(1) North Carolina Tar Heels vs. (4) Butler Bulldogs
7:09 pm ET, CBS
North Carolina (29-7) is the last remnant of the ACC, the conference that was touted by many "in the know" analysts as the best in the nation. What we know now is that the "best" conference has a record of 7 wins and 8 losses, leaving the Tar Heels (who won the regular season but lost in the conference tournament final to Duke) as the lone representative. Thus, it's not a stretch to believe that North Carolina is not long for this tournament. The logic is that since every other team has from the ACC has been eliminated, how soon will the Tar Heels fall?
So far, they've had it relatively easy, dropping #16 Texas Southern in the opening round, 103-64, then disposing of a very game #8 Arkansas squad in the second round, 72-65. The Razorbacks had the Heels on their toes, leading 65-60 with under three minutes to play, but North Carolina closed out the game on a 12-0 run to survive and move forward. The Heels shot just 38.1%, the worst for a Carolina squad in the tournament since 1968.
If Carolina plays as poorly offensively as they did against the Razorbacks, Butler may make them pay dearly and send them home early. The bulldogs come out of the Big East, which sent seven teams and has only two remaining (the other, Xavier), so this could be rated as a meeting between survivors of the two most overrated conferences. If that's the case, 25-8 Butler (2nd in the Big East, 12-6), a 7 1/2-point underdog, has a very good chance of upending the Tar Heels.
Butler got through round one by defeating #13 Winthrop 76-64, and then took down a highly-touted #12 in Middle Tennessee State, 74-65. As far as tenacious is concerned, the Bulldogs are as fierce as they come. North Carolina should not expect an easy time, but this group may not be as talented as some previous NC tournament teams, and they are very young and inexperienced. Thus, anything can happen, and Butler could come out ahead.
(2) Kentucky Wildcats vs. (3) UCLA Bruins
9:39 pm ET, CBS
In what could be the best Elite Eight game of all, the Bruins and Wildcats take back seats to almost no teams in the tournament. Kentucky cruised through the SEC regular season, posting a 16-2 mark (31-5 overall), two games better than runner-up Florida, and they won the conference tournament handily as well.
What's a little disturbing about the Wildcats - other than their relative youth, though that's become a feature of most tourney teams of late - is the closeness of their two wins: 79-70 over #15 seed Norther Kentucky, a team the Wildcats should have beaten by 30; and, their 65-62 victory in the second round over #10 Wichita State, which almost pulled off a monumental upset. The Shockers, however, may have been vastly underrated, so Kentucky can get a pass on that one.
At 31-4 UCLA has the look of a team nobody really wants to be playing at this juncture, largely because of the presence of the presumptive #1 draft pick, freshman point guard Lonzo Ball, who led the nation in assists, at 7.6 per game. Scoring an average of 14.7 per outing, Ball leads a team with six double figure scorers, a rarity in the college ranks. Ball will match up against Kentucky's freshman sensation, De'Aaron Fox, who's no slouch at 4.6 assists and 14.1 points per game, but he'll have his hands full on defense against the crafty Ball. The line favors the Bruins by one, but they could win by more if Ball is all he's supposed to be.
Both conferences are well-represented. The SEC sent five teams and three are remaining (Kentucky, South Carolina, Florida). The PAC-12 holds the best record of any conference at 8-1, having sent just four teams. Only USC has bowed out, but they won two games (First Four and First Round). UCLA, Arizona and Oregon remain.
(3) Baylor Bears vs. (7) South Carolina Gamecocks
7:29 pm ET, TBS
Baylor had a very solid season, but fell short in the strong Big 12, finishing tied with West Virginia and Iowa State for second place at 12-6, behind champion Kansas. The Bears are 27-7 overall, after dusting #14 New Mexico State in the opening round, 91-73, and slipping by a better-than-advertised #11 USC, 82-78. Baylor is probably the tallest team by position in the tourney, with seven-footer, Jo Lual-Acuil Jr., and 6'10" Johnathan Motley anchoring the front line. While they may be long and lanky, the Baylor forwards are not exceptionally strong, and South Carolina brings plenty of muscle, which they used to upend undersized and heavily-favored #2 seed Duke, 88-82, after disposing of #10 Marquette, 93-73.
The Gamecocks went through the regular season in and out of the Top 25, slipping up as the regular season ended with five losses in their final eight games and then losing to Alabama in the opening round of the SEC tournament, 64-53.
But, South Carolina has rebounded well and they will hit the boards hard against Baylor. If this turns into a front court scrum, look for South Carolina to at least cover the 3 1/2-point spread and possibly win outright. Sindarius Thornwell and Chris Silva will lead the charge, but the Gamecocks are not particularly deep.
(8) Wisconsin Badgers vs. (4) Florida Gators
9:59 pm ET, TBS
The elite Eight ends with a couple of rank outsiders matching up in what should be an exciting contest. Wisconsin's main claim to fame is beating #1 seed in the East, Villanova, 65-62, in the second round, marking them as giant-killers and raising all kinds of rancor from pundits who thought the Badgers were under-seeded as a #8. While that may be true - because they did go 26-9 and were runners-up in the Big Ten to Purdue, at 12-6 - they did tie with Maryland in second, and the Terps were shuffled off in the first round by Xavier. So, there are arguments either way, but the reality is that the Badgers are big and bad and disciplined, probably moreso than the Gators, who lost consistently to Kentucky this season, but were otherwise well-regarded, also ranked in the Top 25 throughout the season.
The Gators grabbed a #4 seed and it appears to be well-deserved. In the first round, they took care of #13 East Tennessee State handily, 80-64. In the second round, the Gators chomped down on #5 Virginia, holding the Cavaliers to 29.6% shooting (16-54) in a 65-39 rout. While Virginia was not regarded by anyone as a team of sharpshooters, the Florida defense was strangulating and the same kind of effort might turn this meeting against Wisconsin into a game of first-to-50.
That kind of grinding atmosphere might be right up Badger alley, but all indication are that the two-point favorite Gators are going to advance here.
NCAA Tournament Conference Scoreboard
Through Sunday (3/19) Games
|Conference (# of teams)||Record||Winners (# of Wins)|
|ACC (9)||7-8||Notre Dame (1), Florida St. (1), Virginia (1), Louisville (1), Duke (1), North Carolina (2)|
|Big East (7)||5-5||Villanova (1), Butler (2), Xavier (2)|
|Big Ten (7)||8-4||Purdue (2), Wisconsin (2), Northwestern (1), Michigan (2), Michigan State (1)|
|Big 12 (6)||8-3||Kansas State (1), West Virginia (2), Iowa St. (1), Kansas (2), Baylor (2)|
|SEC (5)||7-2||Florida (2), Arkansas (1), Kentucky (2), South Carolina (2)|
|PAC 12 (4)||8-1||USC (2), Arizona (2), Oregon (2), UCLA (2)|
|Atlantic 10 (3)||1-3||Rhode Island (1)|
|American (2)||1-2||Cincinnati (1)|
|West Coast (2)||3-1||Gonzaga (2), St. Mary's (1)|
|All Others (23)||(4-23)||Mt. St. Mary's (1), UC Davis (1), Middle Tennessee (1), Wichita State (1)|
ESPN updated NCAA tournament bracket