Half of the regional final matchups have been determined in the 2013 NCAA tournament, and Friday's Sweet 16 action will allow four more teams to be one step away from clinching a Final Four berth.
No. 1 overall seed Louisville is the headliner, and the Kansas Jayhawks are the only other top seed remaining. Both will encounter their toughest tests yet. Duke and Michigan State will do battle, and heavy underdog Florida Gulf Coast taking on Florida in a showdown for bragging rights in the Sunshine State.
There are plenty of storylines for the evening, and here are some updated predictions as to how these contests will play out.
(1) Louisville Cardinals vs. (12) Oregon Ducks
A 12th seed should not give the tournament's most highly touted squad, but the Ducks have been playing some of the best basketball in March. Led by senior E.J. Singler, Oregon sports an extremely balanced offense, with six players scoring over eight points.
Everyone will need to pitch in against Rick Pitino's hard-nosed defense, keyed by Big East Defensive Player of the Year Gorgui Dieng. He teams with Chane Behanan on the inside, which makes getting into the lane extremely difficult for opponents.
Arsalan Kazemi does give the Ducks great rebounding and has a knack for picking pockets, averaging over two steals per game.
The X-factors for each team will be a pair of first-year players.
Louisville freshman forward Montrezl Harrell has continued stellar play after a wonderful 20-point performance in the conference title game. Meanwhile, a big night out for Ducks guard Damyean Dawson is almost a must for Oregon to have any chance.
Ultimately, the Cardinals will be too much to handle, as they have won their past 12 games by an average of 21 points, according to Dana O'Neil of ESPN.
That type of dominance is no coincidence for Pitino's bunch, as they appear determined to make it to Atlanta.
Prediction: Louisville 70, Oregon 58
(2) Duke Blue Devils vs. (3) Michigan State Spartans
Two of the best coaches in the game in Tom Izzo and Mike Krzyzewski square off in this clash of top-flight programs. The Spartans have had to grind through an extremely physical Big Ten schedule all year long, which has prepared them well for the madness of March.
Will Ryan Kelly bounce back after just nine combined points in two NCAA tournament games?
Izzo always has strong defenses at his disposal, and Sparty is solid across the board in that regard. Keith Appling and Gary Harris lock down the perimeter, while Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne give Michigan State plenty of size on the inside.
The Blue Devils, though, have the unusual dominant inside presence of Mason Plumlee, who is almost a guaranteed double-double every night.
Plus, stretch 4 Ryan Kelly is going to provide serious problems for the Michigan State bigs who have to guard him 15 feet and further away from the basket. Duke has been a different team with Kelly in the lineup, but the senior star has been struggling in the NCAA tournament.
Look for a massive Spartans tandem on the inside to give the lower seed the advantage on the glass while also getting Kelly out of his comfort zone due to their physicality.
This is going to be a close battle regardless, but I like the Spartans to pull out a last-minute thriller, earning the right to take on Louisville in the Midwest final.
Prediction: Michigan State 75, Duke 72
(1) Kansas Jayhawks vs. (4) Michigan Wolverines
Ben McLemore has been among the most explosive scorers in the country but seems to have hit a wall down the stretch for the Jayhawks. Over the past three games, the freshman sensation has only hit four of his 21 shots from the field, including just one of 12 from three-point range.
Against the high-octane offense that the Wolverines sport, Kansas must get more out of its leading scorer to avoid being the third No. 1 seed to fall.
Bill Self's squad is No. 1 in the country in field-goal percentage defense thanks to the leadership provided by senior big man Jeff Withey and Travis Releford, but they'll have their hands full against Michigan.
Big Ten Player of the Year Trey Burke can do just about anything offensively from the point guard position, while Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III are capable of exploding for big points.
But the big difference for the Wolverines will be freshman Mitch McGary. He posted 21 points and 14 rebounds in the shocking blowout of VCU and will have to negotiate Withey and Kevin Young on the inside.
McGary didn't play the soundest defense on the Rams' Juvonte Reddic, and he must hold his ground in that regard if Michigan is meant to advance.
Kansas' version of the Mac attack, though, should push the Jayhawks into the Elite Eight. In other words, Ben McLemore is due for a big game in the Big Dance. His team has found ways to win the biggest contests of the year without him, but it's time for the offensive star to strut his stuff.
Prediction: Kansas 80, Michigan 73
(3) Florida Gators vs. (15) Florida Gulf Coast Eagles
It's incredible that a No. 15 seed has gotten this far, but the ride will end here for the Eagles.
The Gators' defense is too much for the shocking upstarts to handle, given the size of Patric Young on the inside and how much Erik Murphy can spread the floor.
However, this game should be close throughout. Florida Gulf Coast has incredible athleticism for such a young program and has put together some of the best highlight-reel dunks in the entire tournament. Check out the video below for some proof of that assertion, led by Chase Fieler:
Those opportunities to throw the hammer down simply won't be as available to the Eagles in this one, though.
Florida's ability to score from so many places will provide serious problems. Its dynamic senior guards Mike Rosario and Kenny Boynton will put up big numbers and likely force Andy Enfield's inspiring bunch to settle for outside jumpers to play catch-up.
That isn't exactly what has made the Eagles successful thus far in the tournament. It should be close for about a half, and Florida is 0-6 in games decided by single-digits this season, per ESPN.
Since that's the case, expect the superior Gators to emerge victorious after putting the clamps down on defense in the second half.
Prediction: Florida 67, Florida Gulf Coast 55
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