NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen Friday evening preview and predictions

Basketball fans, the Sweet 16 is halfway over. Yesterday’s games, which took place in the West and Midwest brackets, featured a gigantic blowout of West Virginia by heavy tournament favorite Kentucky, and a pair of seesaw games between Wisconsin and North Carolina, as well as Notre Dame and Wichita State. To cap off the night, there was a shockingly tight game between Xavier and Arizona.

Tonight’s games may or may not be as great, but they all are pretty unique in their own right. In the early going, an eleventh-seeded UCLA team who should not have been in the tournament takes on a Gonzaga squad looking to finally break the barrier into the Elite 8. Meanwhile, the upstart North Carolina State Wolfpack look to upset ACC rival Louisville yet again.

Then, in the late games, offense meets defense, as the top-seeded Duke Blue Devils look to avoid an upset by the defensive-minded, three-point shooting gunners from Utah. And to close out the night, tournament staple Michigan State takes on the recently resurgent Oklahoma Sooners, in what promises to be tightly-knit affair.

I went 3-1 with my Sweet 16 picks from yesterday. Hopefully, that success rate is not a blip, but a trend.

South Regional Semifinal #1 (7:15/6:15c, CBS)

Gonzaga Bulldogs (34-2) vs. UCLA Bruins (22-13) 

The first game of the evening features, well, a team that should not be here. That team is the UCLA Bruins.

UCLA should not be here. They were lucky to make the tournament, got a bad call to go their way against SMU, and played a 14 seed to make it here. Gonzaga, on the other hand, earned their stripes. They are loaded, with the likes of Kyle Wiltjer, Kevin Pangos and Domantas Sabonis commanding the helm of the nation’s best field goal shooting team (52.4 percent), scoring 80 points a game. UCLA is a dangerous underdog, with Bryce Alford, leading the charge, alongside leading scorer Norman Powell, and highly-skilled rebounder Kevin Looney. Still, I see Gonzaga pulling away for a double-digit win. Prediction: UCLA 67, Gonzaga 81.

East Regional Semifinal #1 (7:37/6:37c, TBS)

(8) NC State Wolfpack (22-13) vs. (4) Louisville Cardinals (26-8)

The next game provides the first, and perhaps only conference matchup of the entire tournament. In it, ACC rivals NC State and Louisville will take each other on.

The Wolfpack

The Wolfpack are a classic case of a team that’s only in the tournament due to some shocking, high-profile wins. It rarely ever happens, but such is the situation with the Wolfpack. This is a team that just last month, got blown out by a Boston College team that wound up with a 13-19 record. It was one of three losses against non-top 100 teams that they suffered, along with a road loss at another 13-19 team in Wake Forest, as well as a double-digit home loss to Clemson.

Still, they did beat top-seeded Duke by 12 earlier in the season, and won road games against fellow Sweet 16 contestants North Carolina, and these Louisville Cardinals. As a result, they not only found themselves in the tournament despite 13 losses, but wound up being comfortably in with an eight seed. They rallied despite being down 16 in their first tournament game against LSU to win by a point, before stunning top-seeded Villanova last Saturday.

The Wolfpack don’t excel at any particular statistic, but do feature a pair of players more than capable of taking over the limelight. Trevor Lacey (15.7 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists per game) leads the team in scoring, while Anthony “Cat” Barber (12.1 points, 3.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists per game) is known for his playmaking ability.

The Cardinals

As for the Cardinal, every loss has come against a quality team. The only non-top 50 team they lost to was Syracuse on the road, over a month ago. The other losses came against top seeds Kentucky and Duke, a two-seed in Virginia, three-seeded Notre Dame, as well as a pair of losses against fellow four-seed North Carolina. Oh, and there was that Valentine’s Day home game against these very NC State Wolfpack, which the Cardinals lost by a score of 74-65. Cat Barber went wild for the Wolfpack in that game, while the Cardinals’ leading scorer in the game, guard Chris Jones, was dismissed from the team soon thereafter.

While the loss of Jones (13.7 points, 4 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 2 steals per game) clearly hurt, it’s clear that this Cardinal team is extremely resilient. They are far from great offensively, but rank in the top 20 in several defensive categories. That said, with Jones out of the picture, the team only has three players they can rely on for offensive purposes.

The heart of the team, Montrezl Harrell (15.7 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.2 blocks per game) is one of the nation’s best double-double threats, and possesses one of the best field foal percentages in the nation. Meanwhile, Terry Rozier (17.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3 assists, 1.9 steals per game) leads the team in scoring, and is arguably the team’s sole consistently reliable offensive threat. The other player of note, Wayne Blackshear (11.1 points, 4.3 rebounds per game), may have his moments, but possesses one of the worst shooting percentages for a volume shooter.

Prediction

In the end, it’s hard for me to side with Louisville in any tournament game. NC State has been somewhat of a Goliath-killer this year, and has already won against the Cardinals. Still, I don’t know if Lacey and Barber will be able to do enough to get a win here. I see Rozier coming up big, as Louisville somehow finds a way to win. Prediction: NC State 58, Louisville 60.

South Regional Semifinal #2 (9:45/8:45c, CBS)

(5) Utah Utes (26-8) vs. (1) Duke Blue Devils (31-4)

In the first late game of the evening, the fifth-seeded Utes take on the top-seeded Duke Blue Devils. The Utes are a talented bunch, led by do-it-all star guard Delon Wright (14.5 points,5.1 assists, 4.9 rebounds, 2.1 steals and 1 block per game), who leads the team in points, assists and steals per game. They are one of the nation’s top three-point shooting teams, averaging over 40 percent from long range as a team, with the second and third-leading scorers, Brandon Taylor and Jordan Loveridge, averaging over 43 percent from downtown. They are also one of the nation’s best scoring defenses, allowing just 57 points a game, good for ninth best in the country.

As for the Blue Devils, it’s all about offense. They score over 80 points a game, and shoot 50.2 percent from the field, good for fourth and second best in the country. Star freshman Jahlil Okafor (18.7 points, 8.7 rebounds, 1.5 blocks per game) leads the charge, with Quinn Cook (15.7 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists, one steal per game), with Justise Winslow (12.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.3 steals per game) and Tyus Jones (11.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 1.5 steals per game) aiding him along the way.

I see both teams having their moments, as Utah will look to grind the game out, while the Blue Devils will try to score as often as possible. Of course, if Okafor gets into foul trouble, anything is possible. However, I presume that such a thing will not happen, as the Blue Devils will pull away down the stretch, en route to a big win. Prediction: Utah 64, Duke 76.

East Regional Semifinal #2 (10:15/9:15c, TBS)

(7) Michigan State Spartans (25-11) vs. (4) Oklahoma Sooners (24-10)

The final Sweet 16 game of the season features two teams that were not expected to necessarily be here back when the season started. The Spartans were at the weakest they’d been in years, while the Sooners, well, are the Sooners. Alas, both teams have found a way to be here, and they’ve both earned it.

Sooners statistics:

The Sooners find themselves in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2009, when they were led by current NBA star Blake Griffin. They don’t have a player of that caliber on their current roster, but there are quite a few terrific players on the team, which goes five deep.

Buddy Hield (17.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.3 steals per game) leads the team in scoring. Meanwhile, Ryan Spangler (9.7 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.1 blocks per game) continues to be a rebounding machine. Isaiah Cousins (11.7 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.2 steals per game) and TaShawn Thomas  (11.6 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.5 blocks per game) are consistent contributors, while Jordan Woodard (9.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.6 steals per game) fills up the stat sheet.

Sooners key wins/losses

When it comes to competition, the Sooners have been pretty darn good. Sure, they lost to Creighton and Washington, as well as Kansas State twice, but each game was decided by a single possession.

Against top competition, the Sooners have faired pretty well. Against fellow NCAA Tournament teams, the Sooners have gone an impressive 12-6. They beat the likes of Kansas, Baylor, Iowa State, West Virginia, UCLA, Butler, Texas twice and klahoma State twice, with 10 of those games being double-digit victories. Meanwhile the losses came against Wisconsin, West Virginia, Baylor, Kansas, and Iowa State twice, with four of those games being true road games, and the other two being neutral site games.

The Spartans: Inexperienced or battle-tested?

As for the Spartans, it has been a less experienced team than usual. Still, this team has quite a knack for making deep tournament runs. Since 1997, they have not missed the tournament. In that stretch of 18 straight seasons in the NCAA Tournament, this is the 13th time they have made it this far, including four straight seasons.

In other words, their top three players, seniors Travis Trice (team-high 15.3 points/5.1 assists, 3.1 rebounds, 1.1 steals per game) and Branden Dawson (11.9 points, team high 9.1 rebounds/1.6 blocks, 1.2 steals per game), as well as junior Denzel Valentine (14.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, 4.4 assists per game) have gotten this far every single season they’ve played college basketball. Their other two top contributors, Bryn Forbes and Matt Costello (7.1 points, 5.3 rebounds per game) are also juniors, and therefore have also been here every single year they’ve been in college.

Prediction:

Without question, this will be the closest game of the day. Both teams have reliable scorers, rebounders and stat-sheet stuffers. They have also been in several close games throughout the year, making it a virtual guarantee that this game will come down to the wire What this game will come down to is resiliency and mettle. While I do believe the Sooners possess quite a bit of that, nobody, and I mean nobody can question those intangibles within any team coached by Tom Izzo. The Sooners have not been in this position in quite some time, while the Spartans are here seemingly every year. For that reason, and that reason alone, I am convinced that the Spartans will escape with an excruciatingly tough victory. Prediction: Oklahoma 63, Michigan State 67.

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