By Ryan Mayer
Once the final buzzer sounds this Sunday night, we’ll know the four teams that have successfully navigated the treacherous NCAA Tournament and will take center stage in Houston, Texas on Saturday, April 2 to play in the Final Four.
Now that most of us are finally over the sting of the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament – which were two rounds that turned brackets across the country in confetti – we can now focus on attempting to make some sense of the next two rounds of the NCAA Tournament – the Sweet 16 and the Elite 8.
What a fun opening weekend, huh? The first two rounds of the tournament have given us plenty of memorable moments as they always do, but yet, when looking at the Sweet 16, much of the tournament feels largely “chalky”. All four number one seeds, two of the number two seeds, two number three seeds, two four seeds, and two five seeds have all advanced to the second weekend of the tournament. Furthermore, the Sweet 16, is dominated by the “power” conferences. The ACC has six teams, the Big 12 and Big Ten have three, the SEC, Big East and Pac-12 each have one. That means 15 of the 16 teams left are from the big conferences and the lone outsider, Gonzaga, has long been a mid-major power. Despite the opening round craziness, the field has largely leveled itself out.
What does that mean for the Sweet 16 teams? Which ones will cut down the nets in their regions and book a trip to Houston for the Final Four? Well, that’s what we’re here to figure out.
In the South, the number one overall seed Kansas Jayhawks have breezed through their first two games against Austin Peay and UConn. The UConn final score (73-61) isn’t indicative of just how in control Kansas was in that game, as they led by 20 at the half, and the lead was never smaller than nine. Bill Self’s crew has been efficient (52% from the field, 36% from three) and dominant defensively (16 blocks in their first two games).
Their opponent in the Sweet 16 is the Maryland Terrapins, who have looked significantly less convincing in getting to this point. The Terps had just a five point win over South Dakota State in their opener, and were one better executed final possession by the Jackrabbits away from going to OT. They then weren’t overly impressive against Hawai’i, actually trailing the Warriors 41-39 with 10:41 left in the game. They then ripped off a 14-0 run that gave them the lead for good. Their 3-point shooting in particular has been awful, at just 10/41 (24%) including a 1-18 showing against Hawai’i. The bright spot has been Melo Trimble who’s averaging 21.5 points and he’s been particularly effective at getting to the free throw line and converting, going 22-for-23 from the line.
On the bottom half of the bracket, you have two teams with experienced back courts battling each other. First, the Miami Hurricanes, led by Angel Rodriguez, Sheldon McClellan and Davon Reed. The ‘Canes struggled in the first half of their opening game with Buffalo, leading by just two at the break. A quick 6-1 spurt to open the second half gave them the breathing room necessary to control the game the rest of the way. In their second game against Wichita State, Miami came out blazing leading the Shockers 27-6 with eight and a half minutes to go in the first half. They then withstood the furious comeback that saw the Shockers take a 43-42 lead with 10:25 to go, before getting key buckets from McClellan and Reed to regain the lead they would not relinquish. They’ve been very stingy defensively allowing opponents to shoot just 36% from the field and 33% from three.
Their opponent, the Villanova Wildcats, will test that defense as they’ve scored 86 and 87 points against UNC-Asheville and Iowa, respectively. The core of Ryan Arcidiacono, Kris Jenkins, Daniel Ochefu, Josh Hart and Jalen Brunson are all averaging double digit points per game. Jay Wright’s team was one of the most three-point happy teams in the regular season despite not making a high percentage of those shots (35%, 148th nationally). In the tournament so far? The ‘Cats have been scorching from deep making about 49% of their attempts. Perhaps more impressive has been the team’s 2-to-1 assist to turnover ratio in their two games. That kind of efficiency has led to the large margin of victory in both games.
So, which of these four teams should you expect to advance to the Final Four in Houston? Well, that hasn’t changed. It’s still the Jayhawks. While there hasn’t been a clearly dominant team this season, the Jayhawks are as close as it gets. Their four losses have all come on the road or on a neutral court, and the last time they lost was back in January. Since then, they’ve won 16 straight games including their two opening wins in the tournament.
What’s been more impressive in the tournament has been the defensive and rebounding intensity. The last time out, Kansas suffocated UConn on the boards doubling them up 42-21 and allowing the Huskies just three, yes three, offensive rebounds. Giving your opponents only one shot per possession seems simple. Yet it’s in stark contrast to what the other prospective three teams have done so far. Maryland lost the battle of the offensive boards in both games, so did Villanova, and Miami was out-rebounded by a much smaller Wichita State squad.
Defensively, the Jayhawks are allowing opponents to shoot just 37% from the field and three point land through two games. Miami is comparable in that regard with their percentages allowed as mentioned above. That defense is why I pinpointed the ‘Canes vs Jayhawks as the Regional Final match-up before the tournament began, and it’s the one that I still think will play out this coming weekend. In that battle, The Jayhawks have just a bit more depth than the Hurricanes which I think gets them over the top and into the Final Four.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.