Some March Madness fans may grieve for the chaotic opening rounds' conclusion, but the Sweet 16 is where the NCAA's premier squads get prompted with their toughest challengers to date.
The first two rounds featured upsets galore, but some viewers prefer battles between top-notch schools, neither of whom could be considered a major underdog in victory. After all the hoopla around Cinderella, isn't it starting to feel overrated?
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Most of the matchups offer a clear-cut favorite, but no outcome is outside the realm of possibility. UCLA defeating Florida would ruin some brackets, but it wouldn't spawn shock waves among college basketball analysts.
Let's take a look at the eight games filling the NCAA tournament schedule on Thursday and Friday. It won't feel the same as enjoying basketball from noon to midnight, but the quality of competition should satisfy hoop junkies.
All odds are courtesy of Vegas Insider.
|Thur., Mar. 27||No. 11 Dayton vs. No. 10 Stanford||7:15 p.m.||CBS||Stanford (-3)||Stanford|
|Mar. 27||No. 6 Baylor vs. No. 2 Wisconsin||7:47 p.m.||TBS||Wisconsin (-3)||Wisconsin|
|Mar. 27||No. 4 UCLA vs. No. 1 Florida||9:45 p.m.||CBS||Florida (-4.5)||Florida|
|Mar. 27||No. 4 San Diego State vs. No. 1 Arizona||10:17 p.m.||TBS||Arizona (-6.5)||Arizona|
|Fri., Mar. 28||No. 11 Tennessee vs. No. 2 Michigan||7:15 p.m.||CBS||Michigan (-2)||Tennessee|
|Mar. 28||No. 7 Connecticut vs. No. 3 Iowa State||7:27 p.m.||TBS||Iowa State (-1)||Iowa State|
|Mar. 28||No. 8 Kentucky vs. No. 4 Louisville||9:45 p.m.||CBS||Louisville (-5)||Louisville|
|Mar. 28||No. 4 Michigan State vs. No. 1 Virginia||9:57 p.m.||TBS||Michigan State (-1)||Michigan State|
UCLA vs. Florida
Florida hasn't lost in a very, very long time, so what makes UCLA think it can change that?
The Gators are riding a 28-game winning streak stretching back to early December. Only five of those outcomes were determined by five points or less, but they opened the tournament in sluggish fashion.
Playing against No. 16 Albany presented a probable blowout, but Florida sleepwalked through a 12-point victory that "baffled" Billy Donovan and called its title aspirations into question. But it might have been the wake-up call the Gators needed before facing better competitor. Per the Associated Press (via ESPN.com), Scottie Wilbekin described a contrasting mentality after their more impressive victory over Pittsburgh:
We just wanted to come out and not let them play harder than us or not play as hard as we can. I think we did a good job of having our energy up at the start of the game, and we played together on offense and played together on defense.
The UCLA Bruins are no pushover, ranked 11th in Ken Pomeroy's team ratings and 12th in adjusted offense efficiency. They currently hold a five-game winning streak highlighted by a victory over Arizona to capture the Pac-12 title. They have now earned their first sweet Sweet 16 appearance since 2008:
UCLA is back in the Sweet 16 for 1st time since 2008. Stephen F. Austin has its 29-game winning streak snapped— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 24, 2014
UCLA could pull off a surprise, which would create a solid Final Four path for the No. 4 seed. Nothing against the Bruins, but the Gators are too well assembled across the board to falter this early in the game.
Prediction: Florida 71, UCLA 66
San Diego State vs. Arizona
Those interested in a slow-paced, hard-nose defensive stalemate will thoroughly enjoy Arizona vs. San Diego State.
Pomeroy rates Arizona the nation's best defensive team, with San Diego looming at No. 7. The basic stats confirm this, as both teams belong in the top five in terms of points allowed per game, each yielding under 60 points per contest.
So SportsCenter may struggle to assemble a gaudy highlight reel unless it becomes interested in strong defensive contests and solid box-outs before Thursday night's game.
While the Aztecs have won eight of their last nine contests, they do not possess enough offensive oomph to plow past the Wildcats. Their only scorers averaging more than 8.5 points per game, Xavier Thames and Winston Shepard, are each shooting just slightly above 41 percent from the floor. They feature little outside shooting, and Arizona is not one to get bullied inside the paint.
Meanwhile, Arizona is not a one-trick pony. Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon can generate enough efficient offense to keep the Wildcats in the Final Four hunt.
Prediction: Arizona 62, San Diego State 51
Kentucky vs. Louisville
This is the only one of these three featured clashes to not include a No. 1 seed, but tell that to everyone with Louisville in their Final Four.
Despite what the seed says, Louisville has been treated as the Midwest region's team to beat from the second CBS unveiled the bracket. While the Cardinals could easily have received top billing, Kentucky could have generated a No. 4 seed.
Either way, this makes for one incredible Sweet 16 feud. Isn't that right, Mike Greenberg?
Per Pomeroy's ratings, Louisville is the nation's third-best team behind Florida and Arizona, each of whom the Cardinals could meet in the Final Four or later if these predictions come true. They're also the third-most efficient defense, which should create problems for John Calipari's raw unit.
Kentucky is placed 13th on those same team rankings, again showing how great this matchup is. It should provide a terrific encore for the Wildcats' epic bout against Wichita State, but don't bank on the same result.
Although Kentucky won their in-season showdown, Louisville made a mere 6-of-26 three-point attempts. The Wildcats can't count on that poor production again, nor should they expect Rick Pitino to let him squad take that many deep shots.
Prediction: Louisville 74, Kentucky 69