NCAA Men's Tournament 2021: Ultimate Guide to the Sweet 16

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistMarch 24, 2021

NCAA Men's Tournament 2021: Ultimate Guide to the Sweet 16

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    College basketball fans finally have a chance to catch their breaths after a thrilling opening weekend of the 2021 NCAA men's basketball tournament.

    After a one-year hiatus, March Madness is back in full swing with shocking upsets, dominant performances from top-tier teams, multiple Cinderella storylines and the usual offering of pulse-pounding finishes.

    With the tournament field trimmed to the Sweet 16 and a few days to regroup, now is the perfect time to set the scene for another thrilling slate of basketball next weekend.

    Ahead you'll find the full schedule for Saturday's and Sunday's games, a quick rundown of some of the notable storylines that have surfaced so far, and then a complete breakdown of each of the eight games on tap with a spot in the Elite Eight on the line.

    Let's get to it.

Schedule and TV Info

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    Saturday, March 27

    • No. 8 Loyola-Chicago vs. No. 12 Oregon State, 2:40 p.m. ET (CBS)
    • No. 1 Baylor vs. No. 5 Villanova, 5:15 p.m. ET (CBS)
    • No. 3 Arkansas vs. No. 15 Oral Roberts, 7:25 p.m. ET (TBS)
    • No. 2 Houston vs. No. 11 Syracuse, 9:55 p.m. ET (TBS)


    Sunday, March 28

    • No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 5 Creighton, 2:10 p.m. ET (CBS)
    • No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 4 Florida State, 5 p.m. ET (CBS)
    • No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 11 UCLA, 7:15 p.m. ET (TBS)
    • No. 6 USC vs. No. 7 Oregon, 9:45 p.m. ET (TBS)

Biggest Storylines

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    The Cinderella of All Cinderella Stories

    Can No. 15 seed Oral Roberts keep this magical run going?

    The Golden Eagles played a grueling nonconference schedule with games against Missouri, Wichita State, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Arkansas, and that has prepared them well for the bright lights of March Madness.

    A rematch with Arkansas awaits in the Sweet 16, and never say never in what has been an upset-filled tournament from the start.


    The Conference of Champions

    The Big Ten and Big 12 were widely regarded as the nation's premier conferences throughout the 2020-21 season, but it's the Pac-12 that has shined in the NCAA tournament.

    A dominant 34-point win by No. 6 seed USC over No. 3 seed Kansas was a fitting end to a wildly successful opening weekend for the Conference of Champions. Four Pac-12 teams are still standing, including double-digit seeds UCLA (11) and Oregon State (12), but that number will drop by at least one next round with Oregon and USC set to go head-to-head in the West Region.


    Lottery Picks on a Collision Course?

    NBA scouts are surely salivating over a potential Gonzaga vs. USC matchup in the Elite Eight.

    Zags point guard Jalen Suggs and Trojans center Evan Mobley are both expected to be top-three picks in the 2021 NBA draft, along with ousted Oklahoma State guard Cade Cunningham.

    They won't be guarding each other head-to-head, but it will be an exciting showcase of talent if those two teams can take care of business in the Sweet 16.


    Top Seeds Still Standing Strong

    Despite the fact that nine of the tournament's top 16 seeds have fallen, a chalky Final Four of No. 1 seed Gonzaga, No. 1 seed Michigan, No. 1 seed Baylor and No. 2 seed Houston still remains a very real possibility, while No. 2 seed Alabama is also still standing in the East Region.

    For all the chaos that has unfolded the last few days, this tournament could still have a fairly predictable finish.

No. 8 Loyola-Chicago vs. No. 12 Oregon State

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    Cameron Krutwig
    Cameron KrutwigPaul Sancya/Associated Press

    Loyola-Chicago Scouting Report

    The Ramblers have the No. 1 defense in the country, according to KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency, and it certainly lived up to that billing in holding Illinois to a season-low 58 points. On the offensive end, they control the tempo of the game with a methodical half-court approach.

    A lack of exposure to top-tier teams playing in a weak Missouri Valley Conference was the biggest knock on this team coming into the tournament, and those questions have been answered with wins over Georgia Tech and Illinois. This is a legitimate Final Four contender.


    Oregon State Scouting Report

    The Beavers caught fire from beyond the arc in the Pac-12 tournament and then buried 10 of 21 deep balls in an upset win over No. 5 seed Tennessee in the opening round. They cooled a bit against Oklahoma State (6-of-20) but still found a way to win with a staggering 49-28 rebounding advantage. Don't underestimate the momentum this team has right now.

    Of course, it's hard to forget that this team wouldn't have even made the tournament without stealing the automatic bid. The Beavers shot a mediocre 34.2 percent from three-point range prior to the Pac-12 tournament, and significant regression in that department following a week layoff could be a dagger.


    Star Watch: Cameron Krutwig, C, Loyola-Chicago

    A 6'9" senior with a high basketball IQ, Krutwig is the focal point of the Ramblers offense both as a scorer and facilitator. He averages 15.0 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game, and his passing ability opens things up on the perimeter for a variety of knockdown shooters.

No. 1 Baylor vs. No. 5 Villanova

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    Jared Butler
    Jared ButlerMichael Conroy/Associated Press

    Baylor Scouting Report

    The Bears are back to looking like one of the nation's elite teams following a three-week COVID-19 layoff. The trio of Jared Butler (16.9 PPG), MaCio Teague (16.0 PPG) and Davion Mitchell (14.2 PPG) lead a potent offensive attack averaging 83.8 points per game and leading the nation with a 41.5 percent clip from beyond the arc.

    Their aggressive style of play on the defensive end can lead to some easy baskets when they don't force a turnover, and they lack an impactful presence inside. That's nit-picking, though, as this is undoubtedly a national title contender.


    Villanova Scouting Report

    The Wildcats do a terrific job limiting their opponent's extra possessions, allowing just 8.8 turnovers and 8.2 offensive rebounds per game. Like most recent Villanova teams, they shoot a ton of threes and make them at a solid 35.8 percent rate. They are 9-1 on the year when they make at least 10 three-pointers.

    The loss of senior point guard Collin Gillespie to a season-ending knee injury has not been a major factor to this point. Expect that to change against a pesky Baylor defense that will be turnover-hunting from the opening tip.


    Star Watch: Jared Butler, G, Baylor

    A consensus first-team All-American, Butler averages 16.9 points, 4.8 assists and 3.3 rebounds per game while shooting 41.5 percent from deep. He also leads the team with 55 steals, and while he's part of a well-rounded offense, he's capable of shouldering the load with a 30-point showing against Kansas in January.

No. 3 Arkansas vs. No. 15 Oral Roberts

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    Max Abmas
    Max AbmasRobert Franklin/Associated Press

    Arkansas Scouting Report

    Aside from a midseason hiccup in which they went 1-4 while forward Justin Smith missed four games with an ankle injury and played only 18 minutes in his return, the Razorbacks have been one of the nation's elite teams. They don't have any one standout strength, but they also don't have any glaring weakness.

    One interesting note: Arkansas is just 6-3 when attempting more than 25 three-pointers. If the Razorbacks get caught up trying to answer what Oral Roberts is doing from the outside, it could be a recipe for disaster that plays right into the Golden Eagles' hands.


    Oral Roberts Scouting Report

    The Golden Eagles lead the nation with 11.3 made threes per game, and they knock them down at a blistering 38.5 percent rate. They have the nation's leading scorer in Max Abmas, but they also have an excellent secondary scorer in Kevin Obanor. He averages 19.0 points and 9.6 rebounds per game while creating matchup problems with his 6'8" frame and outside shooting ability.

    When the three-point shot is not falling, they don't really have anywhere to turn. They are 1-4 when they hit less than 30 percent of their threes, including an ugly 7-of-35 showing against Missouri in their season opener where they were blown out by 27 points.


    Star Watch: Max Abmas, G, Oral Roberts

    The Summit League Player of the Year and one of the most dynamic mid-major players in the nation, Abmas averages 24.6 points per game. He's knocked down 98 threes in 27 games at a 43.6 percent clip, has a solid 103-to-60 assist-to-turnover ratio and leads the team with 41 steals.

No. 2 Houston vs. No. 11 Syracuse

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    Buddy Boeheim
    Buddy BoeheimDarron Cummings/Associated Press

    Houston Scouting Report

    At No. 7 in adjusted offensive efficiency and No. 11 in adjusted defensive efficiency, Houston is one of five teams to crack the top 15 in both categories in the KenPom rankings. The Cougars defense has allowed just 57.9 points per game this year, and while part of that has to do with a down year for the AAC, their slow, grind-it-out tempo can wear down an opponent.

    They shoot a middling 44.3 percent from the field as a team and make up for it by averaging 14.3 offensive rebounds per game. If an opponent limits those second-chance opportunities, it could expose a good-not-great offensive attack that hasn't shown the ability to consistently get hot.


    Syracuse Scouting Report

    Maybe this is a glass-half-full way of looking at things, but Syracuse is used to giving up a ton of offensive rebounds playing that trademark zone defense. Could it perhaps be better equipped than most for a Houston team that thrives on second-chance points?

    The Orange have gotten hot at the right time, and the season-long numbers say they're not the elite shooting team we've seen the past few weeks. If they go cold from beyond the arc, there might not be enough meat on the bone offensively for them to score against a top-tier defensive team.


    Star Watch: Buddy Boeheim, G, Syracuse

    Boeheim is averaging 26.0 points while shooting 54.0 percent from the floor and 48.5 percent from beyond the arc in six games since the beginning of March. The 6'6" guard poured in 30 points on 7-of-10 from three-point distance against one of the best defensive teams in the country in San Diego State.

No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 5 Creighton

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    Jalen Suggs
    Jalen SuggsMichael Conroy/Associated Press

    Gonzaga Scouting Report

    This is what dominance looks like.

    Corey Kispert might be the best shooter in the nation. Drew Timme is an elite post player who scored a career-high 30 points last time out. Jalen Suggs is going to be a top-five pick in the 2021 NBA draft. Joel Ayayi is a matchup nightmare with triple-double potential. Andrew Nembhard was a 5-star recruit for a reason. Anton Watson is one of the best bench players in the country.

    With an average margin of victory over 23.4 points per game, and double-digit wins over Kansas, Iowa, Virginia, BYU and now Oklahoma on their resume, good luck finding a weakness.


    Creighton Scouting Report

    It's hard to see how a Creighton defense that allowed 89 points against Marquette (13-14) and 81 points against Seton Hall (14-13) is going to stand a chance against a Gonzaga team that leads the nation at 92.1 points per game.

    The Bluejays are an experienced group with five upperclassman starters, and they do a terrific job taking care of the basketball, so they're not going to be flustered facing a superior opponent. But unless they are scorching from three-point range, it's going to be tough to keep pace with the Zags.


    Star Watch: Jalen Suggs, G, Gonzaga

    Kispert (19.2 PPG) and Timme (18.8 PPG) lead the way offensively, but there's a strong case to be made that Suggs is the most talented all-around player on the Gonzaga roster. The 6'4" freshman averages 14.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.0 steals, and he has turned in his biggest games against the best competition. In five games against Kansas, Iowa and BYU (x3), he averaged 22.8 points and 5.0 assists.

No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 4 Florida State

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    Hunter Dickinson
    Hunter DickinsonAJ Mast/Associated Press

    Michigan Scouting Report

    A 2-3 record in their last five games and the loss of Isaiah Livers to a foot injury made the Wolverines a popular pick to be the first No. 1 seed to fall, but they are on to the Sweet 16 with a 16-point win over Texas Southern and an eight-point victory over LSU.

    Senior point guard Eli Brooks (21 points, 7 assists) and sixth man Chaundee Brown Jr. (21 points) both stepped up big against LSU, and this is once again looking like the deep and talented team that started the year 18-1 before stumbling late.


    Florida State Scouting Report

    This is a prototypical Leonard Hamilton team with nine players averaging at least 10 minutes per game and seven of them standing 6'6" or taller. They are long, extremely athletic and an uncomfortable matchup for even the best of teams.

    The big difference with this group compared to previous iterations is that they rank 17th in the nation in three-point shooting with a 38.2 percent clip and are a dangerous offensively overall. They lacked defensive intensity at times during the regular season and paid dearly for it, but after allowing 54 points to UNC Greensboro and 53 points to Colorado, they look dialed in.


    Star Watch: Hunter Dickinson, C, Michigan

    The length of Florida State will likely negate Franz Wagner on the perimeter, and another 20-point game from Brooks or Brown might be wishful thinking for the Wolverines. That makes Dickinson the big X-factor in this matchup, and the 7'1" freshman is capable of carrying the load with 14.2 points and 7.5 rebounds per game to his credit.

No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 11 UCLA

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    Johnny Juzang
    Johnny JuzangMark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Alabama Scouting Report

    Outside of maybe upstart Oral Roberts, there's no more dangerous three-point shooting team left in the field than the Crimson Tide. They average 10.7 made threes per game and buried 16 in a blowout win over Maryland on Monday. They also defend the deep ball well, limiting opponents to 28.9 percent shooting from outside.

    The opposite end of that, of course, is that they are 7-4 when they make fewer than 10 threes in a game. With a well-distributed scoring load, they are not overly reliant on any one shooter, but there is always a risk in living and dying beyond the arc.


    UCLA Scouting Report

    The Bruins have dropped 80 or more points eight times and are averaging 73.3 points per game in their last 10 games. With five players averaging double figures and a rising star in Johnny Juzang, this is a dangerous offensive team.

    Wins over Michigan State, BYU and Abilene Christian earned them a spot in the Sweet 16, but they haven't faced anything like the Alabama offense with its barrage of perimeter scorers. The Bruins are long and athletic, but it hasn't always showed up on the defensive end of the floor.


    Star Watch: Johnny Juzang, G, UCLA

    Here's the scoring breakdown I provided for Juzang in a recent article:

    • First 10 games: 10.9 PPG, 38.8 FG%, 31.1 3PT%
    • Next 11 games: 16.9 PPG, 42.8 FG%, 36.6 3PT%
    • NCAA tournament: 22.3 PPG, 51.0 FG%, 39.1 3PT%

    That tells the story of a breakout star who is peaking at the perfect time for a UCLA team playing much better than its No. 11 seed would suggest. 

No. 6 USC vs. No. 7 Oregon

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    Evan Mobley
    Evan MobleyPaul Sancya/Associated Press

    USC Scouting Report

    The Trojans picked up a lopsided 72-58 victory when these two teams faced off on Feb. 22, led by Tahj Eaddy (24 points) and Drew Peterson (15 points, 11 rebounds). Star freshman Evan Mobley had a fairly quiet game with 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting.

    Isaiah Mobley (17 points, 8 rebounds), Isaiah White (13 points), Eaddy (12 points) and Chevez Goodwin (10 points) all pulled their weight in a blowout win over Kansas, and the biggest takeaway from the USC front so far is that this team is far more than just its future lottery pick. But how long before the Trojans' 64.3 percent mark from the free-throw line burns them?


    Oregon Scouting Report

    The Ducks have a starting lineup made up of five wings who are all 6'5" or 6'6", so they don't matchup particularly well with Evan Mobley (7'0"), Isaiah Mobley (6'10"), Chevez Goodwin (6'9") and Drew Peterson (6'8") on the defensive end.

    That works both ways, though, and Oregon should have a better idea of how to attack that size disparity after coming up short in that first matchup. The Ducks are 12-0 when they make at least nine three-pointers, so getting the outside game going will be the key to avenging their earlier loss.


    Star Watch: Evan Mobley, C, USC

    One of the elite prospects in the 2021 NBA draft, Mobley can impact a game without scoring 30 points. He had 10 points, 13 rebounds, five assists and three blocks against Kansas, and he has six games with at least five blocked shots this year. Commanding the paint and cleaning up the defensive boards will be his focus against Oregon, and any scoring he does will be icing on the cake.


    All stats courtesy of Sports Reference.