The most exciting weekend in all of sports did not disappoint this year, as a bevy of top seeds were knocked out of contention in the early round. Villanova was upset by a tenacious NC State team that turned heads with its quality guard play; Kansas relinquished its state crown to a Wichita State team that looks red hot and poised for another deep run; Virginia was overmatched by a Michigan State group that impressed with their stingy defense and ability to maintain composure, despite being the underdog in that game.
What makes March Madness so compelling is the unpredictable nature of the tournament. Before tourney play starts, everyone and their mother is certain their bracket is solid, that they know what the upsets will be, and that they know a contender from a pretender better than the next guy.
But the truth is, nobody has a clue.
On only three occasions have three 1-seeds advanced to the Final Four (1993, 1997, 1999) and only on one separate occasion did all four 1-seeds make it all the way to the last two rounds (2008). Only once! That is why every year I have a two 1-seed rule in my speculative Final Four. It’s never an easy method and it’s a big gamble, but I’ve fared well with this tactic, trying to pick which of the 1-seeds will go down.
After the first weekend, the picture begins to clear. We have a two-game sample size to assess who is tournament ready and who advanced by the skin of their teeth (we’re looking at you UCLA).
Below you’ll find my attempted predictions for the Sweet 16. (Spoiler: I only see two upsets)
(1) Wisconsin vs. (4) North Carolina
Prior to the announcement out of UNC that center Kennedy Meeks has a sprained knee, I might’ve given UNC a second look. The Tar Heels are thin up front, and without Meeks on the court it is hard to envision UNC containing Frank Kaminsky and Nigel Hayes on the block. Bo Ryan’s Badgers play with a signature inside-out game, and their style of play is nearly impossible to defend without a formidable post presence. Generally speaking, guard play wins in the tournament (see UConn in 2011 and 2014, or the 2008 Kansas/Memphis final for evidence), but a strong backcourt will not be enough to beat the balanced Badgers, who return most of their Final Four team from a year ago, and move the ball exceptionally well.
Prediction: Wisconsin 74, North Carolina 65
(2) Arizona vs. (6) Xavier
I didn’t spend much time deliberating this pick. Xavier was blessed with an easy route in the opening weekend. They handled an Ole Miss team that squeaked its way past the play-in game, before topping a Georgia State team that made it to the second round on a buzzer beater. So far, I consider Xavier untested, and man do they have a tough test on Thursday. Arizona is loaded with talent, and it showed as they dominated their first round matchup with Texas Southern, 93-72. But where Arizona impressed was how they controlled Ohio State, by shutting down the electrifying D’Angelo Russell, holding the freshman standout and future lottery pick to a paltry 3 for 19 from the field. Arizona’s athleticism and scoring depth will prove too much for the Musketeers, and they will likely struggle to limit the Wildcats from lighting up the scoreboard. Between Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and T.J. McConnell, Arizona is just too talented to predict them falling to an Xavier team that finished 9-9 in the Big East.
Prediction: Arizona 80, Xavier 64
(1) Kentucky vs. (5) West Virginia
Big Blue’s undefeated streak is nothing to scoff at. Winning as many games in a row as they have has been nothing short of impressive. But do I think Kentucky is beatable? Yes. Will West Virginia be the one to do it? No chance. Kentucky had an easy go of it in a lackluster SEC, but their nation-leading defense and innovative platoon system are hard to prepare for. Calipari’s talent farm is overstocked with versatility but most importantly, length. Having the crop of post players that Calipari has will be too tough an obstacle for West Virginia, who is tall down low but not tall enough – their tallest player getting worthwhile minutes is 6’9; Kentucky has four capable players 6’10 or taller. The Mountaineers will have to collapse on every entry pass, giving Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker the green light from downtown, where both shoot better than 40%. Not to mention, West Virginia was on pace to lose their last game against Maryland until the Terps’ best ball handler and go-to scorer got knocked out of the tilt on a brutal moving pick.
Prediction: Kentucky 68, West Virginia 55
(3) Notre Dame vs. (7) Wichita State
Notre Dame is rallying around their head coach Mike Brey, who lost his mother the night before the team’s overtime victory against Butler. The Irish were excellent during their conference tournament run, but they leave a lot to desire when the big lights come on. ND fans should be worried about how close these past two games have been. A four point nail-biter over 14-seed Northeastern and winning by three in overtime as the higher seed do little to impress. Wichita State – who has one of the nation’s most underrated coaches in Gregg Marshall – is heating up at the perfect time. The deep shooting magic that propelled the Shockers into the Final Four in 2013 is back. After struggling immensely against Indiana’s solid perimeter defense, Wichita State caught fire against in-state foe Kansas, going 50% from deep. Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet will be the difference makers in this game, where I think the Shockers get one step closer to a second Final Four berth in three years.
Prediction: Wichita State 68, Notre Dame 61
(4) Louisville vs. (8) NC State
NC State’s admirable run into the Sweet 16 is going to hit a brick wall when they play the Cardinals. After getting this far on a BeeJay Anya buzzer beater (I think he traveled) and a back-and-forth against an overconfident Villanova team (coming off a 41 point victory in the opening round), NC State has done little to convince me that they can handle the defense they will face in Rick Pitino’s group. Montrezl Harrell is one of the fiercest competitors I’ve ever seen play college basketball, and appears in every mock draft I’ve seen for next year, as does Louisville’s leading scorer, Terry Rozier. The Cardinals are known for their full court press, and their experience at the next level of the tournament will prove too much for a Wolfpack team that finished 7th in the ACC. Yes – NC State did win by 9 on the road at Louisville where even Pitino said, “they dominated all five positions.” But the Wolfpack entered that game having lost 5 of 6 which means Louisville was likely overconfident, and Rozier had his worst offensive night of the season. I trust Pitino and his drawing board to make adjustments as the Cardinals seek revenge on Anthony Barber and the Pack.
Prediction: Louisville 71 NC State 62
(3) Oklahoma vs. (7) Michigan State
I recognize Oklahoma’s talent. Buddy Hield is a prolific scorer, Ryan Spangler and Jordan Woodard are talented costars as well. But the Sooners are not an amazing shooting team, and finished just 167th in the country in field goal percentage during the regular season. That is mouthwatering for the Spartans, who held Virginia and Georgia to a combined 32% shooting during the first two rounds. Izzo’s teams annually overachieve in March, and their relentless pressure and ability to score off turnovers will prove too much for Hield and company. The Spartans also have the fourth best assist rating in the country, a testament to the unselfish nature that has characterized Izzo’s tenure in East Lansing. There’s poetic justice every time people write off an Izzo-led squad and it goes on to advance, but this year will be no surprise. Their big test came against Virginia, Oklahoma should be a doozy.
Prediction: Michigan State 66, Oklahoma 57
(1) Duke vs. (5) Utah
The two most talented players in this tournament are Wisconsin’s Kaminsky and Duke’s Jahlil Okafor. The two are the most complete offensive centers to play at the college level since Demarcus Cousins in 2010. What separates Okafor from Kaminsky – who has had a more efficient year – in terms of talent, is the natural court awareness and footwork Okafor possesses. Defensively, he rebounds well and anchors a Duke defense that is not as long or athletic as the other 1-seeds, but is exceptionally quick. Utah has solid guard play in Delon Wright and Brandon Taylor, but Quinn Cook’s experience has guided the Duke guards thus far, and I think they will survive and advance once more. There is very little to critique about this Duke roster; they have capable scorers at every position, and their starters all play good help-side defense. What Utah has going for them is their length and athleticism. Wright is bigger than Cook and Tyus Jones, and should be able to get his looks; and the Utes also have a 7-footer to pair against Okafor in Austrian import Jakob Poeltl. Utah has the dimensions, I just don’t think it has the chops or the talent to knock off Coach K and the Dookies, who are 3rd in the nation in FG% and 4th in PPG.
Prediction: Duke 75, Utah 61
(2) Gonzaga vs. (11) UCLA
This is the game preview I’ve been looking forward to writing most. I’ve always been a fan of coach Mark Few, because there is nothing more lovable in the world of sports than a team that annually plays far above its pay grade (even if it’s only in the regular season). This is the first time since 2009 the Zags have made it to the Sweet 16, and I’m confident this is the best team they’ve had in that time frame. Kevin Pangos is a top point guard in the country, and is a huge reason Gonzaga led the nation in FG%, finished 6th in APG, and was top 10 in scoring. He may be the best point guard Gonzaga has seen since NBA all-time assists leader John Stockton donned the red, white and blue. Having Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer on the wing has been a perfect complement to Pangos’ skill set, allowing Few’s squad to space the floor better than they have in the past – something that you have to do to compete against elite defenses in March. The Zags won 87-74 handily on the road in Westwood back in December. I think they play far superior team ball than the Bruins, and will have little difficulty replicating those results. I don’t even think UCLA deserved to beat SMU, who outplayed the Bruins with less talent, and I don’t think Bryce Alford’s hot shooting against 14-seed UAB will continue with Pangos heading Gonzaga’s 1-2-2 zone. Kevon Looney is a special talent, but I really think this will finally be the year Gonzaga gets to taste the Elite 8.
Prediction: Gonzaga 86 UCLA 73
*Section Photo credit to Gerald Herbert, Associated Press; Featured Photo (above) credit to Kirby Lee, USA Today Sports