A diverse Sweet 16 with entertaining matchups lingers as a promise to end our NCAA tournament withdrawals. After the intensity of the second and third rounds rattled our senses for four straight days, a four-day layoff from the action passes painstakingly slow.
This Sweet 16 will be worth the wait. There are top matchups and Cinderellas. For instance, three games are chalk with a No. 1 seed battling a No. 4 seed. That is it for chalk matchups, however.
There are three double-digit seeds along with teams seeded at No. 6, No. 7 and No. 8 all playing in this round. According to VegasInsider.com, there also isn't one game with a spread larger than six points. It is going to be a fun round.
Have a look at the schedule and my picks, and then I'll get in depth on a few of my prognostications.
West: Baylor over Wisconsin
The Baylor Bears are a team on a mission. They have won 12 of their last 14 and are still haven't hit their ceiling.
The Bears won by 14 in the second round over Nebraska and then smothered No. 3 seed Creighton by 30 last round. In that game, the Bears appeared to be vulnerable on defense, as they largely rely on zone defense, and Creighton is the best three-point shooting team in the nation. Baylor's defense was outstanding, and it held Creighton to just 5-of-24 shooting from beyond the arc.
This team has everything needed for tournament success. Junior point guard Kenny Chery struggled with injuries this season, but he closed with a strong campaign and gives the Bears the steady floor leader needed for tournament success.
The Bears also have a strong inside presence with Cory Jefferson. The senior forward has combined to score 30 points and 10 rebounds in his two tournament games. He teams with 7'1" center Isaiah Austin to give the Bears the length needed to handle the Wisconsin frontcourt duo of Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky.
The Badgers struggled in the first half against Oregon in the last round, but they settled in and took control in the second half.
Wisconsin used a balanced offensive attack in that game and had five players score at least 12 points.
The Badgers will face a much stiffer defense in this game, and the Bears will limit Wisconsin's shots by owning the boards. Baylor is 24th in the nation in rebounding and Wisconsin is 261st.
Prediction: Baylor 74, Wisconsin 67
East: Connecticut over Iowa State
The news in the following tweet from Eye on College BBall put a damper on Iowa State's title hopes:
For the season, Georges Niang averaged 16.5 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. Needless to say, his loss is a big one. Still, his absence didn't stop the Cyclones from beating North Carolina last round, 85-83.
The Cyclones have been an offensive power all season but will have a tougher time finding buckets against the Huskies. UConn ranks 37th in the nation in scoring defense.
The real problem for the Cyclones is that they won't be able to outscore the Huskies because their defense won't allow it.
Iowa State ranks 284th in the country in scoring defense, and now it must try to slow down one of the hottest players in the country in Shabazz Napier.
Speaking to the press, Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg was full of praise for his upcoming opponents, and he knows that Napier presents a unique problem. William S. Paxton of ctpost.com passed along this Hoiberg quote:
The one thing with playing in the Big 12, you're going to prepare yourself for this moment, you're going to face every style, every system, great guards, great big men. But this kid presents a little different challenge because of how explosive he is, his ability to get in the paint and hit shots, especially shots at tough times.
Napier averages 17.4 points per game for the season, and he's combined to score 49 points in his two tournament games this year.
The Cyclones will battle in this game, but the Huskies will wear down their short-handed opponents and pull away at the end.
Prediction: UConn 83, Iowa State 74
East: Michigan State over Virginia
The No. 4 seeds in this year's tournament have proven to be a very strong group. The Spartans are a great example and are actually the favored team in this matchup at places like VegasInsider.com.
The Cavaliers led the nation in points allowed and are looking to ride that defense to the championship. In double-digit victories in their two tournament games, the Cavaliers have allowed an average of 59.5 points per game.
That is four points more than their season average. Typically, that wouldn't be worth noting. In this instance, it is. The Cavaliers are the last ACC team alive in this tournament. The conference has not proven to be as tough as expected. This puts the Cavaliers' 16-2 record and that fabulous defense into question.
Now, this doesn't mean the Cavaliers defense is a complete fraud—it just tells me it won't have as much success as it needs to beat the Spartans.
With Keith Appling and Travis Trice, the Spartans have two point guards equipped to handle Virginia's pressure. The Spartans frontcourt will take care of the rest.
Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson have been spectacular in this tournament. The pair have combined to average 14.5 rebounds and 44.5 points per game. This is going to be a great and physical game, which Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel hints at below:
The Spartans will prove to be too much and will wear down the Cavaliers.
Prediction: Michigan State 67, Virginia 63