Jevon Carter and No. 4 West Virginia vs. No. 1 Gonzaga are the first of two games in San Jose
Hard as it is to believe, but we’re about to hit the halfway point of March Madness. While that may evoke a few sad feelings about something coming to a close, the 2017 NCAA Tournament is really about to kick into high gear as a host of blue bloods, up-and-comers, and at least one Cinderella vie for this year’s national title.
Thursday’s action in particular should be quite the highlight as eight tourney regulars are looking to survive and advance one more time. The Midwest Region in particular should be a real treat as Kansas has been the rare team to live up to its seed line and they’ll be running right into a Purdue team that refuses to be pushed around. Michigan and Oregon both have their own flaws but have been playing inspired basketball ever since the calendar turned to March.
Out West, San Jose will play host to four teams that each bring a unique style of basketball to the court. Bob Huggins’ “Press Virginia” loves to make things interesting as soon as the whistle blows while Sean Miller’s Arizona team has multiple looks it can throw at you on both ends of the court. As fun as it is to watch those two however, Gonzaga is hoping to continue its magical run and finally make it to that elusive final weekend while familiar face Xavier is well accustomed to playing on the big stage.
A few folks may have lamented the lack of mid-major success and complained about a shortage of buzzer-beaters during the first weekend of the Tournament but it’s not hard to push those thoughts out and focus on what should be a fantastic group of games in the Sweet 16. Which teams will make it to the Elite Eight? We’ll find out four of them on Thursday night after what should be a great slate of games.
NCAA Tournament Thursday Sweet 16 Games
Note: All times Eastern, some start times approximate.
No. 7 Michigan vs. No. 3 Oregon
TV: 7:09 p.m., CBS
Site: Kansas City (Midwest Region)
Preview: Oregon has experienced plenty of success since Dana Altman took over in Eugene but the Ducks may be running into the one team left in the Tournament that might be able to one-up everybody else and claim winning has become its destiny. At least it certainly feels that way for Michigan, which has reeled off six straight victories ever since the Wolverines endured a harrowing plane crash just prior to the Big Ten Tournament.
These Wolverines are not just a good story though, this is a legitimately good team that has plenty of pieces to keep this run going. Moritz Wagner was the star in last week’s win over Louisville and will be a real threat to keep things going in the middle of the floor. Derrick Walton Jr. saw his hot streak from the field slow down a bit in that second round win but he remains one of the best scoring threats left in the bracket and has the ability to distribute the ball effectively if his outside shooting isn’t falling. Head coach John Beilein remains one of the best veteran coaches in the game at getting his team ready and no doubt should have a couple of defensive game plans to use against Oregon.
The Maize and Blue will probably need them too given what the Ducks trot out on the floor. Yes, the Sweet 16 might be the time where big man Chris Boucher’s absence starts to rear its ugly head but there’s plenty of offense on the team to make up for that. Dillon Brooks has been one of the best players in the country this season but has almost had to become second-fiddle on the team thanks to the hot play of the aptly-nicknamed Mr. March, Tyler Dorsey. Oregon never seems to be out of a game thanks to those two and one better be on alert if the situation calls for a big shot because each has shown they can knock one down time after time this month.
The end result is a pair of closely matched teams that give every indication of staging a thriller in the opening salvo of the second weekend. Be prepared for plenty of back-and-forth exchanges and this one may very well come down to who has the ball last. These types of matchups are what March Madness is all about but as good as Oregon has been, don’t discount Michigan continuing to shoot the lights out in order to take home the victory and move on to Saturday.
Prediction: Michigan 78, Oregon 72
No. 4 West Virginia vs. No. 1 Gonzaga
TV: 7:39 p.m., TBS
Site: San Jose (West Region)
Preview: It’s been a storybook season for Gonzaga, who enters the Sweet 16 with a just a single loss on the year. While some questioned the competition the Bulldogs faced in 2017, the team has their sights focused firmly on proving the rest of the country wrong and ticking off those last remaining boxes on the program’s checklist this weekend.
Standing in the way of the deep and talented ‘Zags is one program that knows all about playing with a chip on the shoulder in West Virginia. The Mountaineers lead the nation in forcing turnovers and utilize their extended bench with ease to consistently create fresh challenges and plenty of matchup issues. Jevon Carter stays on the court the longest and is one of a trio of guards who helped the team shoot the lights out from three-point range in a win over Notre Dame. If there is one area of concern though, it might be down in the paint where the undersized team would rather avoid a slow, half-court game that is centered on the block.
That just so happens to be the area Gonzaga can take advantage of the most. Center Przemek Karnowski is a load in the low post and enters as one of the more experienced big men left in the Tournament. He forms a nice inside-out tandem with guard Nigel Williams-Goss, one of the best players on the West Coast, who will be counted on to avoid turning the ball over in this one. If the game becomes a little more up-tempo than normal, don’t be surprised if Few just goes with the flow and opts to sub out Karnowski’s girth for freshmen Zach Collins and Killian Tillie. The two forwards still have plenty of size down low but bring more of a shooter’s touch to the game.
Under those circumstances, don’t be shocked if this turns out to be the best game of chess matches played on Thursday as Few and Huggins battle it out on the sidelines. It really could go a number of different ways and should not surprisingly come down to turnovers — namely if Gonzaga can prevent and if West Virginia can force them. For as good a passing team as the Bulldogs have been this season, they didn’t quite flash the same crispness in their two opening round wins and that could prove to be their undoing against a team that is tougher than nails to defeat.
Prediction: West Virginia 71, Gonzaga 66
No. 4 Purdue vs. No. 1 Kansas
TV: 9:39 p.m., CBS
Site: Kansas City (Midwest Region)
Preview: Every year Kansas City turns into “Allen Fieldhouse East” when the Big 12 Tournament rolls into town but this year is a little bit different because Sprint Center will transform into it twice. That’s because the Jayhawks will get the rare distinction of coming about as close to home-court advantage as one can get in the NCAA Tournament when they tip off against Purdue just 40 miles east of Lawrence.
As much as folks will be talking about the atmosphere though, the reason KU is the prohibitive favorite in the region has nothing to do with how loud the crowd will be but everything to do with the terrific backcourt that Bill Self has assembled. Freshman guard Josh Jackson has been at the forefront of the group lately and brings just about everything to the table from size to athleticism to jaw-dropping, playmaking ability. Senior Frank Mason III is the more veteran presence but brings the same ability to take over the game as his younger teammate. That the Jayhawks cruised to another Big 12 regular season title was not surprising but it’s clear that this team has its sights aimed much higher in the postseason.
Standing in their way, quite literally, is Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan. The big man has been a double-double machine all year long for the Boilermakers as they captured the Big Ten regular season title and is a tough matchup thanks to his shooting touch and ability to fight for balls off the glass. He teams up with Vince Edwards and Isaac Haas to form an imposing front court that few teams can compete with, much less contain.
While Purdue does pose plenty of matchup issues given all that length, the Boilermakers will certainly be playing what amounts to a road game on Thursday night and will no doubt be battling the crowd as much as their opponent. The Jayhawks have proven to be one of the best teams left in the field and should be able to use their superior outside game to stay ahead of the overmatched Boilermakers and eventually pull away midway through the second half.
Prediction: Kansas 81, Purdue 68
No. 11 Xavier vs. No. 2 Arizona
TV: 10:09 p.m., TBS
Site: San Jose (West Region)
Preview: To say Xavier is familiar with Arizona might be the understatement of the Tournament. While it’s true that this is the second time in three years that the Wildcats and Musketeers have met in the Sweet 16, the long and intertwined history the two head coaches share makes this that much more interesting. For those unfamiliar, Sean Miller once led Xavier all the way to the Elite Eight before eventually moving on to Tucson. One assistant he left behind? None other than Chris Mack, who was promoted to the first chair as a result.
It is the latter who has done the best coaching job so far, overcoming the loss of the team’s starting point guard earlier this year and rebounding from a disastrous losing streak late in the season to somehow wind up as the lowest seed left in the entire NCAA Tournament. Trevon Bluiett, who was a freshman when the teams first met, has been the star of the show for the Musketeers and done just about everything he can in willing his team to the second weekend.
As good of a story as Xavier is however, the Musketeers will be running into a much more talented Arizona team that has looked like they’re plenty capable of winning the whole thing. Freshman Lauri Markkanen has played like a top-five NBA Draft pick so far and guard Allonzo Trier has proven to be an equally dynamic scorer from just about any spot on the floor. Being a Miller-coached team you know the Wildcats will play tough defense but the offensive balance this group has is the most remarkable thing about them this time of the year.
Xavier has been up against more talented teams plenty this season and still found a way to sneak out with a victory though. Don’t be surprised if this one is fairly close throughout with the Musketeers scrapping at every possession and Bluiett knocking down some big threes. In the end though, there’s just too much on Arizona’s roster and Miller will have to bittersweetly knock out his old school once again to move onto the regional final.
Prediction: Arizona 84, Xavier 70
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.