And … relax.
We can finally catch our collective breath after a weekend that saw a 15-seed and 16-seed advance to the second round for the first time in NCAA tournament history; two 1-seeds go down before the Sweet 16; and a trio of game-winning baskets in the final seconds.
True college hoops junkies are already thinking about what’s next, though. Is Alabama or Houston in danger? Who’s got the edge in the chaos-filled East region? Can Princeton pull off another stunning upset?
Before everyone recharges for the next three days, it’s time for our experts — Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Myron Medcalf — to take an early look at Thursday’s and Friday’s Sweet 16 matchups.
Thursday, 6:30 p.m. ET, TBS
Borzello: It’s fitting this game will take place at Madison Square Garden, given the electric head-to-head battle between Tyson Walker and Markquis Nowell, a couple of New York natives. Will Kansas State be able to slow Walker and backcourt mate A.J. Hoggard? How will Michigan State contain Nowell and fellow star Keyontae Johnson? Tom Izzo was able to completely neutralize Marquette’s All-American guard Tyler Kolek, and I think he’ll have something up his sleeve this week too.
Prediction: Michigan State 72, Kansas State 70
Gasaway: The book on Michigan State says the Spartans make their 3s and never force turnovers. Then MSU went 2-of-16 from beyond the arc and forced 16 turnovers in beating Marquette by nine. Tyson Walker was superb, and one should never doubt Tom Izzo … except possibly this once? Markquis Nowell is an absolute blur with the ball and Kansas State loves to get to the line. If the Wildcats are merely respectable on their defensive glass, this one could flip their way. Barely.
Prediction: Kansas State 74, Michigan State 73
Medcalf: Both teams have been led by dynamic, experienced guards who were the difference-makers in their journeys to this stage. Tyson Walker (17.5 PPG in the NCAA tournament) is 13-for-21 inside the arc through two games. He also has six assists and zero turnovers as the leader of another Tom Izzo Sweet 16 squad. And Markquis Nowell has recorded 44 points, 23 assists and nine turnovers in two NCAA tournament wins, while also connecting on 43% from 3. The better player that night, in my opinion, will lead his team to the Elite Eight.
Prediction: Kansas State 76, Michigan State 73
Thursday, 7:15 p.m. ET, CBS
Borzello: This one’s going to be fun. Dan Hurley vs. Eric Musselman on the sideline is going to be the headline, but I’m going to be locked into the offense vs. defense matchup between Jordan Hawkins and Davonte Davis. Hawkins is one of the truly elite shot-makers in college basketball, especially over the last month of the season, while Davis is arguably the best perimeter defender left in the tournament. The difference for the Huskies should be Adama Sanogo, who had one of the best first weekends of anyone in the dance, totaling 52 points and 21 rebounds on 24-for-33 shooting. Arkansas’ questionable shot selection and turnover issues could also be a problem against UConn’s transition offense.
Prediction: UConn 73, Arkansas 68
Gasaway: The Razorbacks edged Kansas by giving the Jayhawks a steady diet of Davis. Who knows, against the Huskies it could be Ricky Council IV who carries the load on offense. But the larger question for Eric Musselman could be defense. Sanogo totaled 24 points in 27 minutes against a previously excellent Saint Mary’s D. When he needed a blow, Donovan Clingan grabbed five boards and blocked three shots in 12 minutes.
Prediction: UConn 78, Arkansas 70
Medcalf: I think UConn is what a lot of folks expected Arkansas to be this season. Before the NCAA tournament, the Razorbacks weren’t a consistent crew. But the win over Kansas in the second round showed their depth and talent. In a tournament without a great team, those two traits could be enough. But UConn has those gifts and more. The Huskies dominate the offensive glass through Sanogo and rely on multiple shooters who make Danny Hurley’s team so difficult to defend. Arkansas has three NBA prospects, including former five-star recruit Nick Smith Jr. And Arkansas is hitting its stride. But UConn is a more complete team.
Prediction: UConn 82, Arkansas 77
Thursday, 9 p.m. ET, TBS
Borzello: Tennessee had the perfect gameplan and perfect execution against Duke, being physical with the Blue Devils and looking to bully them from the opening tip. They’ll look to once again grind down the game against FAU, making it a half-court slog. It’s a step up in competition for the Owls, who haven’t played a Power 5 team since Nov. 14. There are two areas where Tennessee will win the game. One, FAU relies heavily on 3-point shooting, but Tennessee is the best 3-point defense in the country. Meanwhile, with Zakai Zeigler injured, the Vols start four guys 6-6 or taller; FAU is one of the smallest teams in the country.
Prediction: Tennessee 67, FAU 57
Gasaway: Florida Atlantic is having far and away its best season in program history and by rights the Owls should have been a lovable 9-seed facing off against mighty Purdue in the round of 32. Instead, Dusty May’s group was viewed as some privileged blue blood spoiling Fairleigh Dickinson’s fun. March, go figure. Now FAU has been awarded with an opponent combining its usual outstanding defense with the scoring of the newly ascendant Olivier Nkamhoua. This one will be close and Johnell Davis is a wonder, but the Volunteers project to be too tough.
Prediction: Tennessee 65, FAU 60
Medcalf: Against Duke in the second round, Tennessee bullied the Blue Devils (.85 points per possession), who really had no response for a strong Vols squad with five seniors who anchor the best defense in America. Tennessee’s SEC opponents connected on just 44.9% of their shots inside the arc against the Vols this year. FAU will encounter the same challenges as it tries to get to the rim and attack Tennessee. The Owls have been a solid 3-point shooting team this season, but Tennessee’s physicality often forces teams into tougher-than-usual 3s. It could be a long night for FAU.
Prediction: Tennessee 67, FAU 62
Thursday, 9:45 p.m. ET, CBS
Borzello: The last time these teams met in the NCAA tournament, Jalen Suggs hit a 3 at the buzzer from just inside half court to send Gonzaga to the 2021 national championship game. This one should come down to the wire, too. For me, the difference is UCLA’s defense. While Gonzaga has the best offense in the country, UCLA might be the best at the other end. The Bruins have more size and length to utilize against Drew Timme than TCU did. Meanwhile, I’m not sure Gonzaga will be able to stop Jaime Jaquez Jr., and I like the veteran experience of Tyger Campbell in a game like this.
Prediction: UCLA 75, Gonzaga 72
Gasaway: It’s not often you get a rematch of two storied programs with many of the same leading players from two years ago. (These two teams also played a rather storied tournament game 17 years ago, of course.) The script’s going to change this time, however. Instead of Gonzaga winning on a buzzer-beater it will be UCLA notching a close victory. The Bruins are a stronger, more talented and more seasoned version of the TCU team that just played the Bulldogs into the 40th minute. Drew Timme is a marvel but, for the first time in years, opponents have been making 2s against the Zags this season.
Prediction: UCLA 78, Gonzaga 72
Medcalf: Somebody should get Suggs a front-row seat for this one. The rematch! These two teams aren’t as talented as those two were, but they’re both excellent. This could be the game where the loss of Jaylen Clark, the Pac-12 defensive player of the year who suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in the Pac-12 tournament, has a significant impact on the Bruins. But Gonzaga doesn’t have the defensive prowess to rattle Campbell and Jaquez Jr. can match anything Timme does. This should be a close, great game.
Prediction: UCLA 80, Gonzaga 76
Friday, 6:30 p.m. ET, TBS
Jeff Borzello: Talk about a contrast in styles. Alabama is one of the fastest teams in the country, ranking fifth nationally with nearly 73 possessions per game. San Diego State is at the opposite end, ranking No. 263 nationally with fewer than 66 possessions per game. The tempo battle could determine which team has the edge. That said, Alabama is also elite defensively and has enough scorers at all three levels to get points against a stingy Aztecs defense. I’m just not sure SDSU can keep up offensively.
Prediction: Alabama 72, San Diego State 64
John Gasaway: The Aztecs excel at forcing opposing offenses deep into the shot clock. Conversely, Alabama rather famously attempts a high percentage of its shots in the first 12 seconds of the possession. SDSU can likely make this a 60-something-possession contest, but it’s less clear that doing so is bad news for the Crimson Tide. Brandon Miller is highly effective across multiple velocities and anyway the Aztecs’ best looks on offense could come early in the clock.
Prediction: Alabama 70, San Diego State 62
Myron Medcalf: San Diego State is a defensive juggernaut that has been ranked first in adjusted defensive efficiency since Feb. 1, per barttorvik.com. But Alabama isn’t Charleston or Furman. The Crimson Tide are playing top-five defense right now. Plus, they scored 132 points per 100 possessions against Texas A&M Corpus-Christi with Miller hurt and scoreless. Miller is the the best player in the NCAA tournament, and a projected lottery pick in this summer’s NBA draft. This might not be close.
Prediction: Alabama 77, San Diego State 67
Friday, 7:15 p.m. ET, CBS
Borzello: I’m wildly intrigued by this game. There are so many fun angles that could decide the outcome. First, the tempo. Houston will want to keep it mostly in the half court, while Miami will hope to get opportunities in transition. Second, the rebounding battle. Neither team is overly big, but Houston is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country and Miami just grabbed 20 offensive boards against Indiana on Sunday. Marcus Sasser, Isaiah Wong, Jamal Shead, Jordan Miller, Jarace Walker. I can go on forever. Man, I’m fired up for this one.
Prediction: Houston 73, Miami 68
Gasaway: What a game this will be. Norchad Omier is a vintage Houston-type warrior who somehow eluded Kelvin Sampson’s grasp. The 6-7 sophomore just demolished the much larger Indiana front line to the tune of 17 rebounds in 26 minutes. Omier’s a wonder, but Miami’s challenge is that the Cougars have Omier-level dudes up and down the roster. Tramon Mark was magnificent against Auburn and UH has unfinished business from last year when both Mark and Marcus Sasser missed the tournament entirely.
Prediction: Houston 77, Miami 75
Medcalf: Both teams faced questions entering the NCAA tournament. Norchad Omier suffered an ankle injury in the ACC tournament, but returned for the NCAA tournament, where he has accrued 19 points and 31 rebounds through two games for Miami. But Sasser’s ability to bounce back from a groin injury to score 22 points in 31 minutes for Houston in its win over Auburn on Saturday was a great sign. It suggests the Cougars will be close to 100 percent by Friday. Houston is 15-1 in its past 16 games, its only loss coming to Memphis in the ACC title game when Sasser was sidelined with the injury. With top-10 marks in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, this is most balanced team in America.
Prediction: Houston 77, Miami 70
Friday, 9 p.m. ET, TBS
Borzello: Creighton’s season has come full circle. The Bluejays entered it as a top-10 team picked to win the Big East. Then they lost six in a row in November and December and sat at 9-8 in mid-January. Suddenly, they’re a win over 15-seed Princeton away from playing for a trip to the Final Four. And I think they’ll get that chance. Greg McDermott’s team has five legitimate offensive weapons who can all go for 25 or 30 points, and it had the best defense in the Big East. Princeton has looked incredible for two games, but Creighton will prove too tough.
Prediction: Creighton 76, Princeton 65
Gasaway: Princeton reached the Sweet 16 by showing the kind of versatility March loves. The win over Arizona was a rock fight, then the Tigers erupted for 78 points in 63 possessions against Missouri. In Creighton, however, Mitch Henderson’s group is facing an opponent that’s been aiming for this moment since bowing out against eventual national champion Kansas a year ago. This time Ryan Kalkbrenner and Ryan Nembhard are healthy, and Baylor Scheierman’s 3s may start dropping at any time.
Prediction: Creighton 81, Princeton 68
Medcalf: A year after Saint Peter’s became the only 15-seed to reach the Elite Eight, Princeton aims to achieve the same feat. But Creighton is a different matchup from the two teams (Arizona, Missouri) the Tigers had to beat to get here. The Bluejays’ starting lineup ranges in height from 6 feet to 7-1. They have playmakers at every position. And they’re ranked top-25 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. They’re 14-4 in their past 18 games, so Princeton will face the best version of Creighton. I think the size, skill and versatility McDermott’s squad possesses will overwhelm the Tigers in the Sweet 16.
Prediction: Creighton 80, Princeton 68
Friday, 9:45 p.m. ET, CBS
Borzello: This should be one of the best games of the Sweet 16, featuring two highly experienced teams that can really score. My issue with the Musketeers is their inability to consistently compete defensively. They go long stretches without guarding effectively (see: giving up 84 points to DePaul in the Big East tournament and falling behind by double digits vs. Kennesaw State in the first round). I think the Longhorns will be able to take Xavier out of — or at least slow down — its free-flowing, ball-sharing offense and make enough shots at the other end.
Prediction: Texas 77, Xavier 74
Gasaway: If we think of Texas and Xavier as comprising four different “teams” on one floor, with their offenses and defenses, this is an evenly matched contest — except for the Musketeers’ D. Sean Miller’s group is just average on that side of the ball. This aberrant normalcy in effectiveness could make the difference in a potentially high-scoring game in which Souley Boum, Marcus Carr, Adam Kunkel and (possibly the newly ascendant) Dylan Disu all have opportunities to shine.
Prediction: Texas 83, Xavier 80
Medcalf: Both teams have effectively adjusted to major midseason change. Rodney Terry became the Longhorns’ acting head coach after Chris Beard was fired in January, and he has put himself in a position to secure the job permanently with his Sweet 16 run at Texas, which is top-10 in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. Xavier lost Zach Freemantle (15.2 PPG, 8.1 RPG) on Feb. 1, but Jerome Hunter is averaging 19.0 PPG through the first two rounds. This is a great matchup between a pair of teams with Final Four potential.
Prediction: Xavier 85, Texas 83