With the NCAA Tournament resuming on Thursday, we rank the eight games to be played in the Sweet 16 based on watchability.
The first week of madness in the NCAA Tournament is finally over and we have reached the Sweet 16 portion, which gets underway tonight in Atlanta (South) and Los Angeles (West). Some of the favorites are still in the mix while others look to continue their Cinderella story.
In order to give all of you a quick glimpse of the eight matchups, we decided to take a look at the Sweet 16 games from a watchability perspective. In other words, how likely are you to turn on the TV and watch a certain matchup compared to another one?
Let’s take a look at my rankings, starting with number eight. Remember that you can give your rankings as well in the comments section:
8. South Region – (9) Kansas State vs. (5) Kentucky, Thursday, 9:37 p.m ET, CBS
Since the South Region is basically busted, one of these games was going to end up at the bottom of the list, so it has to be Kansas State-Kentucky. Kansas State was able to hang on against UMBC in the second round on Sunday, but the 50-43 game was not pretty at all.
Kansas State’s defense could be what keeps them in this game because they have only allowed 66.9 points per game to opponents this season. They shut down Creighton’s best scorer, Marcus Foster, in the first round, but Kentucky has a bunch of scoring options they can throw at them.
Now, Kansas State could get a boost to their offense Thursday night as forward Dean Wade is expected to be back in the lineup after missing the last three games due to a foot injury. He is their leading scorer (16.5 points per game) and he had two or more steals in his last four games before getting hurt.
Regardless of the draw that Kentucky had to get to this point, John Calipari has a talented young team once again. The question will be whether or not they can tune out the noise of everyone saying the Wildcats should just cruise to San Antonio to the Final Four.
Freshman guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been on a scoring surge as of late as he has had 25 or more points in two of his last three games and he shoots 49.3 percent from the floor. Another player is freshman forward Kevin Knox, who did not have the same impact as usual against Buffalo due to early foul trouble. Knox is by far the best rebounder on the team (192).
This is a game Kentucky should cruise in, but it’s March, and Kansas State can always hang in there if their defense arrives in Atlanta now that Wade should be back in the mix. Still, this matchup would have more appeal if Virginia or even UMBC were their opponent in this one.
7. West Region – (9) Florida State vs. (4) Gonzaga, Thursday, 10:07 p.m, TBS
While Florida State finished ninth in the ACC during the regular season, they found their way to the Sweet 16 after a blowout win over Missouri and a dramatic second-half comeback in their upset over top seed Xavier.
Florida State only had three players that averaged in double figures this year, but they do have a lot of depth and that could always pay dividends in March. In that Xavier upset, 46 of the team’s 75 points came off the bench, led by 14 points from Trent Forrest.
One thing that the Seminoles do well is that they force turnovers. Xavier turned the ball over 18 times on Sunday night and Florida State’s opponents did average 14 turnovers per game this year (second best in the ACC).
Gonzaga seems to have a habit of making it to the second weekend and they have won their last 16 games in a row, so there is no shortage of confidence with the Bulldogs. Jonathan Williams is the team’s best scorer (13.6 points per game) and rebounder (8.4 boards per game), but keep an eye on freshman guard Zach Norvell Jr.
Norvell Jr. had his coming out party on Saturday against Ohio State when he had 28 points and was 6-for-11 from downtown in the win. Two days prior, in the first round, it was his three-pointer with 20.8 seconds left that helped the Zags avoid the upset against UNC Greensboro.
If Florida State can force turnovers, it could make for an ugly basketball game, but one that would play into their favor. With that being said, with this game in Los Angeles, Gonzaga has a good chance to get back to the Elite Eight.
6. Midwest Region – (5) Clemson vs. (1) Kansas, Friday, 7:07 p.m, CBS
Between the two one seeds going down and Villanova cruising into the Sweet 16, Kansas appears to be flying under the radar and that might be a good thing for Bill Self’s squad down in Omaha.
In those first two rounds, Kansas showed they could win games when Devonte Graham isn’t at his best. Malik Newman had 28 points in the second round matchup against Seton Hall and has scored 20 or more points in four of his last five games. He’s getting hot at the right time.
As for Clemson, they pulled off a surprising blowout win against Auburn in the second round and Brad Brownell has his team clicking at the right time. The key for the Tigers in this game is going to be their defense, which has allowed 70 or more points twice since February 14.
After watching Angel Delgado have a great game for Seton Hall against Kansas on Saturday, keep an eye on Elijah Thomas in this game for Clemson. Thomas has averaged 10 rebounds per game in his last four games and the 18 points he scored against Auburn were tied for the most he’s had in a game this year.
With Udoka Azubuike continuing to work his way back, the more games he gets, the better it will be for Kansas. I would expect the Jayhawks to roll in this game, but don’t be surprised if Clemson hangs around in this game in the second half
5. East Region – (3) Texas Tech vs. (2) Purdue, Friday, 9:57 p.m, TBS
There is a lot of unknown in this game since this is the only second time that Purdue will be playing without their big man, Isaac Haas. Without Haas, Purdue still found a way to win its second-round matchup against Butler.
One storyline you will see talked about in this game late Friday night is Texas Tech coach Chris Beard. Beard was the head coach of Arkansas-Little Rock back in 2016 when they upset the Boilermakers in the first round of the NCAA Tournament as a 12 seed.
Two years later, Beard is coaching one of the best point guards in the country in Keenan Evans. Evans is playing some of his best basketball at the right time as he has scored 22 or more points in four of his last five games and he has a great ability to get the ball to the rim.
Since Purdue doesn’t have Haas, Matt Haarms is going to have to be the rim protector in this game to prevent Evans from attacking the basket. Of course, if Purdue continues their good three-point shooting from the Butler game (45.8 percent), then they have a chance to beat anybody in the country.
This matchup is wide open for the taking, but it at least gives Evans another chance on the national spotlight when he might’ve been overshadowed at times by Graham, Young, or Bryant this season in the stacked Big 12.
4. East Region – (5) West Virginia vs. (1) Villanova, Friday, 7:27 p.m, TBS
This is an interesting matchup in Boston because you have West Virginia’s patented press defense trying to stop a Villanova offense that has multiple ways to beat you. The question right now is will ‘Nova have enough prep time to prepare for that kind of defense.
The battle between the two point guards will be the fun part to watch in this game. Jevon Carter has scored 49 points in two games for West Virginia in this tournament, but his claim to fame is with his defense. His 2.9 steals per game this year were tied for the second most in the country.
Carter has guarded the likes of Trae Young and Devonte’ Graham in the Big 12, but he faces another test Friday night going up against Jalen Brunson. Brunson hasn’t had the breakout game in this tournament yet, but he has the chance to be the National Player of the Year. He is due for a breakout game.
If West Virginia is going to pull off the upset, one player to watch in their frontcourt is sophomore forward Sagaba Konate. He has had two blocked shots or more in four of his last five games and he had 3.2 blocks per game. His presence down low could force Villanova to rely more on the three-pointer to win this game.
While this is not one of my marquee games to watch, the contrast in styles makes this a very interesting game to watch on Friday night.
3. Midwest Region – (11) Syracuse vs. (2) Duke, Friday, 9:37 p.m, CBS
If you are a fan of the zone defense, then this matchup in Omaha on Friday night is the one for you. Syracuse has always been a team that has played the 2-3 zone, but Duke started using it late in the year and has made a big impact on their defense (only allowed 70 or more points once in their last 11 games).
While some might not view Duke as the best team in the country, they have one of the most talented teams in college basketball. After Michigan State had 29 offensive rebounds against the Orange on Sunday, expect Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. to have that kind of an impact down low.
Back on February 24, Duke took on Syracuse at Cameron Indoor Stadium and they won that game, 62-44. If Syracuse wants to flip the script this time, they will need to have a better shooting day from the outside than they did in February (6-for-25). Tyus Battle made a big impact in the win over Michigan State (17 points), but the sophomore guard is only 1-for-9 from downtown in the tournament.
Looking at this matchup, Duke has too many ways to beat you on offense with either their big men down low or Grayson Allen and Gary Trent Jr. making their shots from the outside. With that being said, when Jim Boeheim and Mike Krzyzewski face off, it is always a fun watch.
2. South Region – (11) Loyola-Chicago vs. (7) Nevada, Thursday, 7:07 p.m, CBS
Yes, I know you are thinking why does Ricky have this matchup this high when it’s not a premier program or a lottery pick in the spotlight. Well, March is about Cinderellas and one of these teams is going to have a chance to play for a spot in the Final Four. You never know if these programs will ever get back to this point in the NCAA Tournament again.
For Nevada, they are coming off a 22-point comeback in the second half against Cincinnati on Sunday and they’ve overcome double-digit deficits in both of their games so far. They are led by the Martin twins (Caleb and Cody). It was Cody’s 25 points that helped the Wolfpack pull off the comeback in Nashville against the Bearcats.
While the Martin twins will get the attention, senior guard Kendall Stephens could be an X-factor in this game. Stephens is 12-for-24 from the floor in the NCAA Tournament and he can create instant offense with his three-point shooting (44.4 percent). Nevada will want to push the pace against a team like Loyola-Chicago that plays great defense.
The Ramblers have a defense that is hard to score points against as Miami and Tennessee figured out. The last time a team scored 75 points against Loyola-Chicago was February 3 (Missouri State). On offense, Loyola has a lot of balance with five players averaging in double figures. As we saw in the first two rounds, different players can find a way to hit big shots when it counts.
If there’s one player on Loyola to spotlight, it is Clayton Custer. The junior guard shot 52.7 percent from the floor this year, led the team in scoring (13.3 points per game) and has made six of eight trifectas in this tournament. When he takes a shot from downtown, it’s most likely going in.
With these two mid-major teams, expect a lot of intensity in this matchup that should get the Sweet 16 off to a great start in Atlanta.
1. West Region – (7) Texas A&M vs. (3) Michigan, Thursday, 7:37 p.m, TBS
This is my favorite matchup of the regionals because it seems that this is the matchup that is the most even between the two teams. Texas A&M may be a seven seed, but this is a team that has a win over the defending national champions and was in the top 25 early on in the year.
As for Michigan, getting into the Sweet 16 is a relief for them after needing a Jordan Poole last-second shot in the second round to beat Houston. They were able to shake off the rust of having a whole week off after the Big Ten Tournament, but the defense was able to help them do that (55 points per game allowed in the tournament).
In this matchup, keep an eye on the frontcourt for both of these teams. For Michigan, junior forward Moritz Wagner can not only rebound (7.1 boards per game) with the best of them, but he also shot 40.2 percent from downtown this year. He bounced back against Houston (12 points) after a rough first round game against Montana (five points).
Wagner will have his challenges down low against an Aggies squad that is one of the best rebounding teams in the country. They had 41.6 boards per game in the regular season (third in the country) and that has continued into March. Sophomore forward Robert Edwards has 27 boards in two games and has done a good job staying out of foul trouble.
If Michigan can shoot the ball well from the outside, it will negate the size that the Aggies have in their frontcourt. So far, they have only hit 13 three-pointers in two games. This game in Los Angeles should be a lot of fun and expect a close battle.
Remember to keep it right here at Elite Sports NY for updates after the games in the Sweet 16 and the Elite Eight.