The Runner Sports

2017 NCAA Tournament: Sweet 16

Oh how sweet it is to be on to weekend two. The Sweet 16. After an opening round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament that lulled viewers and top programs alike, lacking any major upsets, the opening weekend had something left to say. Just one double-digit seed remains in the field entering the second weekend, but a number of unexpected upsets took place in the Round of 32. Top-seeded Villanova took a tumble, and another pair of 2 seeds wiped out as Duke and Louisville were left stunned. Xavier remains the lone “Cinderella” after knocking off Florida State.

Brackets shattered, round by round play already disheartening, we chug along undeterred.

 

#1 Kansas Jayhawks vs #4 Purdue Boilermakers

Michigan State briefly rediscovered themselves after a less than stellar year, but the high-flying Jayhawks proved their first round dominance was no fluke, storming to an easy 90-70 win.

The Boilermakers have shown they can overcome a little bit of it all with their disposal of the Cyclones on Saturday. The Cyclones hit 50% from the field, but Purdue locked down and held Iowa State without a converted field goal in almost the entire final five minutes of the game.

Between Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas Purdue boasts a pretty mean size advantage on their opponents. They average a +7 rebound margin and have bested their foes on the glass 76-56 over the first two rounds. Swanigan’s a fierce scorer as well, he’s got 36 points through the tourney, with 21 of his 30 shot attempts coming from inside the arc. He’s hitting 44% when he does decide to step out, however, posing a big threat to big men who are forced to guard the two-way talent.

Kansas’ offense has been paced by Frank Mason III, and while plenty of action comes from the Jayhawks’ quad-guard set, center Landen Lucas can hang with the best. They’re also a great rebounding team considering their preferred lineup. Kansas was acrobatic in their opener and reintroduced their dangerous shooters a bit more against Sparty.

In a normal circumstance, Purdue’s big men would like quite daunting, but Kansas’ scorers will spread the attack and leave the Boilermakers spinning in circles.

Prediction: Kansas

 

#1 North Carolina Tar Heels vs #4 Butler Bulldogs

It’s been a rough go for ACC teams, and North Carolina bears the weight of the entire conference at this point. Arkansas posed a real scare, and they should be trembling ever so slightly at the thought of this tenacious Butler team.

It was a shame to see the Bulldogs put away the exciting Middle Tennessee squad, but their play might be just as thrilling to catch against a talented UNC squad.

Arkansas gave Butler a solid blueprint of how to disrupt the Tar Heels. After shooting 50.7% against Texas Southern, UNC crashed back to Earth and hit just 38.1% against the Razorbacks.

Meanwhile, Butler’s been lighting it up this March; shooting 48-of-96 from the field, and 16-of-34 from three.

Butler is 3-2 all-time against the Tar Heels, including a win the last time the two met in 2014.

A repeat struggle from UNC against this Butler squad would certainly spell doom, but this is a team that’s done very well to not string multiple poor performances together this season.

The Tar Heel have dominated the boards so far in the tournament with a +20 rebounding advantage over their pair of outings. While Butler’s been no slouch in that manner, this game will test their fortitude.

With the weight of the conference, I think the Tar Heels crumble to a fun Bulldogs team that might make some headlines out of the South region.

Prediction: Butler

#1 Gonzaga Bulldogs vs #4 West Virginia Mountaineers

The Mountaineers took advantage of a little St. Paddy’s hangover from the Irish and overwhelmed their small lineup with their press and size.

Gonzaga looks to bury a sea of haters, a body of water I very much remain a part of. The Bulldogs benefited from one of the three worst calls seen in the 2017 NCAA Tournament so far, one that very well might have just robbed an awesome story out from under Northwestern. They still have plenty to prove, and nothing gets easier from here.

West Virginia’s press had been well undervalued until they put a stop to a very good Notre Dame team. It’ll absolutely be the most taxing defense that Gonzaga has seen this season.

The Bulldogs live and die on their ability to score the ball. Without defense to fall back on, slowing down this team is priority number one.  And this disruptive bunch could do just that. WVU has put together 13 steals in this tournament, but almost more importantly forced 28 turnovers in two games.

The two last met in 2012, when Gonzaga thrashed the Mountaineers 77-54 in the opening round of tournament play.

Gonzaga has no doubt faced the easiest path as a 1 seed yet, not to entirely write off Northwestern and South Dakota St.

West Virginia likes to create havoc with their defense, and they’ll need to do just that. Continue to chase Gonzaga off the three and you’ll quickly find yourself hanging right there with them. Fail to do so, and the high-octane offense could leave you behind. Gonzaga has shot just 26% from three so far, yet still scored 72.5 PPG.

While Gonzaga isn’t going to be shown up in size quite like the advantage the Mountainers held over Notre Dame, their ability to handle the press pressure will be what ultimately undoes them.

Prediction: West Virginia

#2 Kentucky Wildcats vs #3 UCLA Bruins

Awakened from their tighter than expected first round game against Northern Kentucky, the Wildcats were primed and ready for a thriller with Wichita State.

UCLA’s got plenty of buzz, heightened around the polarizing Lonzo Ball. His father might quickly be turning the country against the Ball camp, but Lonzo’s actual on-court performances have continued to impress. Even with a father who blames a high school coach for being selfish with his game plan, Lonzo very much remains a team player, and it’s UCLA’s biggest advantage. As long as he doesn’t deviate from that and keep the offense flowing, this is a scary game. There’s lots of talk about how this game could catapult Ball into the top pick in the draft. More so than what he accomplishes on the court, his play will tell more about him than anything yet as an all around player, namely how he handles the talking buzz about him.

This is a showdown between two of the blue bloods of college basketball, and I’m not just talking about their color schemes. It’s also a look at the next crop of NBA talent, as both sides boast a plethora of association hopefuls.

These are two high-scoring offenses, but Kentucky gets the slight nod defensively. It’s not the towering defense we’ve seen in recent years, but John Calipari doesn’t just let his team take half the game off.

UCLA eked out a thrilling victory when the two sides met earlier this season, but there’s not accounting for prior actions in March. Kentucky showed their ugly side in their opener, and while they appeared to shake it off against Wichita State, that initial outing was concerning.

The Bruins prove to be just too much. They’re a spread attack with an exciting center piece. Who know how high this score goes, and expect it to be narrow, but UCLA takes it again.

Prediction: UCLA

#2 Arizona Wildcats vs #11 Xavier Musketeers

St. Mary’s offense gave plenty of challenge to the Wildcats, but ultimately Arizona pulled away with some solid crunch time play.

Xavier looked the tallest team in the country in the face and did not wince. They shot lights out from deep, wiping away all of the interior advantages FSU had. Xavier’s been shutout at the Sweet 16 in each of their last three visits, last making the Elite 8 back in 2008.

Trevon Bluiett’s been a big-time performer for the Musketeers, posting consecutive 20-point outings in the tournament so far. While he’s a focal point of the offense, this team isn’t quite one dimensional. They’ve had at least two others in double figures in both wins.

Arizona should look to kick the tempo up a bit here. Xavier’s shown they can match some pace, but operate most efficiently when things are calm and collected. They averaged 67.0 possession via KenPom’s adjusted tempo figure. By no means the slowest of the remaining teams, but not quite matching that breakneck pace we’ve seen come out of the Pac-12. Arizona doesn’t typically get out and run themselves, but they’re much more familiar with operating as such.

Sean Miller coached Xavier from 2004-09, and can’t seem to avoid his old team. This will be the second time the two have clashed in the Sweet 16 since Miller took over at Arizona. The Wildcats claiming a 68-60 win back in 2015.

Lauri Markannen proves to be Xavier’s undoing. The Musketeers showed the daunting length doesn’t scare them, but the versatile big man is a matchup nightmare. He’s a pick and pop threat, boasting a 130 offensive efficiency rating, but also an adept rebounder on both sides.

Prediction: Arizona

#3 Baylor Bears vs #7 South Carolina Gamecocks

There are still some demons for the Bears –who haven’t made the Final Four since 1950, when just eight teams partook in the postseason action– but they’ve seemed to exercise plenty of them thus far.

South Carolina stunned Duke without doing anything special in particular. The Gamecocks were just simply unafraid to let it fly. They advance to their first ever Sweet 16.

You would think to topple Duke the Gamecocks would have needed to have some ridiculous statistical anomaly. Duke played decent enough, South Carolina not having every solution for their scorers, but it was the free ones that most likely pushed USC over the edge. The Gamecocks shot 69.7% from the stripe this season, but knocked down 84% Sunday, going 27-32. They also were aggressive crashing the glass, pulling down 15 offensive boards, five coming via Chris Silva alone. They can’t abandon anything that worked for them now. A big hurdle has been cleared, but it’s not quite time to rest on laurels.

Baylor has also been great at the line, shooting 88.2% for the 2017 NCAA Tournament. It’s no surprise that knocking down the free ones is a common trend here in the Sweet 16. In tight games it’s the single biggest difference maker.

South Carolina fed off a relatively home friendly crowd, but with a change in venue to New York’s MSG, they’ll very much be out of their depth. It’s no easy commute to the northeast for Baylor’s crowd either, but you have to give some partial credit to South Carolina’s ability to feed off a very engaging crowd that may not be as present going forward.

The Bears returned to a quieter defensive front, coming up with just 3 blocks following their 7-block showing in the opener. If they want to quell the momentous Gamecocks, they should look to get active in that department, asserting some early dominance. They’re capable of doing just that.

Prediction: Baylor

 

#3 Oregon Ducks vs #7 Michigan Wolverines

Even sans Chris Boucher the Ducks look quite unstoppable. Rhode Island was a real test, and one that tasked the absence of their big man. The Ducks’ shooter were red hot, however, and fed off a clean 7-16 from three to narrowly inch by.

Michigan’s magical run just can’t come to an end, and that’s a scary bit of momentum to come up against as opposition. Louisville was one of the nation’s top three-point defenses and still couldn’t drag the Wolverines below 35%.

Oregon’s had to change their game since Boucher’s exit, and they’ve done a smashing job at that to this point. It’ll be yet another adjustment as they look to take on a team very much willing to set up and work from beyond the arc. Tyler Dorsey fed the Ducks on the pond with his three-point shooting against Rhode Island, going 4-5. He’ll need another day like that.

Michigan got absolutely steamrolled on the boards in their opener, but responded nicely against Louisville. Jordan Bell will be a real threat for them again, and if they look closer to how they boxed out and fought for rebounds against Louisville they’ll be ok. Not so much if things mirror the Oklahoma State game.

Just how deep can the Wolverines go fueled by this magical run? Oregon’s been tough in games decided by four points or less this season, going 6-3. They’ll need every bit of help they can get.

Prediction: Michigan

 

#4 Florida Gators vs #8 Wisconsin Badgers

The senior-laden lineup from Madison tackled Villanova, ending all hope for a repeat championship. The Badgers remind me a lot of the Spurs – They’re easy to write off without some of the flair seen elsewhere in the remaining field, but bite down and play some damn good fundamental ball that’s tough to beat.

Defense wins championships is what they say, but unless you can score, it’s pretty tough to win a basketball game. Florida faced up the tough Virginia defense and just begged them to keep pace. Shattering their gameplan, the Cavaliers were left without an answer, and were quickly swallowed in the tournament’s biggest, and most disappointing game yet.

If Florida can put the pedal to the metal and get this game running at a quick pace it’d be in their favor. Wisconsin shot 53.1% against Villanova, but 62 of the 65 points came from starters. They’re a team rich in tournament experience, so you have to find any way possible to crack into that bench for extended times. Nobody for the Badgers is going to be easy to get into foul trouble, so that option is not quite on the table.

The Badgers have been here before and look to take the run even deeper. It was a stunning loss for them in the national final in 2015, so they’d no doubt like another crack at things. On paper, this team is almost as good as the ’15 squad, but lucky for them the field as a whole is looking weaker and weaker. Thanks to some miraculous upsets in the East region, Wisconsin’s path to at least the Final Four looks paved in gold.

Prediction: Wisconsin

 

What are your thought on the Sweet 16 and going forward? Let’s hear them in the comments!

Tyler Arnold

Tyler Arnold

I am the founder and editor-in-chief of The Runner Sports. I've been an avid sports fan since I was a child and have turned that love into a profession. I will watch, comment, and break down anything I can get my hands on, from football to white water rafting in the Olympics. Your visit means a lot to me, so thank you for your readership.
Tyler Arnold

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