Midwest and West NCAA Tourney Match-ups
With four games Thursday and four more Friday, the Sweet 16 will, by late Friday night, be reduced to the Elite Eight (and the unfortunate eight, the losers).
Thursday offers games from the West and Midwest regions, so we'll take a look at those contests today, and cover the East and South on Thursday. That way, everybody will have ample time to make their picks and either agree or throw things at College Basketball Daily's best guesses as to which teams are advancing.
(3) Oregon Ducks vs.
(7) Michigan Wolverines
(7:09 pm ET, CBS):
The Ducks come out of the PAC-10 as the runner-up in both the regular season and the conference tournament to Arizona. Oregon was ranked nationally all season, and they are currently #9 in the AP poll. Not that it should matter at this point, but Oregon has been highly-regarded all season, while the Wolverines were more or less an afterthought for an at-large bid until they won the Big Ten tournament and received the automatic bid. Otherwise, Michigan might be playing in the NIT, but, here they are, the #7 seed in the region, upsetting #2 Louisville, 73-69.
Oregon will continue to miss Chris Boucher, injured during the conference tourney, in the post, but they managed to ride the likes of Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey through wins over Iona (93-77), and Rhode Island (75-72). The Rams gave them a scare and they'd be wise to take the Wolverines very, very seriously. Michigan may just be the tournament's Cinderella team, plane crash, practice jerseys and all.
Michigan nailed 16 three-pointers and needed every one of them in their 92-91 win over #10 Oklahoma State, but proved multi-dimensional in beating the Cardinals, hitting just six from downtown. The Ducks can drain them as well, but this game may not be a shoot-around some are expecting. Look for Michigan to play better defense and exploit Oregon's inside weakness with crisp ball movement.
(1) Kansas Jayhawks vs.
(4) Purdue Boilermakers
(9:39 pm ET, CBS):
Kansas (30-4) has had its way with both opponents thus far, smashing #16 seed UC Davis, 100-62, and demoralizing Tom Izzo and his #9 seed Michigan State Spartans, 90-60, establishing the Jayhawks as the team with the largest average margin of victory remaining, at 29 points. That's usually a big factor when the tournament reaches this level, as teams that squeak by are normally eliminated by those that have routed their opponents and given subs some playing time and starters some rest.
Speaking of rest, the Jayhawks have had plenty of it, as they lost in the opening round of the Big 12 tourney but were assured a solid seed after dominating the regular season in the conference.
Kansas is led by senior Frank Mason III, an all-American if ever there was one, averaging 36.1 minutes, 20.8 points and 5.2 assists per game. His backcourt running mate, Josh Jackson is an explosive freshman, averaging 16.6 points and 7.1 boards per outing.
25-7 Purdue is not going to be bowled over by the impressive resume Kansas brings. They also won their conference - the Big Ten - handily, and lost in the opening round to - guess who? - Michigan, in the conference tournament. The Boilermakers are big inside and play a very controlled offense with few miscues. As it turns out, this may be one of the great match-ups of the tournament, with Purdue intent on controlling the paint and Kansas seeking to bomb from outside.
Oddsmakers have Kansas a 4 1/2-point favorite, but it may well be closer than that. Purdue beat #13 seed Vermont by 10 in the opening round and took down Iowa State (a thorn in the side of Kansas) 80-76. They're on a par with the Jayhawks here, but the game is really too close to call. Instinct says go with the #1 seed; emotion says pray for the underdog.
(1) Gonzaga Bulldogs vs. (4) West Virginia Mountaineers
(7:39 pn ET, TBS)
Gonzaga (34-1) has been ranked in the top five all season and were undefeated until they lost the very last game of the season to BYU, 79-71. Apparently, the Zags just brushed it off, winning the WCC tournament with three straight wins, topping St. Mary's (for the third time this season) in the final, 74-56.
The Bulldogs whipped #16 South Dakota State by 20 in the opening round, then dispatched #8 Northwestern, 79-73, to move into this round. That game against the Wildcats may have been a tell for the Zags, as the knock on them is that they do not come from a major conference, thus, their gaudy record is unconvincing. Maybe so, but their non-conference schedule was not for the feint of heart, with Arizona, Tennessee, Florida, Iowa State and Washington in the mix, and they beat them all.
Gonzaga has been close before, but, with the field thinned down and the demise of the ACC, this could be their year.
West Virginia didn't scare anybody all season, but they finished tied with Baylor for second place in the Big 12, with a record of 12-6, and they were 28-8 overall, plus, they have the distinct advantage of being coached by one of the greats, Bob Higgins, who rose to fame with Cincinnati. Of course, Gonzaga's Mark Few is certainly no slouch, so this game may mark a high point in coaching acuity. The Mountaineers, who lost in their conference tournament final to Iowa State, have shown the ability to tear up opponent's game plans with a deep, nine or ten-man rotation and scathing defense. They may have had a case of nervousness when they beat Bucknell, 86-80 in their opener, but showed all their skills dominating #5 Notre Dame, 83-71.
West Virginia is a three-point underdog, which is acceptable, but they can beat the Zags if they're on from three-point land. They have four players, including starters Esa Ahmad and Jevon Carter, who can hit at nearly 40% from beyond the arc. If Gonzaga gives up open looks, the Mountaineers will make them pay.
(2) Arizona Wildcats vs.
(11) Xavier Musketeers
(10:09 pm ET, TBS)
Of all the metch-ups presented for Thursday night, this one looks to be the most lopsided and the oddsmakers agree, installing the Arizona Wildcats as 8-point favorites. That's not unexpected, as Xavier, a #11 seed is the highest (or lowest, according to your own perspective) seed in the Sweet 16. The Musketeers are the one of the two remaining teams from the seven sent by the Big East, which included #1 seed and last year's champion, Villanova, so perhaps the Big East wasn't as "big" as the selection committee thought.
However, Xavier is a scrappy bunch, checking in with a 23-13 mark, after going just 9-9 in conference. In a way, the Musketeers simply shouldn't be here. They lost six straight near the end of the regular season, but then won two games in the Big East tourney before falling to Creighton in the semis. Once into the NCAA tournament, however, Xavier raised its game, taking down Maryland, 76-65, in the first round, then absolutely crushing Florida State, 91-66, to reach this level.
Arizona is another story altogether. They conquered the PAC-12 both in the regular season and in the conference tournament, having to deal with top-notch squads from UCLA and Oregon en route. Their 32-4 record includes tournament wins over #15 North Dakota, 100-82, and #7 St. Mary's, 69-60, the same team the #1 seed in the West, Gonzaga, whipped three times this season, so the Wildcats have taken measure of what may be their ultimate opponent in the region.
That does not mean they can look past Xavier. The Wildcats can play inside and out, especially with their resident Finnish frosh, Lauri Markkanen, who is a double-double match-up nightmare, capable of stroking it from the outside or taking to the hole. He averages 15.8 points and 7.2 rebounds and hits threes at a .433 rate. Allonzo Trier is the leading scoring, putting down 17.1 per game. The Wildcats go nine deep and they an all play. As a team they hit at 39.6% from three-point range. Look out. They'll beat the Musketeers and maybe win the whole shooting match.
Tomorrow: East and South Region Previews