NCAA Tournament 2018: Schedule, Top X-Factors for Sweet 16 Bracket

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 19, 2018

LAWRENCE, KS - FEBRUARY 19: Udoka Azubuike #35 of the Kansas Jayhawks waits for a time out to end during a game against the Oklahoma Sooners at Allen Fieldhouse on February 19, 2018 in Lawrence, Kansas. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
Ed Zurga/Getty Images

In some years, brackets are busted during the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.

This iteration was a little more extreme. As top seeds were toppled in head-spinning fashion, these brackets were annihilated, never to be spoken of again.

The post-apocalyptic landscape of the 2018 NCAA men's basketball tournament shows only six teams seeded three or lower still dancing after two rounds. There are as many No. 1 seeds as double-digit seeds (two each). There isn't a top-two seed standing on the left side of the bracket.

As the carnage shifts over to the Sweet 16, let's look ahead at the schedule and identify three players who could help shape the upcoming round.

                       

Sweet 16 Schedule

Thursday, March 22

(11) Loyola-Chicago vs. (7) Nevada, 7:07 p.m. ET on CBS

(7) Texas A&M vs. (3) Michigan, 7:37 p.m. ET on TBS

(9) Kansas State vs. (5) Kentucky, 9:37 p.m. ET on CBS

(9) Florida State vs (4) Gonzaga, 10:07 p.m. ET on TBS

Friday, March 23

(5) Clemson vs. (1) Kansas, 7:07 p.m. ET on CBS

(5) West Virginia vs. (1) Villanova, 7:27 p.m. ET on TBS

(11) Syracuse vs. (2) Duke, 9:37 p.m. ET on CBS

(3) Texas Tech vs. (2) Purdue, 9:57 p.m. ET on TBS

                        

Zhaire Smith, Texas Tech

The third-seeded Red Raiders know their winning formula relies on their fourth-ranked defense and the offensive exploits of top scorer and distributor Keenan Evans.

But Texas Tech wouldn't be in the Sweet 16 without a breakthrough performance by Zhaire Smith.

The standout freshman—who made the most recent mock draft of Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman—totaled 18 points and season highs of nine rebounds and seven assists in the club's nail-biting 69-66 win over sixth-seeded Florida in the round of 32.

"He has no ceiling," Evans said of Smith, per Stephen Hawkins of the Associated Press.

Smith's impressive freshman season is ending on a high note. His four highest-scoring efforts have all come in February and March, and he's only shot below 50 percent in four of his last 13 outings.

He also has not one but two entries for dunk of the tournament:

Texas Tech needs reliable offensive options outside of Evans. Smith has all the tools to play the part.

                        

Gabe DeVoe, Clemson

The fifth-seeded Tigers entered the Big Dance on upset alert, having stumbled to a 3-5 finish and never really replacing second-leading scorer Donte Grantham (torn ACL).

But Clemson has been one of the strongest teams from the tip. It's a plus-42 for the tournament, having orchestrated back-to-back double-digit wins. The scalding hot shooting hand of senior guard Gabe DeVoe is a major reason why.

He's scored 22 points in each contest, and that doesn't even capture how fiery he's been. He has made more threes (eight) than he has missed (six), and his field-goal percentage sits at a preposterous 64.3. He even stuffed his stat line Sunday with five rebounds and five assists.

"He's done that several times this year. ... That's something he can do," coach Brad Brownell said, per Clemson Diehards. "He is a big, strong guy with great range, a quick trigger and because of the way he plays, the confidence he plays with, it's a big part of our team."

There can be some feast or famine with DeVoe's production, but he has been more accurate than not of late. He has scored 22-plus points in seven of his last 14 outings, averaging 16.6 points over that stretch.

Clemson is 12-0 when he scores at least 15 points and only 5-5 when he's held to single digits.

                       

Udoka Azubuike, Kansas

The top-seeded Jayhawks didn't steamroll through the first two rounds, but considering they escaped the weekend, they'll take what they can get.

Kansas has holes, most of which revolve around its 46th-ranked defense. Sophomore 7-footer Udoka Azubuike can plug some of them, provided his body lets him contribute.

After spraining his left knee, he sat out the Big 12 tournament and all but three minutes of the Jayhawks' opening-round win over Penn. But the big man gave his club 22 massive minutes against Seton Hall, tallying 10 points, seven boards, two assists, two steals and two blocks along the way.

Kansas was plus-21 with Azubuike on the court. It was outscored by 17 over the 18 minutes he sat.

"Doke was the MVP," Kansas coach Bill Self said, per Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star. "He Willis Reed-ed it a little bit."

The Jayhawks have enough perimeter scoring and shooting to mask their flaws most nights. But a healthy—or healthy enough—Azubuike provides protection against off-shooting nights from the guards (like Devonte' Graham's 1-of-7 dud against Seton Hall).

Azubuike's numbers won't always do him justice, but his absence is glaring when he's not around to bang on the low block.

                     

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of KenPom.comESPN.com and Sports-Reference.

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