We’ve Waited All Week For This Sweet 16 — A Breakdown Of Thursday’s Games And Best Bets
We can finally inject some March Madness into our system again after three days of withdrawals. The first four days of the NCAA Tournament were tremendous with buzzer-beaters, upsets, and the biggest comeback in history. (Sorry Northern Iowa fans. I’m not trying to rub it in.) Yet as we move to the second weekend we can see that chalk has largely held its position. We have four #1s, two #2s, two #3s, two #4s, and two #5s in the Sweet 16. While we all love upsets, it’s the high-quality games between great teams that we remember most at this stage of the tournament. We remember Laettner’s #1 seeded Duke beating #2 seeded Kentucky. We remember #4 Arizona led by Mike Bibby, Miles Simon, and Michael Dickerson upsetting #1 Kansas. We remember Scottie Reynolds making the game winning shot to send #3 Villanova past #1 Pittsburgh. It’s time for the best teams and best players to shine, so let’s check out the action we’ve got coming on Thursday.
South Region: #2 Villanova vs. #3 Miami – 7:10 p.m.
The big test finally arrives for Villanova. Their fans may want to point to last Sunday’s blowout over Iowa, who was once ranked #1 in the country, as a marquee win to show worth. Those who follow the game, however, know that Iowa has been a shell of itself ovr the last two months, getting exposed on a weekly basis as a soft and defensively deficient bunch. Miami isn’t that. The Hurricanes have the same experience Iowa does in terms of many upperclassmen, but they also have more moxie and most importantly they have quality guards. Villanova destroyed Iowa by causing turnovers and smothering Iowa’s guards. Miami’s perimeter of Angel Rodriguez, Sheldon McClellan, and Davon Reed went head-to-head with Wichita State’s guards and came out victorious. I can’t look past Villanova’s defeats against Oklahoma and Virginia when evaluating how well they played outside of the weak Big East. (Seton Hall and Xavier proved to us the Big East is a notch below other conferences.) Miami has wins over Utah out of conference and Duke, Louisville, and Virginia, showing they can win against tough opponents. Jim Larranaga is also a much better Xs and Os coach than Jay Wright. It all comes together as Miami sneaks out a tough victory and moves on to the Elite 8.
South Region: #1 Kansas vs. #5 Maryland – Approx. 9:40 p.m.
It’s go time for Kansas. Bill Self has only made one Final Four in the five previous times his Jayhawks have been a #1 seed, so losing in this round or next is a familiar path for Kansas fans. This year, however, things look slightly different as Devonte Graham has become the team’s x-factor, elevating his play over the last two months and providing a ball-handler who makes better decisions than compatriot Frank Mason. Wayne Selden also looks like he’s raised his game, coming through in strong fashion over two tournament games. The Jayhawks perimeter will go toe-to-toe with Maryland’s Melo Trimble and Rasheed Sulaimon in what should be a great match-up. Want something to specifically look out for in this game? Watch for Graham to shut down Trimble in the same way he’s shut down other prolific scorers like Buddy Hield in recent months?
The edge Maryland has is in the frontcourt with their rotation of four quality bigs against Perry Ellis and some combination of Landen Lucas and Jamari Traylor. Lucas has a way of answering the bell, so he might raise his level to go up against projected NBA first-rounder Diamond Stone, reliable Damonte Dodd, and the athletically-gifted Robert Carter Jr. The closest thing the Big 12 has to a frontcourt like this would be Baylor or West Virginia and Kansas handled both well in recent games. Kansas is peaking at the right time with wins in 16 straight games. Maryland’s won two in a row in the tournament, but both games were against weak opponents. With Trimble struggling to get his game right with Graham guarding him, Maryland just won’t have enough to keep up with Kansas.
West Region: #2 Oklahoma vs. #3 Texas A&M – 7:37 p.m.
Your first thought here is that Oklahoma is probably upset that Texas A&M came back to beat Northern Iowa to reach this stage. Conversely the Aggies are actually a good match-up for Oklahoma. The Sooners have a major edge at guard, especially with Jordan Woodward rediscovering the high-end form he was bringing to the table early in the season. Oklahoma’s bigs to control Tyler Davis on the inside, limiting Texas A&M’s ability to create easy baskets. It’ll be interesting to see who A&M throws at Buddie Hield defensively between Alex Caruso, Danuel House, and Jalen Jones. I’d opt for Jones considering he seems to be the quickest of the group and will have a size and length advantage over Hield. Hield, however, struggled most with a quicker Devonte Graham following him around against Kansas as opposed to some taller players he’s faced. The Aggies got lucky that Northern Iowa committed many a turnover in the last 30 seconds, including two situations where the Panthers tried to throw the ball off Aggie players and instead essentially passed it to them for lay-ups. The highly questionable and-one call on Caruso’s layup helped as well. As we’ve seen all tournament long, the SEC is an inferior conference and their teams can’t be trusted. Oklahoma seems to be putting things together at the right time and will advance in this one.
West Region: #1 Oregon vs. #4 Duke – Approx 10:07 p.m.
The latest of the four games will be the most fun as both teams excel tremendously on the offensive end. Oregon had a little scare with their game against St. Joe’s, but their ability to execute offensively in the final minutes allowed them to make it here. They’re so tough to defend because of how many offensive weapons they have. Whether it’s Dillon Brooks, Elgin Cook, and Tyler Dorsey, Oregon can keep finding offense as defenses adjust. Duke should be able to go shot-for-shot with Oregon for a while as Brandon Ingram has the height advantage over Dillon Brooks and Duke’s perimeter group takes advantage of Oregon’s aggressiveness and inability to defend the three on the defensive end. Look for Oregon to match Jordan Bell up against Ingram because he should be able to match Ingram’s quickness and athleticism. What will inevitably be the problem for Duke (as it’s been all season) will be Oregon’s offensive weapons getting Duke’s players in foul trouble. Duke can’t keep other offenses out of the paint, so look for Oregon to get to the basket as Marshall Plumee and Ingram get into foul trouble. Oregon will pull away as we get inside 10 minutes and win this one with relative ease compared to the other games today.
Vegas Best Bets:
Miami +4 over Villanova – The Wildcats need to show they can hang with power teams outside of their conference before we put any faith in them.
Oregon -4 over Duke – The spread will be an easy one as Oregon’s lead nears or passes the double-digit mark towards the end of the game.