We’re down to eight: Kentucky, Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Arizona, Louisville, Michigan State, Duke, Gonzaga.
No doubt all of these teams are excited about advancing to the regional finals, but half of those teams’ seasons could come to a screeching halt tonight. Or tomorrow. The other half lands on college basketball’s biggest stage. Let’s look at how we got here and what to expect.
Midwest: Kentucky (1) vs. Notre Dame (3)
My bracket: Kentucky (1) vs. Notre Dame (3)
Got that one right! If you didn’t put Kentucky this far, you’ve either watched zero college basketball or had hallucinations about Daxter Miles being right. There isn’t much to rehash with the Wildcats: They’re still deep, they’re still long and they’re still dominant. It’s impressive for Kentucky that West Virginia was the first team in the Sweet Sixteen to not score 40.
Now, in my bracket, I’d already chosen Wichita State to beat Kansas. I just had some feeling about that in-state game, and I happened to be right. And WSU is a good team with previous success, so that wasn’t all that surprising. Fred VanVleet gave all he had, but Notre Dame is a really tight group. It’s loaded with shooters on the perimeter, but then Jerian Grant is perhaps the nation’s best penetrator, and then Zach Auguste is a serious post threat. It’s a tough team to defend. Notre Dame could beat Kentucky if it gets hot or Karl-Anthony Towns or Willie Cauley-Stein gets in foul trouble. It won’t be an easy win for Kentucky, but it’s hard to pick against the Wildcats right now.
West: Wisconsin (1) vs. Arizona (2)
My bracket: Wisconsin (1) vs. Arizona (2)
Hey look, I was right again! Then again, it’s not that hard to imagine the top two seeds in a region advancing to the Elite Eight. Wisconsin played a tough game against North Carolina for most of the 40 minutes. Interestingly enough, Wisconsin and UNC both shot exactly 26-56 from the floor. UNC also (surprisingly) shot better from three, but the Badgers got a big bump from the free throw line. When it comes to closing out games in March, the reliable teams from the line tend to rise to the top. Sam Dekker played a great game attacking the rim, and Frank Kaminsky is a tough matchup for any defender.
I was a little surprised to see Arizona struggle a bit with Xavier, but maybe that’s just my ignorance about the Musketeers. In the end, Arizona shot 17-19 from the charity stripe, a stat I love. Arizona can just overwhelm you with Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley inside, then you’ve got athletic wings in Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and then TJ McConnell can break your defense down, and maybe Gabe York will come off the bench and launch a couple threes. They’ve got a talented rotation and should provide the tournament’s best game to date. I picked Arizona to win, but this will be a tossup.
East: Louisville (4) vs. Michigan State (7)
My bracket: Louisville (4) vs. Virginia (2)
Ah, my first whiff. It happens. I’m not the only one who had Virginia going far. You step back and look at UL and MSU and you think, “How did a 4 seed and a 7 seed reach the Elite Eight?” I always thought Villanova was the weakest 1 seed, and when NC State beat them, the door was wide open for an ACC team at the top of the bracket. Even without Chris Jones, Louisville hasn’t fallen apart like I thought they might. Terry Rozier continues to be a one-man wrecking crew with his 17 points and 14 rebounds against the Wolfpack. Wait, 14 rebounds?!? Yep. Quentin Snyder has also grown up on the job playing next to Rozier. The heart and soul of this team is still Montrezl Harrell, who would counter every NC State basket with one of his own.
Then you’ve got the Spartans. Tom Izzo is a wizard. You’re telling me a team that shot 9-16 from the free throw line in a Sweet Sixteen game won? After I just professed my love for good free throw shooting teams, the Spartans come in and do the opposite. Travis Trice continues to play the type of unbelievable March basketball from a guard that reminds me of Kemba Walker, just in the way he’s putting his team on his back. 24 points on 50 percent shooting, 4-9 from three, 6-6 from the line (!). Trice seems to have that killer instinct that Walker had. I’d be a fool to pick Louisville so quickly. Izzo has his team believing, and that’s a dangerous team to play.
South: Duke (1) vs. Gonzaga (2)
My bracket: Duke (1) vs. Iowa State (3)
OK, so another big whiff. A lot of people had Iowa State beating UAB. I won’t regret that pick.
Let’s start with Duke. Well, I’m not sure there’s anything new to write about here. The Blue Devils are still really good and probably the second-best team in the country. Utah gave a pretty good fight (I especially enjoyed watching Dallin Bachynski give some bench minutes), but Duke has this way of making other teams look nervous. The Utes did an admirable job holding Jahlil Okafor to 6 and 8, but oh yeah, Duke has a lot of offensive weapons. Justise Winslow, playing in his hometown of Houston, had a cool 21 and 10. Okafor might be the highest draft pick, Tyus Jones might be the best player on this Duke team, but Winslow is going to be a rotation player for an NBA contender pretty soon. If, somehow, you stop Okafor and Winslow, you still have to deal with Jones, an absolute fiend when driving and deadeye from three, and Quinn Cook, another marksman.
Then you’ve got Gonzaga, and I feel like we see this story year after year. Good Zags team in the regular season gets high seed and then loses in the first weekend. Wait, this is Gonzaga’s first trip to the Elite Eight since 1999? Hmm, maybe something IS different. The Bulldogs didn’t even shoot well against UCLA, but to be fair, UCLA shot pretty poorly too. Przemek Karnowski is the definition of a load in the paint. Good lord he is big. Kyle Wiltjer giving Gonzaga a stretch 4, kind of like Duke’s Ryan Kelly a couple years ago. Kevin Pangos and Byron Wesley keep this team going, but how about Domantas Sabonis? Son of top five basketball player ever Arvydas Sabonis (Anyone? No?). Sabonis just exhibits a lot of basketball savvy, especially for a freshman.
So maybe this isn’t your typical Adam Morrison team. Maybe Gonzaga is actually for real. We’ll find out against Duke. I’ve got Duke advancing, but this one should be another great regional final behind Wisconsin-Arizona.