The 2017 NCAA tournament continues Thursday and Friday with a Sweet 16 loaded with big-time matchups that promise to provide March Madness' signature excitement.
While some, like Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel, believe the tournament got off to a dull start in the first round, the round of 32 served up intrigue, with the likes of Duke, Florida State, Louisville and Villanova going down in upset fashion. If each round continues to add more thrills, then the Sweet 16 should be must-watch television if certain X-factor players step up.
Let us take a look at the schedule, as well as a preview of the players you should keep an eye on in the upcoming round.
|2017 Sweet 16 Schedule|
|Thursday, March 23|
|Matchup||Region||Start Time (ET)||Network|
|Oregon vs. Michigan||Midwest||7:09 p.m.||CBS|
|Gonzaga vs. West Virginia||West||7:39 p.m.||TBS|
|Kansas vs. Purdue||Midwest||9:39 p.m.||CBS|
|Arizona vs. Xavier||West||10:09 p.m.||TBS|
|Friday, March 24|
|Matchup||Region||Start Time (ET)||Network|
|North Carolina vs. Butler||South||7:09 p.m.||CBS|
|Baylor vs. South Carolina||East||7:29 p.m.||TBS|
|Kentucky vs. UCLA||South||9:39 p.m.||CBS|
|Florida vs. Wisconsin||East||9:59 p.m.||TBS|
Zak Irvin, Michigan
The Wolverines are arguably the hottest team in America, as they are into the Sweet 16 after downing No. 2 seed Louisville on Sunday on the heels of a Big Ten tournament title.
It is easy to look to senior point guard Derrick Walton as the reason behind Michigan's success. He is playing at an extremely high level, with 15.5 points and 4.8 assists per game, but fellow senior Zak Irvin needs to continue his stellar performance if Michigan wants to advance past Oregon.
Irvin is averaging 12.9 points per game on the year, but the face-up shooter has been on a tear in recent weeks. For the month of March, Irvin is scoring 14.1 points per game while hitting 57.8 percent of his shots in eight games.
He takes plenty of contested shots, and most of them come off of the dribble. When he is knocking down shots at his current clip, Michigan gets some serious lift offensively knowing it has a guy who can create his own buckets when the offense breaks down. However, the Wolverines become extremely stagnant when Irvin does not play well.
In losses this season, Irvin is shooting just 39.7 percent from the field and 30.4 percent from three. He is also turning the ball three times per night and making only 57.1 percent of his free throws. So it is pretty clear that Irvin's play is huge to Michigan's success.
He needs to show up on Thursday, or Michigan could struggle mightily to keep up with an Oregon team that scores 79.5 points per game. The Ducks also defend shooters well, ranking 21st nationally, at 40.2 percent allowed. If Irvin is able to convert on contested shots, Michigan should be favored in this one, but the opposite applies if he comes out cold.
Joel Berry II, North Carolina
North Carolina is a team many are picking to cut down the nets at season's end—rightly so based on the vast amount of talent and experience the Tar Heels boast. Yet that will not happen if Joel Berry II does not not increase his recent production.
The junior point guard is second on the team in scoring, at 14.4 points per game. He also leads his squad in assists, 3.7 per game, steals, 1.4 per game, and three-point shooting, 40.1 percent. That has not been reflected in the last two games, as WRAL's Marilyn Payne relayed Berry's health situation prior to Sunday's game against Arkansas:
Marilyn Payne @marilyn_payne
#UNC's Joel Berry says right ankle is at ~75-80% a day after rolling it. "I've never been the type to let something like this stop me" #wral https://t.co/OnKa8oqcnW3/18/2017, 6:49:46 PM
The ankle definitely looked like it affected Berry. He has shot a combined 3-of-21 from the field in the 2017 NCAA tournament and 3-of-14 from three-point range. With all of his points coming on long-distance jumpers, Berry's driving ability is compromised, and so is his overall effectiveness.
Berry said after the game, per Scout's Greg Barnes, that he is not allowing his shooting woes to affect him and that he does not plan on adjusting his game in the Sweet 16:
Definitely not. I mean, sometimes the ball doesn't go in. Sometimes it does. And I felt like I started out the game, I mean, I hit two 3s in the first half but it just wasn't falling for me. But way back early in the season when I had that bad game at Miami, you know, Coach told me, don't let the ball going in dictate how you're playing
Without Berry playing his best, North Carolina becomes a limited team. He allows other players to have more space, and his penetration opens up easy buckets for big men Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks down low and opens looks for his wing players. Also, the Tar Heels lack depth at the guard spots after Kenny Williams' season-ending injury, leaving Nate Britt as the only other guard who regularly sees the floor.
Berry is averaging 11.1 points while shooting just 34.2 percent from the floor in North Carolina's losses this season. The team also pulled out close wins over Davidson and Tennessee early in the year when Berry did not play. He makes this team go, and he needs to get healthier or else the Tar Heels will be in trouble Friday against a physical Butler team.
Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin
Wisconsin, a team that spent much of the season atop the Big Ten and in the top 10 of the polls, ended up as arguably the most under-seeded team in the tournament, with the committee putting it at No. 8 in Villanova's region. Still, the Badgers continued their recent string of strong postseasons by downing the Wildcats.
The play of senior forward Nigel Hayes was instrumental in that effort. The often-inconsistent stretch forward went off for 19 points and eight rebounds on Saturday, including the game-winning bucket. He said after the game that the selection committee failed to recognize Wisconsin's intangibles, which has resulted in four straight Sweet 16 appearances, via March Madness TV:
March Madness TV @MarchMadnessTV
"They can't calculate heart, will to win, toughness, desire... they can't put that into a formula." - Nigel Hayes https://t.co/gNxV9PyEzN3/19/2017, 4:09:29 AM
Hayes did not live up to his preseason Big Ten Player of the Year expectations, finishing third on his team, with 13.8 points per game while shooting 45.2 percent from the field. Yet he proved that Wisconsin can contend for a national title if he plays like he has in this tournament.
The Badgers can make plays from all three levels of the half court, with Ethan Happ controlling the post, and Bronson Koenig can continue his deadly jump shooting while Hayes does everything in between. Hayes averaged 17.5 points and nine boards in the past two games, and Koenig connected on 11-of-23 treys. Happ shot 62.5 percent from the floor while averaging 11 points.
In addition to providing weak-side relief to Happ on the block, Hayes' ability to drive and pass, 2.7 assists per game, also leave open sharp-shooters like Zak Showalter, who hits 39.3 percent from deep. Hayes can also knock down mid-range jumpers to keep defenders honest.
In losses this season, Hayes is averaging 11.8 points per game while shooting 41.2 percent from the field. His shot attempts per game also rose from 10.6 per night to 11.3. If he does not force the issue and plays within himself, then Wisconsin could certainly advance past Florida. Look out for the Badgers to possibly come of the East with that region blown up by the Duke and Villanova losses.
Statistics are courtesy of Sports Reference.
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