Christopher’s Picks: NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen

Coming into this year’s NCAA tournament, many expected an extra dose of “madness” compared to years past. Since mid-season, teams rose to #1 in the rankings only to be upset, oftentimes to unranked foes. More Top 5 teams lost to unranked opponents this season than any season before. Hell, more lost in February than the previous four years total.

With no real “super team” this season, brackets were bound to be broken early. Each region had at least one double-digit seed in the Round of 32. This was great news for the NCAA; more parity begets bigger ratings. Or at least they do early on. Once you get to the Sweet Sixteen, you need a little something for everyone: a mix of Cinderella’s and powerhouse programs. This year’s field has just that. The old guard is there: Duke, Michigan State, Louisville, Kansas, Indiana, Syracuse, Arizona, Ohio State, and Michigan are among the greatest college basketball programs of all time. But there are plenty of fresh faces looking to shock the world in Florida Gulf Coast, Wichita State, and La Salle. Throw in recent mainstays Marquette, Miami (FL), Oregon, and Florida and you have quite the mixture of teams vying for the title.

Despite the buzz surrounding the lower seeded teams, 13 of the 16 remaining programs have won at least one national championship (only Miami, Florida Gulf Coast, Wichita State have not—yes, La Salle has). But with the way the tournament has shaped up, even that stat likely won’t surprise anyone at this point.

It’s best known as the Sweet Sixteen, but it also means that four teams remain in each region. Let’s break them down:

Midwest: (1) Louisville, (2) Duke, (3) Michigan State, (12) Oregon

Thought to be the toughest region by most when the brackets were first unveiled, the Midwest Region has not disappointed. The three perennial powers are all still alive and they’re joined by an under-seeded Oregon team. Regardless, I have to say good luck to the Ducks. It would be nothing short of a miracle if they make it to the Final Four over these teams.

South: (1) Kansas, (3) Florida, (4) Michigan, (15) Florida Gulf Coast

Yes, the Midwest region had college basketball fans drooling before the tournament, but this quartet in the South region is no joke either. Put it this way: I considered two of these four teams to be the best in the country at one point during the season. And #1 seed Kansas isn’t one of them. Throw in the most exciting team of the tournament in #15 seed Florida Gulf Coast and you’ve got non-stop entertainment. I would say that Florida Gulf Coast has no shot at the Final Four, but that doesn’t mean I’m not rooting for them (aside from the other three teams here, who isn’t rooting for them at this point?).

West: (2) Ohio State, (6) Arizona, (9) Wichita State, (13) La Salle

It never had the flair of the other three regions, but there’s plenty to like about the how the West has turned out. For one, either Wichita State or La Salle will be in the regional final. The idea of mid-majors in the Elite Eight has lost some luster as of late, but it’s still a huge accomplishment. But in all seriousness, you have to like the winner of Ohio State-Arizona to end up advancing to the Final Four. Can’t wait to see how that one unfolds.

East: (1) Indiana, (2) Miami-FL, (3) Marquette, (4) Syracuse

The only “proper” region in this year’s tournament. Surprisingly, the top four seeds in a region haven’t made the Sweet Sixteen since 2009. It shouldn’t be too much of a shock though—these are experienced squads that know what’s at stake. And that will make for great action this weekend. Your guess on who wins the region is as good as mine.

Thursday Games

(3) Marquette over (2) Miami-FL (7:15pm, CBS)

I’ll be honest: I’m surprising myself here. I haven’t been high on the Golden Eagles at all during this tournament. I had them losing to Butler last round and flirted with the idea of picking Davidson over them in the Second Round. Not to mention the fact that they won those games by one and two points, respectively.

So why am I taking them today? Well the Canes’ loss of center Reggie Johnson plays a part in it. We’re at the point in the tournament where you have to bring your A-game, no matter who you’re facing. Some will argue that Marquette hasn’t thus far. I wouldn’t disagree, but they’ve won—that’s really the only stat that matters at this point. Look for the rest of the team to follow guard Vander Blue’s lead and sneak past Miami.

(2) Ohio State over (6) Arizona (7:47pm, TBS)

The Wildcats of Arizona are another team I had bowing out early (the second round in their case). But with two convincing wins over Belmont and Harvard, here they are in the Sweet Sixteen for the third time in their last three tournament appearances.

But if they’re to have any chance against Ohio State, they’ll need a big game from freshman center Kaleb Tarczewski, especially when defending DeShaun Thomas inside. If they can limit his impact, they can very well win this game. If they can’t, look for the Buckeyes to pull out another close win. I’m putting my money on the latter.

(1) Indiana over (4) Syracuse (9:45pm, CBS)

Like La Salle, Syracuse is another team that can get it done in numerous ways. They don’t necessarily rely on any player to go off. But today, they will want to effectively play zone against Louisville’s offense.I’m really excited to see Syracuse’s Michael Carter-Williams match up against Victor Oladipo. Both are big guards, who can impact the game on both ends of the floor.

I’m taking Indiana here solely because of how good they’ve been all season. Syracuse will be a tough matchup and they had a scare last weekend against Temple, but there’s no doubt that they’re still one of, the best teams in the nation. If not the best.

(13) La Salle over (9) Wichita State (10:17pm, TBS)

La Salle has been in some close games of its own since winning their opening round game against Boise State. The last remaining Atlantic 10 team, the Explorers haven’t had tournament success in decades, but they match up well with the Shockers. They’re led by guard Ramon Galloway, but they can get points from other positions as well.

They’ll need the threes to fall, like they have all season, but even if they don’t, a solid defensive performance could be enough to put them through. The fact that one of these teams is Elite Eight-bound is a feat in itself. I wish they could both win.

Friday Games

(1) Louisville over (12) Oregon (7:15pm, CBS)

Both teams have impressed thus far, but only one of them was expected to do so. The Oregon Ducks were likely seeded too low to begin the tournament, but even so, I didn’t expect them to win any tournament games. What they’ve done instead is beat #5 Oklahoma State and #4 Saint Louis convincingly.

But Louisville has been on another level. No, they haven’t had to face the caliber of opponent that Oregon has, but they’ve trounced those in their path. Too many weapons for the Ducks to overcome here.

(1) Kansas over (4) Michigan (7:37pm. TBS)

I’m still buzzing after the beatdown Michigan put on VCU last weekend. The difference maker was freshman forward Mitch McGary The trio of Trey Burke, Glenn Robinson III, and Tim Hardway Jr. had their usual great games, but it was McGary who limit VCU’s offensive boards and posted career highs in points (21) and rebounds (14). If he can play anywhere close to that level against Kansas, I’d take them.

But Kansas center Jeff Withey and forward Kevin Young will be a formidable matchup. Couple them with guards Ben McLemore and Travis Releford and you’ve got a rough outing for the Wolverines. Give me Kansas in a good one.

(3) Michigan State over (2) Duke (9:45pm, CBS)

The guard play of Duke is solid and likely won’t be a concern here, but inside is where the game will be won. If Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly can 1) stay out of foul trouble and 2) keep Adrien Payne and Derrick Nix off the offensive boards, Duke will likely take it.

But I don’t see that being the case. Michigan State have flown under the radar this season, but they’re a very physical team. Not to say that Duke can’t handle physicality, but they can’t afford to lose focus for even a second.

(3) Florida over (15) Florida Gulf Coast (9:57pm, TBS)

A clash between two Florida teams at opposite ends of the college basketball spectrum. Florida Gulf Coast’s up-tempo, high-flying game has overwhelmed Georgetown and San Diego State, but can they do the same against a defensive team like Florida?

Unforunately, I just can’t see it happening. Like the Eagles, the Gators can go deep into their bench. But in the paint is where they can really impose their will. Florida Gulf Coast doesn’t have the caliber of players to match up with Patric Young. I hope this isn’t the end of the road, but it certainly looks that way.

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