Perfect Pairs: The Best Head-to-Head Matchups in the Sweet 16
The NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 features some great team matchups, and each contest will be exciting in its own right as the best of who remain scratch and claw to get one step closer to the Final Four.
But look deeper at Thursday and Friday's pairings, and you'll see some of most exciting one-on-one battles we've seen this entire season. Each is unique in its own way, based on the individual players' skill sets and approach to the game, but they all have one thing in common: They're going to be darn fun to watch.
Here's a look at the six best one-on-one matchups in this year's Sweet 16, with information on just what makes them so highly anticipated.
6. Isaiah Austin vs. Frank Kaminsky
Teams: No. 6 Baylor (26-11) vs. No. 2 Wisconsin (28-7)
When: Thursday, 7:47 p.m. ET (TBS)
Where: West Regional, Anaheim
The only matchup of seven-footers in the Sweet 16, this will be a clash of styles in that Isaiah Austin tends to stay inside, while Frank Kaminsky gets moved all over the court to take advantage of his athleticism. Austin is athletic as well, but more on the defensive end.
Both had big games in the round of 32, with Austin hitting seven of 11 shots for 17 points in the blowout of Creighton and Kaminsky netting 19 on 8-of-15 shooting in outlasting Oregon. Neither opponent had a player who could defend Austin or Kaminsky well, but now with an equally large foe in their way, it could come down to who can create more space.
That advantage would seem to go to Kaminsky, based on how he's fared throughout the season. Austin had mixed results in two games against Kansas seven-footer Joel Embiid, and that was purely on the inside.
5. Jordan McRae vs. Nik Stauskas
Teams: No. 11 Tennessee (24-12) vs. No. 2 Michigan (27-8)
When: Friday, 7:15 p.m. ET (CBS)
Where: Midwest Regional, Indianapolis
Jordan McRae has had the good fortune of getting plenty of offensive help from teammates during this NCAA tournament, as Jarnell Stokes and Josh Richardson have ramped up their games at the right time for the Volunteers. But neither of those guys will be able to help McRae try to contain Michigan's Nik Stauskas.
Stauskas hasn't necessarily had amazing games in the Wolverines' two wins so far in this tourney, but he hasn't had to, as Michigan has romped over Wofford and Texas to get this far. But Tennessee is as hot as ever, and that tends to be the cue for Stauskas to go off, such as when he averaged 22 points (on 64 percent shooting, including 8-of-11 on three-pointers) in regular-season wins over Michigan State.
McRae has improved on defense this year, so he might be able to slow down Stauskas a bit. More likely, though, he'll end up trying to match baskets, which will make for great TV.
4. Xavier Thames vs. Nick Johnson
Teams: No. 4 San Diego State (31-4) vs. No. 1 Arizona (32-4)
When: Thursday, 10:17 p.m. ET (approx., TBS)
Where: West Regional, Anaheim
This game is a rematch of an earlier 2013-14 season meeting, so it also provides an opportunity for players who've already tangled once this year to go at it again.
Nick Johnson will be itching for this chance, since the last time Arizona and SDSU played (Arizona won 69-60, in San Diego, on Nov. 14) he saw Xavier Thames score 19 points and almost lead the Aztecs back from a double-digit deficit.
This is a matchup between one team's most explosive scorer (Thames) and the guy who tends to take on his opponent's best backcourt asset (Johnson). Johnson showed off his ability to shut down a weapon on Sunday, when he held Gonzaga's Gary Bell Jr. scoreless and limited him to just five shot attempts.
Thames needed 16 attempts (making five) to score those 19 against Arizona last time, and he'll find a way to take shots. The key will be how well Johnson forces Thames into bad looks, and then on the other end how Thames can handle Johnson's amazing leaping ability.
3. Kyle Anderson vs. Scottie Wilbekin
Teams: No. 4 UCLA (28-8) vs. No. 1 Florida (34-2)
When: Thursday, 9:45 p.m. ET (approx., CBS)
Where: South Regional, Memphis
Besides pitting one of the most storied programs in NCAA history against the top team of 2013-14, this Sweet 16 pairing also gives us a showdown between two of the more atypical point guards in the game today.
With UCLA's Kyle Anderson, you get just your run-of-the-mill 6'9" point who just happens to lead his team in both assists (6.5) and rebounds (8.7), while putting up 14.7 points per game. With Scottie Wilbekin, you have one of the most talented veterans in the game who, after finally getting his head screwed on straight following two suspensions in seven months, leads Florida to the top overall seed and earns SEC Player of the Year honors.
Put them together and you have one heck of a matchup, one that typifies the teams they lead. UCLA is made up of a slew of hybrid players who don't fit into pre-defined roles or positions, yet somehow win, while Florida managed to overcome ridiculous roster turmoil early in the season to put together a 28-game win streak.
2. Julius Randle vs. Montrezl Harrell
Teams: No. 8 Kentucky (26-10) vs. No. 4 Louisville (31-5)
When: Friday, 9:45 p.m. ET (approx., CBS)
Where: Midwest Regional, Indianapolis
This isn't just a game between top-tier programs and elite Hall of Fame-level coaches that happens to be one of college's most heated hoops rivalries as well. It will also feature a heavyweight battle down on the blocks between a pair of physical specimens that will very likely be meeting up in the pros next season.
In the blue corner, you have Kentucky freshman Julius Randle, a 6'9", 250-pound human double-double with 22 in the Wildcats' 36 games. And in the red corner you have Louisville sophomore Montrezl Harrell, a 6'8", 235-pound whirlwind of intensity and fear-inducing action who somehow can concentrate his energy into 60.5 percent shooting.
Randle is far more involved in Kentucky's overall offensive game than Harrell is, but that won't take away from this matchup in any way. Every time the ball gets tossed inside, you're going to see a vicious battle, one that didn't get too much traction when these teams met in December. Both only played 21 minutes in Kentucky's win—Randle because of cramping and Harrell because of ineffectiveness.
But like the Rocky-Apollo Creed rematch, this one won't include any tapping out.
1. Shabazz Napier vs. DeAndre Kane
Teams: No. 7 Connecticut (28-8) vs. No. 3 Iowa State (28-7)
When: Friday, 7:27 p.m. ET (TBS)
Where: East Regional, New York City
The best one-on-one matchup of the Sweet 16 is one forged by injury, though only one of those happened to the players in question.
Shabazz Napier suffered a shin injury during the second half of Connecticut's third-round win over Villanova, which forced him off the court and caused him noticeable pain on the bench while his team tried to hold on to a lead. Then, doing his best Willis Reed impression, the senior came back in and promptly drove the lane for a key basket that helped secure victory, while dropping 25 points in just 25 minutes.
DeAndre Kane, already Iowa State's most complete player, had to take on even more offensive responsibility after versatile forward Georges Niang suffered a broken foot during the Cyclones' second-round victory. The senior didn't blink, as he had 24 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in the shootout win over North Carolina on Sunday.
A pair of four-year college players, both knowing their careers are a loss away from ending, are apt to give us two thrill-a-minute performances that we wish would never end.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.
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