Where do I even begin? The first and second rounds are now behind us, which took out over a fourth of the field with them. A week ago, the rest of America–along with myself–were all looking forward to a Virginia-Arizona matchup. Furthermore, we were getting excited for Duke vs. Michigan State and Xavier going up against the mighty Gonzaga Bulldogs. Now were are living in the present, and none of this is happening. Instead, we get the pleasure of watching the mid-major matchup of the century between Nevada and Loyola-Chicago; the Syracuse Orange, who nobody thought should even be in the tournament, taking on Duke; and Kansas State battling against Kentucky. No, you didn’t just enter some parallel universe. You entered the world of college basketball, where nothing makes sense and anything is possible.
You don’t even have to look back in the history books to know that there has never been a more screwed up region than the South. By late Friday night, the bracket was already messed up with Arizona getting demolished by Buffalo and Loyola-Chicago beating the buzzer against Miami, but then all hell broke loose when the University of Maryland Baltimore-County caught fire against the #1 overall seed, the Virginia Cavaliers. The UMBC Retrievers didn’t just get lucky. In fact, they destroyed the Cavaliers by 20 points. If you haven’t already heard, this is the first time a #1 seed lost to a #16. The underdogs of the South didn’t stop there. Nevada had to overcome a 22-point deficit to beat #2 Cincinnati, which set up the most unlikely of Sweet 16 matchups between the Ramblers and the Pack.
Loyola-Chicago vs Nevada:
Loyola-Chicago was a team that nobody really paid attention to this season, while the Nevada Wolfpack were occasionally in the top 25, but were barely talked about. In the matter of days, both these teams share an immense spotlight as one has a chance to make it to the Elite 8. The Nevada Wolfpack made two improbable comebacks over Texas and Cincinnati to get to the second weekend. Cody Martin, along with his brother Caleb, and Jordan Caroline have been cold blooded, especially in the second half. The one thing they lack is size, yet they have seemed to get around that obstacle with their perimeter shooting. Loyola-Chicago is still here for a number of different reasons, the first one being their all-around talent. Not many teams remaining share the ball like the Ramblers. They don’t have that one star player, but have so many weapons which throws off their opposition. This game has the makings to be a classic, but in the end, the cinderella story for Loyola-Chicago will remain.
Kansas State vs Kentucky:
On Selection Sunday, head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats John Calipari was disgusted with the tough region his team was placed in. One week later they are the heavy favorites to make it to San Antonio, and for good reason. They are now winners of five straight and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is peaking at the right time. The 6’6’’ freshman has scored 46 points this tournament and shows no sign of cooling down. Kevin Knox could also stir some havoc for K-State in the paint. Although it helps to have experience, it isn’t everything when it comes to being successful in the tournament. Kentucky just has a hotter team than Kansas State. Dean Wade and Barry Brown will not be enough to get this team to the Elite 8. I’m riding with the Cats on this one.
No, this region is not as messed up as the South, but heading into the sweet 16, the #1 and #2 seed are back home. Xavier’s fate came to an end at the hands of Florida State as they mounted a late game comeback to knock off the Musketeers, and in the game before that, the North Carolina Tar Heels were destroyed by Texas A&M. So of the four remaining, who has the most legitimate shot of making it to San Antonio?
Florida State vs. Gonzaga:
The Florida State Seminoles’ win over Xavier this past Sunday was nothing short of impressive. Now, can they translate that momentum into a win over the Gonzaga Bulldogs Thursday night? Phil Cofer, Braian Angola, and Terance Mann are all averaging over 12 points this season and have been efficient in the tournament. My biggest question is if they can get their 7’4″ Junior Christ Koumadje going. It is always a huge advantage when you can put a player with that size and capability on the court. As for the Dawgs, they have a chance to get a step closer to the championship in which they came so close to winning last year. Jonathan Williams, Killian Tillie, and Josh Perkins are all players that fell short in Arizona last year, and have the ambition and talent to get this team back to the Final Four. Coming out of the WCC, this is a team that has been underlooked all season, but is now amongst some of the most elite programs in the nation. I like them to get by Florida State and into the Elite 8.
Texas A&M vs. Michigan:
The Texas A&M Aggies were a team that I thought stood no chance against Providence in the first round. They not only proved me wrong, but they then went on to destroy the North Carolina Tar Heels in the second round in what was Roy Williams’ worst loss in postseason history. So where did this sudden boost of talent come from? Let’s start with T.J Starks, as he had 21 of the Aggies 86 points against the Tar Heels, then added 14 against Providence. Then of course there is Tyler Davis. The 6’10” dual threat Junior has been one of A&M’s most dangerous weapons all year. He shoots well for a guy his size, and is a powerhouse in the paint. As for Michigan, they barely got by Houston on a buzzer beater. Jordan Poole, Saturday night’s hero is the X-factor. For a freshman that is only averaging 6.2 PPG, he needs to post up 15+ points against an Aggies team that loves to score. Moritz Wagner could be somewhat limited against Tyler Davis. This game is a coin flip, but I am taking the hotter team: the Texas A&M Aggies.
Villanova vs. West Virginia:
With Virginia now out, Villanova is the clear favorite to win it all, but if there is one thing this season has taught us, it is to expect the unexpected. Before they can even dream about getting back to the Elite 8, they have to get by West Virginia. The Mountaineers have now avoided two potential upsets and will have their first true test on Friday. So far in the tournament, it has been the Jevon Carter show. He put up over twenty points in both wins and has been the big reason why this team is in the Sweet 16. With that being said, he has also received some help from both Esa Ahmad and Sagaba Konate who have been averaging double figures. The 2016 National Champions, on the other hand, have more than just three players that can get them far in the tournament. Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Donte Divincenzo, Eric Paschall, and even Omari Spellman have all been dominant in their first two games. The Wildcats have six players averaging over ten points per game. The one thing this team is missing is depth, which could hurt them down the road, but for now they will continue to coast to San Antonio.
Purdue vs. Texas Tech:
What happens when your 7’3″ superstar goes out with an injury? Well, for beginners, most teams would be lucky to have a guy with that size on their team. For Purdue, they have another 7’3″ player able to take his spot. Matt Haarms has been asked to play more after Isaac Haas went down with an injury last Friday. They got past a stacked Butler team to get to where they are now, the Sweet 16. The Boilermakers are one of the most compete teams in the nation. Carson Edwards is one of the most proficient players in the nation along with PJ Thompson and Vincent Edwards. Oh, and have I already mentioned that they have two extremely talented 7’3″ centers? As for Texas Tech, Keenan Evans has done what he needed to do in order to get the Red Raiders to the second weekend. He scored 23 points in the first round, then followed that up by dropping 22 against Florida. In order to get by Purdue, he will need to get some help from players like Zhaire Smith and Jarrett Culver. Still, I do not see it happening. Even without Isaac Haas, I like Purdue to advance.
Clemson vs. Kansas:
The Clemson Tigers are red hot and are not getting anywhere near the amount of attention that they deserve. In a game that many people thought would be an upset, Clemson took care of New Mexico State, then went on to destroy the Auburn Tigers. Now, they get the ultimate test: the Kansas Jayhawks. Once the Tigers lost Donte Grantham, many people speculated that it would be the end of their chances. Fortunately, players like Shelton Mitchell, Gabe DeVoe and Elijah Thomas have been incredible in the first two rounds. The one thing this team does not have a lot of is size, but Kansas also shares that problem. Their only legit center is Udoka Azubuike, who is not 100% healthy and has spent a good amount of time on the bench. When he’s out, head coach Bill Self has to turn to a combo of Mitch Lightfoot and Silvio De Sousa. This game will be a shootout and by the time the buzzer sounds, both teams could be in the 90s. Out of all of the Sweet 16 match-ups, this one has the potential to be the biggest upset. With that being said, I am going against my initial prediction and taking the Tigers into the Elite 8.
Syracuse vs. Duke:
This story of Syracuse barely sneaking into the field of 68 and making it to the Sweet 16 seems awfully familiar. Two years ago, the Orange unexpectedly made it to the Final Four as a ten seed. They are now in position to repeat history, but have to get through a red hot Duke team. The Blue Devils are probably the hottest team left besides Villanova. In their most recent win over Rhode Island, all five of their starters were in double figures. Grayson Allen has provided the senior leadership, and Marvin Bagley III along with Gary Trent Jr. have been scoring threats. This team’s only weakness is their bench, which is something they rarely turn to. Therefore, I like the Blue Devils to avoid the upset and take on Clemson for a spot in the Final Four.
The craziness of March is still far from over. This weekend, four tickets will be punched to San Antonio. I can tell you right now that there will be at least one team that nobody thought had a chance of making it to the Final Four that gets by the second weekend. It could be Syracuse again, or maybe Clemson. Heck, why not Loyola-Chicago? They call it March Madness for a reason. It doesn’t just stop after the first weekend. Yeah, some insane stuff has already happened, but trust me when I say that was only the beginning. Buckle up. We are in for another wild weekend.