NCAA tournament: Sweet 16 Preview

And just like that, four predictably unpredictable days later, just 16 remain alive in the NCAA tournament field. As upsets and blowouts whittled each region from 16 hopefuls to four contenders, March Madness sliced away three No. 3 seeds (Duke, Syracuse, Creighton), two No. 2 seeds (Kansas, Villanova), and the first team to enter the tournament undefeated this century, No. 1 seed Wichita State — all while destroying every one of Warren Buffett’s 11 million potential billion-dollar brackets.

What’s left after four days of comebacks and carnage? More chaos to come. Here’s what you need to know heading into the Sweet 16. Comment with your (newly revised) picks for the Final Four and national champion, and maybe you’ll find a little redemption from that Kansas, Villanova, Duke, Creighton final four you were so certain you’d nailed…

SOUTH REGION (Thursday in Memphis)

No. 11 Dayton (25-10) at No. 10 Stanford (23-12), 7:15 pm (CBS)

No. 4 UCLA (28-8) at No. 1 Florida (34-2), 9:45 pm (CBS)

Favorite: Florida

The Gators, the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, have won 27 straight games and didn’t look ready to stumble after a strong showing against Pitt in the round of 32. Billy Donovan’s team is loaded at all five positions, from point guard Scotty Wilbeken to big bruiser Patric Young down low. The Gators play defense and play it well, holding opponents to 57.5 points per game this season, third in the nation. Plus, if they can squeak by UCLA — which isn’t a done deal given the talent the Bruins boast all over the floor — Florida will face either a 10 or 11 seed, Dayton or Stanford, for a berth in the elite eight, which may give the Gators the easiest two-game path to North Texas of any team.

Upset Alert: UCLA

All that being said about Florida, if there’s going to be an upset in Memphis this weekend (and we’re not counting Dayton over Stanford here for obvious reasons), it’s likely to come at the expense of Florida courtesy of the Bruins. Thursday’s matchup carries significant intrigue as an East-West showdown of coaches who’ve both played in the Final Four (UCLA’s Steve Alford at Indiana, Florida’s Billy Donovan at Providence) and a rematch of the 2006 NCAA championship game, which Florida won 73-57.

The teams have met three times in the tournament, all in the past eight years, and the Bruins have yet to solve the Gators, though this may be the year the Bruins match up well enough with the Gators (i.e. Bruins’ 6-9 point guard Kyle Anderson on highly touted 6-2 point guard Scottie Wilbeken) to pull the upset.

Dark Horse: Stanford

 No one really knows how the Cardinal got here, seemingly an afterthought in the field of 64, an at-large pick doomed to an early exit and the annals of NCAA tournament history. Then Stanford beat New Mexico, not exactly turning heads with a quiet 10-7 upset and a style of play that simply doesn’t stick out at all. Then, they beat Kansas, stifled Andrew Wiggins, defended the Jayhawks into perplexed submission and an entirely unexpected early exit — all while not hitting a three-pointer in a game for the first time since 2001. The Cardinal have size down low in Josh Huestis and Dwight Powell and feature consistent veteran guard Chasson Randle to stabilize the offense. If you’re not sure how the Cardinal have made it to the Sweet 16 since 2008, you’re not alone, but only Dayton stands between the boys from Palo Alto and a trip to the Elite 8.

Player to Watch:

Kyle Anderson. The UCLA point guard is an enigma, the 6-9 leader of a pass-happy offense who is also one of the Bruins’ most relied upon rebounders. He won’t blow you away with 30-point scoring performances, but as Anderson fills the stat sheet, so go the Bruins. He’ll create a distinct matchup problem against the Gators’ nationally prominent defense, and may be able to set up enough mismatches to spark his back-court-mate Jordan Adams to a big night in Memphis and his Bruins to an Elite 8 berth.

EAST REGION (Friday in New York)

No. 3 Iowa State (28-7) vs. No. 7 Connecticut (28-8), 7:27 p.m., TBS

No. 4 Michigan State (28-8) vs. No. 1 Virginia (30-6), 9:57 p.m., TBA

Favorite: Virginia

For a team bearing the target of a No. 1 seed for the first time this century, the Virginia Cavaliers look to be settling into the role nicely, keeping their composure against a furious early effort from Coastal Carolina in the first round, then dominating Memphis in the second to earn a berth in the Sweet 16, their first since 1995. The ACC Champion Cavaliers, the last remaining ACC school in a field conspicuously devoid of them, turned in one of their best offensive performances of the season against the Tigers on Sunday, shooting more than 55 percent from the field.

If Virginia can continue to click offensively and slow teams into the hands of the nation’s top scoring defense (allowing opponents 55.4 points per game), the Cavaliers should dispose of popular dark horse pick Michigan State and earn a spot in their first Elite Eight since that 1995 season.

Upset Alert: U-Conn.

The gritty Huskies pose a particularly dangerous challenge to both third-seeded Iowa State and whichever of Michigan State and Virginia emerges from the East region’s other semifinal. U-Conn. will be playing at Madison Square Garden, a venue the Huskies players, coaches and fans know well from years of Big East Tournaments and some of the program’s finest moments. The Huskies feature five players with New York ties, including three that played at New York area high schools. They’ve got little to lose as an under-the-radar upstart No. 7 seed, and have the kind of gutsy scorer and leader — round of 32 hero Shabazz Napier — that tend to feature prominently in many March upset stories.

Dark Horse: Iowa State.

The Big 12 champs and somewhat unheralded No. 3 seed Cyclones continue to take care of business, dominating North Carolina Central in the first round then knocking off North Carolina in hard-fought, back-and-forth game worthy of a much later tournament round. That win over the Tar Heels came in Iowa State’s first game without Georges Niang, who broke his foot against North Carolina Central, but DeAndre Kane proved more than able to carry his team against the best, dropping 29 points and leading the Cyclones in scoring, assists and rebounding.

Player(s) to Watch: Shabazz Napier, DeAndre Kane

Virginia is the clear-cut favorite in this region, despite the presence of experienced NCAA program Michigan State, consistent Big 12 champions Iowa State, and tournament savvy UConn. But if the Cavaliers are to fall, it will likely be to the grit and will of one of two stellar senior leaders hoping to will their teams to the Final Four and more than capable of doing it. Kane, a fifth-year senior, did it all for the Cyclones in their round of 32 win, including providing the go-ahead lay-up with two seconds to play. Napier, a senior, scored 25 points through and was deadly from three, and came back from “excruciating pain” after being kicked in the shin to assist on the layup that clinched the Huskies’ win.

WEST REGION (Thursday in Anaheim, Calif.)

No. 2 Wisconsin (26-7) vs. No. 6 Baylor (23-11), 7:27 p.m., TBS

No. 1 Arizona (30-4) vs. No. 4 San Diego State (29-4), 10:17 p.m., TBS

Favorite: Arizona.

The Wildcats have been the tournament’s most dominant No. 1 seed so far, cruising over Weber State and Gonzaga and into the Sweet 16. The Wildcats have the nation’s fourth-best scoring defense and have backed it with an average of 76 points per game through their first two games. Naismith finalist Nick Johnson has been strong so far, and freshman Aaron Gordon may be ready to explode as he takes center stage given the early departures of other talented freshmen like Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker.

Upset Alert: Baylor.

The Bears were Big 12 runners-up and have gone 12-2 in their last 14 games. Hardened by the grueling Big 12 schedule, Baylor has looked as tournament-ready as any team through two games, knocking off Nebraska by double-digits before decimating Creighton by 30 in the round of 32.

Dark Horse: Wisconsin.

The Badgers (26-7) didn’t get here by accident, dominating American by 40 in the first round then rallying from a double-digit deficit to down Oregon in the round of 32. In addition to the mental toughness Bo Ryan’s squad showed off against the Ducks, Wisconsin also boasts the kind of balanced scoring attack (all five starters scored in double figures against Oregon) that can often help teams outlast opponents deep into March. They’ll need a similarly strong performance up and down the roster to overcome Baylor, and a standout showing if they’re to knock off Arizona and head to the Final Four, though in an underrated region, they likely have the best chance to do that of anyone.

Player to Watch: Nick Johnson, Arizona.

Johnson was a Naismith Award finalist and has the basketball pedigree coaches dream of as the son of Hall-of-Famer Dennis Johnson. More importantly, he carries a strong resume into the tournament as the leading scorer on one of the field’s top teams (16 ppg), numbers he’s backed so far this tournament, shooting 6 of 10 from three so far. Johnson is also a key defensive cog for the Wildcats, who’ll need the lockdown defense that got them here if they’re to emerge into the Final Four.

MIDWEST (Friday in Indianapolis)

No. 11 Tennessee (21-12) at No. 2 Michigan (25-8) , 7:15 p.m., CBS

No. 8 Kentucky(24-10) at No. 4 Louisville (29-5), 9:45 p.m., CBS

Favorite: Louisville.

Though the Cardinals are a No. 4 seed in a region where the second seed (Michigan) still remains, the defending national champions could’ve been seeded much higher, and carry depth and experience into the Sweet 16. While they may be the favorite by a nose, though, putting all your chips in Louisville’s basket may not be the smartest idea: if they can survive the Rick Pitino/John Calipari rivalry showdown with Kentucky Friday, the Cardinals may have to face Michigan for a chance at the Final Four in a rematch of last year’s NCAA championship game.

Upset alert: Tennessee.

The default upset pick given that they’re the lowest seed left in the Midwest, the Volunteers have the tools for an elite eight berth in their stingy defense, which exposed Mercer in Tennessee’s blowout win Sunday. Only a stifling defense has a chance to slow down the Volunteers’ Sweet 16 opponent Michigan, which knocked down 14 three-pointers in a strong offensive showing against Texas in the round of 32. Interesting history note: the last time the Volunteers and Wolverines faced off in the NCAA Tournament was 2011, a 75-45 Michigan rout that ended Bruce Pearl’s orange-tie tenure.

Dark Horse: Kentucky.

John Calipari’s young squad matched more experienced and No. 1 seeded Wichita State big play for big play in the Wildcats’ upset win Sunday, rising to the occasion again and again in what is the consensus game of the 2014 NCAA Tournament so far. As loaded with talent as they are wanting for experience, the Wildcats may be one of the more dangerous teams among the 16 left, and could just find themselves in the Final Four if they continue to grow up before our eyes next weekend.

Player to Watch: Nik Stauskas, Michigan.

Ask Texas what happens when the Wolverines get going from behind the three-point line: like the Longhorns, opponents normally don’t have much of a chance. Stauskas, who shot more than 45 percent from three this season (good for top 10 in the country), has continued at a similar pace so far this tournament, and if the Big 10 Player of the Year continues to key the Wolverines offense, he could shoot the Maize and Blue into the Final Four.

More NCAA tournament news

Virginia upends Memphis, reaches round of 16

Early Lead: Wildcats end Shockers’ run

Stanford upsets Kansas to reach Sweet 16

Iowa State defeats North Carolina on last-second shot

Tennessee ends Mercer’s surprising run

Chad: March Madness? No thanks.

Maryland women trample Army, 90-52

Bog: When D.C. public television showed college basketball

NCAA tournament bracket and historical database

Play The Bracket Challenge round-by-round

Photos: The best of the tournament | 68 teams, 68 facts

Chelsea Janes covers the Nationals for The Washington Post.
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