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Ranking the Sweet 16 matchups

Frank Kaminsky, Jordan Bell

AP Photo


No. 1 Wisconsin vs. No. 4 North Carolina, Thu. 7:47 p.m.: The luster on this matchup will dull a bit if Kennedy Meeks is actually unable to play, but the Badgers should still get a test from a North Carolina team that still seems to be flying a bit under the radar. I’m high on UNC. We all know how good Marcus Paige is and how is is capable of taking a game over, but UNC is so much more than that this year. It starts with their front line, who can physically overwhelm opponents even if Meeks is unable to go. But with J.P. Tokoto, Justin Jackson and Joel Berry playing better of late, the Heels have gotten enough help on their perimeter to take quite a bit of pressure off of Paige.

The Badgers have not played their best basketball yet in this tournament, and if that continues on Thursday, the Heels will have a real chance to send them back to Madison.

No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 5 West Virginia, Thu. 9:45 p.m.: Let me preface this by saying that I think Kentucky ends up winning this game. That said, I have a feeling that West Virginia is going to give the Wildcats a fight and will be within striking distance down the stretch. There’s three reasons why:

  • 1. The press. West Virginia’s pressure is different and more aggressive than anything Kentucky has faced this season. The Harrisons aren’t great ball-handlers, and Tyler Ulis is small enough that those traps may overwhelm him.
  • 2. No team coached by Bobby Huggins is ever going to be intimidated. By anyone. And when playing this Kentucky team, that’s half the battle.
  • 3. Huggins has a reputation, and very little of it has to do with his coaching acumen. But Huggs is one of the best at finding a way to put his players in a position to win. Remember the 2010 Elite 8, when a West Virginia team led by Da’Sean Butler beat Kentucky, who had John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and Patrick Patterson. Can he do it again?

The Mountaineers have the size, depth and athleticism to give Kentucky some trouble, and I think that they will.

No. 3 Notre Dame vs. No. 7 Wichita State, Thu. 7:15 p.m.: The perimeter battle in this game will be unbelievable. Jerian Grant and Demetrius Jackson vs. Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker. Yes, please. Let’s make some predictions on how they match up, shall we? I think it will be fairly straight forward for the Irish -- Jackson on VanVleet, Grant on Baker, etc. -- when they’re not in zone. But I think the Shockers mix it up, sliding Tekele Cotton onto Grant and using either Baker or VanVleet on Jackson. In my mind that makes Jackson the x-factor for the Shockers, as he may be the quickest player left in the NCAA tournament and should be able to beat either of the two Wichita State defenders off the bounce.

No. 3 Oklahoma vs. No. 7 Michigan State, Fri. 10:07 p.m.: The way that Michigan State beat Virginia was to open things up in transition, beating the Cavaliers down the floor and scoring before they could set their vaunted Pack-Line defense. Oklahoma, like Virginia, is elite defensively, meaning that the Spartans will be looking to do the same thing again. That said, Oklahoma likes to get up and down the floor as well, so that could play right into their hands. This game has the most “thrill potential” of any in the Sweet 16.

No. 1 Duke vs. No. 5 Utah, Fri. 9:45 p.m.: I really like this Utah team, but I’m having trouble trying to figure out how they are going to deal with Jahlil Okafor inside. I’m not sure Jakob Poeltl is nearly strong enough to play any real defense against him in the post, and while Dallin Bachynski is probably a better option on that end, Poeltl’s effectiveness in the pick-and-roll will draw Okafor out defensively, where he struggles. If Utah is going to have a shot, Delon Wright is going to have to play like an all-american, which he hasn’t done yet this tournament.

No. 2 Arizona vs. No. 6 Xavier, Thu. 10:17 p.m.: I feel bad for Sean Miller. He had to knock out Ohio State and, Thad Matta, one of his best friends in the business, in the Round of 32. Now he has to play Chris Mack, who was on his staff at Xavier and, obviously, succeeded him as Musketeer head coach.

No. 2 Gonzaga vs. No. 11 UCLA, Fri. 7:15 p.m.: On paper, this seems like it should be close, as the Bruins are one of the most talented 11 seeds that you’ll see in the tournament. But this is the best team that Mark Few has ever had at Gonzaga. The biggest, too, so Tony Parker won’t be making light work of Gonzaga’s front line like he did to UAB. Bryce Alford vs. Kevin Pangos will be fun, but the key here is going to be Kyle Wiltjer vs. Kevon Looney. Whoever gets the best of that matchup wins.

No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 8 N.C. State, Fri 7:37 p.m.: You know it’s a good Sweet 16 when a game like this is the “worst” matchup. Here’s what makes it intriguing to me: N.C. State is clearly the more talented team, and they might have been the more talented team even if the Cardinals still had Chris Jones on the roster. But the Wolfpack have been anything but consistent this season -- hell, this tournament -- and they’ll be going up against Rick Pitino, who will have five days to prepare for the game.