NCAA Tournament Friday Night Sweet 16 Picks – March 25, 2016

March 25, 2016 on 11:53 pm | In College Basketball | No Comments

We’re back for our second blog entry of this Sweet 16 for the 2016 NCAA Basketball Tournament.  Our picks went 3-1 on Thursday night with the lone blemish being Miami falling to Villanova, although I don’t feel too bad about it since the Hurricanes became the first team in the history of the tourney to shoot over 50% from the field and lose by more than 20.  Villanova was just that good, shooting lights out the whole night.

Nova, like the other three winners – Oklahoma, Kansas and Oregon – prevailed by double-digits as the drama was pretty much kept to a minimum on Thursday compared to the action-packed Round of 32 games played on Sunday.

Let’s go through Friday night’s picks now . . .

Hat’s Friday Night Picks:

#1 Virginia (28-7) vs. #4 Iowa State (23-11) . . . The Cavaliers are looking to get to the Elite Eight for the first time in 21 years and they are well positioned to do it, though they have to hold off an Iowa State team that can score it in bunches.  Against Iona in the first round, the Cyclones put up 94 points and then got held to 78 in the second round by Little Rock, though Monte Morris locked up scoring sensation Josh Hagins.  UVA counters with the #2 ranked defense in the nation – behind only Wichita State – and they are led by Malcolm Brogdon, who scored 22 points against Butler and was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year.  Tony Bennett’s Cavs must be able to contain Georges Niang, who’s coming off back-to-back 28-point efforts.  Not only do the Cyclones have to worry about Brogdon, but also 6′8″ South Carolina transfer Anthony Gill in the front-court and guard London Perrantes, due for a breakout game, in the backcourt.  Pick – UVA 66-63.

#6 Notre Dame (23-11) vs. #7 Wisconsin (22-12) . . . Some didn’t see either of these two teams getting to the Round of 32.  Even fewer had them squaring off in the Sweet 16.  But Wisconsin is here after seeing their top scorers in Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker graduate from a season ago, while Notre Dame found its way to this point, despite the departures of Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton.  Grant and Connaughton combined for 29PPG a season ago.  The key in this game to me will be whether or not Wisconsin’s front-line duo of senior Nigel Hayes and freshman Ethan Happ can keep Zach Auguste, who has 21 double-doubles on the year, from dominating in the paint.  Notre Dame has shown a bit more explosiveness offensively, and if the Badgers don’t get another stellar outside shooting performance from guard Bronson Koenig (the guy that was 6-12 from 3 against Xavier and hit the game-winner), it’ll be a tall order for them to reach their third straight Elite eight.  Pick – Notre Dame 72-65.

#10 Syracuse (21-13) vs. #11 Gonzaga (28-7) … It’s the first Sweet 16 appearance for Syracuse since 2013, whereas Gonzaga believe it or not ranks up there with the best when it comes to getting this far in the tourney as Mark Few’s bunch is making its seventh Sweet 16 since 1999.  Jim Boeheim’s Orange got here by beating #7 seed Dayton and then #15 seed Middle Tennessee, the most surprising Round of 32 team after its shocker of Michigan State.  So much has been made of the vaunted 2-3 Syracuse zone defense and rightfully so as they have great length and versatility to bottle up most any offense out there.  However, what is being undersold a bit in my opinion is the Gonzaga defense, which held both Utah and Seton Hall – two teams with plenty of firepower – below 60 points in this NCAA Tournament.  So while most will be focused on how that Syracuse defense contains Domantas Sabonis, Kyle Wiltjer (an ex-Kentucky forward), Eric McClellan (an ex-Vanderbilt guard) and the rest of the Zags, to me this comes down to what Syracuse’s offense does.  Michael Gibinije and 6′6″ freshman Malachi Richmond will dictate what type of success the Orange have on that end.  Pick – Gonzaga 73-70 (OT)

#1 North Carolina (30-6) vs. #5 Indiana (27-7) . . . This game is fascinating on so many levels.  Some feel it might even get into the high 80’s or low 90’s with the score since both are so potent offensively.  UNC handled a Providence team with a potential lottery pick in Kris Dunn in the second round, whereas Indiana took down a Kentucky team that is annually chock full of pros these days under John Calipari.  Brice Johnson has been a stud all year long for the Tar Heels, registering 21 double-doubles and powering a strong front-court.  Indiana’s isn’t quite as formidable up front, but freshman Thomas Bryant was tremendous against Kentucky and flashed his pro potential.  If he duplicates that effort, the Hoosiers have a great chance.  The Heels must be able to contain Indiana’s three-point shooting game and hope that the guard match between Yogi Ferrell and Marcus Paige turns out to be a wash.  The Heels aren’t as dependent on 3’s falling to win a high-scoring affair as the Hoosiers and that could be the difference.  Pick – UNC 82-76

More on the UNC/Indiana game with my thoughts included on Tar Heel Illustrated here..

NCAA Tournament Thursday Night Sweet 16 Picks – March 24, 2016

March 24, 2016 on 11:34 pm | In College Basketball | No Comments

What a wild 2016 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament it has been to this point, narrowing the field down from 68 to the Sweet 16.  There are some compelling matchups remaining with no Cinderella story really left, but the first two first rounds more than captivated the nation to where if the remaining rounds are just as good, this will go down as a March Madness to remember.

In the first round, there were 10 double-digit seeds that advanced – the most ever.  It also marked the first time ever that a #13, #14 and #15 seed won on the same day.  But they paled in comparison to what happened on Sunday in the Round of 32, where there were five games decided by five points or less.  That included the amazing finish between Wisconsin and Xavier, where the Badgers won a buzzer-beating three-pointer and the single biggest comeback in NCAA Tournament history with a minute or less remaining as Texas A&M stormed back to stun Northern Iowa in double-overtime , remarkably after trailing by 12 with just 35 seconds to go.

Let’s dive into Thursday’s Sweet 16 games, but first, let’s begin by ranking the games in the Sweet 16 from most interesting to least . . .

Hat’s Sweet 16 Barometer:  Most Fascinating to Least

No. 1 – #1 UNC vs. #4 Indiana… These are two of the most storied programs in College Basketball history.  They’ve met twice before in the NCAA Tournament with Indiana winning both meetings, including when Isiah Thomas led the Hoosiers to a National Championship in 1981.  Two of the most prolific offenses in the entire NCAA Tournament go at it in what has the makings to be a game good enough for the Final Four or Elite Eight taking place in the regional semifinals.  Hard to trump that..

No. 2 – #2 Villanova vs. #3 Miami (FL)… The backcourt matchup in this one is worth the price of admission alone.  Villanova is led by Ryan Arcidiacono, who Head Coach Jay Wright basically calls a carbon copy of himself.  Miami’s Angel Rodriguez was sensational in their second round victory over Wichita State, scoring a career-high 28 points on 9-of-11 shooting as the Canes went from up 21 to down a point before holding off a seasoned Shockers team by eight

No. 3 – #10 Syracuse vs. #11 Gonzaga… A double-digit seed will be playing in the Elite Eight and it’ll be the winner of this game.  You have the vaunted 2-3 Syracuse zone with their great length against a Gonzaga team that is no short order either, led by 6′10″ sophomore Domantas Sabonis, son of Basketball Hall of Famer Arvydas Sabonis.  Both were dominant in Round of 32 wins; Syracuse over upset-minded Middle Tennessee (which stunned tourney co-favorite Michigan St.) and Gonzaga throttling a quality Utah team.  If each plays to their potential, this one might produce a buzzer-beating finish.

No. 4 – #2 Oklahoma vs. #3 Texas A&M… This one shouldn’t be slept on as it is two old Big 12 rivals squaring off and the favorite for National Player of the Year – Buddy Hield of Oklahoma – taking center stage.  Hield was magnificent in the team’s 85-81 second round over VCU with 36 points – 29 in the second half – on 11-of-20 shooting from the field with six treys and seven boards.  A&M’s comeback was one for the ages and Danuel House is out to show he’s a household name (see what I did there?) as he ignited the rally vs. Northern Iowa.

No. 5 – #1 Virginia vs. #4 Iowa State… You have a UVA team that is one of the best in the nation defensively against an Iowa State squad that has three-point shooting prowess, having made 10 or more 3’s on nine occasions over the past 13 games.  Tony Bennett has the Cavs in a position to reach the Final Four for the first time since 1984, the days of Ralph Sampson.  Meanwhile, Iowa St. comes in with arguably the best player on the court in Georges Niang, who scored 28 points in each of his team’s first two tourney wins.

No. 6 – #1 Oregon vs. #4 Duke… Just about any other year, it would be Duke favored to win this game.  Instead, the top-seeded Ducks area a slight favorite against the reigning National Champs, who lean heavily on the 1-2 punch of projected lottery pick Brandon Ingram and Grayson Allen.  That duo combined for 54 points in a 71-64 win over Yale, where a 27-point lead shrunk all the way down to three late in the game.  Oregon tied a school-record for wins with 30, which the 1944-45 team also accomplished, and is the least ballyhooed #1 seed in the tourney in part because they play on the West Coast if you ask me.

No. 7 – #1 Kansas vs. #5 Maryland… In terms of competitiveness, this one has the biggest potential to be a blowout in my opinion as Maryland was fortunate not to let a late lead against #12 seed South Dakota State late in the game slip away and had to rally past #13 seed Hawaii in the second round.  Kansas is a co-favorite with UNC to win the tourney at this point.  Bill Self’s Jayhawks have shellacked their first two foes in the tourney by a combined 38 points, and it really hasn’t even been that close.

No. 8 – #6 Notre Dame vs. #7 Wisconsin… This would be a great football game and would’ve been an even better basketball matchup in the NCAA Tournament if it happened last year when Wisconsin had the duo of Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker that fell to Duke in the National Championship, while Notre Dame lost a heart-breaker in 2015 to Kentucky in the Elite Eight.  Both got here on game-winners; Bronson Koenig for Wisconsin and freshman backup Rex Pflueger (not to be confused with former pro wrestler Lex Luger) for Notre Dame.  Neither plays a real attractive style, and while none of the games figure to be boring, we anticipated getting #2 Xavier vs. #3 West Virginia facing each other here instead of these two.

Hat’s Thursday Night Picks:

#2 Villanova (31-5) vs. #3 Miami (27-7) – This is the hardest Sweet 16 game for me to call as I see it coming right down to the wire.  Where’s the edge?  Miami can control the backboards better if Tonye Jekiri, the 7-footer, stays out of foul trouble.  Rodriguez also is good enough to make a play to win the game late if given the chance.  It is worth noting that both teams got off to great starts in the Round of 32, but Miami has had some trouble holding onto leads and Villanova has the guards – Arcidiacono, Jalen Bruson, Josh Hart, etc. – to make a comeback.  Pick – Miami 73-72.

#2 Oklahoma (27-7) vs. #3 Texas A&M (28-8) – The Aggies go through some lulls shooting the basketball, as seen to close out the first half vs. Northern Iowa where they went 1-of-15 going to intermission down 10.  Oklahoma isn’t prone to as many cold spells, and their confidence probably grew from building a 21-7 lead vs. VCU with Hield in foul trouble and off to the slow start as it allowed – and forced - guys like Jordan Woodard, Isaiah Cousins and pick-and-pop forward Ryan Spangler – to have to make plays.  Pick – Oklahoma 76-68.

#1 Kansas (32-4) vs. #5 Maryland (27-8) – In some publications, Maryland was rated as high as #1 in the preseason with a boatload of talent at Mark Turgeon’s disposal with playmaking guard Melo Trimble, shot-maker Jake Layman and Diamond Stone on the inside to headline the Terps.  But they’ve had some maddening inconsistencies which include turnover issues, defensive rebounding lapses and most of all really struggled shooting from three-point distance in the second round vs. Hawaii as they went 1-of-18 behind the arc.  Kansas held UCONN to 34% shooting and the Jayhawks know how to get it done defensively. Pick – Kansas 76-64.

#1 Oregon (30-6) vs. #4 Duke (25-10) – Shot-blocking was key for Oregon in its win over St. Joseph’s and the Ducks saw two underclassmen – freshman Tyler Dorsey and sophomore Dillon Brooks – make a couple of critical 3’s late to put them up when they were trailing.  Will Duke have that third scoring option step up to help out Ingram and Allen?  That’s a big question, as well as their defense that had some breakdowns against both UNCW and Yale earlier in the tourney.  As long as Oregon is able to beat the Blue Devils off the dribble and not turn it over, they have the components it takes to beat Coach K’s bunch.  Pick – Oregon 77-73.

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