Submitted by Jim Hurley on Monday, March 24, 2014 at 9:05 AM
HERE’S YOUR FIRST LOOK AT THE SWEET 16 AS THE NCAA TOURNAMENT TAKES A DEEP BREATH AFTER A WILD OPENING WEEKEND
By Jim Hurley
So get a load of this fact:
The NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 won’t include the likes of Kansas, Villanova, Syracuse, Duke and Creighton — all of whom were either #2 or #3 seeds in their particular regions — and there’s no North Carolina, Ohio State nor VCU either and — oh yeah, once-upon-a-time unbeaten Wichita State (35-1) also won’t be there at the “party” in case you hadn’t heard!
Toss into the mix that both “super frosh” Jabari Parker of Duke and Andrew Wiggins of Kansas (although the latter was hardly super in Sunday’s 60-57 loss to Stanford) won’t be getting invitations to the Sweet 16 this time around and so — perhaps — you believe this year’s final 16 tourney teams might be lacking for some major storylines.
Are you kidding us or what?
There are still 10 of the top 16 seeds left standing in this NCAA Tourney field plus three double-digit seeds too (see Dayton, Stanford and win-every-other-night Tennessee), plus there’s that Kentucky versus Louisville game hovering over the Thursday/Friday, games plus you might even get a rematch of last year’s national championship game in the Midwest Regional Final should aforementioned defending champ Louisville and Michigan hook up this time with a Final Four berth possibly on the line.
Well, for the first time in more than 50 years the NCAA Tournament will be played in New York City — you heard the Iowa State kids all juiced up to go play in the “best gym in the world” and let’s not forget teams who stamped their names into our heads this year such as Virginia, Florida and Wisconsin … you could see any of the above win it all, don’t you think?
So, there’s major hoops electricity in the air with the games on tap in Memphis and Anaheim on Thursday; in New York City and Indianapolis on Friday and — so in case you haven’t already written ‘em down or recorded them for memory — here’s the Sweet 16 sked for this week:
On Thursday, it’s …
Memphis — Dayton vs. Stanford; UCLA vs. Florida
Anaheim — Baylor vs. Wisconsin; San Diego State vs. Arizona
On Friday, it’s …
New York — Connecticut vs. Iowa State; Michigan State vs. Virginia
Indianapolis — Tennessee vs. Michigan; Kentucky vs. Louisville
For you handicapping folks, take note that through the first week of this year’s NCAA Tournament, betting favorites are 26-24-2 ATS (against the spread) for a .520 winning rate and among the Sweet 16 teams that have copped pointspread wins in both/all their games let us present to you UCLA, Dayton, Stanford, Baylor, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Iowa State, Michigan and Kentucky — all of whom are 2-and-oh spreadwise in this tourney — and then there’s Tennessee that’s 3-0 versus the vig with covers against Iowa, UMass and Mercer.
And now hear this …
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Get it either right here online at www.vegassportsmasters.com or at our exclusive toll-free telephone # of 1-800-323-4453 — plus don’t forget we’re banging out lots of NBA Winners too these days and so go ahead and join the fun and profits today with all the hardwood action this month.
SOUTH REGION —
At Memphis, TN — Thurs & Sat
#1 FLORIDA (34-2) — The NCAA Tournament’s numero uno overall seed has not been particularly sharp despite double-digit wins against both Albany and Pittsburgh.
Okay, star G Scottie Wilbekin (21 points including 11 of Florida’s 13 points during one second-half stretch against the Panthers) merely took over that 61-45 third-round win against Pitt, but lots of other aspects to this Gators’ game has been shaky including G Michael Frazier II, who canned just 2-of-9 triples versus Pittsburgh and note Florida only had nine assists in that whole game … maybe this SEC gang is depending too much on the quick hands/strength of Mr. Wilbekin this month?
Remember that head coach Billy Donovan has steered the Gators into back-to-back-to-back Elite 8’s the past three years, but if the Gainesville gang gets there this time than someone else is gonna have to lend Wilbekin a helping hand.
#4 UCLA (28-8) — The Bruins bagged the Pac-12 Tournament two weekends ago and continue to rock-n-roll as Sunday’s never-in-doubt 77-60 win against 9 ½-point pup Stephen F. Austin featured just three turnovers (and 22 assists), and maybe first-year head coach Steve Alford is right that smooth-as-silk swingman Kyle Anderson is a modern-day version of Magic Johnson: Note that Anderson filled up the stat sheet in that third-round romp with 15 points, 8 rebound and 5 assists and the Uclans’ spurtability should have favored Florida a tad nervous this week.
There’s no question Alford has given the green light to G Jordan Adams, who poured in 19 points on 8-of-12 shooting against “stone-cold” Stephen F. Austin, but the $64,000 question is does Wilbekin guard Anderson here or does he give his attention to Mr. Adams? Stay tuned.
P.S., this will mark the fourth time in the past nine years that Florida has faced UCLA in an NCAA Tournament game … what, are they the modern-day version of Kentucky vs. Utah?
#10 STANFORD (23-12) — Where are all those folks that have been critical of Cardinal head coach Johnny Dawkins now?
The sixth-year boss engineered stunning tourney wins against New Mexico and Kansas — and Sunday’s electric victory in St. Louis had a slew of heroes including foul-plagued F/C Dwight Powell (15 points and 7 rebounds) and ace shot-blocker Josh Huestis, who rejected a pair of key second-half shots just when the Jayhawks were started to get on a roll.
No doubt that Stanford’s veteran lineup has managed to stay cool when these two tourney tilts got a bit nerve-wracking but it’s amazing what a gotta-have-it hoop can do to calm one’s nerves as both C Stefan Nastic (10 points on 4-of-5 FG shooting against Kansas) and G Chasson Randle (13 points on 6-of-12 FG makes) both had the uncanny ability to quiet a pro-Kansas crowd with big shots.
Still, Stanford ain’t gonna win another game in this tourney if it doesn’t hit some threes as the Cardinal shot 0-for-9 from beyond the arc against Kansas … and lived to tell about it!
#11 DAYTON (25-10) — Okay, so just how many Miller brothers are we gonna have in this year’s tourney?
Arizona’s Sean Miller is back in the Sweet 16 round, but we now welcome l’il brother Archie Miller, who is the pulse of this never-say-die Dayton team that bested Ohio State and Syracuse to get here … not a bad week’s work, right?
The Flyers sometimes play as if their hair is on fire but the 78 rpm style definitely unnerved the ‘Cuse in last Saturday’s 55-53 upset over the 8 ½-point favored Orange as somehow Dayton survived a 10-of-18 stat line at the free-throw stripe and the fact that it had more turnovers (13) than assists (12) but the Atlantic-10 guys like to muck up the game when possible and often count on their reserves to save the day as Vee Sanford — who drained the game-winning shot against Ohio State and contributed 8 points and 4 boards in 17 minutes against Syracuse — could be really big in this Sweet 16 showdown with Stanford.
EAST REGION —
At New York City, NY — Fri & Sun
#1 VIRGINIA (30-6) — Let it be known that the Wahoos are the sole remaining ACC squad in this man’s tourney (we waved bye-bye to Duke, North Carolina, N.C. State, Pittsburgh and Syracuse!) and the great thing about Tony Bennett’s team is despite the seed number attached to their name, nobody really expects Virginia to get to this year’s Final Four.
The Cavaliers absolutely owned 6 ½-point dog Memphis 78-60 on Sunday night as some first-half jitters were wiped away quickly and the balanced offense that all too often takes a media backseat to this nation’s-best defense really stole the show: How ‘bout the fact Virginia shot 30-of-54 from the floor (that’s 55.6 percent) with many of the hoops in close and without resistance after great drive-and-dish plays and while do-everything star Joe Harris kicked in 16 points, we must say the contributions off the pine from jumping-jack F Anthony Gill (13 points and 8 boards in only 19 minutes) is what really wowed us.
#3 IOWA STATE (28-7) — No question that the Cyclones were getting lots of love/sympathy for having lost F Georges Diang in last Friday’s win against N.C.-Central as his broken right foot will keep ‘em sidelined for the remainder of this NCAA Tournament but, as we suspected, the other stars stepped up their games in Sunday’s wild 85-83 come-from-behind win against 1 ½-point pup North Carolina.
Of course, at the head of the I-State class was G DeAndre Kane (24 points, 10 rebs and 7 assists) whose drive-to-the-dish hoop with 1.6 seconds won it before we had a total meltdown of clock malfunction and shoddy time-out calling by Carolina, but the fact Fred Hoiberg (a really bad dancer!) was able to keep his club composed down eight points with five-plus minutes remaining could bode well this weekend in New York City and what about that splendid 12-of-26 shooting game from trey-land?
#4 MICHIGAN STATE (28-8) — Even President Obama had to be sweating a bit when Sparty blew every bit of a 16-point second-half lead before finally regaining its footing in an 80-73 non-cover win against 9-point dog Harvard, but now that Tom Izzo’s club survived that “white knuckler” you do have to wonder if everything else will be clear sailing from this point forward?
Sure, Michigan State had a no-sweat opening-round tourney win thanks to Adreian Payne’s 41-point game against Delaware, but even he regressed in the next game with just 12 points (and he even missed a free throw after going 17-of-17 from the FT line against the Blue Hens), but the major question mark here is what can State really expect from PG Keith Appling who had just two points and three assists in 22 minutes of game action versus Harvard … will he be the albatross that brings this Big 10 team down sometime this weekend?
#7 CONNECTICUT (28-8) — Didn’t you just love that interview UConn boss Kevin Ollie gave just prior to heading into the halftime locker room of that 77-65 win against 4 ½-point fav Villanova?
Ollie said his team was “going to win the game” and basically let the world know that G Shabazz Napier would be heard from after two fouls kept ‘em on the bench for 12 first-half minutes, and Ollie was dead-on as Napier drilled shots from the Buffalo suburbs en route to a 25-point night that included a scary shin injury late. Napier — who played on that 2011 national-title-winning UConn club under Jim Calhoun — has that “mojo” going for him right now much in the manner of Kemba Walker and so it’ll be interesting to see if the UConn familiarity with Madison Square Garden and Napier’s familiarity with the court will be a major plus in the Sweet 16 game against Iowa State.
WEST REGION —
At Anaheim, CA — Thurs & Sat
#1 ARIZONA (32-4) — There’s been plenty of talk lately about this U of A Wildcats’ team not being “whole” because of the in-season injury to third-leading scorer Brandon Ashley, but did coach Miller’s team look “weak” in Sunday night’s 84-61 runaway win against 7 ½-point dog Gonzaga.
The ‘Cats surely got a bit giddy with all the dunks and all those blocks — 8 of ‘em against the Zags and now 20 blocked shots thus far in this tourney — and it was your prototypical Arizona win with five players scoring in double figures starring G Nick Johnson’s 17 points and did this dude excel in the open court game here!
Arizona may not sport such a quickness edge in its Sweet 16 game against San Diego State but right now we’d have to say the Wildcats are more polished, more well-rounded on offense and maybe even more hungry than anyone else in this West Region.
#2 WISCONSIN (28-7) —There’s no question that the best game so far in this year’s NCAA Tournament was Sunday’s Kentucky win against Wichita State, but lost amidst all that hoopla was Wisky’s bring-down-the-house comeback win against Oregon.
The Badgers overcame a 12-point halftime deficit en route to the 85-77 win/cover against the 6-point underdog Ducks and the real keys to victory there was the 12 offensive rebounds and the 11 trifectas with G Ben Brust’s four triples nearly turning everyone deaf in Milwaukee. Brust and Company never did stop shooting threes even if it sometimes felt like “fool’s gold” and the fact of the matter is this type of comeback could never had happened in the Bo Ryan-coached days of even four or five years ago.
Keep in the Badgers were an 18-to-1 shot to win it all prior to this tourney and — don’t look now — but they’re favored here in the Sweet 16 game against Baylor and wouldn’t be much of a dog if/when there’s a regional final showdown versus Arizona — this more athletic brand of Wisky hoopsters got off 60 shots in that win against Oregon (making 29 of ‘em) and one major key this week will be getting tall man Frank Kaminsky open for those 15-to-18 footers that helped him score a team-high 19 points against Oregon.
#4 SAN DIEGO STATE (31-4) — Maybe it’s time the powers-that-be at CBS and Turner Sports started to pay more attention to Aztecs guard Xavier Thames: Okay, we know TNT’s Steve Smith awarded the SDSU star his “Spartans helmet” for last Saturday’s 30-point performance in that 63-44 blowout win against 3 ½-point dog North Dakota State, but we’ve been saying all year long that Thames is one of the country’s top five players and his showing in this “Big Dance” is proof positive.
Let’s not also forget some great sideline work by wily head coach Steve Fisher, who confounded the Bison with different defensive looks while coming out of time outs (note North Dakota State shot just 32 percent from the floor) plus reserve Dwayne Polee II (15 points and 6 rebounds in 30 minutes) is showing he’s more than just a so-called pogo stick … no, former stop St. John’s couldn’t have used him this year!
#6 BAYLOR (26-11) — We’re not quite sure whether the surging Bears had more fun drubbing Doug McDermott and Creighton 85-55 in Sunday’s game in San Antonio or when they mussed with the hair of TNT sideline guy Craig Sager!
In any event, Baylor boss Scott Drew once again is proving to the hoops world that he’s a brilliant tourney coach and maybe the best thing about stopping McDermott — who ends his career as the fifth all-time leading scorer in NCAA history — is that they actually only let ‘em get off 14 FG attempts en route to his quiet 15-point game.
Baylor started off Big 12 play with a 2-8 record, but right now you could make the case that it’s the most dangerous non-#1 seed team out there with five players going for twin-digit scoring totals in the win against the Bluejays and what about the 11-of-18 shooting from beyond the arc starring G Brady Heslip’s 5-of-7 three-point stat line and G Kenny Chery’s 4-of-5 three-ball shooting?
MIDWEST REGION —
At Indianapolis, IN — Fri & Sun
#2 MICHIGAN (27-8) — There can be no denying that the smooth-stroking Wolverines sported one of last weekend’s prettiest wins in that 79-65 triumph over 5-point underdog Texas as “Big Blue” made good on half of its 28 three-point shots but it’s defense that still makes this Big 10 tick.
John Beilein’s club held Wofford to 40 points in a second-round NCAA Tournament game and then limited the frisky Longhorns to just 23-of-62 shooting from the floor (that’s 37.1 percent), but Michigan’s gotta do a better job boxing out on the defensive boards as Texas hauled down 19 offensive caroms and could have/should have converted more of them into points.
No doubt Michigan’s gonna go as far as its defense and standout shooter Nik Stauskas (17 points but just 4-of-12 FG shooting against Texas) takes ‘em in this tourney but keep an eye peeled the rest of the way on F Jordan Morgan, who registered 15 points and 10 boards versus the ‘Horns and he’s been an unsung star for the Wolverines lately.
#4 LOUISVILLE (31-5) — There has not been a repeat national champ since the 2006 and ’07 Florida Gators and if the U of L Cardinals plan on getting “mission accomplished” then there can’t be any more mental lapses for Rick Pitino’s team.
No doubt the Cards ain’t the same team that won it all last year as there’s no great shot-blocking presence and the half-court offense can lag at times, but consider the danger signs as last Saturday’s 66-51 win/cover against 10-point pup Saint Louis included the Billikens taking a brief 29-27 second-half lead after Saint Loo couldn’t do anything right in the first half (see turnovers, plenty of missed shots and a general lack of execution).
In the end, Luke Hancock’s 21 points and Russ Smith’s 7 assists paved the way for a third-round win but — hey — Saint Louis didn’t make a triple all game long (0-for-15) and the ‘Ville shouldn’t count on that happening come Friday night versus old pal Kentucky.
#8 KENTUCKY (26-10) — They tossed around a whole lot of words on TV following the Wildcats’ thrilling 78-76 win against 4 ½-point fav Wichita State as folks talked about “maturity” and “focus” and “unselfish”, but when you really came right down to it John Calipari’s pro-stocked team just had more talent and a bigger will to win in this third-round game, and so kudos to a bunch of kids that started off the year ranked #1 and have taken media beatings ever since.
Sure, twin guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison made mucho clutch shots while scoring a combined 39 points, and lefty F Julius Randle did a little bit of everything with his 13 points, 10 rebs and 6 assists but let’s send a little love in the general direction of unsung G James Young (13 points) who canned some unbelievably big shots late against the Shockers.
Kentucky may be vintage “Fab Four” — the freshmen version at Michigan back in the 1991-92 season — that really came on late in the year and carried momentum through the NCAA Tournament and so no wonder Sweet 16 foe Louisville is among the many still-standing squads absolutely scared to have to play the ‘Cats but maybe this win against Wichita State was this team’s “high note” after a rather ordinary regular season … we shall see.
#11 TENNESSEE (24-12) — Gotta be something to this whole “First Four” bit of teams getting a win in Dayton and then getting on a run as this is the third time in four years that a team that won a “First Four” game has made to the round of 16 and Cuonzo Martin’s club has to offer zero apologies for the fact that it had to best Mercer and not Duke in Sunday’s third-round action … hey, the 1988 Kansas team that won it all on Danny Manning’s broad shoulders had plenty of “inferior opponents” along the ride after higher seeds got picked off!
The Volunteers are a no-nonsense team that pounds the boards (see 39-to-17 advantage against Mercer in the 83-63 win) and nobody pounds ‘em like soft-spoken F Jarnell Stokes, who snagged 18 caroms and even scored 17 points for the heck of it. Tennessee doesn’t give up many/any second-half scoring opportunities and the defense is blue collar all the way as offensive-minded Mercer managed to hit just 24 FGs even though most of the second half was pure garbage time (note the Vols led by 15 at the half and never let things get close).
Martin’s magic has made him one of the true coaching stars of this tourney — now can he outfox the masterful Mr. Beilein and Michigan come Friday night?
Note: Catch our NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Game Previews in the next couple of editions of Jim Sez and don’t forget we’ll also include our NCAA Tournament Pointspread Breakdown Chart in Wednesday’s column, so don’t dare miss out!