Sweet Sixteen
The Red Raiders knocked off Florida in thrilling fashion to advance to the Sweet Sixteen (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Leading up to the Sweet Sixteen, day two of the round was expected to be the far superior day of basketball. However, day one did not lack in the “madness” department. Four games in and three teams seeded 9th or lower will be playing in the Elite Eight. Friday night will at least begin more conventionally. Two 1 seeds and two 2 seeds will be in action, but at this point, I do not expect any team to advance easily.

1 Kansas v 5 Clemson

The Kansas Jayhawks are led by a very strong, veteran backcourt. Chief among them being senior Big-12 Player of the Year Devonte’ Graham. However, the biggest key to this game for Kansas will be the return of center Udoka Azubuike. With the talented 7 footer limited during the first 2 rounds of the tournament, Kansas has struggled to rebound and defend in the post. However, Azubuike will be starting against Clemson without a minutes restriction.

Clemson is coming off one of the tournament’s most lopsided victories; an 84-53 drilling of Auburn. The Tigers are also led by a veteran backcourt including 2nd team All-ACC Marcquise Reed. To combat the return of Azubuike, Clemson has 6’9 shot blocking aficionado, Elijah Thomas. The junior forward leads Clemson with 2.2 blocks per game which landed him on the All-ACC Defense Team. I expect two teams with similar styles playing a very entertaining game. As mentioned, the return and subsequent conditioning of Udoka Azubuike will determine who wins this match-up.

1 Villanova v 5 West Virginia

I personally view Villanova as the most complete team in the tournament. Six players average double digits which vaulted the Wildcats to the highest scoring offense in the country. They shoot 50% as a team, 40% from three, and 77% at the free throw line. Add that offensive prowess to an athletic, versatile defense, and one can understand why Villanova was consisted ranked within the nation’s top 5 teams. Big East First Teamers Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson lead Villanova who hopes to make a second trip in three years to the NCAA championship game.

As soon as West Virginia is mentioned, college basketball fans know what to expect out of the Mountaineers. Point guard Jevon Carter leads an unrelenting full court, defensive attack. West Virginia’s gameplan begins on the defensive end where they look to turn their opponents over and get out in the fast break. On the back end of that ferocious press is the dominant Sagaba Konate. The 6’8 power forward ranks 3rd in the nation with over 3 blocks per game. This game; however, will be the Mountaineers’ toughest test yet. Against an experienced Villanova backcourt led by the savvy Jalen Brunson, the patented full-court press may be tougher to execute. As it is in every West Virginia game, their ability to force turnovers will be the determining factor in whether or not they can upset the Wildcats.

2 Duke v 11 Syracuse

Villanova may be the most complete; however, I consider Duke to be the most talented team in the Sweet Sixteen. All five Blue Devils starters are projected to be first-round draft picks. Marvin Bagley III is the best player in the country averaging 21 points and 11 rebounds per game. The second option is senior leader Grayson Allen. The embattled guard has had big moments in the tournament before, and I suspect he will need to step up once again in this game. Duke’s biggest challenge Friday night will be their ability to penetrate, hit shots, and crash the offensive glass against Syracuse’s vaunted zone defense.

The Syracuse Orange have held opponents to 56, 52, and 53 points in their first three games of the tournament. Jim Boeheim’s zone defense has once again tripped up its adversaries in the NCAA Tournament. With short turnarounds, teams cannot adequately scheme their way around the pesky defense. However, the element of surprise will not exist in this round’s match-up. This will be Syracuse’s second meeting against the Blue Devils. In game one, the Orange fell 60-44 to Duke. Sophmore breakout guard Tyus Battle will need to record a big game against a talented Duke backcourt if the Orange hopes to continue their Cinderella run. If they can somehow manage to keep Duke’s lottery picks from getting easy shots, I could see Syracuse turning this game into an ugly defensive battle. If not, Boeheim’s squad may get run over by Bagley and company.

2 Purdue v 3 Texas Tech

Barring a medical miracle, Purdue will still be without their 7’2 stud, Isaac Haas. In his place steps 7’2 freshman Matt Haarms aka Skinny Haas. Their starting center will be missed, but expect All-Big Ten players Carsen and Vince Edwards. The two perimeter scorers average 18 and 14 points per game, respectively. As a team, the Boilermakers shoot a ridiculous 42% from three; good for 2nd in Division 1. The ability to get buckets outside of the post will be critical for Purdue against a Texas Tech team that prides itself on defense. I predict that Purdue’s guards will put up their usual numbers, but the x-factor will be what Haarms can produce down low. If the freshman establishes himself on the low block, the Boilermakers will have a much easier time getting open perimeter shots against a stout Red Raider defense.

Texas Tech is making their first Sweet Sixteen appearance since 2005, but this squad isn’t just happy to be here. The Red Raiders play stingy defense that forces lots of turnovers and does not surrender many points. Offensively, they are led by senior Keenan Evans. The first team Big-12 guard averages 17 points and 3 assists per contest. He is accompanied by rising freshman Zhaire Smith. Smith is a rangy athlete who often attempts high-flying dunks while also averaging over one steal and block each game. However, it will be each player’s defensive prowess put to the test in this Sweet Sixteen contest. Texas Tech slowing down the high scoring Boilermakers will their only shot at a victory. With no Haas in this one, the task has become easier, but Tech must come out with intensity if they hope to reach the first Elite Eight in program history.