I missed out on much of the Madness that transpired in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, sequestered from the world of sports by school finals and my sister’s wedding. Blissful ignorance, though, makes this set of Sweet 16 contests no less compelling.
Five ACC schools made it to the second weekend of the tourney. The Pac-12 put three teams into the regional semifinals. The Big 12 and Big Ten saw two members apiece through to the Sweet 16, and a trio of Cinderella stories are still alive for a chance to enjoy their own shining moment.
Then there is the undefeated elephant in the room. Kentucky remains the team everyone is striving to topple, the invincible force this season. Only four chances remain to stop 40-0 from happening; with each win the odds improve further for the Wildcats. Can anyone upend the hegemonic tale of greatness that John Calipari has constructed in Lexington? Let’s break down the eight matchups of the Sweet 16 and predict the bracket out from this point.
#1 Kentucky v. #5 West Virginia
The juggernaut that is Kentucky lives to see another weekend, four wins away from immortality. Standing in their way next is a confident West Virginia team led by Bob Huggins, who is 8-2 all time in duels against John Calipari. No team in the country forces turnovers at a higher rate than the Mountaineers, but Kentucky should be able to find a way to prevail in a tight battle to live another day.
#3 Notre Dame v. #7 Wichita State
The Shockers made the most of their chance to finally play Kansas in the second round, winning handily by 13 after years of being ducked by the Jayhawks to return to the Sweet 16. ACC tournament champion Notre Dame is riding a seven-game winning streak, but they have also barely skirted past Northeastern and Butler to get to this point. Wichita State should return easily to the Elite Eight for the second time in three years.
PREDICTION: Wichita State
#1 Wisconsin v. #4 North Carolina
After looking jittery in the second half against Oregon, the Badgers won their eighth in a row over the Ducks to reach the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in five years. Frank Kaminsky and company landed a date with Roy Williams’ Tar Heels. This isn’t a vintage North Carolina crew, having barely survived Harvard in the opening round before getting past Arkansas. Wisconsin has too much size and experience for UNC to handle, and Bo Ryan’s squad will get another shot at Arizona for a second straight Final Four appearance.
#2 Arizona v. #6 Xavier
The Pac-12 champions could easily have earned a one seed, but being relegated to the two spot in their region means they probably have the easier matchup to reach the Elite Eight. Wildcats coach Sean Miller will face his old team Xavier to get there, but emotions shouldn’t get in the way of Arizona’s 14th victory in a row. One of the hottest teams in the nation will set up a regional final rematch with Wisconsin, facing the Badgers a second straight year for the right to go to the Final Four.
#4 Louisville v. #8 NC State
After upsetting top-seeded Villanova in the second round, NC State looks far more dangerous than they did entering the Madness. The Wolfpack also upset Louisville back on Valentine’s Day, giving Mark Gottfried’s crew a surge of confidence entering this Sweet 16 showdown. But the Cardinals are two years removed from the national title and more experienced in these tournament situations, making Rick Pitino’s team the likelier winner this time around.
#3 Oklahoma v. #7 Michigan State
Do you really want to bet against Tom Izzo in late March? The Spartans took Wisconsin to the brink in the Big Ten tournament, and they have outwitted Georgia and Virginia to reach the Sweet 16 for the seventh time in the past eight seasons. Oklahoma is seeded higher, but Michigan State has won more games already this year. While the Sooners should turn this into a fast, high-scoring affair, the Spartans are on course for a second straight Elite Eight.
PREDICTION: Michigan State
#1 Duke v. #5 Utah
Utah, frankly, lucked their way into a top-five seed given their late form in the regular season. But here they are, the next roadblock for a Duke squad on a collision course with Kentucky. The win over Georgetown was convincing, but the Utes don’t have the personnel to overtake a stacked Blue Devils roster. With their regular March stumble out of the way early in the ACC tournament against Notre Dame, Mike Krzyzewski’s team is ready to dish out another blowout.
#2 Gonzaga v. #11 UCLA
Gonzaga is well over a decade removed from its only Elite Eight appearance in 1999, and the Bulldogs might not get a better chance to return to the quarterfinals of March Madness. UCLA was a borderline tournament team that has caught lightning with its new lease on life, an interloper whose pedigree and luck obscures the reality that they aren’t in Gonzaga’s class. Mark Few will get a showdown with Duke for a shot at the Zags’ first-ever Final Four.