The Sweet 16 Begins

Notebook Newsletter: Sweet 16 Edition
A review of the Sweet 16 games, broken down by TV time slot

The Madness of last week is over. The run of 48 games in four days, with final scores and eliminations hitting you from every angle are gone. Now is the time when we get serious about settling a national champion. The college basketball season is reduced to 15 more games over the next two weekend

This is my favorite weekend of the NCAA Tournament. The bracket is still large enough to offer a lot of fluidity and feel-good possibilities. And yet it’s small enough that we can really focus on individual matchups. That’s what we’ll do in this space, going through each of the eight Sweet 16 games that will be played on Thursday and Friday Night.

At the end of the commentary on each set of games, I’ve included “What Las Vegas Says”. It’s just a final score based on the point spread and over/under, then rounded off. A lot of writers will include their own predictions, but I thought it might be more useful to include a prognostication that’s occasionally…well, accurate (Virginia, UNC and Michigan State are gone from my own Final Four) .

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Loyola Illinois vs. Nevada (7 PM ET, CBS)
Texas A&M-Michigan (7:30 PM ET, TBS)

Comment: Could the contrast in the Loyola-Nevada game be any starker? On one side, we’ve got Sister Jean praying for Loyola and inspiring the country. On the other side we have Nevada coach Steve Musselman dropping F-bombs after his team’s win over Texas last weekend and then running around shirtless on national TV after beating Cincinnati. It’s the Nun vs. The Stripper for a trip to the Elite Eight.

The problem for Loyola is that on the basketball court, Nevada has three good 6’7” players—Caleb Martin, Jody Caroline and Cody Martin and the matchup problems they create make Nevada the more talented team.

Michigan and Texas A&M have animosity that goes back to 1980—that was the year A&M football boosters offered the legendary Bo Schembecler the princely sum of $220,000 per year to come to College Station. Bo’s loyalty to Michigan was such that he stayed in Ann Arbor for $60K.

Both the Wolverines and Aggies go to the boards aggressively and they each play tough defense. If you’re Texas A&M, that’s not ideal, since as the underdog, it’s preferable to offer a clear contrast to the favorite. But Michigan is certainly not an overwhelming favorite and Moritz Wagner’s next disappearing act will be his last.

Las Vegas Says: Nevada, 72-70, Michigan 69-67

Kansas State vs. Kentucky (9:30 PM ET, CBS)
Florida State vs. Gonzaga (10 PM ET, TBS)

Comment: When Kentucky was struggling this season, I wrote a blog post in which I identified the successful return of Jarred Vanderbilt from injury as holding the key to Wildcat prospects. That hasn’t panned out, but I neglected another possibility—that Kentucky’s entire bracket could fall apart around them and they would improbably become the solid betting favorite to win a South Region that includes Loyola and Nevada.

Let’s be clear—even allowing this isn’t a vintage Kentucky team, if they don’t make the Final Four, it represents the biggest missed opportunity this side of the Hillary Clinton campaign. Kansas State does nothing to stand out and frankly looked awful in their win over Maryland-Baltimore Country.

Gonzaga-Florida State, on the other hand, looks compelling (I guess I just gave away what game I’ll be watching in this time slot). Coaches Mark Few and Leonard Hamilton offer a big contrast—Few is in his seventh Sweet 16. Hamilton is in only his second in a 16-year run at FSU.

The Seminoles have good depth in the front court, but Gonzaga’s actual production shows them as one of the elite rebounding teams in the country. The big question is how badly those production numbers are inflated by being in the West Coast Conference, while FSU battles in the ACC. Answer that question and you have the winner of this game.

Las Vegas Says: Kentucky 72-66, Gonzaga 79-73

Clemson-Kansas (7 PM ET, CBS)
West Virginia-Villanova (7:30 PM ET, TBS)

Comment: Is it really possible that Kansas coach Bill Self has only been to two Final Fours? In 2008, when he won it with Mario Chalmers and in 2012. KU has been a 1-seed eight times and lost in the Elite Eight each of the last two years. Self’s teams rarely fold up in the NCAAs—I think it safe to say that Virginia’s Tony Bennett would kill for Self’s March track record—but the regional weekend has not been kind to the Jayhawk master.

This Kansas team has not been respected by Las Vegas. They were only favored by 13 ½ over Penn and then by four over Seton Hall. The Jayhawks aren’t seen as a power team and Clemson plays excellent defense and has a balanced attack with all five starters in double figs.

West Virginia is one of the more intriguing teams left in the Sweet 16. Earlier this week, I wrote a blog post acknowledging that while their season most likely ends Friday night, they’ve got the resume of a team that could go the distance.

But first things first—the Mountaineers have to deal with Villanova, who is basically the Golden State Warriors of the NBA. Villanova jacks up three-point shots at a frenetic pace, but they do so effectively, hitting 40 percent from behind the arc. WVA coach Bob Huggins traditionally produces great defenses and this battle with the ‘Nova shooters will be interesting.

Las Vegas Says: Kansas 74-69, Villanova 77-71

Syracuse-Duke (9:30 PM ET, CBS)
Texas Tech-Purdue (10 PM ET, TBS)

Comment: I have to admit that hearing about the supposed mysteries of the Syracuse zone is a perpetual source of annoyance for me each March. If it were that impossible to play against, Syracuse wouldn’t have been in the First Four. Jim Boeheim’s credentials as a coach speak for themselves, but I haven’t heard this much hype about a defense since LSU’s Dale Brown played his “freak” in 1986 and 1987 on surprising March runs. But enough already—Syracuse plays a 2-3 zone. It’s not a mystery.

The way to solve the mystery is simple—shoot and crash. Attack the gaps in the zone where it’s difficult to box out and let missed three-point shots serve as rebounding opportunities. Duke has their flaws—I wrote back in February about their defensive problems—but I can’t imagine Mike Krzyzewski letting his kids overcomplicate this game in the way former Indiana coach Tom Crean did back in 2013 when his #1-seeded Hoosiers looked at the ‘Cuse zone wide-eyed, as though it were some kind of exotic creature, meant to be stared at but never attacked.

Purdue’s pursuit of its first NCAA title in program history and their first Final Four since 1980 has been a story all season long. But the Boilermakers have nothing on Texas Tech when it comes to basketball suffering. Tech has never made it past the Sweet 16 and the last time they even got this far was 2005, when old Purdue friend Bob Knight was at the helm.

The Boilermakers more immediate concern is figuring out if they can make a brace than center Isaac Haas can use to stabilize his broken elbow. Maybe it’s providential they’re playing in Boston, because this quest reminds me of the desperate attempt by Red Sox medical staff in 2004 to create the brace that would let Curt Schilling pitch on his injured ankle—the now-famous “bloody sock.” Maybe the Sox can send some expertise to help Purdue.

Las Vegas Says: Duke 73-61, Purdue 70-68

Don’t forget—major league baseball starts insanely early this year, with next Tuesday, March 27 being Opening Day. We’ll have a look at what Las Vegas is telling us to expect and where surprises might come from in future editions of the newsletter and on

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