The Best Head-to-Head Matchups in the Sweet 16
The first four days of widespread tournament action were wild and woolly. Half of the No. 1 seeds are gone, as are half the No. 2 seeds. As are half the No. 3 seeds.
According to statistics from the ESPN Bracket Challenge, four of the seven most-popular choices for the national championship—Virginia, Michigan State, North Carolina and Arizona—did not reach the Sweet 16.
What this means for the second weekend: Quite a few wild cards are in the mix. Teams like Kansas State, Loyola-Chicago and Nevada obviously know how to play ball but perhaps are not as familiar to fans (or opponents, for that matter) as the higher-ranked programs they knocked off.
For the viewing public, that can be a good thing. These teams have some talented and exciting players who are playing with house money and won't hesitate to run full bore at those tasked with stopping them. The reverse is also true. Higher seeds and the blue-chippers that lead them won't be caught flat-footed when play restarts.
To help whet the appetite for these contests, here are the best individual head-to-head matchups we're expecting when the Sweet 16 tips off. They are ranked in order of intrigue and magnitude and comprise only the best of these matchups, as opposed to all eight of the eligible games.
5. Loyola-Chicago's Clayton Custer vs. Nevada's Jordan Caroline
It's hard to put a finger on No. 7 Nevada's rotation. It's certainly thin, typically going just six players deep. And it's a bit of an octopus. Against No. 2 Cincinnati, five of those six scored in double figures, and they did so playing flexible, almost positionless basketball. The leading assist man was forward Cody Martin with seven, many of them off the pick-and-rolls Nevada likes to run.
When Wolf Pack point guard Lindsey Drew ruptured his Achilles' tendon in February, fans and pundits wondered whether this already-shallow roster could recover from losing his 8.1 points and 4.3 assists per contest. Obviously, using this decentralized system, they were able to do so.
Part of that has been guard Jordan Caroline. After the Wolf Pack's "comeback for the ages" against the Bearcats, Josh Hall got much of the shine for hitting the game-winner, but Caroline quietly did more, scoring 13 points to Hall's 14 and dishing five assists (Hall had none) while playing all 40 minutes.
Led by Caroline, this Nevada scrap pack will face a No. 11 Loyola-Chicago backcourt with more clearly defined roles. Clayton Custer is the team's point guard and leader, topping the team with 13.3 points and 4.2 assists per game. Custer also hit a game-winner of his own, bouncing in a short shot with five seconds left to lift the Ramblers over No. 3 Tennessee.
If Caroline can help slow Custer and lead the Wolf Pack through the Ramblers' vaunted defense, that will go a long way for Nevada's chances. But Custer has different ways to attack and can guide Loyola-Chicago past a Nevada team that isn't a defensive juggernaut.
4. Kansas State's Dean Wade vs. Kentucky's Kevin Knox
This could just as easily be characterized as Dean Wade versus his own foot.
A stress fracture kept Kansas State's leading scorer (16.5 points per game on the season) out of most of the Big 12 tournament and the entire NCAA tournament to date. However, Wade recently said he is "98 percent sure" he'll play against a streaking and dangerous Kentucky squad.
If he does play, and even if he's somewhat diminished, the 6'10" stretch forward is a difficult matchup for anyone. He's not an overly physical presence but can finish at the rim and shoots threes at a 44 percent clip. He's also a good passer and playmaker, ranking third on KSU with 2.8 assists per game.
That skill set is not a natural fit against Kentucky, which ranks third nationally by allowing opponents to shoot only 29.8 percent from deep, per NCAA.com. UK may employ double-teams, but 6'9" super-frosh Kevin Knox—plenty dangerous in his own right—will likely draw the primary assignment.
Kentucky's leading scorer with 15.6 points per game, Knox has a nearly seven-foot wingspan, per DraftExpress, and can be a lockdown defender. He has the length and quick feet to stay with Wade. Knox is not as good a shooter as Wade (34.1 percent from deep) but puts up 4.6 three attempts per game to Wade's 2.8.
Knox can probably penetrate on Wade and break free for lobs, but if Wade assertively looks for his shot, he could draw Knox into a gunfight that could help swing momentum toward Kansas State.
3. Duke's Marvin Bagley III vs. Syracuse's Paschal Chukwu
Marvin Bagley III has no equal in college basketball right now. Those lining up across from Bagley and No. 2 Duke just have to try to cope as best they can.
The 6'11" Bagley dominates statistical leaderboards as much as he does opposing backboards. According to Sports Reference, Bagley finished the season first in the ACC in points per game (21.2), rebounds per game (11.3), player efficiency rating (31.0), total offensive rebounds (122), field-goal percentage (61.3), effective field-goal percentage (64.0), win shares (6.5) and offensive box plus/minus (7.5).
What's more, the No. 11 Syracuse zone that so confounded its first three tournament opponents will not be unfamiliar to its ACC brethren. Still potent? Sure. But not something Syracuse can exclusively rely on.
Bagley keys a nasty frontcourt for Duke alongside Wendell Carter Jr. and others, but Bagley is the linchpin. Someone will need to shut him down. The Orange's best hope is Paschal Chukwu.
Chukwu's 5.3 points and 6.8 rebounds per game are fairly humble. Not so his 7'2" frame, which makes him the rare college player with a height advantage over Bagley. He can definitely make things difficult for the surefire lottery pick, maybe more so than anyone else still in this tournament.
There's just one issue. Per Sports Reference, Chukwu led the ACC in block percentage with 12.4. He also led the ACC in total fouls with 112, which averaged to 3.1 per contest. In their previous game this season, a 60-44 Duke win on February 24, Chukwu fouled out in 24 minutes. In a March 7 loss to North Carolina, Chukwu hit the showers after 15 minutes. How is that even possible?
Bagley is a superb offensive rebounder. If Chukwu can stay out of foul trouble, box Bagley out on the glass and bother Bagley's shot, maybe he can make a difference. If anyone can do it, it just might be the Syracuse skyscraper.
2. Kansas' Devonte' Graham vs. Clemson's Shelton Mitchell
When No. 5 Clemson lost Donte Grantham for the season, the pressure tightened on the Tigers' backcourt.
That backcourt stepped up, in large part because of Shelton Mitchell. He now has his toughest test of the tournament against his Devonte' Graham, his Kansas counterpart and one of the best players in the country.
It's been up and down for Mitchell to be sure, but it's been all gravy thus far in the tourney, as he's averaged 16.5 points (including a season-high 23 in the opening round) and 5.5 assists per game. He has also helped key a ferocious defense that held Auburn to 53 points in the round of 32.
But Graham is on a different level. His basketball IQ is off the charts, he's balanced and he's a versatile passer and scorer, leading the Jayhawks with 17.4 points and an eye-popping 7.5 assists per game. According to Sports Reference, he led the Big 12 with 4.7 offensive win shares and finished second with 2.2 defensive win shares.
However, he can be prone to turnovers—he gave it away a total of 101 times, which was second in the Big 12 and averaged out to 2.8 per game. If Mitchell can make him uncomfortable and make him work on defense, that would be helpful.
Make no mistake: Graham is definitely the better player here. Mitchell's 11.4 player efficiency rating this season, compared with Graham's 21.7, illustrates the discrepancy as well as anything. It will have to be a group effort, on both ends, against Graham. Mitchell has a hot hand, however, and as a key backcourt talent for the Tigers, he will need to be the tip of the spear.
1. Villanova's Jalen Brunson vs. West Virginia's Jevon Carter
This is the tastiest matchup in the round of 16, as it features two elite-level players with opposing skill sets. Both have had chalky and unchallenging paths through the tournament thus far. That ends March 23.
Jalen Brunson is the team leader of No. 1 Villanova. The Wildcats, ranked by KenPom.com as the top offense in the country, averaged 84 points in their first two tournament games, with Brunson averaging 14.0 points on 62.5 percent shooting and 4.0 assists in those contests.
Likewise, Jevon Carter is the unquestioned leader of the No. 5 West Virginia Mountaineers. He filled the stat sheet this season with 17.4 points, 4.7 rebounds and 6.6 assists per contest, the latter good for 12th in the country.
Although it's not quite as formidable as it has been in previous years, West Virginia's defense can give anyone fits. It's not structured like the Syracuse zone; this one is all hustle and grit and chaos. Per NCAA stats, the Mounties were 10th in the nation this season with 16.5 turnovers forced each game. They also rank second nationally with a 5.2 turnover margin and 14th with 8.1 steals per game.
Carter is one of its key practitioners. According to Sports Reference, Carter led the entire nation with 107 total steals and led the Big 12 in defensive win shares (2.7) and steals per game with 3.0.
Let's now head over to Brunson's Sports Reference statistics, shall we? Well, well, well, looks like Brunson led the Big East in offensive rating (133.0), offensive win shares (5.7) and offensive box plus/minus (9.1). The junior leads an offense that topped the nation with 86.9 points scored per game on average.
Nova's "four-out" motion offense is a beautiful Rube Goldberg device of spacing and movement and screening, and it's designed to break down defenses—just as much as West Virginia's ultra-aggressive defense is designed to disrupt and slash offenses apart.
Brunson and Carter are two very talented and accomplished veterans leading teams built to accomplish perfectly opposite aims. And they'll be guarding each other. Just buckle up and enjoy this dictionary definition of a big-time matchup.
All statistics courtesy of ESPN.com unless otherwise noted.