The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament is in the books, and that means the field has been whittled from 64 to 16.
For the most part, the cream has risen to the top, though there are a few surprises. Most notably, top seed and defending national champion Villanova was sent packing by Wisconsin, while betting favorite Duke fell to South Carolina.
Outside of no. 11 Xavier, however, none of the other 16 teams is a huge surprise. Wisconsin was pegged as a top-15 team at the start of the year, and South Carolina is an elite defensive squad that had de facto home-court advantage. The rest of the teams are all no. 4 seeds or better.
Will the cream continue to rise in the Sweet 16? Here’s my take on the early betting lines.
Sweet 16 ATS Picks
West Virginia vs. Gonzaga (-3)
Location: San Jose (Thursday, March 23, 7:39 PM ET)
The Mountaineers are 28-8 following tournament wins over Bucknell (86-80) and Notre Dame (83-71). WVU went 12-6 in the Big 12, tied with Baylor and Iowa State for second place behind Kansas. Bob Huggins is 4-3 in Sweet 16 games. With their full-court press style, the Mountaineers are number one in the NCAA in steals, turnovers forced, and turnover margin. They are also terrific on the offensive glass. The cons: they foul a lot and don’t shoot free throws well.
Gonzaga’s lone loss came at home to BYU, and they improved their mark to 34-1 overall with wins over South Dakota State (66-46) and Northwestern (79-73) in Salt Lake City over the weekend. The Zags beat Florida, Iowa State, and Arizona in non-conference games during the regular season. They are solid at both ends of the court, ranking in the top 15 in the NCAA in scoring offense and scoring defense, and top five in field-goal percentage and field-goal defense. The cons: coach Mark Few is 1-6 in the Sweet 16.
The Play: West Virginia (+3).
West Virginia was able to consistently turnover Notre Dame, the least turnover prone team in the country. Gonzaga has not seen pressure like they will on Thursday, and Few’s record in these games gives me little confidence.
Xavier vs. Arizona
Location: San Jose (Thursday, March 23,10:09 PM ET)
An 11-seed that stumbled into the tournament, Xavier surprisingly won its first two NCAA Tournament games relatively easily, beating Maryland (76-65) and routing Florida State (91-66). The Musketeers were just 9-9 in Big East play (seventh), but have 23 total wins and have rallied recently despite missing guard Edmond Sumner, who is injured and out for the season. Sumner was second on the team in scoring and led XU in assists. Solid rebounding and the phenomenal play of Trevon Bluiett has masked Sumner’s absence in the tournament. However, the Musketeers remain inconsistent on defense and Chris Mack is 0-3 in the Sweet 16.
Arizona took a share of the Pac-12 regular season title before winning the conference tournament. They are now 32-4 this year after blowing out North Dakota (100-82) and getting by Saint Mary’s (69-60) in the big dance. The Wildcats four losses all came against quality teams: Butler, Gonzaga, Oregon, and UCLA. Coach Sean Miller, who spent five years coaching Xavier, is 4-2 in the Sweet 16. The Cats withstood much of the year without top scorer, Allonzo Trier, and have been excellent since his return. Aside from not forcing a lot of turnovers, Arizona does just about everything well.
The Play: Arizona (-7.5)
Xavier’s run has been terrific, but the Cats have the better, deeper roster and Sean Miller is perhaps the best coach never to reach the Final Four. Zona will also have the crowd on its side in California.
Michigan vs. Oregon
Location: Kansas City (Thursday, March 23, 7:09 PM ET)
For being one of the best coaches in the country, Michigan’s John Beilein sure doesn’t get mentioned often. He is 3-1 in the Sweet 16, and has won nearly 700 career games while boasting a winning percentage well over .600. The Wolverines won a tight game with Oklahoma State to move into the round of 32, and punched their ticket to KC by upsetting Louisville (73-69). That comes after running the table in the Big Ten Tournament. As always with Beilein teams, Michigan is great at shooting and rarely turns the ball over, but is mediocre on defense and frequently gets out-rebounded.
Oregon probably moved from a two-seed to a three-seed because of the injury to shot-blocker and third-leading scorer Chris Boucher (torn ACL). The Ducks only two losses since the start of February are to fellow Sweet 16 squads, UCLA and Arizona. They beat Iona (93-77) to start the tournament and squeaked by Rhode Island (75-72) in the second round. Oregon is very balanced between offense and defense, but thoroughly average at the free-throw line and on the offensive glass. Coach Dana Altman is 1-1 in the Sweet 16.
Prediction: Oregon (+1)
Both teams can score at a high level, so who is going to get stops? The Ducks were unquestionably better with Boucher as their last line of defense. Without him, this is a toss up game. But Oregon can still run out a better defensive lineup than Michigan and that will be huge late in what should be a tight game.
Purdue vs. Kansas
Location: Kansas City (Thursday, March 23, 9:39 PM ET)
The Boilermakers won what now appears to have been a pretty good Big Ten by two games. After beating Vermont (80-70) to start the tournament, they got by Iowa State (80-76) to reach the Sweet 16. Purdue has just two losses since the start of February, both to Michigan, a fellow Sweet 16 squad. They knock down shots at a high percentage thanks, in part, to get ball movement (over 18 assists/game). Coach Matt Painter is 0-2 in the Sweet 16, though.
Compare that to Kansas coach Bill Self, who is 8-3 in the Sweet 16. His Jayhawks crushed UC Davis to start the tournament and were very strong late against Michigan State, running away with a 90-70 win on Sunday. The Jayhawks played a ton of close games this year, but almost always came out on top and now have 30 wins on their resume. Surprisingly, for a team that shoots so well (48.7-percent), Kansas struggles at the free-throw line (67.6-percent).
The Play: Purdue (+4.5)
Kansas has better players, but they tend to play close games when they meet competitive teams. They pulled away from Michigan State, but that contest was tight for more than 30 minutes. Purdue is a mature, veteran squad. They should keep it close.
South Carolina vs. Baylor
Location: New York (Friday, March 24, 7:29 PM ET)
If Wisconsin’s win over Villanova wasn’t the biggest upset so far, then South Carolina’s 88-81 win over Duke is. The Gamecocks had not won a tournament game in over four decades, never mind two of them, prior to Friday’s 20-point destruction of Marquette. During the regular season, South Carolina was 12-6 in the SEC, tied for third with Arkansas. The Gamecocks are very strong on defense and force a ton of turnovers. Frank Martin is 1-0 in the Sweet 16, dating back to his time at Kansas State.
One of the more frequent upset picks in this year’s bracket was those thinking Baylor, who lost in the first round each of the last two seasons, would be retreating to Waco once again. Instead, the Bears were challenged by both New Mexico State and USC, but found a way. They blew away the Aggies in the second half, winning 91-73. On Sunday, they held off the spunky Trojans (82-78). The Bears are very strong on defense, particularly blocking shots. Coach Scott Drew is 2-1 in the Sweet 16.
The Play: South Carolina (+4)
These two blue-collar teams are likely to play a competitive, hard-hitting game. Both coaches are solid if not spectacular. I’ll take the points in a game that ought to be close.
Wisconsin vs. Florida
Location: New York (Friday, March 24, 9:59 PM ET)
The eighth-seeded Badgers pulled the biggest upset of the tournament, knocking off no. 1-overall seed Villanova with a 65-62 victory on Saturday. That followed an 84-74 win over Virginia Tech 84-74. Wisconsin made a good run in the Big Ten tournament, dominating Indiana and Northwestern before falling to Michigan in the championship game.
A late-season collapse saw Wisconsin tie for second with Maryland in the regular season. All the problems that led to that skid seem to be in the past. They’ve gotten back to what they do well in the tourney, defending tenaciously and hitting the glass hard. Their strength is in their bigs, however, and defending the three-point line is their Achilles heel at times. Head coach Greg Gard is 0-1 in the Sweet 16, losing in his first season last year.
Florida finished the SEC season in second, two games behind Kentucky and two ahead of South Carolina and Arkansas. The Gators beat East Tennessee State (80-65) in their first tournament game, and impressively shut down Virginia (65-39) on Saturday. The team is strong in a wide variety of ways, particularly defending the three and generating turnovers (over 15/game). Coach Mike White is in his first NCAA tournament.
The Play: Wisconsin (+1.5)
Wisconsin has veterans like Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig who have been in big games like this throughout their careers. This is a toss up game on paper, but experience and toughness lead me to like the Badgers.
Butler vs North Carolina
Location: Memphis (Friday, March 24, 7:09 PM ET)
For the first time since going to the championship game in back-to-back years in 2010 and 2011, Butler is in the Sweet 16. They beat Villanova twice during the regular season, and earned a 12-point victory over Winthrop and an 11-point win over Middle Tennessee State last weekend in Milwaukee. The Bulldogs are solid across the board, with a particularly strong ability to shoot two pointers and avoid turnovers. Coach Chris Holtmann has never been in the Sweet 16.
The Tar Heels rolled Texas Southern but then needed some questionable officiating to get by Arkansas. Regardless, they now have 29 victories on the season and just two losses since the end of January (two against Duke and one to Miami). They lead the country in rebounding margin, and are among the top 10 in scoring and assists per game. Roy Williams is 12-5 in Sweet 16 action.
The Play: Butler (+7)
Butler has a veteran team that tends to play close games. North Carolina has better athletes, but that is nothing new for the Bulldogs. While UNC is the better team, laying seven is too many points.
UCLA vs. Kentucky
Location: Memphis (Friday, March 24, 9:39 PM ET)
The Bruins are 31-4, but the win that put them on the national radar was their 97-92 victory at Kentucky in early December. The Bruins shot 53-percent in that game and hit ten three pointers. During the NCAA Tournament, UCLA struggled a little early on against Kent State and Cincinnati, but wound up winning both games by double-digits. Their only loss since the start of February came against Arizona in the Pac-12 Tournament. The Bruins are the top team in the country in scoring, shooting, and assists. Coach Steve Alford is 0-3 in the Sweet 16, though.
John Calipari reached at least the Elite Eight in his first three years with Kentucky, and he’s been twice in the last four years, as well. All told, he is 10-2 in Sweet 16 contests dating back to his time at UMass in the 90s. Kentucky grinded through a 79-70 win over Northern Kentucky in the first round, and then fended off a challenge from Wichita State (65-62) on Sunday. Four of five losses this year came against ranked foes. Kentucky has a high octane offense, gets to the free-throw line a lot, and block a ton of shots. Their biggest weakness is a lack of a consistent three-point threat outside of Malik Monk.
The Play: Kentucky (-2)
The better defensive team will win this game, since both can really fill it up. Kentucky’s ability to block shots (see the last minute of the Wichita State game) plus Cal’s record in the Sweet 16 and the best traveling fan-base in the country gives UK the edge.
Photo Credit: Andrew Gillette [http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0].