Projecting the Sweet 16, Elite Eight Rounds
In the span of six days, the once-gargantuan 68-team tourney has been slimmed to just 16 teams. Now the tournament we all love shifts from early-round upset specials to middle-round instant classics. If you’re like me and are still bitter about your team’s unceremonious exit from the tourney (Kansas, yet again), to the point where you don’t want to see anyone else advance out of spite, you risk missing the next Christian Laettner moment or another Kentucky–Wichita State classic. Here’s how I see these next two rounds playing out, keeping in mind I thought Wichita State would fall to Indiana and Kentucky would lose to Kansas.
Kentucky over West Virginia—I have a lot of respect for West Virginia. Bob Huggins is a great coach, and he nearly pulled off a clean sweep of Kansas. But when Kentucky is on (and they were clearly on last weekend), they’re the best.
Wichita State over Notre Dame—I don’t know what is Gregg Marshall’s most impressive feat: Final Four in 2013, the 35–0 start last year, or man-handling big brother KU (much to my dismay) in the Round of 32. The Irish are good, but I think the Shockers are relishing a rematch with Kentucky.
Kentucky over Wichita State—This should be another classic in waiting. This time it’ll be Wichita State’s turn to ruin the best start in history, as the Wildcats would enter at 37–0. It would be the ultimate upset, though, as on paper they are way too small to even have a chance. Of course, I also thought they were too small for KU—turns out they weren’t.
North Carolina over Wisconsin—I’m calling the upset now. The Badgers looked shaky against Oregon and have a history of coming up short in the NCAAs—save for last year, which was Bo Ryan’s first trip to the Final Four in 13 years at Wisconsin. Carolina certainly has the talent to keep up with anyone, and Marcus Paige is as good of a clutch scorer as there is in the final minutes.
Arizona over Xavier—This one gives me pause, but only because Sean Miller used to coach at Xavier. Sometimes it’s hard to go against your old team. Arizona is the better team, though, and should have been a 1-seed instead of Villanova.
Arizona over North Carolina—The best coach in the Sweet 16 who has yet to make a Final Four has got to be Miller. The fiery coach already has three 30-win seasons at Arizona, and the team was clearly slighted by not being awarded a 1-seed.
Louisville over N.C. State—The Wolfpack had a great win over Villanova, but trying to beat Rick Pitino in the Regional Semis is a different story. Pitino is an incredible 11–1 in this round, dating back to 1987 when he shocked the world by taking Providence to the Final Four.
Michigan State over Oklahoma—A very close call here. The Spartans haven’t been to the Final Four since 2010—the longest drought in the very successful Tom Izzo era. While the Spartans looked great in upsetting 2-seed Virginia, Oklahoma was somewhat unspectacular in getting past Dayton.
Michigan State over Louisville—Izzo versus Pitino. Two of the greatest March Madness coaches squaring off against each other with a trip to the Final Four on the line would surely equal an intense, back-and-forth contest. I’m giving the slight edge to the Spartans after their impressive win over Virginia for the second straight season.
Duke over Utah—The Utes have had a good season and have talent, especially in guard Delon Wright and center Jakob Poeltl. The seven-foot Poeltl could make a name for himself if he can shut down Duke’s Jahlil Okafor. It’ll be an interesting battle, though, since few have slowed him down. I’m thinking Okafor and Duke will prevail.
Gonzaga over UCLA—I’ve gone back and forth on this one. Believe it or not, the Zags have yet to advance past the Sweet 16 during Mark Few’s ridiculously successful run with the school, plus they embarrassed the Bruins earlier in the season. I’m picking this to be the year that Gonzaga breaks through, and UCLA won’t provide enough resistance to stop them.
Duke over Gonzaga—I said Gonzaga would break through, but the Elite Eight is as far as they go. They don’t have anyone to match up with Okafor (few do), and Coack K has exploited that advantage all season long.