Early Look at the first Eight Sweet 16 Entrants

by Nelly's Sports

Early Look at the first Eight Sweet 16 Entrants 

Eight teams moved on to the Sweet 16 on Saturday with Round of 32 wins in another exciting day of the NCAA Tournament. Here is an early look at those eight teams heading on to new venues for the next contests Thursday and Friday. 

 East #8 North Carolina – defeated Marquette (-4) 95-63, defeated Baylor (+5.5) 93-86 OT

The Tar Heels went 15-5 in an ACC conference that appears to have been undervalued. North Carolina took on four heavyweight non-conference games going 1-3 but saw the bar they needed to reach in a transition season under Hubert Davis. The Round of 32 win over Baylor was one of the wildest games in tournament history, filled with controversial calls as North Carolina needed overtime to win despite leading by 25 points with about 10 minutes to go. 

For a team known for its size and rebounding under Roy Williams, this year’s team is an excellent 3-point and free throw shooting team, that takes good care of the ball. This was one of the fastest paced teams in the ACC and forcing turnovers and allowing 3-point success has been a weak spot. 

Next up is UCLA in a pairing of prominent college basketball royalty on Friday in Philadelphia. 

Midwest #1 Kansas – defeated Texas Southern (-21.5) 83-56, defeated Creighton (-13) 79-72

The Jayhawks tied for the Big XII title at 14-4 and won the Big XII tournament to land #1 seed in what many feel looked like the weakest of the four regions. The Jayhawks did not dominate in the Round of 32 however with Creighton within a point in the final two minutes as Kansas was tested even with good numbers across the board on Saturday.

Kansas has all the components to be a serious championship contender, and this was the Big XII’s #1 3-point shooting team and #1 3-point defense, despite surrendering 12 3-point makes to Creighton. The Big XII graded as the #1 conference this season and Ocahi Agbaju was one of the top scorers in the nation to lead the team. 

Kansas only had one major non-conference test and they lost badly at home to Kentucky. Kansas also lost a non-conference game to Dayton, and this has not been one of Bill Self’s best defensive teams. Self has a championship from 2008 and a Final Four in 2018 but there have been many more March disappointments for the program that is routinely a top seed. 

Next up is Providence in a 1/4 pairing in Chicago on Friday. 

South #11 Michigan – defeated Colorado State (-1.5) 75-63, defeated Tennessee (+7) 76-68

A team many felt didn’t deserve to be in the tournament, Michigan landed a favorable spot in the bracket and has made the most of it with a redemptive run to the Sweet 16 as a #11 seed. An inconsistent disappointment much of the season Michigan is one win away from matching last season’s Elite 8 run as a #1 seed. 

7’1” Hunter Dickson proved to be a significant matchup advantage in the first two games for the Wolverines, backing up the Big Ten’s best 2-point scoring rate with 48 points so far in the tournament. Michigan is an excellent free throw shooting team and rebounding team as well.

This is one of the lesser defensive teams remaining in the field as Michigan ranked 11th in the Big Ten in defensive efficiency. Point guard DeVante’ Jones did not play in the Round of 64 win but did return for 12 minutes on Saturday and should see a bigger role in the Sweet 16. 

Next Up is the winner of the Ohio State/Villanova game in San Antonio. 

East #4 UCLA – defeated Akron (-13.5) 57-53, defeated Saint Mary’s (-3) 72-56

After making a First Four to Final Four run last season UCLA lived up to elevated expectations with a strong season but the Round of 64 victory was a very close call. The Bruins had an excellent game on both sides of the ball Saturday to beat a dangerous Saint Mary’s team to return to the Sweet 16 and the path in the East region no longer includes the #1 or #2 seeds. 

The Bruins had the #1 defense in the Pac-12 and the lowest turnover rate on offense. Five upperclassmen lead a tight rotation and the Bruins picked up wins over Villanova and Arizona this season despite having a few surprising losses in Pac-12 play. 

UCLA does not have great depth and Jaime Jaquez left the Round of 32 game with an ankle injury to cast a shadow on the prospects for the Bruins. UCLA is not an elite shooting team as the offense can go through droughts, but this is a team that has a favorable opportunity ahead.  

Next Up is North Carolina in a 4/8 pairing in Philadelphia Friday.

Midwest #4 Providence – defeated South Dakota State (-2.5) 66-57, defeated Richmond (-3.5) 79-51

The Big East regular season champions had more than their share of narrow wins this season but despite being a popular fade in the opening round, the Friars moved on and wound up not having to face the Iowa team many penciled in for a deep tournament run. 

Providence was the #1 3-point shooting team in the Big East and has made 20 3-point shots in its two tournament wins so far. Allowing 57 and 51 points in those wins has been an impressive showing for the Friars on defense after an uneven year defensively in Big East play, finishing seventh in the conference in defensive efficiency despite the best regular season record. 

Providence rarely creates turnovers and can struggle to score inside, hitting just 48 percent in 2-point looks in the conference season. Wins over Wisconsin and Texas Tech early in the season grew in stature as the season went on and this is a 27-5 team, though three losses came by blowout margins.

Next Up is the Midwest #1 seed Kansas in Chicago on Friday. 

East #15 St. Peter’s – defeated Kentucky (+18) 85-79 OT, defeated Murray State (+8) 70-60. 

The story of the tournament has been St. Peter’s who knocked off one of the tournament favorites on in the Round of 64 and like two of the previous three #15 seeds to win the opener, also won in the Round of 32. The Metro Atlantic tournament champions have now nine in a row with great defensive performances. 

The season numbers for St. Peter’s offered little indication of this potential as while the defense has been solid, the offense has a very poor turnover rate and greatly struggled with interior scoring this season. St. Peter’s won against Kentucky despite a turnover and free throw deficit thanks to hitting 50 percent on 2-point shots and 53% on 3-point shots while holding its own in rebounding. The Peacocks did not shoot as well against Murray State but flipped the turnover and free throw advantages. 

The ability to maintain that scoring clip will be very difficult for the Peacocks and now as one of the central stories of the tournament, the attention on the long layoff in-between games may not be helpful. It also seems likely that head coach Shaheen Holloway could return to his alma mater Seton Hall after this run, though heading to Philadelphia should provide a favorable atmosphere. 

Next Up is the winner of the Purdue/Texas game in the Sweet 16 in Philadelphia. 

West #4 Arkansas – defeated Vermont (-5) 75-71, defeated New Mexico State (-6.5) 53-48

Arkansas has provided tight games in almost every NCAA Tournament game under Eric Musselman, rallying back from big deficits in all three wins last season before running into Baylor in the Elite 8. This season Arkansas has been caught in tight finishes in defensive grinds but emerging with a pair of wins to reach the Sweet 16 while other top SEC teams have disappointed. 

Arkansas has elite defensive numbers finishing with the top ranking on defense in the SEC. The Razorbacks force turnovers and are very difficult to score on inside even without presenting top tier size. The Razorbacks play at a relatively fast tempo and take good care of the ball while usually creating high percentage shots and getting to the free throw line frequently, where they were one of the better teams in the SEC.

Arkansas can run into big stretches of offensive futility however and this is a very poor 3-point shooting team hitting below 31 percent. JD Notae brings great energy to the floor on both sides of the ball but routinely takes low percentage shots while only Stanley Umude presents a quality 3-point success rate. Umude is the second biggest player on the roster for Arkansas as he often needs to take on a challenging defensive responsibility. Arkansas is facing a bit more significant travel than most teams after playing in Buffalo last week. 

Next Up is #1 seed Gonzaga in San Diego on Thursday. 

West #1 Gonzaga – defeated Georgia State (-22.5) 93-72, defeated Memphis (-9.5) 82-78

Gonzaga is back in the Sweet 16 but it has not been easy for the #1 overall seed. Georgia State pushed the Bulldogs for 30 minutes in a tight opening game and Gonzaga barely got by Memphis, delivering a narrow comeback win after being down 10 at halftime. 

Gonzaga did not have any close calls until the Final Four in last season’s run and the early tests could prove beneficial for the Bulldogs as few teams are likely to be as physically imposing as Memphis on the remaining path. Gonzaga will take some criticism for the shaky performances in Portland, but they also faced a pair of grossly under seeded teams. This team still has elite offensive numbers and still won despite shooting well below average from 3-point range in the first two games and having disastrous results at the free throw line. 

Gonzaga has missed 25 free throws in the first two games of the tournament despite connecting at nearly 77% in the WCC season for an alarming decline. Gonzaga has also not come close to its 41 percent 3-point rate in the conference season while the defense has forced only 12 combined turnovers in two games. Gonzaga has a lot of room to play better but there have been enough red flags to question whether this team should still be considered a Final Four favorite. 

Next Up is #4 seed Arkansas in San Diego on Thursday. 

All photographic images used for editorial content have been licensed from the Associated Press.

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