NCAA Tournament 2015: 16 Things to Know Heading into the Sweet 16

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMarch 23, 2015

NCAA Tournament 2015: 16 Things to Know Heading into the Sweet 16

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    After 48 pretty incredible games of college basketball over a span of 84 hours, the men's NCAA tournament field has been whittled down to the Sweet 16.

    Chances are your bracket is pretty doggone bustedespecially that East Region—and you're looking for reasons to keep watching aside from rooting for or against Kentucky to go 40-0. Well, you're in luck, because we've got 16 stories to follow the rest of the way.

    Do you like rooting for great players? Of course you do! And there are a plethora of Wooden Award candidates still dancing.

    There aren't many Cinderella stories left worth pulling for, but we've got a pair of oldies but goodies in Wichita State and Gonzaga.

    And could both North Carolina and UCLA—two of the most successful programs in basketball history—be two of the biggest underdogs of them all?

    There will be no shortage of intrigue when play resumes Thursday night.

Sour Grapes Turned Sweet 16

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    There are points of contention every Selection Sunday. Usually, there are dozens of them. Some teams get under-seeded (Wichita State). Others get over-seeded (Georgetown). Fans complain about where, when and who their favorite teams need to play. And, of course, you have the teams that were snubbed.

    We forget about nearly all of that whining by the time the games actually begin, but there's one flame that rages on long after the others have flickered out: the one team that didn't deserve to get into the tournament.

    This year, that team was UCLA.

    With 13 losses, a road/neutral record of 4-12, nary a nonconference win against the RPI Top 100 and only two wins against teams that made the tournament as at-larges, the Bruins were easily the most surprising name revealed on March 15. Adding to the "You've got to be kidding me" factor was that UCLA not only got into the tournament but avoided a play-in game, as well.

    Yet, thanks to a controversial goaltending call against SMU and the easiest round-of-32 pairing in the country (UAB), the Bruins are still here, four games away from winning the tournament they didn't deserve to play in.

    Two quick things to note: How a team does in the tournament neither validates nor invalidates its bid, and conversely, whether or not a team belonged in the field does not take away from what it is able to accomplish.

    Unless you want to argue that early exits serve as evidence that Baylor and Iowa State didn't belong in the tournament, you can't use two wins as evidence that UCLA does belong. And while it may still be a debate, it's not like there's going to be an asterisk in the record books to indicate that most of the country felt UCLA should have been in the NIT instead.

    It certainly seems fitting, though, that the Bruins are the lowest seed remaining in the field.

Still Shocking the World

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    As it turns out, the Wichita State Shockers are a lot better at this whole tournament business when they aren't undefeated.

    Two years ago as a No. 9 seed, they made it to the Final Four. Last year as a No. 1 seed with nothing but wins in the record book, they lost on the first weekend. But now as a No. 7 seed, they're back to the Sweet 16 and looking for more.

    We all love freshmen during the regular season, but the veterans on this team have a ton of tournament experience, and it's showing. Fred VanVleet, in particular, has been incredible. Between the wins over Indiana and Kansas, the starting point guard has 44 points, 10 assists, eight rebounds and six steals.

    The scary news for future opponents is that Ron Baker still hasn't really gotten going. Wichita State's sharp-shooter is just 2-of-10 from three-point range and is shooting 34.8 percent from the field.

    If Tekele Cotton (19 points against Kansas) and Evan Wessel (four three-pointers on Sunday) are still scoring when Baker decides to start hitting shots, the Shockers just might have another trip to the Final Four up their sleeves.

In the Zona

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    Very few teams had an effortless road to the Sweet 16. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played both its games down to the wire, and North Carolina's path wasn't much smoother. Even the mighty Kentucky was in a physical fight with Cincinnati for longer than most expected.

    Arizona, though? Those Wildcats have barely even broken a sweat.

    They breezed through Texas Southern in the round of 64, scoring 93 points. Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson scored 45 points on a combined 15-of-20 shooting from the field.

    In the following round, they simply ran away from Ohio State in the second half. Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson were drastically less efficient (4-of-24 from the field), but Gabe York had 19 points off the bench and T.J. McConnell posted a slightly absurd 19 points, six rebounds, six assists and five steals.

    They'll face Xavier on Thursday night in what should be another comfortable win for one of the best teams in the country. But if Arizona is able to beat either Wisconsin or North Carolina with that type of ease in the Elite Eight, Kentucky better watch out.

Smorgasbord of Player of the Year Candidates

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    Far too often, we are robbed of watching the game's greatest players on its biggest stage.

    Last year, Doug McDermott, Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins were all knocked out of the tournament before the Sweet 16. The year before that, Otto Porter and McDermott were among the four finalists for the Naismith Award, but did not appear in the second weekend of the tournament.

    This year, though, we've got all four Naismith finalists and then some. First, let's look at the stat lines for the four Naismith finalists through two games.

    Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin: 43 points, 19 rebounds, six assists

    Jahlil Okafor, Duke: 47 points, nine rebounds, five blocks

    Jerian Grant, Notre Dame: 33 points, 10 assists, eight rebounds

    Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky: 16 points, 13 rebounds, four blocks

    And how about these other players who were serious candidates for the Wooden Award at some point in the last six months?

    Delon Wright, Utah: 23 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists, four steals

    Marcus Paige, North Carolina: 34 points, seven rebounds, six assists, six steals

    Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga: 34 points, eight assists, four rebounds

    Ron Baker, Wichita State: 27 points, eight rebounds, five steals

    Stanley Johnson, Arizona: 26 points, 15 rebounds, four steals

    Montrezl Harrell, Louisville: 22 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks

    Long story short, if you can't get amped up about the caliber of players participating in the Sweet 16, you probably aren't much of a college basketball fan. It's a shame we already lost D'Angelo Russell and Bobby Portis, but there will be an unbelievable amount of talent on display on Thursday, Friday and beyond.

More March Magic from Tom Izzo

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    Next time there's a conversation about amending the number of teams invited to the NCAA tournament, instead of expanding to include more schools, maybe we should just contract the field by three and give Michigan State and Tom Izzo a bye to the Sweet 16.

    Why not skip the formality? That's basically what the tournament has amounted to, anyway. The Spartans have now reached the Sweet 16 in seven of the last eight seasons and 13 of the last 18.

    Outside of Kansas winning 11 straight Big 12 regular-season titles and Northwestern never getting invited to the tournament, Izzo's success in reaching the Sweet 16 has to be the most ridiculous "streak" in college hoops.

    Now, in most of those seasons, those first two wins of the tournament were to be expected. The Spartans were a No. 5 seed or better in 11 of those 13 Sweet 16 appearances. But getting there as a No. 7 seed this season was quite impressive.

    Izzo's squad out-defended one of the nation's best defenses, holding Virginia to 29.8 percent shooting in the 60-54 win.

    The Spartans probably won't win their first national championship since 2000, but with Villanova and Virginia already out of the picture, they could absolutely reach the Final Four for the first time since 2010.

Coach K vs. "Coach K"

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    The job that Larry Krystkowiak has done with Utah over the past several years is pretty incredible.

    When he took the reins before the 2011-12 season, the Utes were already working on back-to-back sub-.500 seasons and were about to make the move from the Mountain West to the Pac-12. To say that he wasn't put in a position to succeed is a minor understatement.

    They promptly went 6-25 in his first season.

    But the Utes have steadily improved since then, winning 15 games in 2012-13, 21 games last season and 26 (and counting) this year. This is Utah's first trip to the Sweet 16 since 2005 and the Utes will be looking to make their first Elite Eight appearance since 1998.

    It only seems fitting, though, that "Coach K" get a shot at really staking a claim as one of the best coaches of the 2010s by going through the real Coach K.

    Some nicknames are transferable, but the idea of referring to anyone other than Mike Krzyzewski as Coach K is about as blasphemous as calling someone other than Julius Erving "Dr. J"especially since Krystkowiak has all of 110 wins in his career.

    Nevertheless, this could be a pretty great matchup. Jahlil Okafor versus Jakob Poeltl is a fun battle between freshman giants. Quinn Cook versus Delon Wright is a fun battle between veteran guards. Can "Coach K" figure out how to slow down Coach K's X-factor, Justise Winslow? That's probably Utah's only hope of winning this game.

Hungry Like the Wolfpack

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    Midway through North Carolina State's opening game against LSU, we were already looking ahead to next season. The Wolfpack are losing Ralston Turner and Desmond Lee, but they get to keep most of the roster intact and could be a serious threat in 2015-16.

    Then, out of seemingly nowhere, they came back to beat the Tigers for the right to face Villanova in the round of 32. And they came out and pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the 2015 NCAA tournament.

    They simply abused the Wildcats in the paint. The Wolfpack shot 50 percent inside the arc and grabbed 13 offensive reboundsthe majority of which seemed to come at back-breaking moments after quality defensive possessions by Villanova.

    Lennard Freeman and Abdul-Malik Abu each entered the game with one double-double in the entire season, but they combined for 24 points and 24 rebounds, each recording his second double-double of the year.

    It wasn't Villanova's finest performance by any stretch of the imagination. Darrun Hilliard had a pretty solid game with 27 points, but Dylan Ennis, Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu couldn't buy a bucket. Part of it was just miserable shooting, but the Wolfpack also forced a ton of misses with great defense.

    The road ahead won't be easy, but neither was beating the East Region's No. 1 seed. For the team that had wins over Duke, North Carolina and Louisville during the regular season, there might be a few more stops on this tournament run.

Bucking the Trends

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    There are two tournament trends that even the most novice of bracket-fillers are aware of: No. 1 seeds never lose to No. 16 seeds, and there's almost always at least one No. 12 or No. 13 seed that wins a game or two.

    The first one held true, and comfortably so. Wisconsin gave us the biggest scare, and the Badgers still led Coastal Carolina by more than 10 points for the entirety of the second half. But picking against the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds was a disastrous strategy this season, because all eight of them won in the round of 64.

    Don't go thinking that narrative is dead in future seasons, though. Four of those eight underdogs had the ball in the final seconds facing a deficit of either two or three points. Harvard nearly drained the buzzer-beater to knock off North Carolina, and Wofford nearly hit a shot that would have pushed Arkansas to overtime. UC Irvine and Valparaiso both fumbled away their final possession, but had all of us murmuring about a possible upset.

    Of the other four games, Buffalo was right there with West Virginia until the Mountaineers hit a dagger three-pointer to win by two possessions. Stephen F. Austin hung well with Utah and Eastern Washington predictably scored a ton and allowed a ton in a 10-point loss to Georgetown.

    The only "blowout" of the bunch was Northern Iowa beating Wyoming by 17, but the Cowboys cut a huge margin to seven midway through the second half before simply running out of gas.

    At the end of the day, none of the No. 12 or No. 13 seeds advanced. At various points in the middle of the day, though, each one of them had a chance. Don't be afraid to ride those underdogs again next March.

Kentucky Makes History

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    We all know Kentucky is trying to go 40-0, and we all know it would be the first undefeated team to win the national championship since Bobby Knight's Indiana Hoosiers did so in 1976.

    But did you know that Kentucky is the first team in history to win its first 36 games of the season?

    Yes, there have been seven undefeated champions in NCAA history, but there are considerably more games now than there were back then. Four of those undefeated UCLA teams went 30-0. Indiana went 32-0.

    The record the Wildcats broke was actually set just one year ago by Wichita Stateodd, considering the Shockers had their perfect season come to an end at the hands of Kentucky.

    John Calipari's squad couldn't care less, though. At this point, anything short of 40-0 would be a massive disappointment.

Power Conferences; Not So Power Conferences

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    Using the tournament as a means of determining the best conferences in the country is beyond stupid. The SEC only sent three teams to the tournament last season, but all three reached the Sweet 16 and two reached the Final Four. If you think that means the SEC was the best conference in 2013-14, we probably aren't friends.

    But that debate is going to take place, so at least make sure you're armed with the proper data. Here's how each of the six power conferences has fared to this point in the tournament:

    ACC (six teams): 11-1; Duke, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Louisville, NC State in Sweet 16

    Pac-12 (four teams): 7-1; Arizona, Utah and UCLA in Sweet 16

    Big Ten (seven teams): 7-5; Wisconsin and Michigan State in Sweet 16

    Big 12 (seven teams): 5-5; Oklahoma and West Virginia in Sweet 16

    Big East (six teams): 5-5; Xavier in Sweet 16

    SEC (five teams): 4-4; Kentucky in Sweet 16

    Clearly, the ACC and Pac-12 have had a good tournament thus far, while the Big East, Big 12 and SEC teams not named Kentucky have not.

    Do what you will with that information, but try to remember that the Big 12 was the best conference in the country for 19 weeks. It just had a rough weekend.

Love Father, Love Son

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    Less than four hours into the round of 64, we already had the greatest moment we'll have in the entire dance.

    The 2015 NCAA tournament will eventually go down as either the year that Kentucky went 40-0 or the year that Kentucky's perfect season ended at the hands of (insert team). But, at least for now, the lasting images from the tournament belong to Ron and R.J. Hunter from Georgia State.

    R.J. was always a great story. B/R's C.J. Moore wrote a great piece about the sharpshooter back in December. Whether he leaves this June or after graduating the following June, he'll likely have a future in the NBA. And he was largely the reason we were buying Georgia State as a Cinderella team long before the season began.

    It was his father, though, who stole the show.

    If you didn't already know about Ron Hunter, let's just say it wasn't exactly a surprise that he was the coach who tore his Achilles celebrating the victory that sent his team to the NCAA tournament. Quite the opposite of a Brad Stevens or Fred Hoiberg, Hunter always wears his emotions on his sleeve.

    In the tournament, he wore those emotions on his stool.

    Ron falling off that stool in jubilation when R.J. made the absurdly deep three-pointer to beat Baylor was probably the most memorable tournament moment involving a coach since Hampton's Steve Merfeld was literally kicking and screaming in joy as David Johnson lifted him off his feet after the upset of No. 2 Iowa State in 2001.

    The Hunters became an Internet sensation overnight, much like Florida Gulf Coast did two years ago. It's just a shame the Panthers weren't able to knock off Xavier on Saturday. The world could have used another few days of this story.

Sudden Favorites in the Wild, Wild East

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    It has been a pretty disappointing tournament for the Big 12, but when all the dust from the round of 32 settled, the Oklahoma Sooners were left standing as the favorites to advance to the Final Four out of the East Region.

    It certainly didn't feel like we were watching a potential Final Four team over the past several days. The Sooners struggled to pull away from No. 14 seed Albany and needed to fight back from a nine-point deficit in the second half to put an end to 11th-seeded Dayton's attempt at a second consecutive magical run.

    Does that really matter, though?

    Last year's national champion (Connecticut) needed overtime in its opening game against St. Joseph's, and the runner-up (Kentucky) struggled with Kansas State before playing a memorably close game against Wichita State.

    In 2012, Louisville barely sneaked past Davidson and New Mexico on the opening weekend before advancing to the Final Four, and Kansas played back-to-back three-point games against double-digit seeds before reaching the national championship game.

    The fact of the matter is that Oklahoma was a great team during the regular season, finishing in a tie for second place in the nation's best conference while putting together an 11-6 record against teams that made the NCAA tournamentnone of which were seeded lower than a No. 11.

    The main reason Oklahoma didn't look great: Buddy Hield shot poorly. The team's leading scorer certainly isn't the most efficient point-producer in the world, but he's usually good for much better than 30 points on 29 field-goal attempts over two games. When he wakes up and starts shooting better than 4-of-17 from three-point range, we'll be swooning over the Sooners.

The Most High-Profile Sleeper in Tournament History

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    Before the season began, North Carolina was one of the serious candidates to win the national championship. The Tar Heels weren't quite as high on the list as Kentucky, Arizona, Duke and Wisconsin, but they had serious potential to win the ACC and earn a No. 1 seed.

    Between injuries and illnesses, the Tar Heels underachieved for much of the season, ultimately earning a No. 4 seed. But they got past 13th-seeded Harvard and No. 5 seed Arkansas to reach the Sweet 16. Even with Kennedy Meeks injuring his knee late in the win over the Razorbacks, North Carolina looks about as good as it has all season long.

    Unfortunately, there's not a single person outside of Chapel Hill talking about the Tar Heels as a threat to win it all, because their remaining road is nearly impossible. They have to face Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 before presumably meeting Arizona in the Elite Eight and Kentucky in the Final Four.

    Good luck with that.

    The cruel irony here is that North Carolina got 100 percent screwed over by the NCAA selection committee's new rule about seeding within a conference.

    In a nutshell, if four or more teams from the same conference are among the selection committee's top 16 teams, the top four teams must be placed in different regions. Duke was the No. 1 in the South, Virginia the No. 2 in the East and Notre Dame the No. 3 in the Midwest, so even though North Carolina was the highest-rated No. 4 seed (No. 13 overall), the Tar Heels were forced to the No. 4 seed in the West.

    Ideally, they would have been No. 4 in the East, but that instead went to Louisvillethe fifth team out of the ACC and the No. 15 overall seed.

    No one made much of a fuss about this on Selection Sunday, but how about now that North Carolina is stuck in the region of death and Louisville might as well be the favorite in the East as the No. 4 seed?

    The Tar Heels have the talent to beat the decidedly better Badgers and pair of Wildcats teams, but imagine how much more we would be raving about them as a title threat if they were in Louisville's place right now.

Louisville Looking Lovely

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    Roughly four nanoseconds after Louisville announced that Chris Jones had been dismissed from the team in mid-February, the entire world wrote off Louisville's chances of doing anything in the NCAA tournament.

    But apparently, somebody forgot to tell the Cardinals they were supposed to roll over and die.

    Filling in for Jones, Quentin Snider has played quite well in the tournament, tallying 26 points, nine rebounds and three assists. Louisville has also gotten significant contributions out of Wayne Blackshear, as the senior has scored in double figures in both games.

    Can the Cardinals possibly keep it going, though? They only have four players who have scored more than three points in either of their tournament games, and they're about to run into a North Carolina State team that beat them in the KFC Yum! Center just a little over a month ago.

    If they're going to make it any further, it'll be because of their defense. The Cardinals have held six of their last eight opponents to 59 points or less, including both of their tournament opponents. They don't force quite as many turnovers as they did with Jones at the point, but that didn't stop Rick Pitino's team from getting back to the Sweet 16 for a fourth consecutive year.

Under Pressure

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    There might not be a less talented team in the Sweet 16 than West Virginia, and there might not be a team in the country that anyone wants to face less than West Virginia.

    Most of the teams left in the tournament shoot well, play above-average half-court defense and don't commit many turnovers.

    Not the Mountaineers.

    According to KenPom.com, their effective field-goal percentage (46.7) ranks 275th in the nation, and their defensive effective field-goal percentage (52.6) ranks 301st. On both of those fronts, they are the worst among remaining tournament teams by a pretty sizable margin.

    So how exactly are they winning games?

    Because West Virginia ranks first in the nation in defensive turnover percentage and fourth in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, the Mountaineers average an absolutely ridiculous 14.9 more field-goal attempts per game than their opponents.

    Some teams have volume shooters, but this entire West Virginia team is effectively a volume shooter because of the way it capitalizes on defensive pressure and offensive rebounds.

    This team is the ultimate wild card, and it just might be the team best suited to beat Kentuckyits opponent in the Sweet 16. Conventional methods of basketball haven't been enough to topple the mighty giants, but Bob Huggins' team has been playing anything other than conventional basketball all season long.

2015 Might Finally Be Gonzaga's Year

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    If it wasn't drilled into our heads every single time someone mentioned Gonzaga as a potential threat to reach the Final Four, it would be nearly impossible to believe that America's favorite Cinderella team had not been to the Sweet 16 since 2009 and had only advanced that far twice in the last 13 years.

    Four straight exits in the round of 32 were enough to make us worry about Gonzaga's Sunday night game against Iowa, but the Bulldogs stomped the Hawkeyes by a 19-point margin to finally get back to the Sweet 16.

    We said and heard all season that this was the best team Mark Few ever had in Spokane. Better than the ones with Adam Morrison. Better than the ones with Kelly Olynyk. Ready to compete for a national championship.

    But after 15 years of empty promises, it was very much a "We'll believe it when we see it" situation.

    Well, we're seeing it. And it looks good.

    Between the two games thus far, Kyle Wiltjer has 47 points and 15 rebounds and Domantas Sabonis has 25 points and 20 rebounds. Considering those frontcourt studs are new to the team this season, it's probably time to stop comparing this year's team to the Zags of yesteryear.

     

    Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.