What's Sweet (And Sour) About Final 16?

Mar. 23 -- Scout's Ben Love takes a look at the good and bad factors concerning all 16 teams still dancing...

PITTSBURGH – The opening week of the 2015 NCAA Tournament has come and gone, and the Sweet 16 are all that remain.

In the East Region, which will begin play Friday, the matchups are: No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 8 NC State and No. 3 Oklahoma vs. No. 7 Michigan State.

Also on Friday, in the South Region: No. 1 Duke vs. No. 5 Utah and No. 2 Gonzaga vs. No. 11 UCLA.

Tipping off Thursday, in the Midwest Region: overall No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 5 West Virginia and No. 3 Notre Dame vs. No. 7 Wichita State.

Finally, squaring off Thursday, in the West Region: No. 1 Wisconsin vs. No. 4 North Carolina and No. 2 Arizona vs. No. 6 Xavier.

Scout is taking a look at the good and the bad – the sweet and the sour – for all 16 teams left dancing into the final weekend of March.

EAST REGION – SYRACUSE



LOUISVILLE
Sweet – Another year, another Sweet 16 for the Cardinals and Rick Pitino, who are at this stage for the fourth straight March. Louisville is, as usual, a defensive headache, ranking in the top 17 nationally in points conceded (59.2/game), blocks (5.5/game) and steals (8.3/game). Sophomore guard Terry Rozier is the playmaker offensively, totaling 37 points in two tournament games thus far and shooting 56.5%. He’ll cause problems for whichever NCSU guard draws the assignment on Friday.

Sour – The Cardinals’ opening-round game against UCI, a 57-55 win that came down to the final possession, is worrisome. Louisville has shown this season it can be up-and-down, never winning more than four games in a row following an 11-0 start, largely against rent-a-wins. One other note of interest: The two ACC foes met once already, Feb. 14 in Louisville, and the Wolfpack won 74-65. NC State held the ‘Ville to just 32.8% shooting.

NC STATE
Sweet – In beating Villanova, Mark Gottfried’s squad became the first team in this year’s NCAA Tournament to knock off a No. 1 seed. NC State continues play in the wide-open East Region with growing confidence and one of the quickest players left in point guard Cat Barber. Also encouraging: the perimeter-oriented Wolfpack got double-doubles from big men Abdul-Malik Abu and Lennard Freeman on Saturday. A balanced NCSU team is dangerous.

Sour – The last time the Pack advanced to the Elite Eight was 1986, or put another way, eight years before Barber was born. So NC State will have to write a new chapter in its history with players unfamiliar to the fray. Gottfried, in all his years as a head coach, has only been to the final eight once – with Alabama in 2004. Louisville also has the type of frontline that can bang with NC State, particularly in the person of Montrezl Harrell.

OKLAHOMA
Sweet – The Sooners dance into the Sweet 16 for the first time since Blake Griffin was on campus in 2009. Head coach Lon Kruger also now has the distinction of being the only active coach to take four different teams to this stage of the tournament (Kansas State, Florida, UNLV and Oklahoma). OU continues to make its mark with stingy defense and on the glass, particularly defensive rebounding to limit second-chance opportunities.

Sour – In all honesty, was the two-game path navigated in Columbus really that difficult? To reach the second weekend of the tourney, Oklahoma needed only beat 14-seed Albany and 11-seed Dayton. Not exactly the best preparation to take on a hot Michigan State team and Mr. March, Tom Izzo. Throw in the fact Kruger’s crew is traveling 1,400 miles to this Regional, and it’ll be a tough task to reach the program’s first Final Four since 2002.

MICHIGAN STATE
Sweet – They are the masters of March. Even when the talent level or regular-season record isn’t at its best, Izzo & Co. find a way to get here. This marks the seventh time in the last eight seasons the Spartans have crashed the Sweet 16. Sparty is also the No. 4 team in the country in assists and senior guard Travis Trice is playing like a man possessed, averaging 18.8 points over the last 11 games.

Sour – MSU’s opponent in the Carrier Dome, Oklahoma, hasn’t lost to a team other than Iowa State since Valentine’s Day. The Sooners are also a lot more dynamic offensively than the Virginia team Michigan State just beat in Charlotte. Granted, the Spartans had a lot to do with holding UVA to 29.8% shooting from the field, but Big 12 Player of the Year Buddy Hield (17.4 points/game) will present a much steeper challenge.

MIDWEST REGION – CLEVELAND



KENTUCKY
Sweet – Big Blue is only four games from perfection, which no team has attained in the sport since Indiana in 1976. John Calipari has the kind of depth and length every team in the country covets. He can go with line shifts on a whim, and UK never misses a beat. The Wildcats make life miserable on opponents on the defensive end, where Kentucky is top three in the nation in points allowed and blocks.

Sour – Finding fault in undefeated Kentucky is difficult, but one thing that is undeniably true is the Cats took a physical pounding Saturday in their win over Cincinnati. The Bearcats tried everything in the book to push UK around, and now Coach Cal’s troops have a quick turnaround, playing Thursday. There’s also a certain level of pressure involved the deeper this run gets. Oh, and then there’s the fact WVU knocked one-seed Kentucky out of the dance in 2010.

WEST VIRGINIA
Sweet – No team in the country collected more steals than the Mountaineers in 2014-15. WVU averaged 10.9 thefts a game, a concerted team effort considering seven players posted at least 1.1 steals per outing. Bob Huggins wants to speed up opposing teams and generate easy buckets, something West Virginia did in its Round-of-32 win over Maryland with 15 steals. More often than not WVU plays small ball, and more often than not it has teams playing its game.

Sour – The bad news starts and ends with drawing Kentucky. Somewhere in between is the inescapable reality that the ‘Neers are an abysmal defensive rebounding team, which is far from ideal facing the Wildcats, and struggle shooting the ball at 41.2% as a team this season. Huggins hasn’t guided WVU back to the Elite Eight since 2010, and it’ll take an all-time upset for it to happen next weekend.

NOTRE DAME
Sweet – The Irish are playing good basketball at the right time of year. In its second year in the ACC, Notre Dame took home the conference tournament title and has won 10 of its last 11 games, including seven in a row. The program is also making its first appearance in the Round of 16 since 2003. Buoying Notre Dame, led by guard Jerian Grant and do-everything swingman Pat Connaughton, is a stout team shooting percentage (51.0%), second in the nation.

Sour – This is getting pretty close to unchartered territory for the Irish under 15th-year coach Mike Brey, who unfortunately lost his mother the morning of the team’s overtime win over Butler. The last time around, in 2003, five-seed Notre Dame lost to top-seed Arizona in the Sweet 16. Also concerning is the Irish’s inability to slow down Butler’s Roosevelt Jones (23 points) in the Round of 32. The Shockers have multiple scoring threats with eyes wide after seeing that on tape.

WICHITA STATE
Sweet – The good news starts with the fact that the Shockers have one of the best coaches in the country in Gregg Marshall, now in his eighth season. WSU also won’t shy away from the moment, an experienced team with many players still around from the 2013 Final Four run. Paced by juniors Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, the Shockers, which have lost only four times all season, are exceptional defensively, ranking eighth in the country in points allowed (56.7).

Sour – First and foremost Wichita State is coming off an emotional game against in-state (non)rival Kansas, one that held a lot of significance as the Jayhawks have chosen not to schedule the Missouri Valley foe in ages. Another fair question is whether the Shockers can score enough to keep pace with the Irish, which averages almost 79 points compared (WSU averages 69.7 points). Finally, Wichita State is likely to be playing in front of a Notre Dame-heavy crowd in Cleveland.

SOUTH REGION – HOUSTON



DUKE
Sweet – The Blue Devils have throttled their competition in the first two rounds by an average of 24 points. Mike Krzyzewski’s bunch, winners in 14 of its last 15 ballgames, is an offensive juggernaut – ranked third in the country in field-goal percentage (50.2) and fourth in scoring (80.6 points/game). Jahlil Okafor is virtually unstoppable in the post while Justise Winslow might be the most diverse defender in the country not named Willie Cauley-Stein.

Sour – How many times has Duke been to the Sweet Sixteen after 2004? Seven. How many of those seven times has Duke advanced to the Elite Eight? Two. This round has been the tripping point for Coach K, and he’ll have to overcome that trend with a starting lineup that includes three freshmen and a sophomore. There’s also a nothing-to-lose factor for up-start Utah in this tilt.

UTAH
Sweet – The Utes are breaking new ground under fourth-year coach Larry Krystkowiak. Utah is in the tournament for the first time under the other Coach K in this game, and their progression as a program is impossible to ignore. The win totals under Krystkowiak, beginning with his first season: six, 15, 21 and currently sitting on 26. They’re a defensive-minded team, letting up only 56.9 points on average, and senior Delon Wright is an explosive and versatile offensive weapon.

Sour – In a game with contrasting styles, Utah’s defense will have to counter Duke’s potent offense . . . and that’s asking a lot with the way the Devils are rolling. Also going against the Utes is that they’re a relatively poor rebounding team, collecting only 34.9 boards per game. While the Blue Devils have steamrolled their competition in the opening weekend, Utah has taken single-digit contests in its two games. The margin for error will be razor-thin.

GONZAGA
Sweet – Mark Few has gotten the Zags back over the Round-of-32 hump for the first time since 2009. The Bulldogs this season have gone 34 up and two down, losing those two contests by six total points. This is unquestionably one of the nation’s top teams, particularly on offense where Gonzaga ranks first in the country in field-goal percentage (52.4) and sixth in assists (16.5). Kyle Wiltjer, a Kentucky transfer, has scored 17 or more in his last five games.

Sour – Few hasn’t led Gonzaga past the Sweet 16 since the miracle run in 1999 that put the program back on the map. And the Bulldogs have already shown a sleep-walk is possible, struggling to get past 15-seed North Dakota State in the opening round. One of the few weak spots for the Zags has been an inability to cause turnovers, meaning the Bruins should have a high number of shot attempts and be able to get deep into offensive sets.

UCLA
Sweet – It’s all house money from here forward for Steve Alford and the group from Westwood. The team nobody wanted in March Madness, now the only double-digit seed remaining, is proving its many doubters wrong. Bryce Alford carried the weight against SMU with 27 points while Tony Parker posted 28 and 12 in the win over UAB. One other thing: It’s difficult to beat a team twice in a season. Gonzaga defeated the Bruins 87-74 on Dec. 13 in Spokane.

Sour – At some point in these tournaments, almost without exception, midnight strikes on Cinderella. UCLA, ranked 135th in Division-I basketball in field-goal percentage (44.1), is the polar opposite of Gonzaga in terms of shooting efficiency. So unless Alford can magically transform his team defensively, the Bruins are going to have to hope for an off night from a team that doesn’t have many. This wasn’t a terribly kind draw for UCLA.

WEST REGION – LOS ANGELES



WISCONSIN
Sweet – Bo Ryan makes it look so easy. The Badgers are back in the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in five seasons, so there won’t be anything new to this veteran-laden team that’s lost only once since Jan. 15. Frank Kaminsky, Big Ten player of the Year, is great, but maybe the most encouraging sign for Wisconsin was how well Sam Dekker played in the win over Oregon. Plus, as they showed in Omaha, their stenography game is on-point.

Sour – None of the other No. 1 seeds left have to travel anywhere close to the distance Wisconsin does. Separating Madison and the City of Angels is 1,980 miles. On top of that, once the Badgers take the court Thursday night, they’ll face off against another team unafraid of the stage, perennial power North Carolina. The Heels’ guards, primarily Marcus Paige, will be encouraged that Wisconsin gave up 30 points to Oregon’s Joseph Young in the Round of 32.

NORTH CAROLINA
Sweet – Roy Williams’ squad is hitting its stride. The last time the Tar Heels lost to a team that’s not still in the NCAA Tournament was Valentine’s Day. Paige has been a fantastic floor operator, averaging 17.0 points and 4.2 assists in his last five games. UNC is also one of the few teams left in the tournament that can rebound with Wisconsin. In fact the more appropriate question may be: Can Wisconsin rebound with North Carolina?

Sour – From go-go-go to slow-slow-slow (at least relatively speaking), UNC will have to adapt its game plan and mindset from fast-paced Arkansas to the Badgers, which will be challenging. North Carolina may also be without big man Kennedy Meeks, who sprained his left knee and missed the end of the win over the Razorbacks. If Meeks can’t go against Wisconsin, Williams will have to play a little smaller and that wouldn’t bode well against the Big Ten champs.

ARIZONA
Sweet – Thirteen wins in a row. Only three losses on the season, all on the road by a total of nine points. Along with Duke, Gonzaga and Wisconsin, this is one of the most decorated teams left that resides outside of Lexington. Arguably Arizona’s biggest strength is its balance. Six Wildcats average at least 9.1 points. There’s quality inside with freshman Stanley Johnson and on the perimeter with senior T.J. McConnell. They play consistently good defense, too, holding teams to 59.0 points a game.

Sour – Coaches that leave one school for another hate to even schedule their former team in the regular season. Imagine meeting up with them for the right to go to the Elite Eight. That’s the spot Zona coach Sean Miller is in, making this a difficult emotional chore for the man that led Xavier from 2004-09. Finally, Johnson will have to shake off his horrid shooting game versus Ohio State, when he made only one of his 12 attempts from the field.

XAVIER
Sweet – The Musketeers were Sweet 16 regulars under Miller, going three times during his six seasons. They’re now back for a third time in Chris Mack’s six years, an impressive feat for a program in its second season in the Big East. Xavier has been strong in postseason play, advancing to the final of its conference tournament before winning the last two games in Jacksonville. Mack’s men thrive in distribution, No. 9 in the nation in assists (16.4/game).

Sour – This is not a terribly good or consistent defensive team whereas Arizona is. Xavier ranks 193rd or worse in Division-I in points allowed (67.3), blocks (2.9) and steals (6.1). On paper they stand little chance of affecting the Wildcats on the interior. And for as much success as the Musketeers have had reaching the Sweet 16, they haven’t advanced to the Elite Eight since 2008, when, of course, Miller was on the sideline.




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