Previewing and predicting every Sweet 16 game
The Sweet 16.
It’s the stuff of dreams, the sign that your team, and your program, are among the nation’s best. Reaching the second weekend is celebrated and honored even at the bluest of blue-bloods. Take a few of the blue-bloods that aren’t in this round, just to get an idea of what we mean. At North Carolina and Kentucky, they don’t hang NIT appearance banners at all and they don’t hang banners for teams that lose in Round 1 or 2 of the NCAA Tournament, but once you reach the Sweet 16, you are remembered in Rupp Arena or on the Dean E. Smith Center banners. Ditto that scenario at Duke, where NCAA Tournament teams that lose in round 1 and 2 are lumped together in small print, but once you reach the Sweet 16, you get big print and a solo banner.
Blue-bloods that are playing this weekend operate the same way. At UCLA, a banner flies that honors every Bruins team to play in the Sweet 16. Michigan State has reached so many Sweet 16s under Tom Izzo they needed multiple banners honoring those accomplishments. Eric Musselman, who has Arkansas in their 3rd consecutive Sweet 16, appears to be laying the foundation for a similar achievement in Fayetteville.
The point? The Sweet 16 is a big deal, a benchmark goal for even the best programs. Every one of the teams playing basketball Thursday and Friday will be remembered and honored by their programs long after “One Shining Moment” plays next month.
By Saturday, however, only 8 of those teams will still be playing.
Who will be “Elite?”
We preview and predict every Sweet 16 game below.
(7) Michigan State vs. (3) Kansas State
When and Where: East Region, Madison Square Garden, 6:30 PM, TBS
The Skinny: Two guards playing out of their minds — Michigan State’s Tyson Walker and Kansas State’s Markquis Nowell — highlight the first game of the Sweet 16, and in a fun twist, both have roots in New York City, making the Madison Square Garden venue perfect.
Expect both guards to play well, and the winner to be about who has the better supporting cast.
AJ Hoggard, another Jersey tough guard, has been excellent in the NCAA Tournament for Sparty, averaging 12 points, 4.5 assists and 1 steal per game in the first 2 rounds. Junior big man Mady Sissoko has also played his best basketball at an optimal time, far outpacing his season averages (6 rebounds, 0.8 blocks per game) in rebounds and blocks per game in the NCAA Tournament (7.5 rebounds, 2 blocks per Tournament game). The Spartans struggled with consistency in the regular season, however, and while Tom Izzo is the best coach remaining in the field, Kansas State has the best “sidekick” in Keyontae Johnson, the All-American wing who plays Robin to Nowell’s Gotham City Batman. Johnson, who averages 18 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals and a block per game, is a mismatch that will make life difficult on the Spartans.
The Pick: Kansas State 70, Michigan State 65
(8) Arkansas vs. (4) UConn
When and Where: West Region, Las Vegas, 7:15 PM, CBS
The Skinny: Writers have favorites, and this is my favorite Sweet 16 game. Two coaches who know how to work a crowd and deliver a rah-rah speech. Two different styles, with Danny Hurley’s innovative stagger screen and European-style Bilbao actions on offense that spread the wealth facing off with Eric Musselman’s more isolation heavy, space and attack system that works to feed the hot hand.
The Hogs finished 10th in the SEC, which is how they ended up as low as an 8 seed, but they are playing in their 3rd consecutive Sweet 16 under Musselman, are playing their best basketball at the end of the year, as usual.
The Huskies fell to a 4 seed after spending 4 weeks at No. 1 this season. Like Arkansas, they have gotten right at the right time, and Hurley’s squad has lost just 2 games since Feb. 1. Devo Davis of Arkansas and Jordan Hawkins of UConn are scorers who draw headlines, but the biggest mismatch issues on the floor will be Ricky Council IV, the 6-6 Arkansas wing who can shoot or attack the basket and is masterful at drawing contact and getting to the free throw line, and UConn big Adama Sanogo, who is just a more talented player than the Mitchell brothers and who was a man amongst children over the first 2 rounds of the NCAA Tournament, scoring 52 points and 21 rebounds on a blistering 24-33 from the field.
The wild card? Whether Arkansas has given up on Nick Smith Jr., the lottery pick freshman who did not score in the Hogs win over defending national champion Kansas. If ever there was a time for Smith to have a signature game, it is Thursday.
The Pick: UConn 79, Arkansas 71
(9) Florida Atlantic vs. (4) Tennessee
When and Where: East Region, Madison Square Garden, 9:15 PM, TBS
The Skinny: Styles make fights, which makes this game an utterly fascinating contrast in styles. Florida Atlantic is the smallest team left it in the field with an average height rank of 329th in the country, and even that is deceptive considering their starting center is 7-1 Russian Vladislav Goldin. Tennessee is monstrous, almost 2 inches taller across the board, and their height ranking of 131 is deceptive considering the one small player they utilized all season, the great Zakai Zeigler, is out for the season. There are other fun contrasts. Tennessee plays methodically and slow (278th in tempo) and physical, FAU plays fast and loose (143rd in tempo). FAU gets 37.2% of its points from 3-pointers, among the highest left in the field. Tennessee? They play the best 3-point defense in America, giving up only 26.4% from deep.
Despite all the contrasts, these teams share one fundamental similarity: They are old, good and an example of great program building. Both teams were largely built through high school recruiting, and both have stars, in Tennessee’s Santiago Vescovi and FAU’s Johnell Davis, who could have left for the pros or in Davis’ case, a bigger program, but chose to stay.
FAU is 33-3, and they have lost just 2 times when Davis has been available to play, as the star guard missed FAU’s loss at Ole Miss early in the season. The Owls didn’t shoot well in the first 2 rounds but found a way to win anyway, a testament to just how complete a team they have been and why they have spent most the season in the top 25 overall in KenPom.
Getting past the Vols, the nation’s best defensive team? That will be their toughest act yet.
The Pick: Florida Atlantic 67, Tennessee 63
(3) Gonzaga vs. (2) UCLA
When and Where: West Region, Las Vegas, 9:45 PM, CBS
The Skinny: Thursday’s late game features 2 of the best head coaches left in the field and both are chasing their first national championship. Gonzaga’s young guards have grown up over the last month, and the Zags have the nation’s longest winning streak entering the Sweet 16. The nation’s best offensive team, per KenPom, they also have Drew Timme, who is on a Final Four mission. The All-American posted 49 points, 16 rebounds and 4 blocked shots in the first 2 rounds.
Jaime Jaquez Jr. is one of the best shot-makers left in the field, and he’ll do the heavy lifting for a Bruins team that is playing shorthanded without Jayden Clark, the Pac 12 Defensive Player of the Year, and Adem Bona, one of the nation’s best shot blockers. Guards matter in March, and Tyger Campbell has been through the March wars. If it comes down to him executing late, the Bruins may have the edge. But at some point, injuries seem like they are going to catch up to UCLA, and in a game against the most explosive offensive team in the country, it might be Thursday night.
The Pick: Gonzaga 77, UCLA 74
(5) San Diego State vs. (1) Alabama
When and Where: South Region, Louisville, Kentucky, 6:45 PM, TBS
The Skinny: The Aztecs are exactly the type of team that has given mighty Alabama fits this season. Like Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas A&M, Brian Dutcher’s San Diego State team plays methodical, slow basketball and they strangle you on defense, where they are exceptionally good at running teams off the three point line. The Aztecs rank 4th nationally in 3 point defense (28.7% against), per KenPom, and are among the 5 best teams left in the field in limiting the number of attempts from deep as well. Alabama, however, has 2 players who are absolute defense-busters in Brandon Miller and Jahvon Quinerly. Miller can shoot over anyone, making him a late shot clock escape valve, and both he and Quinerly are splendid at driving the gaps and attacking the tin.
Quinerly ranks 34th in the country in assist rate, and 8th nationally in drive and kick assists, per Hoops Lens. The problem for San Diego State, and really everyone that plays Alabama, is that Nate Oats’ team is magnificent on defense, which means that even if the Crimson Tide do not get their customary 73 possessions a game, that isn’t necessarily “Advantage, Aztecs.”
In fact, Alabama’s ability to get stops in low possession games are why the team has won the past 2 games played at 67 possessions or fewer by 20+ points. Both wins came against NCAA Tournament teams (Mississippi State, Maryland). This game might not be very close.
The Pick: Alabama 68, San Diego State 54
(5) Miami vs. (1) Houston
When and Where: Midwest Region, Kansas City, 7:15 PM, CBS
The Skinny: What a game this should be.
Two of the best teams left in the field play in the Sweet 16, which is always fun until one has to go home. Both teams are veteran squads led by tremendous guards. Houston is led by All-American Marcus Sasser and All-AAC guard Jamal Shead. The Hurricanes are led by ACC Player of the Year Isaiah Wong and sharpshooting combo guard Nijel Pack. Could Jordan Miller, the most versatile player on either team, be the difference? The Miami wing, who averaged 15 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists on the year and is a mismatch nightmare with his size, first burst and strength, struggled a bit in Miami’s opening win over Drake, which contributed to just how close the game ended up being.
The national media likes to fixate on Wong when it comes to Miami, but the bottom line is Jordan Miller is our most effective and important player (been saying this on here since December 2021) and he had one of his three worst games of his UM career last night. Tentative…
— Kartik Krishnaiyer 🇺🇸 🇺🇦🌻 (@kkfla737) March 18, 2023
In fact, Miller and Wong went just 3-for-17 against Drake, combining for only 12 points, and the Hurricanes won anyway. That’s what happens when you have a third elite guard like Miami does in Nijel Pack.
Houston, meanwhile, played 3 “so-so” halves before looking like the team that spent the bulk of the season in the top 5 and finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in KenPom. The lone team in the field in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, Houston has more balance than Miami. They also have a third magnificent guard to match the Hurricanes, because Tramon Mark has been sensational in the Big Dance. Mark scored 26 points and grabbed 9 rebounds in Houston’s comeback win over Auburn, and he’s why the Canes can’t just fixate on slowing Sasser and Shead.
The Pick: Houston 75, Miami 74
(15) Princeton vs. (6) Creighton
When and Where: South Region, Louisville, 9 PM, TBS
The Skinny: The most intriguing part of this not-quite David vs. Goliath battle between the Tigers and the Bluejays will be watching how Creighton handles Tosan Evbuomwan, the 6-8 Englishman whom neither Missouri or Arizona had any clue how to defend. Evbuomwan is the key to Princeton’s “2.0” version of the Princeton offense, which incorporates Princeton concepts into modern 4 out, 1 in basketball. EvbUOmwan is, for lack of a better word, the rover, the guy who can shoot from distance but optimally will pass from the perimeter and punish the bigs who follow him away from the bucket. The big man scored just 9 points against Missouri, but he had 5 assists and drew critical attention away from Princeton’s other shooters, including Ryan Langborg.
He’s also quick enough to be a mismatch for taller, more plodding bigs, as he showed in Princeton’s win over Arizona when he scored 15 points and dished out another 4 assists, and helped the Tigers outscore 2 seed Arizona in the paint.
Princeton will need a mismatch to exploit to win, and that might be the best path, because Creighton’s guards, especially Ryan Nembhard, who cooked Baylor for 30 points, are starting to look like the top-10 team basketball writers saw when they evaluated Creighton in the preseason. See, writers aren’t always wrong! It just takes 30+ games sometimes …
The Pick: Creighton 74, Princeton 66
(3) Xavier vs. (2) Texas
When and Where: Midwest Region, Kansas City, 9:45 PM, CBS
The Skinny: Shooters shoot. That’s this game in two words. Expect a fast paced game where both teams let it fly early and often and points are scored at a high clip. The difference should be Texas’ ability to defend, but sometimes numbers are deceptive. The Longhorns boast a top-10 defense from an efficiency standpoint, for example. But they rank 93rd in 3-point percentage defense (32.3) and 90th in points allowed (67.2). Xavier, ranked 9th nationally in efficiency and 4th in 3-point percentage (38.9%), is well-equipped to match up with that, provided they take care of the basketball, which they have failed to do at times this season (just 99th nationally in turnover rate).
Can Texas (19th nationally in forcing turnovers) force Xavier mistakes and score some easy points in transition? And will this be the NCAA Tournament game where Xavier really misses the physicality, glue-guy mentality of Zach Freemantle, who averaged 15 and 7 for the Musketeers before being lost for the season to an injury last month? An intriguing game, but give me the coaching nous of Sean Miller in a close one.
The Pick: Xavier 82, Texas 77