest Region also has its fair share of intrigue. Rick Pitino, Mike Krzyzewski and Tom Izzo, three of the greatest coaches in college basketball history, will lead three of the four remaining squads on that side. Izzo and Krzyzewski do battle in the No. 2 vs. No. 3 matchup, while Pitino's Louisville squad will take on the upstart Oregon Ducks.
With so many top-flight programs and big names adorning the schedule, Friday could wind up being the best day of the tournament. Which teams will win? Here is a complete breakdown and predictions for each of Friday's Sweet 16 contests.
No. 1 Louisville Cardinals vs. No. 12 Oregon Ducks
In a region where close calls have been almost non-existent—only one Midwest game has been decided by one possession thus far—Oregon and Louisville have arguably been the two most impressive teams.
Winning their two games by an astounding 57 points, Rick Pitino’s squad has continued a pulverizing of Division I competition that started in early February. Since losing to Notre Dame in five overtimes on Feb. 9, the Cardinals have reeled off 12 straight wins, 11 of which have come by a double-digit margin.
The things that they were good at already—creating turnovers in the backcourt, transition baskets, defending the three-pointer—only got better, and they improved in their greatest deficiency—scoring efficiency.
Thus far in March, most of that ascent has been the product of Russ Smith’s excellence. Louisville’s leading scorer and best on-ball defender was marvelous all season long but has shone brightest with the Big Dance spotlight in his face. He’s averaging 25 points per game thus far, tied for the best among remaining players, and has done so efficiently, which is no small point for Smith.
A 40.8 percent shooter during the regular season, Smith has been knocking down shots from all over the court. He’s making 54.8 percent of his shots in the tournament, a 14 percent increase, and knocked down four from beyond the arc versus Colorado State.
Oregon hopes it can counter Smith with its own rising star in Damyean Dotson. Merely a part of the Ducks’ larger whole during the regular season—they had six different players averaging 8.5 points or higher per night—Dotson has been Oregon’s most vital offensive cog. The freshman guard scored 23 points and knocked down five three-pointers in the Ducks’ 74-57 win over Saint Louis in the round of 32.
Dotson has been an underrated cog in the offense all season, and if he ascends, Oregon might have an answer for Louisville’s top dog.
What Oregon does not have—which is a necessity for any team hoping to best Louisville—is ball control. The Ducks turn the ball over on 21.5 percent of their possessions this season, which ranks 264th in the nation and is by far the worst among Sweet 16 teams. They will be contrasted by the Cardinals’ attacking defense, which creates turnovers and steals better than any team, save for Virginia Commonwealth.
Though Dodson has been great and Oregon’s run has been entertaining to watch, it ends on Friday. Louisville will win and do so relatively easily.
Score Prediction: Louisville 73, Oregon 57
No. 2 Duke Blue Devils vs. No. 3 Michigan State Spartans
There is a reason the Midwest was called the “Region of Death,” folks. On the top half of the bracket, Louisville has been the most dominant team in the country for nearly two months while on the bottom half, two of the most storied college basketball programs in the country do battle.
Two games into their NCAA tournament lives, Mike Krzyzewski and Tom Izzo both have their squads playing in peak form. The Blue Devils avoided falling to a No. 15 seed for the second consecutive year in the round of 64 and then kept their strong run going by thwarting mid-major darling Doug McDermott and the seventh-seeded Creighton Blue Jays.
The contests were quintessential for this Duke team. When one star failed to step up—as Ryan Kelly and Miles Plumlee did in the round of 32—another would take their offensive burden. Rasheed Suliamon, the youngest and most inconsistent Blue Devil, was that player versus Creighton, scoring 21 points on a night where the team made only 19 field goals.
On paper, Michigan State is possibly the best foil for Duke’s star power. Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne are big, physical inside presences who can body up and overpower Kelly and Plumlee. Keith Appling and Gary Harris are also strong perimeter defenders at the two guard spots, and they could fluster Quinn Cook and Curry in the half court. Suliamon remains an enigma.
With the Spartans slowly figuring themselves out offensively, this has all the makings of a down-to-the-wire thriller where points and possessions will be at a premium. The first team to 65 will probably pull the contest out, and either side could shoot 40 percent and be perfectly happy with the result.
Where Duke ultimately gets the slight advantage is with its array of star-level shooting talent. Kelly, Curry and Quinn are all 40 percent shooters from beyond the arc, and Suliamon is nipping at their heels at a shade under 39 percent. They are the fifth-most efficient offense in the nation, per Ken Pomeroy, and turn the ball over on only 15.6 percent of their possessions—a rate nearly five percent below the national average.
Meanwhile, Michigan State has found nowhere near that level of offensive consistency. The Spartans are 238th in the nation in turnover rate, don’t force turnovers themselves defensively and have been a hit-or-miss shooting team all season.
Michigan State can and will make this a close contest. Coach K just has a better array of talent in a game where making every possession count will be critical.
Score Prediction: Duke 66, Michigan State 62
No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks vs. No. 4 Michigan Wolverines
At one point in the season, these two squads were arguably the best team in the nation before falling on hard times. Kansas lost three straight games in the beginning of February to fall from the precipice of being No. 1 all the way to No. 14. Michigan, on the other hand, did reach college basketball’s pinnacle at one point before finishing 6-6 in its last 12 games.
Luckily for the Wolverines, they have recaptured their rhythm in March. They jumped down South Dakota State’s throat in the second half during the round of 64 and followed that up by destroying a VCU team many had pegged for an upset win.
Kansas, meanwhile, has looked far closer to its February form than its late-season run. The Jayhawks squeaked by No. 16 seed Western Kentucky by just seven points, and they were down at halftime to North Carolina by nine before storming back.
The Jayhawks’ biggest worry has to be the disappearance of star guard Ben McLemore. The freshman phenom started his NCAA tournament journey with a mediocre 11 points on 2-of-5 shooting. Just freshman jitters from the likely No. 1 overall pick, most said. McLemore followed that up by missing all nine of his shots and scoring just two points versus North Carolina.
His shooting woes were so bad that Bill Self played him only 24 minutes—his lowest total in a game since November.
In both Kansas victories, McLemore was bailed out from scorn by circumstance. Western Kentucky could not get over the fact that it was a No. 16, and inherently playing with a Double-A team versus college basketball’s major leagues. And in the Jayhawks got an unbelievable tag-team performance from Jeff Withey and Travis Releford to save the say versus North Carolina.
The Jayhawks and McLemore won’t have that luxury this time around. They cannot subsist without their best player stepping up—and may not even be able to advance even if McLemore returns to form.
Michigan boasts its own star in Trey Burke, who may be the best player in college basketball. Burke had his own struggles in the round of 64 versus South Dakota State but rebounded nicely against the relentless pressure defense of Virginia Commonwealth. Breaking the press with relative ease, the Wolverines got plenty of transition buckets off scintillating passes from Burke.
The recipient of many of those passes, Mitch McGary, will once again be critical to Michigan’s NCAA tournament ascent. He will get the distinct honor of taking on Withey on both ends, who anchors Kansas’ defense in the middle. McGary will have to get himself established early in the offense to avoid Withey being able to cheat against the dribble-drive on pick-and-rolls.
Assuming McGary even does a cursorily good job on Withey, Tim Hardaway Jr. may hold the key to this contest. It was Hardaway’s ascent along with Glenn Robinson III that saved Michigan from Burke’s poor performance versus South Dakota State, and the veteran guard will have to be the secondary offensive figure on Friday.
This is a matchup that swings very close to a toss-up distinction. Michigan gets the nod simply because it has looked better in the tournament thus far.
Score Prediction: Michigan 70, Kansas 67
No. 3 Florida Gators vs. No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast Eagles
Running their high-flying “Dunk City” attack, the Eagles have become the 2013 darlings of the NCAA tournament. The little school that started in a trailer and has only been eligible for postseason play for two seasons, Florida Gulf Coast became the first No. 15 seed to make the Sweet 16.
What’s impressive is that the team looked like it belonged. There was no gimmicky “make it rain” performance from beyond the arc to spur the run, nor was there any of the slowed-down techniques small schools typically use to pull upsets. The Eagles simply played their style—running, alley-ooping, no-look assisting—all the way to history and national stardom for everyone on the roster.
Unfortunately, all signs point to Andy Enfield’s squad seeing its run end on Friday. The Eagles will take on a Florida team that has been a sleeping giant all season and looks to finally be putting things together for a huge March run.
From a statistical standpoint, it’s nearly impossible to poke holes in the Gators’ resume. They are the fourth-most efficient offense in the nation at 119.4 points per 100 possessions. They contrast that with a defense that’s even better, ranking third in adjusted efficiency with 83.4 points allowed per 100 possessions.
The team has seven losses on the season, none of which came by more than six points. Though some of those defeats were questionable at the time, four of the seven teams made the NCAA tournament and the other three (Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee) were bubble teams on the road.
Florida also boasts a bevy of experience from its most important players. Kenny Boynton, Mike Rosario and Erik Murphy are all seniors, and Patric Young is the whipper-snapper as a junior.
Every underlying statistic points to the Gators making a Final Four run. It’s just a shame they’re going to have to ouster Florida Gulf Coast and ruin our fun while they’re at it. This game won’t and shouldn’t be close.
Score Prediction: Florida 79, Florida Gulf Coast 60
All advanced stats are via KenPom.com unless otherwise noted.
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