Thrill of Victory

Previewing the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight

Tonight begins the Regional Semifinal (otherwise known as the “Sweet 16”) round of the NCAA Tournament. Here’s a region-by-region look at what’s ahead.

If you like big-name programs and legendary coaches, it’s hard to beat this year’s last four teams standing in the Midwest Regional. Louisville coach Rick Pitino, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewki and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo will all make the Hall of Fame as coaches one day, and the four schools (the other being Oregon) have combined for 26 Final Fours and nine national titles. That’s quite a history.

As for the here and now, it’s hard to believe that the NCAA put Louisville, Duke and MSU in the same region; Duke should have been a 1-seed instead of Gonzaga and Michigan State’s brutal schedule made it a legitimate No. 2. But each team got bumped down a slot, and Louisville was deemed the tournament’s top seed, and here we are with all three in the same region.

Meanwhile, 12th-seeded Oregon is a particularly-dangerous squad for its seeding, having gone 12-6 in the Pac-12 and winning 28 games overall. And in case you’re wondering about the Ducks’ place in history within this group, they account for one of those Final Four appearances, as well as a national title — which came in 1939.

The Oregon-Louisville matchup could be fun to watch, since both teams have athleticism in the back-court and a shot-blocker in the front court. I see Louisville prevailing because it can beat OU at its own game.

The Duke-Michigan State game should be a Final Four-type game in the Sweet 16 round. Ultimately, I like Duke because it can score in more ways and because of its superior 3-point marksmanship.

That sets up Pitino vs. Coach K in the final. Remember, the Blue Devils are 19-0 with Ryan Kelly in the lineup, and having him healthy puts Duke over the top, and into the Final Four.

With Gonzaga gagging up its Round of 32 game, and a slew of upsets nearly everywhere else in the bracket, the West may be the most wide-open Regional in the tournament.

Starting at the top of the bracket, Wichita State and LaSalle match up in a game that nobody saw coming. LaSalle has been one of the greatest stories of this tournament and its guards give it a chance, but it’s not a great defensive team and doesn’t hit the glass that well. Wichita State does both well, and that’s why the Shockers will advance.

I had Ohio State in my Final Four before the tournament began, but as I detailed earlier in the week, I’ve been awfully impressed with Arizona. OSU’s defense is tremendous, but just something about watching how easily Arizona sliced through its first two opponents tells me that the Wildcats have the talent and the athleticism to advance.

I’ll take UA in a mild upset, and then pick the ‘Cats to cut down the nets in the Regional final.

Let’s start where it’s easy. Florida Gulf Coast, we’ve loved your story, but it’s been nice knowing you. Florida just has too much talent and defends too well, and by the time this one gets to the final minutes, TV viewers will be channel-flipping for something else.

Michigan had no trouble in its first two games, while Kansas had a hard time putting away 16-seed Western Kentucky before struggling with North Carolina for a while. I originally had Kansas beating Michigan in this game, but the way the Wolverines looked, combined with how their athletic guards give KU trouble, has me changing my mind.

However, I haven’t changed my mind on Florida, my preseason pick to win the tournament. The Gators have the guards to slow Michigan, plus a versatile forward in Eric Murphy that Michigan will struggle to counter, and that’ll send coach Billy Donovan to the Final Four for the fourth time in his illustrious career.

Indiana vs. Syracuse could be one of the tournament’s best games; the way to beat the Hoosiers is to slow the tempo and to throw guards at them who can force turnovers and disrupt the offense. Well, guess what? The Orange like to slow things down, and they have one of the nation’s premier guards in 6-foot-6 Michael Carter-Williams.

Still, the Hoosiers have a balanced lineup, plus one big thing that Syracuse doesn’t (Cody Zeller) and should advance in a squeaker.

Meanwhile, the matchup between Marquette and Miami got more interesting when it was announced that Miami super-sub Reggie Johnson was hurt and would miss the next week’s games. The Hurricanes already aren’t that deep, and that takes a big bite out of coach Jim Larrinaga’s bench. Marquette has a definite advantage in that area, and also has an edge if this turns into a foul-shooting contest.

Still, I like Miami to prevail. The ‘Canes are already used to playing short-handed, have an All-American point guard in Shane Larkin, and are probably more talented than a Marquette team that won two squeakers just to get here.

So, Larrinaga should barely pick up win No. 30, but he’ll stand and watch the Hoosiers cut down the nets on the weekend.