NCAA Tournament 2018: Ultimate Guide for the Men's Sweet 16

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistMarch 20, 2018

NCAA Tournament 2018: Ultimate Guide for the Men's Sweet 16

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    It's fair to say the 2018 NCAA men's college basketball tournament has been one of the wildest ever. And the biggest games are yet to come.

    The unpredictable results from the first and second rounds, in which six of the top 12 overall seeds were knocked off, including the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16, set up a Sweet 16 that features only two No. 1 seeds for just the fourth time in history.

    To get you up to speed on what's on tap, we broke down each Sweet 16 contest to note the players and matchups to watch, the most notable storylines and the X-factors who are most likely to determine the outcomes.

    In theory, at least. If there's anything the first weekend taught us, it's that nothing is certain and everything is possible.

Schedule and TV Info

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    Thursday

    • No. 7 Nevada (29-7) vs. No. 11 Loyola-Chicago (30-5), 7:07 p.m. ET (CBS)
    • No. 3 Michigan (30-7) vs. No. 7 Texas A&M (22-12), 7:37 p.m. ET (TBS)
    • No. 5 Kentucky (26-10) vs. No. 9 Kansas State (24-11), 9:37 p.m. ET (CBS)
    • No. 4 Gonzaga (32-4) vs. No. 9 Florida State (22-11), 9:59 p.m. ET (TBS)

    Friday

    • No. 1 Kansas (29-7) vs. No. 5 Clemson (25-9), 7:07 p.m. ET (CBS)
    • No. 1 Villanova (32-4) vs. No. 5 West Virginia (26-10), 7:27 p.m. ET (TBS)
    • No. 2 Duke (28-7) vs. No. 11 Syracuse (23-13), 9:37 p.m. ET (CBS)
    • No. 2 Purdue (30-6) vs. No. 3 Texas Tech (26-9), 9:57 p.m. ET (TBS)

No. 7 Nevada vs. No. 11 Loyola-Chicago

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    How They Got Here

    Nevada pulled off a pair of amazing comebacks, rallying from down 14 against No. 10 seed Texas in the first round to win in overtime and then topping that feat by erasing a 22-point deficit to beat No. 2 seed Cincinnati. Loyola-Chicago's path to the Sweet 16 was equally dramatic, as it beat No. 6 seed Miami and No. 3 seed Tennessee with last-second shots.

        

    Individual Battle to Watch: Cody Martin vs. Aundre Jackson

    Cody Martin scored 25 points in Sunday's shocker against the Bearcats, adding six rebounds and seven assists. Eleven of those points came in the final 10:50 after the Wolf Pack fell behind by 22. The junior forward is averaging 20.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game in the NCAA tournament while shooting 55.2 percent from the field. The Ramblers' Aundre Jackson, a senior forward, came off the bench to score a combined 28 points on 11-of-19 shooting in the first two rounds, including 16 in the win over the Volunteers.

        

    Upset Potential: High

    Considering neither team is supposed to still be alive, it'd be misleading to call a victory by either an upset. By seeding standards, though, Loyola is very much the underdog. Nevada's penchant for slow starts makes it vulnerable, however, since it's unlikely to continue being able to flip the switch late and storm back.

No. 3 Michigan vs. No. 7 Texas A&M

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    How They Got Here

    Michigan shook off a slow start against No. 14 seed Montana in the first round to win by 14 then edged No. 6 seed Houston on freshman guard Jordan Poole's buzzer-beating three in the second round. Texas A&M got past No. 10 seed Providence before steamrolling defending champion and No. 2 seed North Carolina by 21 in the second round.

        

    Individual Battle to Watch: Moritz Wagner vs. Tyler Davis

    The junior big men have played vastly different roles for their teams so far in the NCAA tournament. The Wolverines' Moritz Wagner has been looked to more for his defensive presence, while the Aggies' Tyler Davis has averaged 16.0 points and 12.0 rebounds while making 13 of his 19 shots. Davis dominated the Tar Heels' Luke Maye and will look to use his 21-pound weight advantage to muscle around Wagner, who at 6'11" is one inch taller.

        

    Upset Potential: Medium

    Texas A&M's thorough dismantling of North Carolina had a lot to do with how the Aggies forced the Tar Heels into taking bad perimeter shots, as they held them to 6-of-31 shooting from three-point range. Michigan was 8-of-30 from outside against Houston and is shooting 28.2 percent from three in the NCAA tourney.

No. 5 Kentucky vs. No. 9 Kansas State

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    How They Got Here

    While Kentucky coach John Calipari may not have been happy with his team's NCAA tournament draw when it was announced, he can't be complaining now. It followed a five-point win over No. 12 seed Davidson in the first round with a 20-point blowout of No. 13 seed Buffalo and is the highest remaining seed in the South Regional. Kansas State got a much easier road than expected, too, cruising past No. 8 seed Creighton and then grinding out a victory against No. 16 seed Maryland-Baltimore County.

        

    Individual Battle to Watch: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander vs. Barry Brown Jr.

    Kentucky Wildcats freshman guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was the SEC tournament MVP and then notched a pair of strong games in the NCAA tourney, averaging 23.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 3.5 steals per game to go with 60.0 percent shooting. Barry Brown Jr., a junior guard for the other Wildcats, is just 10-of-27 from the field in the tourney, but he's dropped 20 or more 11 times this season.

        

    Upset Potential: Low

    Kansas State turned it over 18 times against UMBC and was fortunate the Retrievers couldn't capitalize. Kentucky has 12 steals in its two tournament games and has shot at least 50.0 percent in four straight contests. For an upset to happen, the K-State Wildcats will have to play their best game of the tourney, and Kentucky will have to reverse its recent trend.

No. 4 Gonzaga vs. No. 9 Florida State

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    How They Got Here

    Gonzaga reached its fourth consecutive Sweet 16 with wins over No. 13 seed North Carolina-Greensboro and No. 5 seed Ohio State. In the latter game, the Bulldogs jumped to a 15-0 lead but trailed by five with six minutes left. Florida State breezed past No. 8 seed Missouri and then knocked off No. 1 seed Xavier after trailing by 11 with 8:30 to play.

        

    Individual Battle to Watch: Zach Norvell Jr. vs. Braian Angola

    Each team's top scorer so far in the NCAA tournament has done most of his damage from the perimeter, with Bulldogs freshman guard Zach Norvell Jr. hitting 6 of his 11 threes against the Buckeyes after a poor performance against the Spartans (2-of-8 from distance). Braian Angola, a senior guard for the Seminoles, has made five of his 10 triples.

        

    Upset Potential: Medium

    Gonzaga's fans travel well, making the West Regional in Los Angeles an unofficial home court. The Bulldogs also have experience on their side, with nine players back from last year's national runners-up. Florida State's depth—it played 11 guys against Xavier and got 45 bench points—may be its best weapon against a more talented opponent.

No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 5 Clemson

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    How They Got Here

    Kansas handled No. 16 seed Pennsylvania but got a strong challenge from No. 8 seed Seton Hall in the second round. Clemson ran past upset-minded No. 12 seed New Mexico State and then steamrolled No. 4 seed Auburn by 31 points for its first Sweet 16 appearance since 1997.

        

    Individual Battle to Watch: Malik Newman vs. Gabe DeVoe

    With leading scorer Devonte' Graham struggling from the field, Jayhawks sophomore guard Malik Newman made 13 of 26 shots in the first two rounds, including a 28-point effort against the Pirates. Tigers senior guard Gabe DeVoe is 18-of-28 from the field (including 8-of-14 from outside) and scored 22 in each win.

        

    Upset Potential: Medium

    Kansas hasn't reached a Final Four since 2012, and its last two NCAA tournament runs ended in the Elite Eight. Clemson is playing its best ball of the season and just demolished the SEC regular-season co-champion. The Jayhawks have a big edge in terms of tourney experience.

No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 5 West Virginia

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    How They Got Here

    Villanova coasted into the Sweet 16, beating No. 16 seed Radford and No. 9 seed Alabama by a combined 49 points. Per ESPN's Chris Fallica, the Wildcats are the 19th No. 1 seed since 1985 to win each of their first two games by 20 or more. West Virginia made far-away San Diego its home away from home, beating No. 12 seed Murray State by 17 and No. 13 seed Marshall by 23.

        

    Individual Battle to Watch: Omari Spellman vs. Sagaba Konate

    While the clash of veteran guards Jalen Brunson of the Wildcats and Jevon Carter of the Mountaineers will draw the most attention, how the teams' big men handle each other might decide the outcome. Villanova freshman Omari Spellman is averaging 8.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game and has made three of his eight three-pointers, while West Virginia sophomore Sagaba Konate has averaged 11.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game.

        

    Upset Potential: Medium

    The Wildcats have arguably been the best team in the tournament to this point, and with the way they have played, they will be tough to beat. The Mountaineers have been on an upswing as well, and their pressure defense forces the issue. Villanova's experienced backcourt takes care of the ball and should be able to break the press more often than not.

No. 2 Duke vs. No. 11 Syracuse

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    How They Got Here

    Duke posted lopsided wins over No. 15 seed Iona and No. 7 seed Rhode Island, shooting a combined 55.1 percent from the field and 45.1 percent from three-point range. Syracuse became the latest team to go from the First Four to the Sweet 16, using its 2-3 zone defense to beat No. 11 seed Arizona State, No. 6 seed TCU and No. 3 seed Michigan State by 11 total points.

        

    Individual Battle to Watch: Marvin Bagley III vs. Oshae Brissett

    Marvin Bagley III's first (and only) NCAA tournament has been as good as expected so far. The Blue Devils freshman forward is shooting 75.0 percent from the field and averaging 22.0 points and 8.0 rebounds per game. Neither the Gaels nor the Rams had anyone who could slow him down, which is what Orange freshman forward Oshae Brissett will be tasked with doing. He should also contribute offensively, as he's averaging 17.0 points and 10.0 rebounds per game.

        

    Upset Potential: Low

    The Syracuse zone has rendered three efficient offenses impotent. The Sun Devils, Horned Frogs and Spartans combined to shoot 34.3 percent overall and 25.6 percent on threes. In ACC play on Feb. 24, Duke shot 41.5 percent and was 2-of-18 from three in a 60-44 win over visiting Syracuse. The Orange shot 31.5 percent and were 6-of-25 from three against the Blue Devils' 2-3 zone.

No. 2 Purdue vs. No. 3 Texas Tech

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    How They Got Here

    Purdue cruised past No. 15 seed Cal State Fullerton in the first round but lost senior center Isaac Haas to a broken elbow. Its second-round win over No. 10 seed Butler came by three points. Texas Tech reached its first Sweet 16 since 2005 by rallying past No. 14 seed Stephen F. Austin and then holding off No. 6 seed Florida.

        

    Individual Battle to Watch: Carsen Edwards vs. Keenan Evans

    Sophomore guard Carsen Edwards is the Boilermakers' leading scorer, but in the NCAA tournament, he's been even more integral to the team's perimeter defense. He held the Bulldogs' Kamar Baldwin to 5-of-16 shooting and will have to try to slow down Red Raiders senior guard Keenan Evans, who is averaging 22.5 points per game and shooting 58.3 percent from the floor in the tournament.

        

    Upset Potential: High

    This is the only "chalk" matchup in the Sweet 16, but the higher-seeded team isn't at full strength. Texas Tech, on the other hand, is healthy now that Evans is seemingly back to 100 percent after a February toe injury. The Red Raiders have a great shot to make their first Elite Eight if he keeps shooting the lights out.

Biggest Storylines

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    Duke and Syracuse have an all-ACC Sweet 16 matchup on Friday.
    Duke and Syracuse have an all-ACC Sweet 16 matchup on Friday.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Will South Region Chaos Continue?

    Virginia becoming the first men's No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed was enough by itself, but that was just one piece of the madness in the South. The Cavaliers and No. 4 seed Arizona fell in the first round, and then No. 2 seed Cincinnati and No. 3 seed Tennessee were knocked out in the second round.

    That left the South without a top-four seed in the Sweet 16, the first time that has ever happened. A No. 5 seed, Kentucky, is the favorite of the remaining teams and could end up reaching the Final Four without facing a team seeded higher than seventh.

    No. 7 seed Nevada, No. 9 seed Kansas State and No. 11 seed Loyola-Chicago could all have a say in that happening. K-State is looking for its first Elite Eight since 2010; Nevada has never advanced beyond the Sweet 16; Loyola hasn't done it since 1963, when it won the national title in a tournament that only featured 25 teams.

           

    ACC/Big 12 Superiority

    Eight conferences have teams in the Sweet 16, none more than the ACC and Big 12 with four apiece. The ACC did that with nine entrants, while four of seven Big 12 schools advanced.

    Three of the ACC qualifiers are in the Midwest Region, with league foes Duke and Syracuse battling on Friday to ensure the conference has a team in the Elite Eight for the fourth straight year. The other team in that region is No. 1 seed Kansas, which has won at least a share of the last 14 Big 12 regular season titles.

           

    Wooden Award Finalist Showdowns

    Fourteen of the 15 finalists for the Wooden Award, given to college basketball's top player, led their teams into the NCAA tournament. Only seven such players (on six teams) have survived, and they're all on the right side of the bracket.

    Five of those players are in the East Region, and they'll face off Friday. Guards Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson of top-seeded Villanova tangle with No. 5 seed West Virginia and guard Jevon Carter, while No. 2 seed Purdue has guard Carsen Edwards going toe-to-toe with No. 3 seed Texas Tech and guard Keenan Evans.

    The other two Wooden finalists still alive are senior guard Devonte' Graham of Midwest top seed Kansas and freshman forward Marvin Bagley III of Midwest No. 2 seed Duke.

Stars to Watch

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    Marvin Bagley III, Duke

    The 6'11" freshman forward has averaged 22.0 points and 8.0 rebounds on 75 percent shooting in the NCAA tournament, not far off his season numbers of 21.2 points, 11.3 rebounds and 61.3 percent shooting. He's the first player since Oklahoma's Blake Griffin in 2008-09 to average 21 and 11 and shoot at least 60 percent.

           

    Jalen Brunson, Villanova

    The 6'3" junior guard has played 10 NCAA tournament games in the past three seasons, but the 16 points he had in the first round against Radford on Thursday was his highest scoring total. At 19.1 points, 3.1 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game on 53.5 percent shooting, though, he's the heart and soul of the Wildcats' veteran squad.

           

    Jevon Carter, West Virginia

    Carter has been all over the box score for the Mountaineers in this tournament, averaging 24.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 5.5 steals while shooting 54.3 percent overall. The 6'2" senior guard has also made five of eight three-pointers, giving him a career-best 76 threes this season.

              

    Keenan Evans, Texas Tech

    A toe injury hobbled Evans late in the regular season, resulting in a three-game skid (he also missed one game) in which the 6'3" senior guard averaged 4.0 points and was 3-of-19 from the field with zero three-pointers. Since then he's returned to his old form, averaging 21.2 points (including 22.5 in the NCAA tournament) on 54.2 percent shooting with seven threes. Evans is 13 of 15 from the line in the tourney, with his 182 free throws made the most of any player left in the field.

              

    Devonte' Graham, Kansas

    The reigning Big 12 Player of the Year has not been at his best in the NCAA tourney, at least from a shooting standpoint, missing 15 shots in the first round and going 1-of-7 from the field against Seton Hall. But he still managed to average 18.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 7.5 assists and 2.0 steals, and he's been clutch at the foul line by making 14 of 17 free throws.

Underrated Players to Watch

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    Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

    Underrated and Kentucky don't normally fit in the same sentence, but Gilgeous-Alexander is playing like an NBA lottery pick instead of the seventh-best prospect of the Wildcats' latest recruiting class. The 6'6" freshman guard is averaging 14.4 points, 4.1 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game and shooting 41.8 percent from three-point range this season, the only player in Division I putting up those numbers.

        

    Malik Newman, Kansas

    Newman was one of the most potent scorers in the 2016 recruiting class, a 5-star shooting guard who was the first big prospect to come to Mississippi State under coach Ben Howland. But after averaging 11.3 points as a freshman, he transferred to the Jayhawks, sitting out last season. His regular-season numbers were solid, but the 6'3" sophomore guard has turned things up in the postseason, averaging 20.0 points on 57.6 shooting, including 19-of-32 on three-pointers in the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments.

        

    Zach Norvell Jr., Gonzaga

    The Bulldogs' balanced offensive style makes it so nearly any player can be the star on a given night. It was Norvell in the second round against Ohio State, with the 6'5" freshman guard posting career highs in points (28), rebounds (12) and three-pointers (six). For the season, Norvell is averaging 12.7 points and makes 36.8 percent of his threes.

        

    Kendall Stephens, Nevada

    A 6'6" senior guard, Stephens made 175 three-pointers in three seasons with Purdue from 2013-16. This year alone he's drained 126 triples for the Wolf Pack, third-most in the country, shooting 44.4 percent from outside. He's 8-of-18 from three in the NCAA tournament, hitting a trio of deep shots in Nevada's comeback win over Cincinnati.

Biggest X-Factors

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    Loyola-Chicago vs. Nevada: Three-Point Shooting

    Both the Ramblers and Wolf Pack shoot at least 39 percent from three-point range, each among the top 21 teams in the country. They're both equally adept at defending the three; Nevada's opponents shoot just 31.6 percent from outside, and Loyola's shoot 33.2 percent. In the NCAA tourney, the Ramblers are 16-of-41 from deep, while the Wolf Pack have made 17-of-47.

          

    Michigan vs. Texas A&M: Turnovers

    The Aggies offense has been so potent in the NCAA tournament, shooting 50.9 percent, that the 27 total turnovers haven't had an impact. Texas A&M turns it over on 16.3 percent of possessions, second-most of any team left in the field, and now it's facing a team that forces turnovers 17.1 percent of the time.

          

    Kansas State vs. Kentucky: Rebounding

    The Wildcats of Manhattan are one of the worst rebounding teams in the country, pulling down fewer than 48 percent of missed shots and getting outrebounded in 24 of 35 games. The Wildcats of Lexington's rebounding rate of 53.5 percent is fourth-best among remaining NCAA tourney teams, and lately they've been dominating the boards without 6'9" freshman forward Jarred Vanderbilt.

           

    Florida State vs. Gonzaga: Bench Scoring

    With 10 players averaging double-figure minutes and 10 different guys starting, the Seminoles can cycle in reinforcements at will. Those reserves can be quite productive, too, averaging 43.0 points and 20.5 rebounds in the NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs, who only regularly go seven-deep, got 25 off the bench against Ohio State from super-sub Rui Hachimura, but he was only 1-of-6 from the field in the first round.

         

    Clemson vs. Kansas: Three-Point Shooting

    The Tigers have held their tournament opponents to 28.1 percent shooting from three-point range, but quite a few teams lit them up from outside this season. That's the Jayhawks' bread and butter, with senior guards Devonte' Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk combining for 211 threes and Kansas' top three scorers each shooting better than 40 percent.

           

    Villanova vs. West Virginia: Three-Point Shooting

    More than 47 percent of the Wildcats' shots come from three-point range, 14th-most in the country. When you shoot 40.2 percent from the perimeter, the green light never changes. The Mountaineers will have to work overtime to guard the three-point line, something they struggle to do. Marshall's 12 threes in the second round marked the 10th time this season West Virginia allowed 10 or more triples, and 12 teams have shot 40 percent from three.

           

    Duke vs. Syracuse: Free Throws

    As frustrating as the Orange zone has been to the teams it has beaten in the NCAA tournament, it's been just as painful to see Syracuse get to the foul line at will when on offense. The Orange were 24-of-31 from the line against Michigan State and average 22 foul shots per game. The Blue Devils avoided giving up points with the clock stopped, with their foes attempting just over 14 free throws per game and their NCAA opponents scoring just 15 points from the line.

           

    Purdue vs. Texas Tech: Field-Goal Shooting

    The Red Raiders shot fairly well against the solid defenses of Stephen F. Austin and Florida, and now the Boilermakers likely come in without 7'2" senior Isaac Haas. Purdue, which allows 41.1 percent shooting for the season, allowed Butler to shoot 49.1 percent in the second round. The Boilermakers countered by making 50 percent of their shots, but Texas Tech is 15th nationally in field-goal defense.

          

    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

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