There are many kinds of college basketball fans, and in a sport with 351 Division I teams, there’s room for many kinds of fans.
Speaking personally, I love the round of 32, which just concluded over the weekend. The mixture of underdogs (the 11 seeds that break through, the 8 seeds that wake up) and urgent matchups in the 3-6 and 4-5 games offers a lot of high-stakes basketball without the clutter of the round of 64 and a day such as Friday, in which a parade of chalk unfolded.
This is a guess, but an educated one: Most college basketball fans probably like the round of 64 best, and understandably so — Thursday was surely one of the most thrilling Thursdays in opening-weekend history. For a great many people, the buffet of surprises on the first two days is what makes the tournament “The Tournament.” (It is a special event when you can just say, “The Tournament,” and everyone knows exactly what you’re talking about.)
Yet, while most fans likely gravitate toward the first two days, and there are outliers who like the round of 32 the most, there are surely some fans who wait for the Sweet 16 every year, chiefly because this is when the big dogs clash. The Sweet 16 is, after all, the round in which some matchups begin to take on national championship-level significance. Last year’s Kentucky-Louisville and Michigan State-Virginia games felt like games in which either team on the floor had a legitimate chance to go all the way.
What does this year’s Sweet 16 promise? There are a couple of games which just don’t provide much intrigue — UCLA-Gonzaga and Xavier-Arizona — so we’re not going to talk much about them.
What about the other six games on the docket? Here are several points worth considering as the NCAA tournament arrives at its middle weekend, the one between the “everyone’s invited” party of the round of 64, and the exclusive “elites-only” gathering at the Final Four in early April.
Let’s start with a survey of every coach relative to the Sweet 16:
Sweet 16 appearances by coach, in yellow pad app form pic.twitter.com/h9hMUwjBOm
— Joe Giglio (@jwgiglio) March 23, 2015
Let’s start with a TV guide for the Sweet 16. It’s a very simple one: If you want to watch the best of what this year’s Sweet 16 is likely to provide, be sure to catch the early window on Thursday and the late window on Friday.
Thursday features the Midwest and West Regionals, Friday the East and South Regionals. In the early pair of games on Thursday, Wichita State-Notre Dame (Midwest) will go up against North Carolina-Wisconsin (West). In the late window on Friday, Michigan State-Oklahoma (East) will go up against Utah-Duke (South).
If you have a two-TV setup, you’re going to ping-pong your eyes back and forth. If you have only one TV and the slightly earlier game runs long (start times are staggered 32 minutes on Thursday, 22 minutes on Friday), you’ll have to wear out your remote at the end of regulation. If you watched both Michigan State-Virginia and Kentucky-Louisville in the late window last year on Sweet 16 Friday, you know exactly what needs to be done.
Let’s move to a discussion of the games themselves.
Wichita State-Notre Dame might be the most aesthetically pleasing and potentially fantastic matchup of all eight Sweet 16 games. You don’t have to wait long for it, either — it’s the first of the eight games, falling in the first time slot on Thursday evening (late afternoon in the Mountain and Pacific time zones).
Shockers-Irish could be so hugely entertaining because these teams — while very occasionally succumbing to the hero-ball siren and its temptations — generally share the ball and do not get lost in a black hole at the offensive end of the floor. Jerian Grant might try to take over for Notre Dame, and Ron Baker might hoist a few jumpers from 26-28 feet as he did against Kansas the other day, but for the most part, the ball continues to move on offense when these teams play well.
Games involving the likes of Cincinnati, San Diego State, and West Virginia often become rock fights. Wichita State-Notre Dame is the antithesis of rock-fight basketball. It should be enjoyable solely for the quality of play. If you’re a partisan, you’re obviously going to want the team you’re rooting against to stumble, but neutrals should get a lot out of this matchup.
If I had to pick the best game out of the bunch on Friday, it’s a very difficult choice, but I’ll give the slight nod to Utah-Duke over Michigan State-Oklahoma. One reason is purely rooted in convenience: Utah-Duke is likely to start earlier, so while there are no guarantees, you’ll probably be able to catch the last several minutes of Spartans-Sooners once Utes-Blue Devils ends.
The intriguing dimension of Utah-Duke flows from Utah’s resurgence in the Big Dance. The Utes — reminiscent of 2014 UCLA in that they endured a wretched late-season Pac-12 road trip to the Washington schools — have pulled themselves out of their late-season malaise. This is no longer a stale team, one that was perhaps bored by the long slog of the season and just wanted March Madness to arrive. Utah ran crisp and highly effective sets against Georgetown on Saturday, getting a lot of the shots it wanted in that 5-4 seed matchup with the Hoyas. Jakob Poeltl went through a prolonged rut against Pac-12 defenses that scouted him well. Now pitted against opponents that are unfamiliar with him, he seems to be playing more like the man who made this team so tough on defense to begin with.
The centerpiece of Utah-Duke will indeed be the big-man confrontation between Poeltl and Duke’s Jahlil Okafor. Poeltl doesn’t need to win or even tie in that matchup; he just needs to not get blown out. If he can prevent Okafor from going off, Delon Wright and Jordan Loveridge (I think Loveridge is the X-factor in the game) are capable of outplaying Duke’s awesomely talented but younger wings. One reminder about this game, like the other South and East Regional games on Friday: It’s being played in a dome, so hashtag #DomeShooting becomes something to watch.
The other two particularly attractive matchups — the ones I’d rate a slight notch below Wichita-Irish and Utah-Duke — are North Carolina-Wisconsin and Michigan State-Oklahoma.
In UNC-Wisconsin, the injury to Tar Heel big man Kennedy Meeks could be a blessing in disguise for Carolina. Yes, not having meeks to body up Frank Kaminsky could be an issue, but North Carolina plays the best when its offense is functioning well. See the ACC touranment semifinals against Virginia and Saturday’s victory over Arkansas. If North Carolina goes small on offense and has considerable success pushing the pace in a Meeks-free lineup, Wisconsin’s defense might face more pressure than it bargained for.
Wisconsin is almost sure to score against North Carolina, especially when you realize that Kaminsky — the best player in college basketball — had an off night against Oregon in the round of 32. One doubts that he’ll be off his game here. Carolina has to be able to score in the high 70s at minimum if it wants to win this game.
In Michigan State-Oklahoma, the big question will be how the Sooners’ bigs stand up to Michigan State’s sledgehammer toughness near the tin. Branden Dawson and Matt Costello are locked in as defenders right now. They’re helping really well and are making sure that any shot near the rim is contested. They were instrumental in shutting down Virginia’s offense this past Sunday.
Oklahoma’s most electric player is Buddy Hield, and its most dependable player is frequently Jordan Woodard at the point, but the bellwethers for OU are the bigs, Ryan Spangler and especially TaShawn Thomas. When they’re effective, this team approaches the ceiling of its potential. Spangler and Thomas were excellent in the last eight minutes of OU’s comeback win against Dayton on Sunday. Thomas — who is better at creating his own shot than Spangler is — might be the single most important player on the floor in Syracuse’s Carrier Dome.
One added note about this game: It’s a 7-versus-3 matchup. A few bracket facts for you: Third seeds are a modest 8-5 versus seventh seeds, and the 7 seeds have won the last two times, including Connecticut over Iowa State last year. The last time a 3 seed beat a 7: 2008 (Xavier over West Virginia in the West Regional out in Phoenix).
Another added note about Sparta-versus-Boomer: It has one of the three best coaching matchups in the Sweet 16: Tom Izzo-Lon Kruger belongs in the same conversation as Roy Williams-Bo Ryan and Bob Huggins-John Calipari.
Speaking of Huggins-Calipari…
In the 2010 East Regional final, Bob Huggins’s players defeated Calipari’s crew, as West Virginia ushered Kentucky out of the Big Dance. Huggins and Calipari know each other well, dating back to the early part of this century, when Cincinnati and Memphis went at each other in Conference USA. (Remember when C-USA was really good?) This familiarity spices up the Sweet 16 showdown between the underdog Mountaineers and the ultimate favorite, the King Cats of Big Blue Nation.
In that 2010 East final, the willingness of Kentucky to settle for long threes — despite having Patrick Patterson and Daniel Orton as low-post options — led to the Cats’ demise. It might be easy to think that Kentucky’s shot selection will decide this issue, based on that peek into the past. However, the simple key to this game — as is the case with any Kentucky game in 2015 — is if West Virginia can hit threes.
Let’s frame WVU-Kentucky in the simplest possible terms:
Human beings — especially highly competitive and aspirational ones — like to think they can climb the highest mountain or find the formula for curing a persistent disease. Solving Kentucky’s defense could be seen as an equivalent challenge for coaches. Yet, the key to beating Kentucky’s defense is not some great X-and-O revelation. You can’t beat Kentucky’s defense with a scheme. You have to pry open space and opportunity against this defense by hitting jump shots.
You might have the best plan ever devised for beating Kentucky’s offense, but if your players can’t hit the 14-foot jumper or knock down an occasional three, you’re not going to have a realistic chance of getting all the way to the tin against Kentucky’s length and size. West Virginia simply has to have an outlier game in terms of three-point shooting. The main reason why Wisconsin is seen as a legitimate threat to Kentucky is that the Badgers have multiple players capable of hitting jump shots, more than Arizona or any other opponent left in the field. West Virginia is going to play with toughness — you can count on that from a Huggins-coached team. Like the school Huggins used to coach — Cincinnati — the issue is if West Virginia can hit enough jumpers to win.
The last game worth discussing is the all-ACC encounter between North Carolina State and Louisville. It’s a game in which the histories of the respective coaches, not to mention the seeds of these two teams, only reinforce a feeling of uncertainty about the contest.
Rick Pitino is a giant in the Sweet 16. He owns an 11-1 record, his first loss coming last year against Kentucky. He is, as usual, getting his team to round into form at the perfect time. He’s not someone to bet against. Yet, North Carolina State coach Mark Gottfried — the first coach to beat two No. 1 seeds before the Sweet 16 — guided Alabama to a win over Syracuse in an 8-versus-5 Sweet 16 game in 2004. Gottfried’s NCAA tournament resume shows that he thrives on being a mid-level seed or worse. He and N.C. State as a program thrive on being the underdog in March.
Let’s say more about the seeds in this game and, for that matter, the whole East Regional: Seeds do matter when an 11 seed plays a 2 in this round, as was the case when Gottfried reached the Sweet 16 with N.C. State in 2012 against Kansas. On the other hand, this seed matchup, like the 7-versus-3 with Michigan State and Oklahoma, is hardly one in which the higher seed should be given the automatic benefit of the doubt. In fact, while 3s have a slight edge over 7s, this next fact might blow you away:
In 4-versus-8 regional semifinals, the 8s have a 7-2 edge over the 4s. Syracuse over Georgia (1996) and Arkansas over North Carolina (1990) are the only times a 4 beat an 8 in the Sweet 16.
Still sure you want to pick Louisville?
The key to this game will be the players who have emerged for Louisville in recent weeks, especially in the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament: Wayne Blackshear and Quentin Snider. Blackshear’s career is almost at an end, and the desire to prolong that career is bringing out the best in the senior’s game. Snider, a freshman, is at the other end of the spectrum. His ability to learn how to play his position in the wake of the Chris Jones dismissal has been instrumental in guiding the Cards to this point.
We saw how quick and suffocating North Carolina State’s guards can be on defense against Villanova. If Louisville’s perimeter players can make sound decisions in terms of ballhandling and shot selection, a 4 seed might actually beat an 8.
It won’t be easy, and if you wanted to make N.C. State the favorite, you wouldn’t get a vigorous argument here… maybe no argument at all.