The first two rounds (and a few bonus games no one knows what to do with) are over. We’ve whittled 68 teams down to 16. The dream of a Final Four is much more attainable now than one week ago, and the stakes are raised that much higher.
This year, we’ve seen the cream from the regular season rise to the top, and much of our Sweet 16 matchups are titanic battles between the best the sport has to offer. We are going to give you an in-depth breakdown of each game: what you can expect, key matchups and more. For Thursday night’s showdowns, here are all the breakdowns:
WEST REGIONAL SEMIFINAL #1
4 Florida State vs 1 Gonzaga (7:09 p.m., CBS)
How they got here:
Gonzaga – defeated No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson, 87-49 (1st Round), defeated No. 9 Baylor, 83-71 (2nd Round)
Florida State – defeated No. 13 Vermont, 76-69 (1st Round), defeated No. 12 Murray State, 90-62 (2nd Round)
What to expect:
Gonzaga is one of the most efficient offenses of the last 15 years. It ranks at the top of college basketball in adjusted offensive efficiency and has weapons across its roster. The Bulldogs love to push in transition and use a lot of ball screens when forced to play in the half court. Their bigs, Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura, love to run the floor, and Hachimura is even capable of running the break. Guard Josh Perkins is one of the best distributors in the country, and his passes are some of the most beautiful you’ll see in any level of basketball. Almost everyone can shoot the three, and although offense is this team’s strong suit, it plays very good defense, too.
Florida State is a defensive team first, with guard Trent Forrest Jr. receiving votes for ACC Defensive Player of the Year and a gang of long, athletic players with a knack for the ball. Center Christ Koumadje comes off the bench at 7-foot-4 to help control the paint, and forward Mfiondu Kabengele is a great rim protector in his own right, averaging 1.5 blocks per game.
The Seminoles will look to slow the pace down and keep Gonzaga out of transition. For as difficult as the Bulldogs are to guard, they’re easier to deal with in the half court, especially with how well Florida State can lock it down. The Zags will likely play like their normal aggressive selves and look to feed Clarke and Hachimura inside with a healthy dose of inside-out looks from deep.
Key matchup: Brandon Clarke vs Mfiondu Kabengele
Clarke scored 36 points with eight rebounds and five blocks in the Baylor game and was the biggest reason why Gonzaga held the Bears at bay. Clarke is one of the best players in the country, let alone big men, but Kabengele will be one of the best opponents he has seen in some time. It will have to be a team effort from Florida State to deal with Clarke and Hachimura, and no doubt Hachimura will provide difficulties for the Seminoles, too, but the battle between Clarke and Kabengele will be center to this game’s outcome.
NBN’s pick: Gonzaga 78, Florida State 68
The game will be a tight one for most of it. Gonzaga will lead for most of the game, but Florida State will always hang around within a handful of points, even taking a lead midway through the second half. But ultimately, Gonzaga’s smooth offense and Clarke’s dominance inside will be too much for the Seminoles, and the Bulldogs will head to the Elite Eight.
SOUTH REGIONAL SEMIFINAL #1
3 Purdue vs 2 Tennessee (7:29 p.m., TBS)
How they got here:
Tennessee – defeated 15 Colgate, 77-70 (1st Round), defeated 10 Iowa in overtime, 83-77 (2nd Round)
Purdue – defeated 14 Old Dominion, 61-48 (1st Round), defeated 6 Villanova, 87-61 (2nd Round)
What to expect:
Tennessee has one of the most dynamic offenses in the NCAA. Guard Admiral Schofield, guard Jordan Bone and forward Grant Williams are nightmares to guard for every team in the country. Williams is seemingly automatic in the paint, and for as much as Schofield’s size helps him down low, he also shoots 41.5 percent from beyond the arc. Bone is one of the best point guards in the nation and has a great feel for what’s going on around him. He’s one of the smoothest players you’ll see, from his jumper to his movements off the ball. However, the Vols have struggled with defensive lapses and general malaise for periods of games that have allowed opponents to stay in games or make late comebacks, like in both the first and second rounds of this tournament. When Tennessee wins, it’s typically because of its offense, not its defense.
Purdue can be the same way, with a top five offense in efficiency and a defensive efficiency right outside of the top 25 in KenPom. Guard Carsen Edwards is the linchpin. He averaged 23 points per game in the regular season, 12th-most in the nation, and put up 42 on Villanova in the second round. If he plays like he did against Villanova, Purdue will not lose no matter who it’s up against. But when Edwards isn’t connecting on his looks, guard Ryan Cline can fill in with his 40.6 percent three-point shooting, and center Matt Haarms and the rest of this talented rebounding bunch can grab the shots of the iron for second-chance opportunities.
The Boilermakers have played through Edwards all season long, for better or for worse. I wouldn’t expect that to change in this one, and Tennessee should see a healthy dose of stepback triples and tough drives to the tin from the point guard. The Vols will try to make him take the most difficult shots possible and force someone else to beat them, liking using guard Lamonte Turner as their main Edwards defender. On the other end, Tennessee will attempt to exploit the mismatch Schofield and his 6-foot-6, 241-pound frame presents Purdue. The Boilermakers are one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country, and the Vols will need to keep that reasonably in check to win the game.
Key matchup: Carsen Edwards vs Lamonte Turner
If Edwards scores 42 and makes nine triples again, Tennessee will not win this game. The Volunteers will need Turner to take him off his rhythm and make him take difficult shots, at least enough that Edwards doesn’t take over. There have been plenty of times this season where the guard has taken himself out of the game through poor shot selection and forcing the issue too much, and that’s going to be Tennessee’s goal. Turner won’t be able to do it all by himself, as Edwards is too good and too fast to be contained by one man. It will have to be a team effort, but it starts with Turner or whomever else is matched up one-on-one with Purdue’s leading scorer.
NBN’s pick: Tennessee 85, Purdue 83
This is a toss-up in my view. Both teams are of similar strength offensively and defensively, and both have shown some wildly high highs and some tough lows, sometimes within the game. The only thing I feel certain about is that we are going to see some points, and lots of them. The three-headed monster of Williams, Schofield and Bone is what has me giving the Vols a slight edge, but if Purdue won, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised. This should be one of the best games of the Sweet 16.
WEST REGIONAL SEMIFINAL #2
3 Texas Tech vs 2 Michigan (9:39 p.m., CBS)
How they got here:
Michigan – defeated 15 Montana, 74-55 (1st Round), defeated 10 Florida, 64-49 (2nd Round)
Texas Tech – defeated 14 Northern Kentucky, 72-57 (1st Round), defeated 6 Buffalo, 78-58 (2nd Round)
What to expect:
These are the first and second most efficient defensive teams in the country, according to KenPom, so don’t expect a lot of points. Nine of the top 50 players in defensive rating will feature in this game. Both teams like to slow the game down, especially Michigan, and control the number of possessions. This is going to be a physical, low-scoring battle where every trip down the court holds so much meaning.
Michigan’s offense goes through guard Zavier Simpson, who is averaging 6.8 assists per game, has perfected an impossible-to-defend hook shot he uses through the lane and almost always makes the right decision with the ball in his hands. With how well Texas Tech defends in the half court, the Wolverines might use Simpson to force the issue in transition more than usual, with players like forward Ignas Brazdeikis and Isaiah Livers spotting up on the wings, both better than 40 percent three-point shooters. Michigan likes to use center Jon Teske in a lot of ball screens, and he’s excellent on the roll or in pick-and-pop situations. Texas Tech’s rotations will be put to the test in this one.
The Red Raiders have shown flawless rotations throughout the season, though, drawing changes and cutting off lanes from the help side time and time again. Guard Jarrett Culver is this team’s best offensive weapon. He is dangerous the moment the ball enters his grasp. He shoots only 33.1 percent from three, but he will make them when his team needs it most, and his driving ability is up there with the best in the nation. His knack for scoring is the best Tech has, but guards Davide Moretti and Matt Mooney has come on in the later half of the year as players who create their own shot, hit from deep and distribute around the floor. Whatever shots the Red Raiders miss, forward Tariq Owens and his 5.7 rebounds per game are ready to clean up. This team struggled offensively for months, but now it hasn’t scored fewer than 70 points in a game since Feb. 9. Even still, there’s a good chance this game is first one to 60.
Key matchup: Isaiah Livers/Charles Matthews vs Jarrett Culver
It’s likely Livers and Matthews will share the responsibility of guarding Culver, and how they do will have a large impact on this game. As discussed, both teams are elite defensively with solid offensive outputs, but Tech in particularly needs Culver to score at a good clip to put up enough points on the board. That’s not to say the Red Raiders don’t have other weapons, but they’re less balanced offensively than Michigan. If the Wolverines can take him out of the game, or at least relatively, it would make a huge difference. If he meets his average of almost 19 points per game or better, it’s going to be significantly more difficult for Michigan.
NBN’s pick: Texas Tech 63, Michigan 59
This is another toss-up to me. Both teams are similar in several ways, and the matchup of the two best defenses in the country will make for a tight game where every open look must be cherished. In the end, I give the defensive nod to Texas Tech ever so slightly, which I think will make up for having fewer scoring weapons than Michigan. Culver will have to carry a sizeable chunk of the scoring load, which is something he’s been capable of all year long. I have faith in him to deliver when his team needs it most.
SOUTH REGIONAL SEMIFINAL #2
12 Oregon vs 1 Virginia (9:57 p.m., TBS)
How they got here:
Virginia – defeated 16 Gardner-Webb, 71-56 (1st Round), defeated 9 Oklahoma, 63-51 (2nd Round)
Oregon – defeated 5 Wisconsin, 72-54 (1st Round), defeated 13 UC Irvine, 73-54 (2nd Round)
What to expect:
Yet another defensive battle. While this Virginia team might be the only offense-first Tony Bennett teams in his time in Charlottesville, that doesn’t mean it lacks on the defensive end. The Cavs are still third in adjusted defensive efficiency in KenPom and a dominant force on that side of the ball. Oregon has improved tenfold from where it was even a few weeks ago, having won 10 in a row with its defense as the catalyst. I would be shocked if this game was played in the 70s.
This Virginia team is equally as dominant offensively as defensively, coming in as the second-most efficient offense in KenPom. The Wahoos also play with the slowest tempo in Division-I and will shorten the game and number of possessions, forcing their opponent to be as efficient as them, a tough task for every team in the nation. The team has three players capable of creating their own shot – guards Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy and De’Andre Hunter – and shoot almost 41 percent from beyond the arc as a team.
It took Oregon a while to figure itself out without Bol Bol, who suffered a season-ending injury early in the year, but it has become a force to be reckoned with as of late. Guard Payton Pritchard is the focal point, with his distribution and ability to get to the cup to score or move the defense a key for the Ducks. Forward Kenny Wooten has turned himself into a one-man demotional derby inside, wreaking havoc on opponents when they enter the lane. Guard Ehab Amin, a spark plug off the bench, perfectly encapsulates what head coach Dana Altman has turned his team into: a scrappy bunch that will claw, dive and fight you every inch of the way.
Key matchup: Payton Pritchard vs Ty Jerome
These are two of the best scoring point guards left in the tournament, and we’re lucky enough to see them do battle in an all-or-nothing situation. Both teams might switch up who is guarding the opposing point guard, and Oregon likes to throw zone looks at its opposition from time to time. But Jerome has a defensive rating of 89.6, good for 37th-best in the nation, and will be important for Virginia to slow down Oregon’s perimeter offense, which is led by Pritchard. Jerome’s distribution is vital for the Wahoos, and the Ducks are going to have to disrupt him to have a shot at winning. Although we might not see these two in many one-on-one situations, whomever has the stronger showing and controls the pace of the game better will likely move on to the Elite Eight.
NBN’s pick: Virginia 66, Oregon 60
While I think there is a great chance Oregon pulls this off and ride its current wave of momentum on another round, Virginia is the better team, full stop. There are too many offensive weapons, the defense is too stifling and the coaching is too good for me to pick against the Cavaliers in this situation. Virginia center Jack Salt will use his size and technical ability to seal Wooten as much as possible, limiting his ability to affect shots at the time. Even if Virginia can’t deter Wooten from dominating the paint, the Hoos are deadly on the perimeter.
Oregon has held opponents to 29.1 percent from deep this season, the sixth best mark in the nation, but Virginia is one of the few teams that has kept opposing three-point shooters in check better with a 27.8 percent defensive three-point percentage allowed, the best in the country. That’s just one illustration of how anything Oregon can do, Virginia can do better. In a one-game format, and with how hot the Ducks are, anything can happen, but I give Virginia the edge here.