Sweet 16 Report: Breaking Down The Bracket’s Best

Selection Sunday for the NCAA Tournament is a month away, with the bracket being announced on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17. Here at TheSportsNotebook we’re going to a weekly check-in on the top 16 teams, as seeded by ESPN.com bracketologist Joe Lunardi. The purpose will be to chronicle recent form, looking back on each team’s midweek game and ahead to the weekend. The Selection Committee seeds teams based on overall body of work, but we also want to know who’s really playing their best basketball as we build to March Madness. With that, here is a rundown on Lunardi’s Sweet 16…

#1 SEEDS: Indiana, Duke, Florida, Miami—I made no secret that I think Miami is the best team in the country, although the Hurricanes turned in a flat performance this week in beating Florida State 74-68. The ‘Canes got nothing from their inside people, and needed a combined 15-of-25 shooting from guards Shane Larkin and Durand Scott to get out of Tallahassee with a win. Clearly, it was not a championship-caliber effort from Miami. Just as clearly though, this was not an easy spot—they were coming off a big win over North Carolina, getting love from the national media and going into the building of an archrival. I’m ready to dismiss the result, and we’ll see what happens Sunday night when they visit Clemson.

Florida played a complete and well-balanced game in beating Kentucky 69-52 on Tuesday, a game remembered more for the sad season-ending ACL tear of Wildcat center Nerlens Noel. This makes Noel the second prominent SEC athlete to suffer a serious knee injury, joining South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore. Just let these kids go straight to the pros. If a college degree is that important to them, they can get tuition written into their first contract.

Duke got a win over North Carolina, but the 73-68 result was more escape then decisive victory. Unlike Miami, this wasn’t a trap game for the Dookies—while it was against an archrival, it was also at home. In the end, the Blue Devils were saved by the fact this UNC team can’t do anything inside and has to try and win games by hitting three-pointers. They didn’t do that, it was enough for Mason Plumlee’s 18 points/11 rebounds to carry the day. Plumlee is nursing an ankle injury, but expected to play Saturday evening in Maryland (6 PM ET, ESPN).

I’m not at all sold that Indiana’s going to be on this top line—or even in the discussion for it—when we get to March 17. The Hoosiers still have road games with Michigan State, Minnesota and Michigan. In the meantime though, IU buried Nebraska earlier this week and hosts Purdue on Saturday afternoon (2 PM ET, ESPN), so all will be well until Tuesday’s visit to East Lansing.

#2 SEEDS: Syracuse, Michigan State, Gonzaga, Michigan: These seed projections are up-to-date, so it includes Syracuse’s loss to UConn on Wednesday. The Orange were ice-cold from behind the arc, going 4-for-23 from three-point range. And that’s even with their main outside shooter, James Southerland, hitting 4-of-9. You do the math on how cold the rest of the lineup was. Syracuse goes to Seton Hall on Saturday, a game that should give them little trouble with getting back on track.

Michigan State is finally getting some attention after their 75-52 beatdown of Michigan, a win that was a complete team effort on both the scoring and rebounding fronts—and speaking of rebounding, Sparty hammered the Wolverines on the glass.  I had liked the way Michigan State was playing and thought they would win at home, but the complete meltdown done by the Wolverines was concerning. UM has now lost three of their last four in a tough schedule stretch that sent them to Indiana and Wisconsin prior to Tuesday.

In those losses, freshman forward Glenn Robinson III has scored a combined eight points. Clearly, he needs to step it up dramatically. Although I won’t be as tough on the kid as ESPN analyst Dan Dakich was on Tuesday. Dakich seems to be carving out a persona as the angry coach on the airwaves, which only comes off well if you were actually a big winner as a coach yourself, or a top player. The man Dakich played for, Bob Knight, could pull it off. Michigan gets a needed respite in its schedule—they’ll play Penn State at home on Saturday, then get a week off. Michigan State visits Nebraska.

Gonzaga came up with an impressive road win last night at St. Mary’s, controlling the game throughout in a 77-60 win. The Zags were more efficient in every way that mattered. They controlled the glass, were more consistent inside the three-point line and forced the Gaels to try and win the game from downtown. St. Mary’s launched 35 treys and only made 12, making the result a virtual foregone conclusion. Gonzaga visits lowly San Francisco this weekend.

#3 SEEDS: New Mexico, Louisville, Arizona, Kansas—New Mexico is the most overrated team in Lunardi’s Sweet 16. The bracketologist knows much more about the process than I do, so I’ll grant that there’s probably a good reason or seeding them this high. But there is no way the Lobos will live up that. This is a team that barely got by a bad Fresno State team earlier in the week, falling behind 31-20, surviving 54-48, and doing nothing inspiring in the process. Center Alex Kirk hurt his hand in the process, though he’s expected to play tomorrow against Boise—a competitive team that’s fighting for NCAA consideration. If New Mexico really ends up a 3-seed, I know that’s at least one 6-seed I’ll pick to make the Sweet 16.

Louisville came back off that five-overtime marathon in Notre Dame last week to put on an impressive display against St. John’s. All the Cardinals’ key parts functioned in the 72-58 win. Russ Smith scored, knocking down 18. Gorgui Dieng crashed the glass hard, with 17 rebounds. And Peyton Siva distributed, handing out six assists. When Louisville plays like this, they’re tough to handle, and next up is a road game with mediocre South Florida on Saturday.

Arizona is now reeling, with two straight losses. Last night’s 71-58 loss in Colorado dropped them from a first-place tie in the Pac-12. The Wildcats need to get their defense back on track as they pay a visit to Utah on Sunday.

Kansas finally reasserted itself with its easy 21-point home win over Kansas State on Monday night. The Jayhawks played like a team who had lost three in a row and had an angry coach—by that I mean they played with some desperation and it showed in their 39-20 dominance of K-State in the rebounding category. It would have been enough to win even if guard Ben McLemore hadn’t lit it up for 30 points.

#4 SEEDS: Kansas State, Marquette, Ohio State, Georgetown—The Hoyas are playing the best basketball of this quartet, having knocked off fellow 4-seed Marquette back on Monday night thanks to a solid game from forward Otto Porter (21 points/7 rebounds) and a terrific defensive effort against Marquette’s Vander Blue, holding the Golden Eagles’ go-to player to seven points.

Even prior to Monday though, Georgetown has been coming on. It was their sixth win in a row and that includes Notre Dame, Louisville and St. John’s. The Hoyas play tonight at Cincinnati, a solid NCAA-caliber team in their own right. The Friday night game will be on ESPN at 9 PM ET and is being played tonight, because ESPN has empty space from its normal Friday NBA coverage due to the All-Star break.  As for Marquette, they have a tough home game with Pitt tomorrow (1 PM ET, CBS) and since an early January run of three nailbiting wins, the Golden Eagles have yet to post a notable victory. I think their season’s best days are already done.

Ohio State beat Northwestern this week and visits Wisconsin for a big game on Sunday (1 PM ET, CBS). The Badgers are currently projected on the 5-line by Lunardi, so that game probably decides who will be in the 4-hole at this time next week. The Buckeyes are doing an adequate job getting scoring help for brilliant forward DeShaun Thomas, but need more rebounders to step it up.

Kansas State will look to bounce back from its Monday beatdown in Lawrence with a key Saturday night game against Baylor (7 PM ET, ESPNU). The Wildcats are still tied with Kansas atop the Big 12.

IF I HAD TO PICK TODAY: I’m settled on Miami as my team to beat for the national championship, and I’m comfortable with Michigan State as my second-best team. At this point, I’m not totally sold on anyone else, and would probably look outside the Sweet 16 seeds for a couple darkhorses for the Final Four (Butler might make sense, and if I’m really uncertain I’ll just go with my heart and pick Wisconsin). But beyond Miami and Michigan State, I’m waiting to find a couple more teams I can feel confident about in picking to get to Atlanta.