Tomorrow night, the Sweet 16 concludes with the South and Midwest Regionals. In the Midwest the four teams remaining are top overall seed Louisville, #2 seed Duke, #3 Michigan State, and #12 seed Oregon, who has proven what many people thought that they were under seeded by beating Oklahoma State and Atlantic 10 champ St Louis. In the South 3 of the teams that reached this round were expected: #1 Kansas, #3 Florida, and #4 Michigan. On the other hand, there is the ultimate cinderella in #15 seeded Florida Gulf Coast, who became the first 15 seed to make it to round of 16 by shocking the nation with victories over #2 seed Georgetown and #7 seed San Diego State. What makes FGCU’s Sweet 16 appearance even more surprising is that the school was founded in 1997 (16 years ago) and has only been eligible for the division I postseason in basketball for two seasons. I will breakdown the four games that will take place on Friday and give you the keys to these matchups as well as what four teams I see advancing to Sunday’s Elite 8.
In the Midwest the night opens as two power conference tournament champions square off as Louisville takes on Oregon. This game appears to be a huge mismatch as the Cardinals, led by guards Peyton Siva and Russ Smith, have one of the best defenses in recent history seem far superior to the Ducks. In order for the Ducks, who are led by seniors EJ Singler, Carlos Emory, and Arsalan Kazemi, to have a good chance to pull the upset they have to limit the turnovers and stay competitive on the glass. In addition, they must get off to a good start otherwise Rick Pitino’s team will just roll them the rest of the way as their defense will become more and more suffocating. The Cardinals should advance fairly comfortably 72-58.
That game will serve as the opening act to one of the most highly anticipated tournament games in recent memory, outside of the Final Four between Michigan State and Duke. This game features two coaches who either are in the Hall of Fame or will be soon in the Spartans’ Tom Izzo and Mike Krzyzewski of Duke. These two coaches have combined for nearly 1400 wins, 16 final fours, and 5 national titles. These two legends have split their tournament meetings with Duke winning the 1999 Final Four and Michigan State winning in the 2005 Sweet 16. The current teams feature a contrast in styles as the Blue Devils, led by the trio of Seth Curry, Ryan Kelly, and Mason Plumlee, average over 78 points a game will seek to speed up the Spartans. Michigan State meanwhile who feature balanced scoring, with four players (guards Gary Harris and Keith Appling, forwards Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix) will seek to slow the game down and dominate on the boards; as while they only average 68 points a game average over 4 more rebounds a game then their ACC opposition. The key to this game for Izzo’s bunch will be if Harris and Appling are successful on the offensive end, specifically their ability to drive to the basket (which Duke has shown an inability to stop at times). In order for Coach K and his team to advance Plumlee and Kelly must stay out of foul trouble, something they couldn’t do in their last game, while guarding Nix and Payne. This game should be a classic but I see Izzo and the Spartans ability to rebound the ball enabling them to control tempo and eventually win 67-64.
In the South the first game of night will see #1 seed Kansas take on #4 seed Michigan in a match up of two of the top teams during the regular season. Kansas is led by super freshman Ben McLemore and Seniors Jeff Withey and Travis Releford while the Wolverines feature national player of the year candidate Trey Burke as well as two sons of NBA players in Tim Hardaway jr and Glenn Robinson III. As you can see this game is star-studded and evenly matched so much so that Kansas average 75.4 points per game and Michigan averaged 75.2 points. This game will come down to who’s supporting cast out performs the other. Specifically for Michigan they will need big games out of Nik Stauskas and the star of their domination of VCU last weekend, Mitch McGary who must challenge Withey on both ends to nullify the rebounding edge many expect the Jayhawks to have. Bill Self’s squad will need to not only have a balanced effort including Elijah Johnson supporting the stars but also limit turnovers which can allow Burke and Michigan to get out on the fast break and make easy baskets.
The final game of the Sweet 16 will showcase an in state matchup between #3 seed Florida Gators and #15 seed Florida Gulf Coast University who has become America’s darling in the past week. To show you the difference between these two schools FGCU has about 1/4 the total enrollment of the University of Florida, who was in the Final Four 3 years before FGCU existed. Both teams are led by their guards, Brett Comer and Sherwood Brown for the Eagles, Mike Rosario, Kenny Boynton, and Scottie Wilbekin for the Gators. The biggest factor in this game will be if Andy Enfield’s upstart Eagles can keep the game close as well as execute their now famous dunks, which have earned them the moniker Dunk City. This will get the crowd, which is going to include a lot of Kansas and Michigan fans to get behind them and keep the excitement up. This will also increase the pressure on the Gators, who have struggled in recent years to close out tournament games and this year have yet to win a game decided by single digits. If Florida can put some early distance between them and their in-state opponents then their superior skill level will take effect and they should roll to their 3rd straight Elite 8. While this may be more heart than head I see the magical run of Florida Gulf Coast to continue as they best the Gators 66-61.
Friday will feature many historic programs (Duke, Michigan State, Louisville, Kansas, etc.) as well as the biggest story of this tournament in #15 seed FGCU. When the games end we will be treated to some of the best games of the tournament namely Michigan-Kansas and Duke-Michigan State.