Three No. 1 seeds, endless optimism among Sweet 16 teams
MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin’s win over defending national champion and overall No. 1 seed Villanova shook up office pools around the country, though the tested Badgers aren’t a typical No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Eleventh-seeded Xavier might be a surprise team in the regional semifinals, but with their 3-point prowess, the Musketeers are capable of shooting their way past any opponent.
At this stage of the NCAAs, every team left is brimming with confidence. No team seems unbeatable to even the most unlikely Cinderella.
Anything can happen in the Sweet 16.
“A chip-on-your-shoulder mentality usually helps in sports and competitive situations,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said after his team ousted third-seeded Florida State in the second round. “So if it’s working, count us as (an) 11 seed.”
Two more victories for Wisconsin and the Badgers’ senior class will have advanced to a very impressive third Final Four in four seasons.
“We’ve talked about the legacy we want to leave,” senior guard Bronson Koenig said Monday. “Getting to another Final Four has been one of those goals we’ve been talking about since last season. It would be a really cool thing if we can get there.”
A look at the matchups in the Sweet 16:
No. 8 seed Wisconsin (27-9) vs. No. 4 seed Florida (26-8): The Gators used a stingy defense and a 21-0 run to rout Virginia in the second round. The Badgers got into offensive ruts this year, especially during a stretch of five losses in six games toward the end of the regular season. But Koenig, the team’s best shooter and facilitator, appears to be healthy again. Nigel Hayes, another veteran of the team’s Final Four runs, is coming off a big game against Villanova .
Prediction: Another clutch shot by Koenig helps Wisconsin win another thriller, 67-65.
No. 7 seed South Carolina (24-10) vs. No. 3 seed Baylor (27-7 ): More defense in the East. The Gamecocks are 32nd in Division I in giving up 65.2 points per game. The Bears are 21st, allowing 63.5 points, and featuring athletic ability and depth. But the way South Carolina stormed past Duke , albeit in its home state, was impressive.
Prediction: Sindarius Thornwell capitalizes on another showcase opportunity, Gamecocks win 78-74.
No. 4 seed West Virginia (28-8) vs. No. 1 seed Gonzaga (34-1): “Press” Virginia has scoring punch, too. The Mountaineers are getting strong play in the backcourt , which is especially crucial in March. Gonzaga hasn’t exactly overwhelmed opponents so far in the tournament. The Bulldogs counter with one of the tourney’s top point guards in Nigel Williams-Goss , who had 20 points, eight rebounds and four assists in the win over Northwestern.
Prediction: Bulldogs take another step closer to getting to their first Final Four, win 78-70.
No. 11 seed Xavier (23-13) vs. No. 2 seed Arizona (32-4): Wildcats coach Sean Miller’s former team against his current team. The Musketeers are following Trevon Bluiett’s lead into the Sweet 16 in an impressive run without point guard Edmond Sumner (torn ACL in January), with victories over Maryland and Florida State. They shot 64 percent from 3-point range against the Seminoles. Arizona shot 59 percent in the second half of a second-round win against St. Mary’s after a sluggish first half.
Prediction: Allonzo Trier and Lauri Markkanen prove to be too much for Xavier, Arizona bears down for an 80-67 win.
No. 4 seed Butler (25-8) vs. No. 1 seed North Carolina (29-7): The Bulldogs don’t seem to do any one thing well; they just figure out ways to win games . The defense is solid, and Butler is shooting 47 percent from 3-point range in the tourney. The Tar Heels are 10th in the nation in scoring (85.1 points) but had to hold off Arkansas in the second round. A team with three returnees who were on the court last year for Villanova’s title-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer is also eager to get back to the Final Four.
Prediction: Tar Heels overcome another scare, 74-66.
No. 3 seed UCLA (31-4) vs. No. 2 Kentucky (31-5): Rematch! UCLA won the teams’ first meeting on Dec. 3, 97-92. Fast forward to March, and UCLA’s Lonzo Ball is on a roll . The star freshman played so well in the second half of the second-round win over Cincinnati, it looked as if he could carry the Bruins all the way to the Final Four. But relying on freshmen talent is part of Kentucky’s blueprint, and coach John Calipari has another team filled with NBA prospects. Plus, Calipari is a Sweet 16 regular with Kentucky in the regionals for the seventh time in nine seasons.
Prediction: Kentucky outlasts UCLA in a matchup worthy of the Final Four, 86-85.
No. 4 seed Purdue (27-7) vs. No. 1 seed Kansas (30-4): Double-double machine Caleb Swanigan helped the Boilermakers get a pair of solid wins in the first two rounds over Vermont and Iowa State. Taking down another Big 12 team, Kansas, in Kansas City will be a tall order. Guard Frank Mason III is averaging 21 points a game in the tourney.
Prediction: Kansas overcomes Swanigan’s broad shoulders, beats another Big Ten school, 80-70.
No. 7 seed Michigan (26-11) vs. No. 3 seed Oregon (31-5): The Wolverines have won seven straight games, six coming after a scary accident on the way to the Big Ten Tournament. They’ve proven that they can hit from the outside as well as score with big man Moe Wagner . Oregon held off Rhode Island’s upset bid to move on. Tyler Dorsey is averaging 23.6 points over his last five games, but the Ducks have been playing without senior big man Chris Boucher. He paired with Jordan Bell to give Oregon a pair of athletic shot-blockers.
Prediction: Momentum carries Michigan to a 75-74 victory.
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