It can be tempting to abandon the NCAA Tournament after the first weekend, especially considering your bracket is likely busted. (Duke as my champion? What was I thinking!)
However, the quality of play will only continue to rise as the tournament goes on. One night, there will be a matchup of future NBA guards. Next, a senior-laden team will fight for its basketball life. With so many second-round upsets, several top teams will be on high alert.
Here are five Sweet 16 games you should be watching this week, including several featuring SEC programs.
NOTE: All times are ET. Numbers for seeds in each team’s region.
No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 4 West Virginia
7:39 p.m. Thursday – San Jose, Calif. (TBS)
Villanova dropping in the Round of 32 was a harsh reminder that nothing is guaranteed in the NCAA Tournament. Gonzaga almost learned that the hard way, only leading South Dakota State by four points at halftime and going down to the wire against Northwestern. The Zags’ reward? A date with the perennial worst team to play in America, West Virginia.
The Mountaineers run one of college basketball’s most aggressive full-court presses, which helped launch them to the No. 5 defense in the nation. Ten players play more than 10 minutes a game to keep up the attacking defense.
Gonzaga’s guards, especially Nigel Williams-Goss, are exceptional. Staying out of turnover trouble will be the key.
No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 4 Purdue
9:30 p.m. Thursday – Kansas City, Mo. (CBS)
This matchup features teams with vastly different skill sets. Kansas guard Frank Mason III might be the national player of the year, averaging 20.8 points and 5.2 assists per game. Rangy wing Josh Jackson will likely be an NBA draft lottery pick. However, Purdue’s three top scorers are all 6-foot-8 or taller.
Kansas is relatively undersized. The Jayhawks only have two bigs in their rotation, and both top out at 6-10. Simply put, they don’t have a player who can even come close to matching All-American Caleb Swanigan at power forward. Kansas pulled out victories in tight games all season long. It will be fascinating to see if Mason has more tricks up his sleeve.
No. 7 South Carolina vs. No. 3 Baylor
7:29 p.m. Friday – New York City (TBS)
South Carolina is easily the biggest surprise of the tournament. The Gamecocks did not have a nice end to the season, losing 6 of 9 heading into the tournament. However, South Carolina blasted Marquette in the first round and then shocked No. 2 seed Duke in the second round to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since the 1970s.
Shooting guard Sindarius Thornwell is transforming himself into an NBA prospect with his dominant play. He averaged 26.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game on 48.5 percent shooting and 50 percent from the 3-point line in a pair of wins. However, the Gamecocks have an interesting matchup with All-American Johnathan Motley and the Baylor Bears.
Both teams rank top 15 in defensive efficiency. The game should be a slugfest. Really, the key matchup is going to be which unit plays better: Baylor’s interior scorers or South Carolina’s long-distance shooters. Can Frank Martin keep the streaking Gamecocks rolling into the second weekend?
No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 3 UCLA
9:39 p.m. Friday – Memphis, Tenn. (CBS)
This is a matchup better suited for the Final Four than Sweet 16. Kentucky features at least three potential NBA draft first-round picks: De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo. However, UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball might be the best player in college basketball. It’s a matchup of titans.
These teams played earlier this season in Lexington. UCLA snapped Kentucky’s 42-game home winning streak and knocked the Wildcats out of the No. 1 spot. Ball paced the Bruins with 14 points, six rebounds and seven assists. Monk scored 24 for Kentucky, but the rest of the team combined to shoot just 37.7 percent from the field.
Ball vs. Fox will be the matchup to watch in this one. Both are the engines that make each team go. Getting to see multiple future NBA players go at it will make for one of the best matchups of the weekend.
No. 4 Florida vs. No. 8 Wisconsin
9:59 p.m. Friday – New York City (TBS)
Florida’s Mike White had never made the NCAA Tournament in his five seasons as a coach, instead qualifying for the NIT Final Four in each of the past three seasons. It’s now safe to say White is fully acclimated.
Florida comfortably beat East Tennessee State in the first round. The Gators then obliterated Virginia in the second round, 65-39. Virginia had no answer for Florida’s stifling defense. Now, Florida will face underdog Wisconsin in the Sweet 16.
The Badgers were tremendously undervalued by the selection committee, and they proved it by shocking No. 1 overall seed Villanova. Seniors Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes have experience at the highest level. Big man Ethan Happ is adept at bullying in the low post. It will be a defensive battle, but an exciting matchup of strengths.