March Madness Sweet Sixteen Picks: Day 1
The Madness continues on Thursday when the Sweet 16 kicks off with the first eight teams playing four games to see who moves on to the Elite 8. There wasn’t as much drama as we’re used to seeing in the opening round action but with some huge upsets in the round of 32 you can be sure the Madness is just heating up.
With the number one overall seed already out of the tournament (Villanova), and arguably the hottest team entering the tourney gone as well (Duke), the party is just getting started. As always there’s a variety of ways to take advantage of the crazy upsets and last-minute heroics and we’re here to help you break it all down. Let’s get to it!
#7 Michigan Wolverines vs. #3 Oregon Ducks
- Michigan (-1) vs. Oregon (+1)
Anyone who was worried about a lack of Cinderella stories needs to look no further than the Michigan Wolverines for a team to root for as the Sweet 16 hits on Thursday night. By now you know the story of Michigan’s dance with destiny. After barely making it to the Big Ten tournament after their plane skidded off the runway only to arrive and win the entire thing the Wolverines are now winners of back to back games in the NCAA Tournament and looking to continue their run against the Oregon Ducks on Thursday night.
Michigan enters the game with a 26-11 record overall and despite their late season heroics, most pundits will tell you this is no lucky team. The Wolverines had to fend off two incredibly talented teams in the Oklahoma State Cowboys and Louisville Cardinals just to get a chance at advancing in this tournament and at some point, their skill needs to be recognized over any notion of a manifest destiny.
Still, it helps to have a bit of destiny on your side and the Wolverines will be a confident group when they head into Kansas City for a date with the Oregon Ducks. They may still be considered underdogs thanks to their seeding but they’ve shed any sort of idea that they’re not up for the task and the 31-5 Ducks will need to be prepared for an incredibly talented and determined team on Thursday night. Michigan is as balanced as teams come with four different players all averaging double digit points including star Derrick Walton Jr. Zak Irvin, Moritz Wagner and D.J. Wilson. All four of those players average at least four rebounds a game as well and will be heavily leaned on to get Michigan past Oregon in their region’s semi-finals.
Derrick Walton Jr. has led this team all season long with a swagger and skill that is reminiscent of today’s NBA stars but a new unlikely hero has emerged for Michigan during the National Tournament. Moritz Wager has been the star for the Wolverines over their first two games of the Madness and is coming off a career-high 26 points in the biggest game of his life against the Cardinals. He hit a late three in the dying seconds to seal the deal for Michigan and will try and keep his strong play rolling when he gets set to tip off against the big bad Ducks.
Oregon enters the game with their own side-story in the form of their coach. Dana Altman is back in the Midwest where he built up his resume to get to where ehe is today. He used to coach the Kansas State Wildcats and the Creighton Blue Jays and with both teams just hours away from the arena he knows the area well. Now he’s entering familiar territory with a hostile and dangerous team. The Ducks were supposed to flop at the start of the tournament thanks to missing their leading rim protector in Chris Boucher but have instead flourished and after a huge come from behind win against the high-scoring Rhode Island Rams it feels like these Ducks have found their groove.
The Ducks made easy work of Iona in the first round before surviving against Rhode Island but the Rams weren’t exactly the underdogs their record led many to believe. They beat a very good Creighton team by 12 in the opening round and Oregon should be proud and confident following their victory. The Ducks are led by Dillon Brooks who is averaging 16.4 points a game. He wasn’t at his best against Rhode Island where he made just 7 of 20 shots from the field but still finished with 19 points and the win.
The Ducks have had to play their version of small-ball after losing Boucher but that’s alright with players like Jordan Bell and Tyler Dorsey picking up the slack. Dorsey has racked up four straight games of 20 points or more at the guard position and isn’t afraid to take an open shot when the opportunity presents itself. The Ducks will need to be solid on defense against the range and athleticism of the Wolverines but they have more than enough depth and talent to make up for the loss of Boucher.
Moritz Wagner against Jordan Bell. Wagner was hardly a blip on the radar last season but has thrust himself into the national spotlight with some huge games in the Big Ten and NCAA tournament. At almost seven feet tall he has the ability to shoot the three and stretch the floor and the Ducks will need to make sure they keep an eye on him all game. That eye could belong to Jordan Bell who has had to step up in a major way defensively with Boucher down. Bell grabs a ton of boards but is still undersized to guard Wagner and will need to make sure the big Wolverine gets no space inside, or to shoot.
The spread is small thanks to how well the Wolverines are playing right now but the Ducks have been dominant all season long and are now getting a point in this matchup. We think Michigan’s magical run ends in the Sweet 16 and the Ducks move on in Kansas City.
#4 West Virginia Mountaineers vs. #1 Gonzaga Bulldogs
- West Virginia (+3) vs. Gonzaga (-3)
The Bulldogs had the best record of any division one school in the country this season and if it weren’t for those meddling BYU kids they’d have a perfect record up to this point. As it stands Gonzaga is still thrilled with their number one overall seeding but understand that a much tougher task awaits them on Thursday night when they take on the West Virginia Mountaineers.
The Bulldogs enter with a 33-1 record overall this season while the Mountaineers counter with a 28-8 mark and one of the most ferocious defenses in the league. Nicknamed “Press Virginia” for their aggressive and early coverage the Mountaineers put their defense on full display against a very good Notre Dame in their last outing. The Fighting Irish came into the game averaging just 9.5 turnovers a contest which ranked second overall in the country but left the floor having coughed up the ball 14 times.
The Mountaineers’ ability to force turnovers is going to be a huge concern for a Gonzaga team that has had trouble taking care of the ball on occasion this season. In their last game against North Western that was a little tight then their fans would have hoped Gonzaga coughed up the ball 13 times and allowed the Wildcats to turn those 13 blunders into 17 points. West Virginia plays much harder and tighter defense than Northwestern does and if Gonzaga isn’t careful they could find themselves playing catch-up early.
West Virginia isn’t just good at forcing turnovers, they’re the best in the country. The Mountaineers caused their opponents to cough up the ball an average of 20.1 times a game this season and on 28 percent of their possessions which is also the best mark in the country. While the Mountaineers still give up points, the opportunities they create for themselves by forcing turnovers allow them to keep up in any game. That style of play is perfect for the tournament where mistakes are a dime a dozen and West Virginia has capitalized off that so far.
While the press has been good, it hasn’t gone up against a point guard as talented as Nigel Williams-Goss in the tournament yet. The Gonzaga guard is considered one of the smartest playmakers in the game this year and has a better than two to one assist to turnover ratio this season. He’s dished out 161 helpers to just 72 turnovers and will need to do the majority of the ball handling with his teammate struggling a bit in that department this season. Josh Perkins is the other guard for Gonzaga who brings the ball up the court but has just 113 assists to 68 turnovers this season.
How good are West Virginia? They lost their chance to sweep the number one seeded Kansas Jayhawks in overtime this season and again, it was because of their full county press. The nature of their game tires their players out which is exactly why their coach uses one of the deepest rotations in the tournament with ten different players averaging at least 11 minutes a game. Only one player hits the 30-minute mark which is leading scorer and stealer Jevon Carter but for the rest of the Mountaineers it’s all about short productive minutes off the bench.
Jevon Carter against Nigel Williams-Goss. As we mentioned earlier, if Gonzaga is going to avoid coughing up the ball they’re going to need to make sure Williams-Goss can get around Carter. The Mountaineer ranked 7th this season in steals per game with 2.5 and was a big reason why the Mountaineers were number one in the country in that department as well. Williams-Goss knows how to take care of the basketball though and we can’t wait to see who comes out on top from this matchup.
West Virginia is getting three points on the spread and line makers are really relying on people to jump on the Gonzaga wagon with how well their team was doing this season. If you’ve watched any of the tournament or any of the Mountaineers this season you know how hard that press is to deal with. Take the Mountaineers on the spread.
#11 Xavier Musketeers vs. #2 Arizona Wildcats
- Xavier (7.5) vs. Arizona (-7.5)
While fans of the Cinderella story are hanging their hats on Michigan they might not want to overlook the only double-digit seed still left in the tournament. Yes, number 11 seeded Xavier are the only hope for a big underdog to advance to the Elite Eight but it’s going to be a tough task with arguably one of the best teams in the country standing in their way.
The last time these two teams met was in the Sweet 16 as well and not to long ago. They squared off in 2015 in similar circumstances with the Wildcats emerging victorious with a 68-60 win. That game can’t be sued as measuring stick for anything that is going to happen on the court on Thursday night though. Just two Arizona players remain from that team and were in the game for a total of just nine minutes. Xavier’s Trevon Bluiett who is carrying the team on his shoulders right now scored just two points back in 2015 and it’s safe to say the stories have changes for both teams.
The only thing that might not change is the outcome. The Wildcats look like an even better version of the team that beat the Musketeers two years ago thanks to some serious talent additions to their roster. Arizona has added two excellent scorers in freshman Lauri Markkanen and Allonzo Trier and seem to have size and athleticism at every position on the court. Markkanen is a seven footer with a sweet touch that is expected to go high in the NBA draft while Trier is just picking up where he left off. As a freshman last year Trier had all the tools to be great but a performance enhancing drug suspension caused him to miss the first 19 games of this season. Since then all he’s done is lead the team in scoring and play lock down defence all over the court.
As good as both of those players have been Xavier have an ace up their sleeve as well in Trevon Bluiett. The guard is averaging 17.7 points a game this season and has shown great resolve in both of Xavier’s first two upsets. The Musketeers should have been one of the top teams in the country but an injury to Edmond Sumner earlier in the year caused many to start doubting Xavier. Myles Davis had also just left the team and it didn’t even look like Xavier would make the big dance. Yet here they are upsetting teams like Maryland and Florida State and it comes as no surprise to the players actually on the team
Despite Sumner averaging 15.0 points and Davis dropping 10.8 and 4.1 assists per game last year the Musketeers have made up for their absence and now find themselves just a game away from the Elite Eight. They’ve battled all year long and aren’t ready to just be happy with their first two upsets.
Arizona knows a thing or two about battling through adversary themselves. Arizona lost their freshman Ray Smith to his third torn ACL that has likely ended his career and were without Allonzo Trier while he served his aforementioned suspension. They missed Jackson-Cartwright for a month after he dealt with an ankle injury and a lot of pressure was put on Kadeem Allen to lead the team. Arizona’s only senior has been just that all year: a leader. The team’s best and smartest defender will be given a tough task on Thursday night when he’s asked to shut down Bluiett but if anyone is capable of the job it’s him.
Lauri Markkanen against Trevon Bluiett. We don’t expect to see either player guard the other too much but Blueitt truly does everything for this team and he’ll likely have to step up and stop Markkanen now and then if the Musketeers are going to be successful. The Wildcat is a menace right now with 36 points in two tournament games and despite being the tallest guy on the court loves to shoot the three. He’s 43.3 percent from downtown this season and if he gets that shot going it could be a swift exit for Xavier.
The Musketeers have showed an incredible ability to stay in games but most of it has had to do with Trevon Bluiett playing at an all-star level. The Wildcats will be able to lock him down better than the two teams before them and we fully expect Arizona to come out with a win, but by 7.5 points? Xavier isn’t going to bow out that easy. Take them on the spread.
#4 Purdue Boilermakers vs. #1 Kansas Jayhawks
- Purdue (+5) vs. Kansas (-5)
It’s the old tale of David vs. Goliath when these two schools get ready to tip off during Sweet 16 action on Thursday night. If it didn’t seem enough like a mismatch on paper Kansas was given an added bonus by the location of the game. With their home stadium Allen Fieldhouse just an hour from the Sprint Center you can expect a sea of Jayhawks fans in attendance when they effectively host the Boilermakers.
The stadium holds 18,972 fans and most of them will be decked out in Kansas gear ready to cheer on their team that has looked as strong as ever during the tournament so far this season. The Boilermakers are no stranger to a hostile crowd and will be more than prepared for the game at hand, but it still helps to have some friendly faces in the stands and Kansas will surely benefit when they find themselves losing energy.
Both teams were dominant during the regular season and now get to put that to the test against one another. Kansas easily won the Big 12 by four games this season with an overall record of 30-4 while Purdue handled their conference with a two game cushion and a 27-7 mark of their own. Despite both teams shared success their style of play is vastly different and could be a key to who has the upper hand when the ball tips.
Purdue relies heavily on their big man inside, especially in Caleb Swanigan who is already making noise this tournament and may just walk away with the national player of the year award when all is said and done. He leads the entire country with 28 double doubles this season and has the ability to take over any single game in a heartbeat. The big man inside averages 18.5 points and 12.6 rebounds a game with 3.0 assists to boot. At six foot nine and 250 pounds he’s not going anywhere when you try to move him either. Once Swanigan has his spot the shot is getting off, it’s just a matter of whether it goes in or not.
Joining him is six foot eight Vince Edwards who averages 12.7 points a game and the monster Isaac Hass who stands seven feet two inches tall and averages 12.6 points himself. That sort of size is hard for anyone to deal with whether you’re Kansas or not and the way the Jayhawks play it could be a bigger problem than many realize.
Kansas is all about their guards. They start four to be exact although Josh Jackson and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk are both at least six foot eight and are long enough to defend almost anyone in the country. Jackson is the real x-factor thanks to his size and talent and it’s been on full display this tournament. He averages 16.6 points per game on the year to go along with 7.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.1 blocks and there is really nothing this freshman can’t do.
If he wasn’t enough to worry about there’s also Frank Mason III. The senior leads the team in scoring with 20.8 points per game this season and has the veteran leadership and experience to handle any pitfalls that may come his team’s way. He’s the leader on and off the court and when a team can lean on a senior to get a clutch bucket that’s a scary team indeed.
Josh Jackson against Caleb Swanigan. Simply put, the Jayhawks don’t have anyone big enough to lock down Swanigan once he gets in the paint, but they certainly have someone athletic enough to alter his shot. Jackson is second on the team in rebounding and blocked shots and loves a tough matchup. While Swanigan is heavier than the Jayhawk, Jackson has the bounce to keep up with him. We’re thrilled to watch these two go at it.
Purdue has the size to really give Kansas some problems, but the Jayhawks have too much talent at every position for it to be a problem all game. With the spread set at just five we think Kansas makes a statement and wins big. Take the Jayhawks on the spread.