March Madness 2014: Ranking Each Sweet 16 Matchup

Jake CurtisFeatured Columnist IIOctober 9, 2016

March Madness 2014: Ranking Each Sweet 16 Matchup

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    Bill Wippert/Associated Press

    Three teams with double-digit seeds try to keep their surprising postseason run alive as the frenzied NCAA tournament moves into the second weekend.

    Each of the eight Sweet 16 games Thursday and Friday offers its own type of drama, whether it be the potential for a nail-biting finish, the reputation of the teams involved, an interesting clash of styles, the possibility of an upset or the appeal of the players and coaches.

    We considered all those factors when ranking the Sweet 16 games. Ultimately it came down to one visceral criterion: Which one is most eagerly awaited?

8. West Region: No. 1 Arizona vs. No. 4 San Diego State

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    Denis Poroy/Associated Press

    Road to the Sweet 16

    Arizona: Beat No. 16 Weber State, 68-59; No. 8 Gonzaga, 84-61

    San Diego State: Beat No. 13 New Mexico State, 73-69; No. 12 North Dakota State, 63-44

     

    Players to Watch

    Arizona 

    Although athletic freshman Aaron Gordon supplies impressive dunks, junior guard Nick Johnson is typically the determining factor in whether Arizona wins or loses. Johnson was the Pac-12 Player of the Year, and his all-around skills at both ends of the court made the Wildcats a consistently effective team.

    It is no coincidence that some of his worst shooting games resulted in losses for the Wildcats. He went 1-of-12 in a loss to Cal, 5-of-20 in a loss to Arizona State and 4-of-12 in a loss to Oregon. Johnson scored 23 points on 8-of-15 shooting in the 69-60 victory over San Diego State earlier this season.

     

    San Diego State 

    Point guard Xavier Thames knows Arizona pretty well. He played against the Wildcats twice in 2009-2010 as a Washington State freshman, and once in each of three seasons at San Diego State. He is 3-2 against the Wildcats, including the loss earlier this season. Thames was the Mountain West Player of the Year this season, and he has been the driving force in the Aztecs' two postseason wins.

    He had 23 points in the opening win over New Mexico State and poured in 30 in the victory over North Dakota State, totally outplaying Bison point guard Taylor Braun. Despite those scoring outbursts, Thames' biggest asset is his defense.

     

    What Makes the Matchup Special

    This will be a defensive war, which may produce a low-scoring game but will thrill those who appreciate defensive excellence. San Diego State is second nationally in scoring defense, and Arizona is fifth.

    Aztecs coach Steve Fisher, who turned 69 on March 24, knows something about success in the NCAA tournament. He coached Michigan to the national title in 1989, and he led the Wolverines Fab Five to the NCAA title game in 1992 and 1993. In 1992, Arizona coach Sean Miller was a senior point guard at Pittsburgh.

    The Wildcats were ranked No. 1 for a good portion of this season, starting 21-0, including the 69-60 victory at San Diego State on Nov. 14. But that win came when Arizona had Brandon Ashley, who suffered a broken foot in the Feb. 1 loss to Cal and was lost for the season. 

    These two teams, as well as UCLA and Stanford, represent the last hopes that a school located west of Kansas can win the NCAA title for the first time in 17 years.

7. Midwest Region: No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 11 Tennessee

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    Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

    Road to the Sweet 16

    Michigan: Beat No. 15 Wofford, 57-40; No. 7 Texas, 79-65

    Tennessee: Beat No. 11 Iowa, 78-65; No. 6 Massachusetts 86-67;  No. 14 Mercer, 83-63

     

    Players to Watch

    Michigan 

    Nik Stauskas, a 6'7" guard, was the Big Ten Player of the Year. He averages 17.4 points and is primarily a scorer, although his eight assists in the win over Texas demonstrated his playmaking skills.

    His strength is his outside shooting, as his 45.1 percent three-point percentage will attest, but he can also drive the lane and finish with a dunk if the opportunity presents itself. If he doesn't score, Michigan can't win.

     

    Tennessee

    Forward Jarnell Stokes, a 6'8", 260-pound, wide-bodied inside presence, has become a monster in the postseason. He is averaging 20.3 points and 15.0 rebounds in the Vols' three NCAA tournament games, well above his season averages.

    He simply has been too big and strong for opponents to handle in the paint. He also made 17 of 18 free throws in his last two games, which comes in handy for a physical inside player likely to get fouled.

     

    What Makes the Matchup Special

    Tennessee's physical inside power pitted against Michigan's outside finesse makes this game alluring, as does the Vols' surprising postseason success.

    Tennessee barely made it into the tournament and had to play in one of the four first-round games. But after winning their second- and third-round games by 19 and 20 points, respectively, the Vols are bidding to become just the second team to start in the First Four and make it to the Final Four (Virginia Commonwealth was the first).

    While Tennessee likes to pound on opponents with its wide frontcourt players, the Wolverines can shoot teams off the court with their array of three-point shooters, such as Stauskas, Caris LeVert and Glenn Robinson III.

    Michigan is trying to make it back to the title game, despite losing National Player of the Year Trey Burke and first-round NBA draft pick Tim Hardaway Jr. from last year's squad and then losing preseason All-American Mitch McGary early this season.

6. South Region: No. 10 Stanford vs. No. 11 Dayton

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Road to the Sweet 16

    Stanford: Beat No. 7 New Mexico, 58-53; No. 2 Kansas, 60-57

    Dayton: Beat No. 6 Ohio State, 60-59; No. 3 Syracuse, 55-53

     

    Players to Watch

    Stanford 

    Guard Chasson Randle has played all 80 minutes of the first two games and can score in every way imaginable. He seems to come up with the pivotal plays when they are most needed and has scored at least 22 points in five of the last seven games.

    He is also capable of producing an error at the most inopportune time, having committed 10 turnovers in the two tournament games. Stanford lacks a true point guard, and Randle's ball-handling and playmaking will be key.

     

    Dayton 

    Forward Devin Oliver is the closest thing the Flyers have to a star. He does not score a lot, averaging just 9.0 points in the postseason. But the offense seems to run through Oliver, who provides the stabilizing backbone for this squad.

     

    What Makes the Matchup Special

    Both teams pulled off significant upsets to get this far, with Stanford knocking off No. 2-seeded Kansas and Dayton eliminating No. 3 Syracuse. The unlikely success story will continue for one of them as a double-digit seed will advance to the Elite Eight.

    Dayton is starting to look like a team of destiny, as its higher-seeded opponents missed potential game-winning shots at the buzzer in both of the Flyers' NCAA tournament upsets.

    Getting to the regional finals would be a major achievement for either. Stanford, which is in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008, is looking for its first berth in the Elite Eight since 2001. Dayton had not been in the NCAA tournament since 2009 and has not reached the regional finals since 1984, when just 53 teams were in the field, 

    Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins saved his job by getting to the NCAA tournament and secured it by beating Kansas. Meanwhile, Dayton coach Archie Miller is starting to receive the attention older brother Sean Miller is getting at Arizona. Imagine if both Millers got to the Final Four.

    This matchup of surprise teams looks like a tossup.

5. West Region: No. 2 Wisconsin vs. No. 6 Baylor

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Road to the Sweet 16

    Wisconsin: Beat No. 15 American, 75-35; No. 7 Oregon, 85-77

    Baylor: Beat No. 11 Nebraska, 74-60; No. 3 Creighton, 85-55

     

    Players to Watch

    Wisconsin 

    Center Frank Kaminsky was the Badgers' only first-team All-Conference selection, and he provides a blend of inside-outside scoring potential that is rare for a 7-footer. He scored 19 points in the comeback win over Oregon in the third round, but his outside shot has failed him recently.

    Kaminsky is just 3-of-16 on three-point shots over his last four games, after shooting better than 40 percent from long range through much of the season.

     

    Baylor

    Isaiah Austin, Baylor's 7'1" center, personifies his team's inconsistency. He is capable of impressive performances, and he has scored in double figures in each of the past six games. He also went scoreless in two games this season. His long arms, skill and athletic ability make him dangerous, and his matchup with Kaminsky will be pivotal.

     

    What Makes the Matchup Special

    While Wisconsin is the epitome of consistency and fundamentally sound play, Baylor can look unbeatable one minute and hopeless the next.

    The unpredictability of the talented, athletic Bears makes them intriguing. They could blow the Badgers off the court if they have everything working, or they could collapse meekly under a stream of inexplicable mistakes.

    Baylor has been outstanding lately, beating Iowa State by 13 points, Texas by 17 points, Nebraska by 14 points and Creighton by 30 points in its last eight games. The Bears' only loss in their last nine games was against Iowa State. But Baylor only finished tied for sixth in the Big 12 standings and lost seven of eight games in one midseason stretch.

    Scott Drew's Bears have come up big in the postseason before, reaching the Elite Eight in both 2010 and 2012.

    Wisconsin is in the NCAA tournament for the 16th consecutive year, demonstrating its consistency, but it has been nine years since the Badgers got to the Elite Eight.

4. East Region: No. 3 Iowa State vs. No. 7 Connecticut

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    Road to the Sweet 16

    Iowa State: Beat No. 14 North Carolina Central 93-74; No. 6 North Carolina 85-83

    Connecticut: Beat No. 9 St. Joseph's 89-81; No. 2 Villanova 77-65

     

    Players to Watch

    Iowa State 

    Although forward Melvin Ejim was the Big 12 Player of the Year, guard DeAndre Kane provided the critical missing piece for the Cyclones this season after playing his first three collegiate seasons at Marshall.

    Kane does a little bit of everything, averaging 17.1 points, 6.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists. He was the driving force behind Iowa State's comeback from an eight-point deficit with 5:27 left against North Carolina. He got assists on five of the Cyclones' next six baskets and scored the team's last two buckets himself, the last being the game-winner with 1.6 seconds left.

     

    Connecticut 

    Point guard Shabazz Napier is at the center of everything the Huskies do. The 6'1" senior leads the team in scoring (17.8 points per game), rebounds (5.9), assists (4.9) and steals (1.8) and has been outstanding in the postseason.

    He scored 21 of his 25 points in the second half of the Huskies' upset of No. 2-seeded Villanova in the third round, hitting three consecutive three-pointers during the Huskies' second-half surge.

     

    What Makes the Matchup Special

    The presence of three offensive stars makes this one appealing.

    The postseason run of Napier, the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year, is drawing comparisons to what Kemba Walker did in 2011, when Walker almost single-handedly carried UConn to the national title. Napier, who scored 24 and 25 points in the Huskies' first two postseason games, makes this game special by himself.

    Napier will be going up against one of the nation's best point guards in Kane, providing an individual matchup worth attention. The Cyclones add the high-scoring potential of Ejim, who scored 48 in a Big 12 game this season, to form one of the most potent offenses in the country.  

    The Cyclones shoot tons of three-pointers and have scored 85 points or more in each of their last six games, all resulting in victories against teams that were in the NCAA tournament.

    This game promises brilliant individual offensive performances.

3. East Region: No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 4 Michigan State

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    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Road to the Sweet 16

    Virginia: Beat No. 16 Coastal Carolina, 70-59; No. 8 Memphis, 78-60

    Michigan State: Beat No. 13 Delaware, 93-78; No. 12 Harvard, 80-73

     

    Players to Watch

    Michigan State 

    Guard Gary Harris is the team's top scorer and possibly an NBA lottery pick, but forward Adreian Payne has been the Spartans' star recently.

    When the powerful, 6'10" Payne hit four of five three-point shots in his 41-point performance in the second-round win over Delaware, it showed what a versatile offensive force he can be. Payne is effective on the low block with his back to the basket or facing up 20 feet from the hoop.

     

    Virginia 

    Guard Joe Harris is a perpetual-motion machine who drives defenders crazy with his ability to move without the ball. His scoring average dipped from 16.3 points last season to 11.8 this season, but he remains the Cavaliers' biggest offensive threat in the postseason.

    He is averaging 14.8 points on 49 percent shooting over his last five games, and, on a Virginia team that slows the pace, those numbers are more impressive than they sound.

     

    What Makes the Matchup Special

    A pair of meat-grinding teams go at it in a contest worthy of a Final Four matchup.

    Virginia is a No. 1 seed that won the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title by two games, then won the ACC tournament and has won 18 of its last 19 games. Yet the Cavaliers still have not received a lot of respect because they lack dazzling individual stars, big offensive numbers and a history of postseason success.

    Beating Michigan State would bring that respect, but it will be difficult to accomplish.

    The Spartans are healthy now after a barrage of injuries produced an erratic regular season. Individual standouts Harris, Payne, Keith Appling and Branden Dawson will try to get the ball up and down the court to utilize their athletic superiority. Virginia will try to slow the game down to take advantage of its suffocating half-court defense and frustratingly deliberate pace.

    Contrasting styles make this matchup fascinating. The postseason success of Michigan State coach Tom Izzo against the limited recent NCAA tournament success of Virginia and coach Tony Bennett make it interesting.

2. South Region: No. 1 Florida vs. No. 4 UCLA

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    Road to the Sweet 16

    Florida: Beat No. 16 Albany, 67-55; No. 9 Pittsburgh, 61-45

    UCLA: Beat No. 16 Tulsa, 76-59; No. 12 Stephen F. Austin, 77-60

     

    Players to Watch

    Florida

    Point guard Scottie Wilbekin was the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, and he controls the action for the Gators at both ends of the floor. He is not the team's top scorer, but he seems to make the game-changing plays. He scored 21 points in the win over Pittsburgh and has committed just two turnovers in two tournament games.

     

    UCLA 

    Kyle Anderson is a rare 6'9" point guard who leads his team in assists and rebounds while shooting 49.1 percent on three-pointers. He mesmerizes with his slow-motion efficiency.

     

    What Makes the Matchup Special

    This is a matchup of an outstanding defensive team that has been solid all year against a standout offensive squad that is hot at the moment.

    Florida is on a 28-game winning streak and is the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament. The Gators, with their three senior stars (Wilbekin, Casey Prather and Patric Young), are the favorites to win it all. Coach Billy Donovan has a cohesive, defensive-minded unit that could earn him his third national title in nine years.

    However, the Bruins have the talent and momentum to oust the Gators if things go their way. UCLA has won five straight games, all against teams that made the NCAA tournament. In their last three games, the Bruins beat Arizona before posting 17-point victories in their first two NCAA games.

    First-year coach Steve Alford has this talent-rich team playing well at the right time. UCLA's two stars, Anderson and Jordan Adams, are capable of overwhelming Florida's outstanding defense, especially if the Wear brothers are hitting from long range.

    One lingering question: Will the 6'2" Wilbekin, an outstanding defender, guard Anderson, and, if so, how successful will he be?

1. Midwest Region: No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 8 Kentucky

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    Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

    Road to the Sweet 16

    Louisville: Beat No. 13 Manhattan, 71-64; No. 5 Saint Louis, 66-51

    Kentucky: Beat No. 9 Kansas State, 56-49; No. 1 Wichita State, 78-76

     

    Players to Watch

    Louisville 

    Guard Russ Smith is the team's star, having been named a first-team All-American by SI.com, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and USA Today. But he has struggled in the postseason and needs to bounce back after shooting just 6-of-19 with 13 turnovers in the first two tournament games. How he performs offensively and defensively against Kentucky's Harrison twins will be a determining factor.

     

    Kentucky 

    Freshman forward Julius Randle was almost unstoppable in the lane against Wichita State and was a major reason the Wildcats pulled off that upset. He scored just 13 points in that game, but he added 10 rebounds and six assists while controlling the paint. 

     

    What Makes the Matchup Special

    Because this game is intriguing on so many levels, it rates as the best Sweet 16 contest.

    From a historical standpoint, it features the last two national champions, with Kentucky winning in 2012 and Louisville last season.

    From a purely basketball perspective, it matches two talented teams with extraordinarily high expectations. The Wildcats started the season ranked No. 1, and Louisville was No. 3.

    Both are currently on hot streaks, with Louisville winning 14 of its last 15 games and Kentucky losing only to Florida by a point in its last five games. Kentucky played its best game of the season while beating No. 1-seeded Wichita State in its most recent contest. This is a Final Four-caliber matchup.

    However, the juiciest part of the matchup involves the relationship of the schools and coaches.

    The intrastate rivalry between Kentucky and Louisville is intense. It spawned a documentary film and prompted Rob Dauster of CollegeBasketballTalk.com to write:

    What’s inarguable, however, is the fact that right now, at this very moment, there is nowhere in college hoops where the hatred is as pure or as powerful as it is between the fanbases of the Louisville Cardinals and the Kentucky Wildcats.

    The teams faced each other earlier this season at Rupp Arena, with Kentucky pulling out a 73-66 victory, providing a nice preliminary to Friday's main event.

    Add in the presumed rivalry between high-profile, high-salaried coaches John Calipari of Kentucky and Rick Pitino of Louisville, as suggested in this article by CBSSports.com's Jeff Goodman a few years ago, and you have a matchup worth waiting for.