The NCAA tournament’s chalky Sweet 16 is set, with four games Thursday and Friday to determine this year’s Elite Eight. By Sunday night, we will have our Final Four.
While the first weekend of March Madness lacked the upsets we’ve grown accustomed to over the years, the payoff for that letdown is the remaining teams are all elite. The top three seeds from every region have advanced to the second weekend for the first time since 2009, also the only other time that’s happened since the field expanded to 64 in 1985. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t underdogs or there won’t be surprises.
Here’s a look at five bold predictions for the second weekend:
1. Duke goes down. The Blue Devils looked beatable in their near-upset to No. 9 seed Central Florida in the second round. Coach Johnny Dawkins provided a blueprint for how to stop a team loaded with future NBA lottery picks: Make the other guys (Tre Jones, Javin Delaurier, Jordan Goldwire) beat you. Even with Cam Reddish connecting on his jumpers, putting the pressure on players not named Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett, while forcing Duke to shoot from outside, kept the Knights in the game. Does that mean ACC foe Virginia Tech will put the Blue Devils up against the wall in the same way? It’s unlikely. It is, however, likely that a similarly well-designed game plan in the Elite Eight could doom this heavily favored team. After all, all UCF needed was one more bounce its way.
SWEET 16 RANKINGS:Who will win it all?
2. LSU wins the East. After the Tigers clipped Maryland on a last-second drive by Tremont Waters in the second round, guard Javonte Smart reminded reporters that “a lot of people counted us out.” His teammate, Emmitt Williams, even quipped, “They didn’t even pick us to beat Yale (in the first round).” One ingredient LSU is not missing is motivation, having reached the Sweet 16 as an underdog No. 3 seed with head coach Will Wade still suspended amid an FBI probe. Can fill-in coach Tony Benford lead this team to an upset of Michigan State in the Sweet 16 and then slay Duke or Virginia Tech in the Elite Eight? It’d certainly be the most unlikely No. 3 seed to get to the Final Four in a decade.
The Tigers, with a smorgasbord of talent, won the SEC regular season title. But the mettle of each player and how those pieces have now grown together position the Tigers to go far in the NCAAs. Benford has kept them focused, and that can be the difference-maker in March.
3. Houston goes to the Final Four. The trajectory for this team to vault into the nation’s elite conversation began several years ago. And if not for Jordan Poole’s buzzer-beater in last year’s tournament, it very well could’ve been Houston — not Michigan — in the national championship game.
So why do the Cougars, winners of the American Athletic Conference, keep getting overlooked? This year, that’s probably because they’re on the same side of the bracket as North Carolina and Kentucky. The Sweet 16 is where Houston bows out on most bracket picks.
The reason this 33-3 group can prove the masses wrong rests in a good defense, which led the nation in opponents’ field goal percentage — 37 percent, and guard play headed by marksman Corey Davis Jr., who connected on 10 three-pointers the first weekend.
4. Oregon slays Virginia. The No.12 Ducks are the only double-digit seed remaining. But overlooking Oregon would be a mistake given how well it has played over the course of a 10-game winning streak. The matchup vs. Virginia features arguably the two best defenses in the tournament. Plus there are playmakers (namely Payton Pritchard and Kenny Wooten) to throw UVA out of its tempo-controlling flow and do enough to carve through the Cavs’ vaunted pack-line man-to-man defense.
5. Not one No. 1 seed gets to Minneapolis. The last time we saw this much chalk on a Sweet 16 bracket, in 2009, two of the top seeds reached the Final Four. According to the NCAA record book, only three times since seeding began in 1979 have no No. 1s made the Final Four. This year will be the fourth because who doesn’t want a little craziness in March? There are formidable teams to challenge the No. 1s. When you’ve got No. 2s that play like No. 1s and No. 3s that are just as dangerous, along with some dark-horses, it makes the path tougher for Duke, Virginia, UNC and Gonzaga.
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Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.