After four days of buzzer-beaters, overtimes, and upsets, the field for the second weekend of the "Big Dance" has finally been set.
After nearly every bracket was decimated and the tournament favorite got sent home, the college basketball experts will spend the next four days breaking down the eight Sweet 16 matchups. Even though I'm far from an expert, I'm going to do my best.
No. 9 Northern Iowa vs. No. 5 Michigan State: UNI is the Cinderella of not just the Midwest but possibly the whole tournament after knocking out overall No. 1 Kansas. Northern Iowa might actually be seen as a favorite after MSU lost the heart of its team, two-time Big Ten Player of the Year Kalin Lucas. Ali Forukmanesh is the hero of this tournament so far, hitting a game-winning shot against UNLV in the first round and a three against Kansas that was a dagger. This game could swing either way—if Michigan State wants to knock off the Cinderella, the Spartans need to hit the offensive glass hard, play pressure "D" and force turnovers...and of course find Forukmanesh at the end of the game.
No. 6 Tennessee vs. No. 2 Ohio St.: After losing All-SEC performer Tyler Smith for legal troubles earlier this season, Tennessee has clawed its way into the Sweet 16. Ohio St., which has Naismith Award contender Evan Turner, better not sleep on the Vols, though, because they have been known to show up at their best for the big games. Although Coach Bruce Pearl has never advanced the Vols past the Sweet 16, he had them knocking off two No. 1 teams, Kansas and Kentucky, earlier this year, so they can play with anyone. Ohio State has great balance with four players averaging over 12 points, and that will be tough for the Volunteers to contain. However if Tennessee can force the issue by putting end-to-end pressure on Turner, he will cough up the ball, as witnessed by his nine turnovers against Georgia Tech, and his backcourt mate William Buford followed suit by turning it over five times himself.
No. 1 Syracuse vs. No. 5 Butler: While at first glance it looks like Butler is completely overmatched, you have to look no further than playing Georgetown within seven points earlier this season while shooting only 31.1 percent. A big question is will Arinze Onuaku be able to play, and if so, will he be able to contain Bulldogs big man Matt Howard? If so, the odds of Syracuse winning are great. While Syracuse is much more athletic than Butler, if Butler can contain Wes Johnson and have its big three (Howard, Shelvin Mack, Gordon Hayward) play a good game, the Bulldogs will find themselves in it. The stars are going to have to align for Butler to beat this talented and athletic Syracuse team, but don't be too surprised if the Bulldogs do. They need to maximize each possession and slow the pace if they want to have any chance.
No. 6 Xavier vs. No. 2 Kansas State: Look for a run-and-gun shootout with both teams averaging around 80 points this year. Kansas State has two of the best guards in the nation in Dennis Clemente and Jacob Pullen, both of whom did a great job of containing Jimmer Fredette when they played BYU. Now Kansas State's guards will be charged with shutting down Xavier's leading scorer, 6'4" Jordan Crawford. The transfer from Indiana is averaging 20 points while shooting 46 percent from the field and nearly 40 percent from three-point land. Even if the Wildcats can't slow Crawford, don't count them out because Pullen (19.2 ppg) and Clemente (16.3) can score with anyone. While the guard matchup will be intriguing, this game could be decided down low with the winner of the Jamar Samuels and Jason Love matchup coming out on top.
No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 12 Cornell: Cornell has dominated its first two games, winning both by double digits. While some might see this as a game that Kentucky will dominate, running all over the slower-paced Big Red, that is far from the truth. Cornell played Kansas in Lawrence and hung tough with the then-undefeated Jayhawks, losing by only five. Kentucky is going to look to get out and run on the less athletic Big Red, but look for Cornell to slow the game and keep it closer than most expect. An interesting matchup will be between Cornell's 7-footer, Jeff Foote, who is averaging 12 points and 8 rebounds, and UK freshman DeMarcus Cousins, who is putting up 15 points and 10 rebounds. If Foote can be solid down low and outplay Cousins, that would be key to keeping Cornell close. If the Big Red can slow the pace, take care of the ball, and rebound well, maybe they can keep their Final Four hopes alive.
No. 11 Washington vs. No. 2 West Virginia: Look for a great game because both teams have been playing out of their minds. West Virginia has won eight in a row and Washington has won nine straight, both winning their conference tournaments. Washington has two incredible leaders, Isaiah Thomas and Quincy Pondexter, who can play with anyone. West Virgina has followed the hot hand of Da'Sean Butler, who hit two game-winning shots in the Big East tournament while carrying the Mountaineers to the championship. West Virginia is going to be a very tough matchup because the Mountaineers have three guys averaging over 12 points. If the Huskies are going to stay in this game, they will have to step it up on the defensive end and limit the number of open shots Butler gets, and have another double-digit scoring night from Matthew Bryan-Amaning.
No. 1 Duke vs. No. 4 Purdue: There were experts all around the nation picking Purdue to fall to Sienna in the first round, and Purdue has used that as bulletin board material while clawing its way to the Sweet 16. However, Purdue is running into a well-oiled Duke machine that could send the Boilermakers home. Purdue had an average offense before losing its best all-around player, Robbie Hummel, and now its offense will truly be exposed because Duke is the third-most efficient defensive team in the nation. Purdue is going to struggle to put up points, which means it will have to keep Duke from lighting up the scoreboard, which also will be tough. Duke has the second-most efficient offense in the nation, and it will be quite the feat for the Boilermakers to shut down the trio of Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler, and Nolan Smith, who average a combined 53.2 points. If the Boilermakers hope to make the Elite Eight, they are going to have to neutralize Brian Zoubek on the offensive boards, because he is playing the best basketball of his career. The other key for Purdue is getting good penetration and finishing around the basket with their guards, most notably E'Twaun Moore.
No. 3 Baylor vs. No. 10 St. Mary's: This is a very scary matchup for Scott Drew's Baylor Bears. St. Mary's is a very well-rounded team that can score inside and out. Omar Samhan is dominating this tournament, averaging 30.5 points, so Step One for Baylor's defense is to slow Samhan, which is doable with Ekpe Udoh, who set the Big 12 single-season shot blocking record this year. If the Bears' 2-3 zone can contain Samhan, Step Two is to keep St. Mary's from getting the open three. Baylor has struggled with good three-point-shooting teams, and St. Mary's shoots the fourth-highest percentage from three in the nation. If they get hot, and Drew won't bail on the zone, it will be a long night for Baylor fans. However, the Bears' scoring ability can keep them in the game, with LaceDarius Dunn leading the attack averaging 19.4 points, while Tweety Carter averages 15.1 and Udoh adds 13.9. For Baylor to win, the Bears will have to ake care of the ball and get Dunn, Carter, and Udoh going offensively.
After the first four days of the tournament, nobody thinks they are a guarantee to move on. Look for more upsets, overtimes, and hopefully a few buzzer-beaters to make this tournament even more incredible.
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