NCAA Tournament 2018: Ultimate Guide to the Men's Elite Eight

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistMarch 24, 2018

NCAA Tournament 2018: Ultimate Guide to the Men's Elite Eight

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    Texas Tech is playing in its first Elite Eight in school history.
    Texas Tech is playing in its first Elite Eight in school history.Elsa/Getty Images

    Then there were eight. And if you happened to correctly predict this octet, it might be time to turn your skills toward the stock market.

    The Elite Eight of the 2018 NCAA men's tournament will feature a pair of No. 1 seeds, a No. 2 seed and two No. 3s. But the other three survivors—two No. 9s and a No. 11—will make the regional finals appointment television.

    Wins Thursday by Florida State and Kansas State marked the first time a pair of No. 9 seeds advanced to the Elite Eight and doubled the number that had gotten this far since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. And with K-State facing No. 11 Loyola of Chicago for the South Regional title, it will mark the sixth consecutive year at least one school seeded seventh or lower advances to the Final Four.

    Some coaches and schools will be looking to make the Final Four for the first time, while other programs are hoping to continue recent success or tap into past prosperity. Some of college basketball's current stars are hoping to keep playing, while other rising standouts will try to grab a piece of the spotlight.

    Scroll down for a full rundown of the regional finals, the gateway to the Final Four.

Schedule and TV Info

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Saturday, March 24

    • No. 9 Kansas State (25-11) vs. No. 11 Loyola-Chicago (31-5), 6:09 p.m. ET, TBS
    • No. 3 Michigan (31-7) vs. No. 9 Florida State (23-11), 8:49 p.m. ET, TBS

    Sunday, March 25

    • No. 1 Villanova (33-4) vs. No. 3 Texas Tech (27-9), 2:20 p.m. ET, CBS
    • No. 1 Kansas (30-7) vs. No. 2 Duke (29-7), 5:05 p.m. ET, CBS

South Regional Final: No. 9 Kansas State vs. No. 11 Loyola of Chicago

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    How They Got Here

    Kansas State overcame massive foul trouble Thursday to beat No. 5 Kentucky 61-58 to reach its first Elite Eight since 2010. The Wildcats had three players foul out—and injured leading scorer Dean Wade played just eight minutes. The team shot only 35.2 percent but held a third straight NCAA tournament opponent under 39 percent shooting.

    Loyola of Chicago continued its fondness for narrow victories by edging No. 7 Nevada 69-68 in the Sweet 16. This was after the Ramblers beat the No. 6 Miami Hurricanes and No. 3 Tennessee Volunteers on buzzer-beaters. They won their first three games by four points, which ties the smallest combined margin of victory in the first three wins of a tournament since Saint Joseph's in 1981.

               

    Individual Battle to Watch: Barry Brown vs. Clayton Custer

    Barry Brown Jr. (16.0 points per game) has had to pick up the slack for Wade, which has been a big ask. But the Wildcats have also tasked the junior with defending some tremendous opposing guards, and he's been stellar. Creighton's Marcus Foster, UMBC's Jairus Lyles and Kentucky's Shai Gilgeous-Alexander were a combined 8-of-36 from the field against Brown.

    Then there's Clayton Custer, who is less explosive offensively (13.4 points per game), but the Loyola-Chicago redshirt junior has been money in the NCAA tournament. He had 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting against Nevada, is shooting 66.7 percent in the tourney and is the main distributor on a Ramblers team that loves to pass around the ball.

                                                                 

    Upset Potential: High

    In the grand scheme of things, the first-ever No. 9 vs. No. 11 NCAA tourney game is an upset in and of itself. Kansas State and Loyola-Chicago have had to pull off upsets in five of six games to get to this point, with K-State's second-round win over the No. 16 UMBC Retrievers the only time either was favored.

    Despite its lower seed, Loyola is capable of winning again. Both teams thrive on defense, holding every tournament opponent to 68 or fewer points, but the Ramblers have been far more efficient with the ball and have the makeup to solve K-State's defense.

West Regional Final: No. 3 Michigan vs. No. 9 Florida State

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    Jae Hong/Associated Press

    How They Got Here

    The Michigan Wolverines ran the No. 7 Texas A&M Aggies off the court in the Sweet 16, winning 99-72 behind 61.9 percent shooting for their third Elite Eight appearance in six years. They shot only a combined 42.0 percent in wins over No. 14 Montana and No. 6 Houston, winning the latter 64-63 on a buzzer-beater after the Cougars missed three free throws in the final 25 seconds.

    The Florida State Seminoles ran past the No. 4 Gonzaga Bulldogs, 75-60, for their first Elite Eight bid since 1993. Including the wins over No. 8 Missouri and No. 1 Xavier, FSU's bench has contributed 118 of the team's 217 points.

                  

    Individual Battle to Watch: Charles Matthews vs. Terance Mann

    Charles Matthews has been Michigan's leading scorer and rebounder in the NCAA tournament, averaging 16.3 points and 7.0 boards per game, and he had 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting in the Sweet 16 win over Texas A&M. The 6'6" sophomore guard is shooting 55.6 percent from the field.

    Terance Mann is shooting 63.2 percent, going 8-of-13 from the field for 18 points against Gonzaga (last year's tournament runner-up). The 6'6" junior has connected on 56.5 percent of his shots this season, almost exclusively scoring inside the three-point line.

    These tall guards will be tasked with trying to keep each other out of the paint.

                                          

    Upset Potential: Medium

    Was Michigan's bombardment of the Aggies a product of its opponent laying an egg after dominating defending champ North Carolina in the second round? Or was it because the Wolverines solved their offensive issues from the first weekend?

    And would have Florida State advanced if Gonzaga's Killian Tillie not been out with a hip injury? FSU has been the more consistent of the teams to this point, winning by an average of 11 points. Michigan's performance against Texas A&M, though, was among the most impressive of the tourney.

East Regional Final: No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 3 Texas Tech

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    Mary Schwalm/Associated Press

    How They Got Here

    Villanova used a 22-6 run in the second half to defeat No. 5 West Virginia 90-78 in the Sweet 16. The Wildcats won their first two games by a combined 49 points against No. 16 Radford and No. 9 Alabama but trailed by six with 11 minutes left against the Mountaineers. It's Nova's second Elite Eight in three years; the other was in 2016 during its national title run.

    Texas Tech advanced to its first Elite Eight in program history with a 78-65 win over No. 2 Purdue, scoring 48 second-half points with senior guard Keenan Evans leading the surge. The Red Raiders previously beat No. 14 Stephen F. Austin and No. 6 Florida and gave the Big 12 three teams in the regional final for the first time since 2002.

                                

    Individual Battle to Watch: Jalen Brunson vs. Keenan Evans

    Jalen Brunson is the best and most experienced of Villanova's many ball-handling guards, turning it over just seven times in three NCAA tournament games. The 6'3" guard had a turnover rate of 10.5 during the year and is 8-of-15 from three-point range in the NCAA tourney.

    Keenan Evans has a penchant for late-game heroics, scoring 12 of his team-high 16 points in the second half for Texas Tech on Friday. The 6'3" senior guard is 22-of-25 from the foul line in the tournament.

                                  

    Upset Potential: High

    All the pressure is on Villanova to make it back to the Final Four after getting knocked out in the second round last year as the defending champion. Texas Tech is in unfamiliar territory, but that's been the case most of this season. And the moment has rarely looked too big for the Red Raiders. It may come down to which team's star makes the most big plays in the final minutes.

Midwest Regional Final: No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 2 Duke

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    How They Got Here

    Kansas is in the Elite Eight for the third straight season after beating No. 16 Pennsylvania and No. 8 Seton Hall in Wichita, Kansas, and then holding off No. 5 Clemson, 80-76, in Omaha, Nebraska, in the Sweet 16. The Jayhawks are looking for their first Final Four bid since 2012, when they lost to Kentucky in the championship game.

    Duke solved No. 11 Syracuse's frustrating zone—sort of—in a 69-65 win in the Sweet 16, getting inside with lobs and free throws to offset 5-of-26 shooting from three-point range. The Blue Devils had no trouble offensively in blowing past No. 15 Iona and No. 7 Rhode Island before that.

                    

    Individual Battle to Watch: Udoka Azubuike vs. Marvin Bagley III

    Udoka Azubuike is coming off a strong Sweet 16 performance in which he was 7-of-9 from the field and had 14 points and 11 rebounds, despite playing with a heavy brace on his leg because of a sprained MCL. The 7'0" sophomore center played 25 minutes in that game for Kansas, up from 22 in the second round after missing the final two Big 12 tournament games and logging just three minutes in the first round of the NCAA tourney.

    Azubuike's mobility will be tested immensely by Duke's Marvin Bagley III. The 6'11" freshman forward also had a knee injury earlier this season, causing him to miss four games. But since returning in late February, he's averaged 21.3 points and 10.3 rebounds while shooting 67.3 percent from the field.

                          

    Upset Potential: High

    Kansas has been in this position before, the No. 1 seed playing for a spot in the Final Four only to be upended by a lower-seeded opponent. In 2016, it was No. 2 Villanova that took down the Jayhawks 64-59, and last year, No. 3 Oregon won 74-60. Duke last appeared in a regional final in 2015 en route to its last national title and is 12-2 in the Elite Eight under coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Top Storylines

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Loyola's Divine Run

    Loyola-Chicago is the eighth No. 11 seed to reach the Elite Eight and the third to do so since 2014. Three such teams have moved on to the Final Four, most recently in 2011, when Virginia Commonwealth went from the First Four to the Final Four.

    If the Ramblers can pull off a fourth straight upset by beating Kansas State, it will be due to their efficient shooting and effective defense. Oh, and a 98-year-old team chaplain who has been the viral sensation of the men's tournament.

    Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt has done as many interviews as Loyola players, if not more, and her presence has made an already-great Cinderella story even more enthralling.

                                            

    Leonard Hamilton on the Brink

    The list of "best coaches to never make a Final Four" is a subjective one, though getting removed from that registry remains a big deal. Gonzaga's Mark Few, Oregon's Dana Altman and South Carolina's Frank Martin had their names crossed off last season, and Florida State's Leonard Hamilton is on the brink of doing the same.

    The 69-year-old is in his 30th year as a Division I head coach and in his 16th season at Florida State, where he's recorded 327 of his 527 victories. The Sweet 16 was the closest he'd come to the Final Four before this year (2011 with FSU and 2000 at Miami). The latter effort landed him an NBA job with the Washington Wizards for one season (2000-01).

                          

    Villanova Within NCAA Record

    Villanova lives and dies by the three—mostly the former since it shoots 40.5 percent from the perimeter and was 13-of-24 from deep in the Sweet 16. That gives the Wildcats 44 made threes in the NCAA tournament and 432 for the season. Another 11, and they'll have drained the most triples in a season in Division I history.

    VMI hit 442 threes in 2006-07, but that came on a whopping 1,383 attempts for a team that went 14-19. Villanova has attempted 1,067 three-pointers, and its top five scorers all shoot at least 39 percent and average 1.6 or more made threes per game.

Stars to Watch

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    Marvin Bagley III, Duke

    The latest mock draft from NBADraft.net is a who's who of standout freshmen from this season in college basketball. Only a handful of those prospects are still left in the NCAA tournament, mostly on Duke, and Bagley stands tall above them all. The 6'11” forward is averaging 22.0 points and 8.0 rebounds in the NCAA tourney, just the second freshman (the other was Carmelo Anthony) to score 20 and pull down at least seven boards in his first three tournament games.

                           

    Barry Brown, Kansas State

    If there's a defensive MVP for the NCAA tournament, Brown figures to be a shoo-in. The 6'3" junior guard has shut down the top playmaker for each of Kansas State's opponents, most recently holding Kentucky's Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to 2-of-10 shooting and five turnovers. Oh, and he's averaged 16.3 points per game and made 19 of 23 free throws.

                           

    Jalen Brunson, Villanova

    One of two Wooden Award finalists on Villanova, along with fellow junior guard Mikal Bridges, Brunson returned to his Big East tournament form in the Sweet 16 win over West Virginia. He had 27 points and was 3-of-6 from outside, making him 8-of-15 from three-point range in the NCAA tourney.

                          

    Devonte' Graham, Kansas

    From a shooting standpoint, the NCAA tournament hasn't been a good one for Graham. The 6'2" senior guard is 14-of-43 from the field and 5-of-19 in the past two games, yet he's still averaged 17.7 points by going 20-of-24 from the line. He's also averaged 4.7 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 1.7 steals for Kansas.

Underrated Players to Watch

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Clayton Custer, Loyola-Chicago

    The beauty of Loyola-Chicago's offense is there is no one guy who stands above the rest and must put up big numbers in order for the Ramblers to win. But Custer is by far their most important player. The 6'1" redshirt junior has averaged 13.0 points and 3.7 assists while shooting 66.7 percent (16-of-24) in the NCAA tourney.

                                            

    Omari Spellman, Villanova

    After sitting out last season because of an academic issue, Spellman has been a unique weapon for Villanova inside. The 6'9", 260-pound redshirt freshman is the Wildcats' leading rebounder, averaging 7.7 per game in the NCAA tourney, and he's shooting 44.4 percent from three, including 4-of-7 in the Sweet 16 on his way to 18 points.

                           

    Xavier Sneed, Kansas State

    Sneed picked a heck of a time for his breakout performance, scoring 22 points (5-of-8 on three-pointers) with nine rebounds against Kentucky in the Sweet 16. The 6'5" sophomore forward is averaging 13 points and 7.3 rebounds in the tournament, helping fill the offensive void with Wade unavailable.

Biggest X-Factors

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Kansas State vs. Loyola-Chicago: Turnovers

    Kansas State and Loyola-Chicago love to slow down the game. Both are among the 50 slowest-paced teams in the country. And each is adept at defending for long periods of time, making each possession important.

    Taking a bad shot is one thing, but not getting one off is even worse. The Ramblers have been more turnover-prone than Kansas State on the season, but in the NCAA tourney, the Wildcats have given away the ball four more times than Loyola (38-34). K-State has also forced more turnovers (44 to 31), and it's 34th nationally in defensive turnover rate for the season.

                        

    Florida State vs. Michigan: Free Throws

    If this game is close in the final stretch, neither team can feel confident about securing a Final Four bid at the foul line. Florida State is shooting 69.3 percent on free throws in the tourney, slightly ahead of its season rate of 68.5 percent, while Michigan's 70 percent efficiency in the past three games is up from 66.2 percent for the year.

    FSU has been going to the line more frequently, taking 25 more free throws than the Wolverines in the tournament. The Seminoles commit more fouls, however, and they've allowed 32 more free throws to opposing teams than Michigan.

                               

    Villanova vs. Texas Tech: Three-Point Shooting

    As noted earlier, Villanova's success is greatly tied to its three-point shooting. When those shots don't fall, it can struggle. In their four losses this season, the Wildcats shot 27.6 percent from three, and almost half of their attempts came from beyond the line.

    Texas Tech's NCAA opponents are 18-of-54 (33.3 percent) from three-point range, and for the year, the Red Raiders held foes to 32.7 percent from outside. The Red Raiders are 20-2 when holding teams below 37 percent from deep.

                                  

    Kansas vs. Duke: Rebounding

    Duke and Kansas were both narrowly out-rebounded in their Sweet 16 wins, which is abnormal for the Blue Devils but not the Jayhawks. Duke has won the rebounding battle in 32 of 36 games this season and has pulled down at least 10 offensive boards 24 times; Kansas has grabbed more rebounds than its opponents in only 14 of 37 contests.

    Rebounding numbers are often a reflection of the shot selection in a game, but consider these numbers: Duke freshmen Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. combine to average nearly as many rebounds per game (20.5) as Kansas' starting five (24.4).

                    

    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.