Sweet 16 2017: Upset Meter for Every Game

Jake Curtis@jakecurtis53Featured ColumnistMarch 20, 2017

Sweet 16 2017: Upset Meter for Every Game

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    Upsets are commonplace during the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, when the pressure of the moment and the madness in the air seem to promote unexpected results.

    It's a different story in the second weekend, however. Teams don't win two tournament games on luck alone, and the craziness of the first weekend has subsided by the time the Sweet 16 games are played.

    Last year, the lower-seeded teams did not win a single one of the eight games in the Sweet 16, and only one managed to do it in 2015. However, in 2014, lower-seeded teams won half the Sweet 16 games.

    Is any underdog capable of advancing to the Elite Eight this time?

    Nothing makes perfect sense in the NCAA tournament, but here we provide an Upset Meter for each Sweet 16 game, giving clues as to which teams might surprise a few people. The higher the rating on a scale of 10, the more likely an upset will occur, in our judgment.

    For our purposes, the higher-seeded team in each matchup will be considered the favorite, although we realize oddsmakers may have different opinions.

    We then offer the challenges facing the underdogs, any relevant statistics and possible difference-makers in those games.

No. 2 Arizona vs. No. 11 Xavier

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    When: March 23, 10:09 p.m. ET

    The Challenge: Since Allonzo Trier made his season debut on Jan. 21, Arizona has not lost a single game to a team ranked outside the top 10 in the Associated Press' final regular-season poll. The Wildcats are riding a six-game winning streak that includes wins over UCLA and Oregon on consecutive days. Trier provides the offense Arizona had been lacking early in the season, averaging 20.8 points over the past nine games.

    With two 7-footers (Lauri Markkanen and Dusan Ristic) in the starting lineup and 6'11" Chance Comanche coming off the bench, it is not surprising that the Wildcats have a rebounding margin of 6.8 per game, among the best in the country. They even out-rebounded Saint Mary's, which was second in the country in rebounding margin before its second-round loss to Arizona. The Wildcats' size could be a problem for Xavier, which starts four guards along with 6'9" Tyrique Jones, who doesn't play as many minutes as 6'8" sixth man Kaiser Gates.

    The Noteworthy Numbers: 22.0 and 36. The first number is the scoring average of Xavier guard Trevon Bluiett over the past six games. The Musketeers won five of those six games, which came immediately after their six-game losing streak. The second number is Xavier's combined margin of victory in its tournament wins over Maryland and Florida State, both of whom were seeded considerably higher than the Musketeers. Xavier scored 27 more points than those two opponents in the second halves.

    Difference-Makers: Bluiett is obviously the player who could be the difference for Xavier if he continues his scoring streak. But two qualities Xavier has displayed during the tournament could be key. Despite its relative lack of size, Xavier out-rebounded both of its tournament opponents. The Musketeers have made 50 percent of their three-point shots (20-of-40) in their two tournament games and must continue that success against Arizona.

    Upset Meter Reading: 3.3

No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 4 Butler

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    When: March 24, 7:09 p.m. ET

    The Challenge: Six of the top eight players from the North Carolina team that lost in last year's championship game are back, led by ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson.

    The Tar Heels showed their experience and toughness by scoring the final 12 points of the game in their 72-65 second-round victory over Arkansas.

    They won even though point guard Joel Berry II was slowed by an ankle injury that will presumably be healed by the time the Tar Heels face Butler.

    Butler got to this point by beating a No. 13 seed, Winthrop, and a No. 12 seed, Middle Tennessee, so to say North Carolina is raising the level of competition is an understatement. But Butler beat Villanova twice this season, so the Bulldogs are not in over their heads.

    The Noteworthy Numbers: 13.1 and zero. The first number is North Carolina's amazing rebounding margin per game. No other team in the country has a rebounding margin better than 9.1 per game. Butler is not a particularly good rebounding team, so it had better shoot a high percentage. The zero represents the number of starts Butler's Kelan Martin has made over the past 10 games, even though he is the team's leading scorer and rebounder. He came off the bench to collect 22 points and eight rebounds in Butler's Feb. 22 victory over Villanova in Philadelphia.

    The Difference-Makers: Berry was a second-team all-conference selection, but he has done little offensively in the NCAA tournament. His bum ankle may have something to do with his shooting just 3-of-21 from the field in the first two games. At some point, the Tar Heels will need the version of Berry who scored 28 points and went 5-of-5 from downtown in the win over Duke.

    The difference-maker for Butler will be its ball-handling. The Bulldogs average just 10.2 turnovers per game, ranking among the nation's best. Since they are likely to get out-rebounded by North Carolina, the Bulldogs cannot afford to waste any possessions.

     Upset Meter Reading: 3.6

No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 4 Purdue

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    When: March 23, 9:39 p.m. ET

    The Challenge: Kansas has won its first two NCAA tournament games by margins of 38 and 20 points. The Jayhawks are led by senior point guard Frank Mason III, who has already been named the national Player of the Year by USA Today and Sporting News, and freshman forward Josh Jackson, whom DraftExpress projects to be the third player taken in the upcoming NBA draft.

    Add the fact the Jayhawks are one of the top three-point shooting teams in the country, at 40.6 percent, and you have an outfit with a lot of ways to beat you.

    Is Mason tough? Ask backcourt mate Devonte' Graham.

    "He thinks he can guard LeBron [James], so nobody's going to intimidate him," Graham told Tom Keegan of KUSports.com.

    Purdue has a national Player of the Year candidate of its own in forward Caleb Swanigan, who has been outstanding in the NCAA tournament, averaging 18.0 points, 13.0 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 2.0 blocks.

    The Noteworthy Numbers: 18.6 and 43.2. The first number is Kansas freshman Jackson's scoring average over the past 14 games, and he seems to get better every game. The second number is the three-point shooting percentage of Purdue power forward Swanigan, the Big Ten Player of the Year.

    Everyone knows the 6'9", 250-pound Swanigan can muscle people around inside, helping him average 12.6 rebounds per game. Few realize he has a nice outside touch. He was 3-of-6 on long-range shots in the second-round win over Iowa State. The Boilermakers are another of the top three-point shooting teams in the country, hitting 40.4 percent from distance.

    Difference-Makers: Vincent Edwards is known primarily as Purdue's other forward, but he has emerged as a star in the NCAA tournament, scoring 21 points in each game while hitting 19-of-30 shots (63.3 percent). His 21-point, 10-rebound game against Iowa State was a key reason why the Boilermakes beat the red-hot Cyclones.

    Graham is the key for Kansas. It's no coincidence that three of Kansas' four losses came when he shot poorly. He shot 3-of-11 in the loss to Indiana, 4-of-13 in the loss to Iowa State and 2-of-10 in the loss to TCU in the conference tournament. In the NCAA tournament, though, he is averaging 17.0 points while hitting 8-of-13 three-point shots.

    Upset Meter Reading: 4.2

No. 3 Baylor vs. No. 7 South Carolina

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    Rainier Ehrhardt/Associated Press

    When: March 24, 7:29 p.m. ET

    The Challenge: Baylor was the hottest team in the country for the first seven weeks. Unranked in preseason, the Bears won their first 15 games, including victories over Oregon, Louisville, Xavier and Iowa State, to push them to the No. 1 ranking. They came back to earth after that, but they remain an outstanding rebounding team that has given a lot of teams problems with their zone defense.

    The Bears have beaten two double-digit seeds (New Mexico State and USC) thus far but were not particularly impressive in either.

    So Baylor goes from one USC to another USC, as the second-round victory over Southern California earned Baylor a Sweet 16 berth against South Carolina, which recorded one of the biggest wins of the tournament by beating Duke.

    The Noteworthy Numbers: 5-6 and 3-6. The first statistic is Baylor's record over 11 games coming into the NCAA tournament, and the second is South Carolina's record in its final nine games before the Big Dance. Obviously, neither team was on a roll entering the event, and the Gamecocks' 20-point win over Marquette and upset of Duke in their two games over the opening weekend came out of nowhere. Suddenly, and without warning, South Carolina is playing outstanding basketball.

    Difference-Makers: The Gamecocks' Sindarius Thornwell is an outstanding player whose reputation is improving with each game he plays in the national spotlight. He scored 29 and 24 points in two tournament games to date, hitting 3-of-6 three-pointers in each. South Carolina relies heavily on him to provide the offense, especially with PJ Dozier, the team's second-leading scorer, having made just 4-of-31 three-pointers over the past seven games.

    Johnathan Motley is Baylor's star, but the difference-maker in this game will be guard Manu Lecomte. He is Baylor's best shooter, hitting 40.8 percent of his three-pointers this season. But he has been slowed by an ankle injury, which may be why he has made just 1-of-8 three-pointers in the two tournament games. Baylor can only hope he gets healthy and shoots well against the Gamecocks.

    Upset Meter Reading: 5.9

No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 4 West Virginia

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    When: March 23, 7:39 p.m. ET

    The Challenge: Gonzaga has played only one bad game in 2016-17, which resulted in a 79-71 loss to BYU, spoiling an undefeated regular season. The Bulldogs know how to win close games, beating Florida, Iowa State and Arizona by a maximum of seven points on neutral courts early in the season.

    No team can match Gonzaga's combination of offensive and defensive proficiency. The Bulldogs rank second in the nation in field-goal percentage, at 51.2 percent, and second in field-goal percentage defense, at 36.8 percent.

    Gonzaga demonstrated its skills in the first half against Northwestern, limiting the Wildcats to 30 percent shooting, including 1-of-11 from deep, to take an 18-point lead. A late Northwestern surge made the game close and suggests an opponent can rattle the Bulldogs down the stretch. The same thing happened in the loss to BYU, when the Bulldogs seemed to have that home game under control, with a 12-point lead with under 14 minutes left.

    No team is better at rattling an opponent than the hard-pressing West Virginia Mountaineers, a tough, veteran squad.

    "They got men," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said of the Mountaineers, according to Mark Gaughan of the Buffalo News. "They have old dudes, and staying old is a good thing in college basketball."

    The Noteworthy Numbers: 20.11 and 80. The first statistic is the number of turnovers West Virginia forces per game, by far the most in the nation. Notre Dame averaged just 9.5 turnovers per game, second best in the country, but the Irish coughed it up 10 times in the first half of their second-round loss to West Virginia.

    The second number is Jevon Carter's three-point shooting percentage in the win over Notre Dame. Carter hit four of his five three-point attempts to match his season-high 24 points. He is just a 38.6 percent shooter from long range for the campaign but has made at least half his three-pointers in six of the past seven games.

    Difference-Makers: Who wins the point guard matchup between Carter and Gonzaga's Nigel Williams-Goss? Carter, who averages 2.53 steals per game (seventh best in the country), will be trying to create Gonzaga turnovers while scoring a lot of points. Williams-Goss, the West Coast Conference Player of the Year, will be trying to minimize the Bulldogs' turnovers while being a force offensively.

    Upset Meter Reading: 6.8

No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 3 UCLA

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    Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

    When: March 24, 9:39 p.m. ET

    The Challenge: The real challenge is deciding which team should be favored. The challenge for the players is trying to put on a more entertaining performance than they did on Dec. 3, when UCLA ended Kentucky's 42-game home winning streak and beat the then-No. 1 Wildcats, 97-92.

    UCLA and Kentucky respectively ranked first and fifth in the nation in scoring coming into the NCAA tournament, and DraftExpress projects that five of the freshmen in the game (UCLA's Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf and Kentucky's De'Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo) will be first-round picks in the upcoming NBA draft. The only upset will be if at least one of the teams does not reach 90 points. 

    Technically, Kentucky is the higher-seeded team, so it qualifies as the favorite based on the standards we set. The Wildcats deserve that role since they have won 13 games in a row, including a 10-point victory over Florida, a 17-point win over Arkansas and a tough-as-nails 65-62 second-round triumph over Wichita State, when Kentucky's defense made the key plays at the end.

    The Noteworthy Numbers: The statistical line of 18, 4-of-7, nine and one and the statistical line of 33, four and eight. The first sequence details the points, three-point shooting, assists and turnovers by UCLA point guard Ball in the second-round victory over Cincinnati. The shooting and 9:1 assist-to-turnover ratio were a sharp contrast to his showing in the loss to Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament, when Ball had eight points, shot 1-of-6 from three and had six assists and four turnovers.

    The second sequence represents the points, assists and turnovers Kentucky point guard Fox has recorded in two tournament games. Fox has become a scorer who can create opportunities almost anytime he wants with penetrating drives, but his assist numbers have dropped while his turnovers have risen.

    The Difference-Makers: Monk, a distributor? A shot-blocker? Yes, he led the team in assists (four) and blocks (two) in the second-round victory over Wichita State. But his job is to score points. He is averaging 20.0 points per game, but he has gone six straight games without reaching his average. He is just 6-of-21 from the field, including 2-of-11 from beyond the arc, in the two NCAA tournament games. He needs to put up some points against UCLA, like the 24 he had in the loss to the Bruins.

    For the Bruins, the difference is their collective defense. They are not great at that end of the floor, but they limited Cincinnati to 67 points, and the Bearcats' two best players, Troy Caupain and Kyle Washington, were a combined 5-of-21 for 13 points.

    Upset Meter Reading: 7.2

No. 4 Florida vs. No. 8 Wisconsin

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    When: March 24, 9:59 p.m. ET

    The Challenge: Wisconsin is coming off the biggest win of the tournament so far, beating Villanova, the No. 1 overall seed, in the second round Saturday. But Florida's 65-39 victory over Virginia earlier that day may have been the best overall performance of the first weekend. The Gators limited Virginia to 29.6 percent shooting, including 1-of-15 on three-pointers. It was no fluke. Two days earlier, Florida limited East Tennessee State, which ranked 10th in the nation in field-goal percentage at 49.1 percent, to 33.3 percent shooting in the second half, when Florida took control.

    Florida's outstanding defense has held opponents to 40.5 percent shooting for the season and just 30.4 percent accuracy from three-point range.

    The Gators could not figure out a way to beat Vanderbilt, which beat Florida three times this season, but a Florida team that owns a 26-point win over Virginia and a 22-point win over Kentucky must be taken seriously.

    The Noteworthy Numbers: 17.2 and 11. The first number is the shooting percentage of Florida's top two scorers, KeVaughn Allen and Canyon Barry, over the first two games of the tournament. Allen is 3-for-21, and Barry is 2-for-8. Neither scored more than seven points in either game. They can't shoot that poorly against Wisconsin. The second statistic is the number of three-point shots (in 23 attempts) Wisconsin guard Bronson Koenig has made in his two tournament games. He was the hero of the Badgers' run to the Sweet 16 last season, and he is averaging 22.5 points this postseason.

    Difference-Makers: Wisconsin forward Nigel Hayes has had a relatively disappointing season, averaging 13.8 points after being named the preseason Big Ten Player of the Year. Ethan Happ has taken over as the Badgers' top inside threat, being named to the first-team All-Big Ten squad while Hayes was relegated to the third team.

    But Hayes, a senior in his third season as a starter, has elevated his game in the postseason. He is averaging 17.5 points and 9.0 rebounds in the two games, and he made the game-winning shot with a marvelous baseline hesitation move against Villanova.

    Allen, Florida's top scorer, must shake off a slump after shooting 1-of-13 from beyond the arc in the first two tournament games.

    Upset Meter Reading: 7.6

No. 3 Oregon vs. No. 7 Michigan

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    When: March 23, 7:09 p.m.

    The Challenge: Oregon is the higher seed in this game, so it is the nominal favorite. However, it is difficult to consider Michigan an underdog against anyone at this point. Still, the Ducks have the athletes to run any team off the court on their best days.

    When Oregon gets on a roll—as it was in a 27-point win over Arizona, which found itself down, 38-18, at halftime—it is downright scary. The 23-point victory over USC and the 28-point win over a Colorado team that had defeated Oregon earlier in the season were noteworthy as well.

    The Ducks' ace in the hole is Dillon Brooks, who leads the team in scoring and has produced three game-winning shots this season.

    Much was made of the injury that sidelined Chris Boucher for the postseason, but he was not a starter late in the season and was sixth on the team in playing time.

    The Noteworthy Numbers: 10 and five. The 10 represents the number of turnovers Michigan committed in its first two NCAA tournament games combined. It's an astounding stat considering the level of competition (Oklahoma State and Louisville) and the pace at which the Wolverines played while scoring 92 and 73 points. The five represents the number of top-notch opponents Michigan has beaten in its past five games (Purdue, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Oklahoma State and Louisville).

    Difference-Makers: Michigan's mindset may be the biggest difference-maker because the Wolverines must be thinking they are a team of destiny. They have won seven straight games, six since their harrowing airplane incident before the Big Ten tournament. Derrick Walton Jr. is clearly Michigan's best player, but he had a mediocre game against Louisville, going 3-of-13 from the field, and the Wolverines still won. Walton's 6:0 assist-to-turnover ratio was a factor in the win.

    Tyler Dorsey, not Brooks, has been the Ducks' best offensive weapon lately. Dorsey has scored more than 20 points in each of his past five games, including 24 and 27 in the two NCAA tournament games, hitting 18-of-23 overall and 6-of-9 from long range.

    Upset Meter Reading: 8.1

    All statistics provided by ESPN.com unless otherwise noted.