We head into the home stretch of the NCAA tournament beginning Thursday, which essentially means one thing: Expect the expected.
Whereas the first weekend of the Big Dance typically features upsets galore and the term Cinderella being thrown around like we're on a Disney cruise line, reality sets in the second weekend. High-seeded teams begin feeling the pressure of playing back-to-back-to-back-to-back games against elite opponents, leading to the inevitably chalk-heavy Final Four.
Only 11 teams seeded worse than fifth have made it to the final weekend. While three of those teams have come since 2011, we have overwhelming history at our disposal that says Kentucky, Tennessee, Dayton, Stanford and Connecticut are playing for ribbons and pats on the head at this point. Given that those teams compose five of the 16 teams remaining, now might be a good time to lob a couple wagers on lower-seeded teams.
That said, just because high seeds don't typically make Final Four runs, that does not exclude them from the Elite Eight. According to Bracket Science (subscription required), 42 teams seeded No. 6 or lower have made it to the regional final in history—they just have a terrible record one game later. For one more round, then, let's pretend that anything can happen and see which of the elite can survive the last unpredictable round of the NCAA tournament.
With that in mind, here's a quick breakdown of when and where you can watch the Sweet 16, along with a few predictions of note.
|Thursday, March 27||Spread (Vegas Insider)||Time (ET)||TV||Pick|
|South - No. 10 Stanford vs. No. 11 Dayton||Stanford -3||7:15 p.m.||CBS||Stanford|
|West - No. 2 Wisconsin vs. No. 6 Baylor||Wisconsin -2.5||7:47 p.m.||TBS||Baylor|
|South - No. 1 Florida vs. No. 4 UCLA||Florida -5||9:45 p.m.||CBS||Florida|
|West - No. 1 Arizona vs. No. 4 San Diego State||Arizona -6||10:17 p.m.||TBS||Arizona|
|Friday, March 28||Spread (Vegas Insider)||Time (ET)||TV||Pick|
|Midwest - No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 11 Tennessee||Michigan -2||7:15 p.m.||CBS||Tennessee|
|East - No. 3 Iowa State vs. No. 7 Connecticut||Iowa State -1||7:27 p.m.||TNT||Iowa State|
|Midwest - No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 8 Kentucky||Louisville -5||9:45 p.m.||CBS||Louisville|
|East - No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 4 Michigan State||Michigan State -1||9:57 p.m.||TBS||Michigan State|
All Your Bracket Essentials
Sweet 16 Breakout Player: Jarnell Stokes (F, Tennessee)
If Tennessee wouldn't have played two relative cupcakes in Massachusetts (a No. 9 seed masquerading as a No. 6) and Mercer (lightning doesn't str—you get the picture), we'd already be talking about Stokes as a possible regional MVP.
The Tennessee forward, long filled with elite-level talent but inconsistent production, has picked the perfect time to hit his stride. Stokes has three double-doubles in as many tournament games, dominating on both ends of the floor with his sheer strength. He stared with 18 points and 13 rebounds against Iowa, followed by 26 and 14 versus UMass and a 17-and-18 contest over the weekend to demoralize Mercer.
"The way he's playing in the tournament, I don't think anybody can handle him one-on-one," Vols guard Antonio Barton told David Climer of The Tennessean. "You just get him the ball and get out of his way."
With Jordan McRae firing from the perimeter and Josh Richardson coming into his own, the Volunteers have one of the best one-two-three scoring punches remaining. Michigan has been an inconsistent defensive team throughout the season, bordering on wretched in its worst moments. Both teams like to slow the tempo, so it will be up to McRae and Richardson to attack from the outside and help open the floor for teammates.
Where Stokes will have to excel and where Tennessee will need to win the battle is on the offensive glass—one of the Vols' distinct advantages over the Wolverines. The Vols are fourth nationally in offensive rebound percentage (subscription required), an area Michigan has had difficulty curtailing since Mitch McGary went down in December. Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan just aren't the type of bigs defensively who will be able to bully Stokes around.
Conversely (and unsurprisingly), Michigan just doesn't pick up offensive rebounds. Its 29 percent rate ranks 255th nationally and is the fourth worst among remaining tournament teams. Tennessee is also quite good at keeping opposing teams off their own offensive rebounds, so it'd be a baffling turn of events for it to lose the rebounding battle. If it does, frankly, Michigan is heading to the Elite Eight.
Stokes should also have another relatively easy time finding open shots out of post-ups. The Wolverines rank 161st nationally on a per-possession level defending post-up opportunities, per Synergy Sports (subscription required). Tennessee uses more than 12 percent of its possessions in the post, the highest rate among current tournament teams.
Hot streak aside, Michigan is as close to a perfect matchup against a top-level opponent as Stokes can have. Expect a fourth straight double-double and maybe one more upset victory for the Vols before they falter against the Louisville-Kentucky victor.
Upset Special: No. 6 Baylor Over No. 2 Wisconsin
This was mostly a tossup between Tennessee-Michigan and Baylor-Wisconsin, both of which I expect to go to the higher-seeded team. Since most of the reasoning for the Tennessee pick was covered in the Stokes section, let's point out how Baylor might have stumbled its way into the perfect half of a bracket.
The Bears are a wildly flawed team. Their defensive rotations were a mess for much of the season in man-to-man, they would go long stretches where questionable coaching decisions went unchanged and the team's five-game losing streak at the beginning of the conference schedule remains a black mark.
But after some adjustments, Baylor has a semi-reliably stringent zone defense, a continually effective offense and a bottom half of the bracket that engenders itself to a deep run. Nebraska was, in retrospect, the weakest No. 11 seed by a considerable margin. Creighton's entire ecosystem was built around Doug McDermott creating space for open jumpers (his own and teammates), and Baylor's length and zone constricted his ability to do so.
Now, the Bears find themselves facing another team with pretty glaring flaws. Bo Ryan's longstanding team-oriented, defensive philosophy has flipped the other way this season, with the Badgers ranking outside the top 50 in defensive efficiency while boasting one of the nation's top offenses. Wisconsin needed a torrid second-half run to overcome a 49-point first half from Oregon, which caused Ryan to rip into his team.
“Guys were looking at me,” Ryan told reporters (via For The Win). “I said, `I’m the best defensive player in the room. I got a technical, they made their 14th straight free throw and then they missed the second one. I’m the only guy that got them to miss.'"
Whether Baylor is able to take advantage of those struggles depends on which team shows up. Ryan prides his defensive strategy on taking away the three ball, which Wisconsin continues to do well. No tournament team (subscription required) allows a lower percentage of opponent shots to come from beyond the arc. That shouldn't cause much of an issue for the Bears, who prefer their offense comes from inside—a spot where Wisconsin has struggled to keep teams at bay.
The real issue here is defensive. Over the large sample, Wisconsin seems like a terrible matchup for Baylor's weak rotations. The Bears not only allowed a ton of threes during the regular season, but many of them were high-percentage looks. For the season, opponents are shooting 35.5 percent from distance.
In two tournament games, though, the Baylor zone has clamped up. Creighton and Nebraska combined to shoot 9-of-45 from beyond the arc, and the Bears were able to limit McDermott to just 15 points. There's no superstar worth keying on for Wisconsin, but if Scott Drew's team really turned a corner, it should give the Badgers a ton of trouble.
Stanford 66, Dayton 59: Working mostly under the assumption this will be a close game, Stanford clinches late with free throws. Both teams advanced despite difficult, close games against lower-seeded opponents in each of their first matchups and persevered far longer than I thought. Neither team is discernibly better than one another overall, with the Cardinal being more defense-minded and the Flyers the opposite. Call it a major-conference bias here, I guess.
Baylor 74, Wisconsin 69: Already covered this one at length. Baylor seems to have found a rhythm against three-heavy teams and is well-rounded enough offensively to give Wisconsin fits.
Florida 75, UCLA 61: The Gators have a veteran-laden, unique roster with a tenacious defensive philosophy, which makes them hell to prepare for. Only Louisville can top Florida on a toughness scale when it comes to programs with elite talent. Billy Donovan doesn't let his players take a possession off, and for the most part, they've executed his plan to perfection. Pittsburgh finished its season 19th in offensive efficiency (subscription required) and managed a measly 45 points against the Gators. This isn't going to be close.
Arizona 66, San Diego State 51: A natural endpoint for Steve Fisher and Co. Arizona is better at San Diego State's biggest strength (defensive tenacity), does so with a higher level of talent, equal levels of intensity and more size. The smallish bigs on the Aztecs roster struggled with huge but unskilled New Mexico State center Sim Bhullar and will have even more trouble guarding Aaron Gordon and Kaleb Tarczewski. The Wildcats are my national championship pick, and they're certainly not going to lose to a Mountain West team—a conference that typically struggles in March.
Tennessee 73, Michigan 71: Already covered this one as well. Tennessee has the rebounding acumen to get extra possessions in a game where they'll be necessary, and its ability to score points in the paint should fluster a small Michigan lineup. The Vols are also excellent at pushing opponents off the three-point line, which makes them a really difficult matchup overall.
Iowa State 78, Connecticut 73: In Shabazz Napier we trust, but in DeAndre Kane and Melvin Ejim we trust harder. The Cyclones are lucky to make the Sweet 16. North Carolina was the better team for much of the round of 32 matchup before some Kane heroics and hot late shooting pushed Fred Hoiberg's crew over the top. It just so happens Iowa State is getting matched up against a fellow flaw-heavy team that will assuredly get beaten by the Michigan State-Virginia winner in a few days.
Louisville 79, Kentucky 66: John Calipari may have gotten the best of Rick Pitino during the regular season, but that game was in Lexington. And three days after Christmas. Suffice it to say, a lot has changed since then. Kentucky crumbled from preseason No. 1 to unranked and has now resurrected just in time for a Sweet 16 run. Louisville, meanwhile, might be the most egregious No. 4 seed in tournament history and has rode a consistent wave all season long. I'll take the consistency and Pitino in a battle of coaching wits against Calipari.
Michigan State 64, Virginia 62: Perhaps the best game of the entire tournament, I'm frankly throwing my hands up here. Virginia looked shaky in the round of 64, but Michigan State wasn't much better in allowing Harvard a near-upset. In going with the Spartans, I'm sticking with overall talent and pre-tournament intuition. Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson are back and playing at full strength, trading off career-high scoring performances in the first two games. Payne is an especially difficult cover for Virginia and should have another stellar performance Friday. Either way, the victor here is an overwhelming Final Four favorite.
All stats via KenPom unless otherwise cited.
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