16 storylines for the Sweet 16
I’m guilty of overusing the word “sweet.”
As George Strait would say, “it started way back in third grade.” It did. One day, my brother started saying it and being an impressionable younger brother, that became part of the vernacular in our household.
I mean, think about it. Someone tells you something you want to hear? Sweet! Someone tells you something you don’t want to hear but you want to react sarcastically? Sweet! It’s versatile. I’m not going all Bob Knight and claiming it has as much versatility as his favorite 4-letter word, but “sweet” is a solid, 1-word default response.
Consider that my way of saying, yes, the Sweet 16 should be just that — sweet. We’ve got some incredible matchups on the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament as we continue to march toward the Final Four.
Here are 16 sweet thoughts I have about the Sweet 16:
1. The buzzer-beaters have to be coming
Because we didn’t get one in the opening weekend. It feels like we’re due. There’s absolutely nothing like hearing the horn go off and watching a bucket drop to end/continue a season:
March 17, 2018: Down two points in the final seconds, Michigan’s Jordan Poole hits a 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat Houston in the 2nd round of the NCAA Tournament. pic.twitter.com/Ho515LMAlU
— This Day In Sports Clips (@TDISportsClips) March 17, 2022
(That was a Round 2 game. Is it possible that Houston and Michigan both advance and get a rematch in the Elite 8? Absolutely. In fact, I picked that scenario playing out.)
If we’re going based on point spreads, one would think that the most likely potential buzzer-beater would be Texas Tech-Duke, Houston-Arizona, UCLA-UNC and Iowa State-Miami. All of those have spreads of less than 3 points. Fingers crossed that one of those games gives us an unforgettable March moment.
2. You can sell yourself on anything with Arkansas
You want to sell yourself on the possibility that Eric Musselman’s team snaps out of its tentative ways after being favored in the first 2 rounds? You can do that. Since JD Notae went off in that 30-point clinic against Kentucky, he’s 25-for-88 (28%). He hasn’t exactly produced the Kemba Walker-like dominance that some (myself included) thought was possible in March. Yet still, here Arkansas is as the last SEC team standing (again) and in the Sweet 16.
You want to sell yourself on the possibility that Arkansas is in serious trouble against Gonzaga? You can do that, too. Chet Holmgren is a funky, unique matchup unlike anything the Hogs have seen all year. Even if Jaylin Williams contains Drew Timme, there’s still the possibility that Holmgren makes his presence felt on both sides of the court and it’s a double-digit Gonzaga win.
No outcome in this game would truly be a surprise other than perhaps Arkansas winning by 20.
3. What if … Arkansas can get Timme in foul trouble?
I have an unpopular thought — I think Tom Crean made a great point about something.
On the latest episode of “Pardon My Take,” the former Georgia coach brought up how Timme only averages about 2 fouls per game (it’s actually 1.6). That’s absurd given his style of being more of a throwback player in the post. He only reached 3 fouls on 5 occasions all year.
While I think Holmgren is a brutal matchup for Arkansas (and most teams), I wonder if Gonzaga would panic if it was in a back-and-forth game without old reliable to drop it down to on the low block. Or is simply trying to attack Timme a bad strategy because he’s savvy enough to defend without getting fouls called? We know he took arguably the most important charge — and a borderline one at best — in Gonzaga history in last year’s Final Four matchup against UCLA:
Drew Timme draws the crucial foul with less than a second Left and stops 11 UCLA from getting off the potential game winning shot attempt and 1 Gonzaga gets the ball pic.twitter.com/2BZSkAJHzb
— NCAA Buzzer Beaters & Game Winners (@NCAABuzzerBters) April 4, 2021
Whatever the case, Timme’s foul situation is something worth thinking about.
4. The 1-seeds that had the nail-biter wins early in the tournament … does it matter?
I always find myself defaulting to the positive spin of a 1-seed that struggles early in the NCAA Tournament. Why? Because selfishly for the sake of my bracket, I convince myself that a little adversity can go a long way. Gonzaga trailed by double digits at half, Kansas was in a game that was seemingly within 2 possessions from wire to wire and Arizona was forced to overtime.
All of those Round 2 nail-biters could be seen as exhale moments for the 1-seeds. Or perhaps that could be a bit more of a sign of what’s to come. Last year, 1-seed Michigan played in that excellent back-and-forth game with LSU, only to then fall to 11-seed UCLA in the Elite 8. But on the other hand, top-seed Baylor trailed in the second half against Villanova in the Sweet 16, only to then rally back and go on to win the rest of the tournament.
Go figure that in this year’s field, Baylor is the 1-seed that couldn’t survive that Round of 32 scare, despite a rally to erase a 25-point deficit. What we’ll find out is if TCU exposed something in Arizona’s defense or if Creighton’s wings showed that Kansas is vulnerable against guys who can make shots from all over the court. And as one does, we’ll totally play the results.
5. The best matchup of the Sweet 16 is _____________.
Houston vs. Arizona. And I’m not just saying that because it’s No. 2 vs. No. 3 in KenPom. UCLA-UNC and Duke-Texas Tech should both be great, as well, but I think we’re in for a true heavyweight fight that’ll feel like a Final Four game with Houston and Arizona.
Kelvin Sampson’s team defends and attacks the offensive glass like its life depends on it. Last year’s Final Four team did it, and this year’s team, with an entirely new starting lineup, also does it. It totally wore out All-American big man Kofi Cockburn, and now it’s fair to wonder if the Cougs can use that same philosophy on Christian Koloko.
Houston coach Kelvin Sampson on Illinois All-American center Kofi Cockburn taking only 11 shots: “That’s great defense. Our guys are tough. This is a tough program.”
— Joseph Duarte (@Joseph_Duarte) March 20, 2022
It should be a fascinating battle in terms of style given how different they are with their offensive pace. Arizona is No. 5 in the country in possessions per 40 minutes while Houston is No. 334. It should be a physical, down-to-the-wire game. It’s essentially a pick ’em with Arizona as a slight 1.5-point favorite.
6. The point spread I’d jump all over is ______________.
Michigan +5 vs. Villanova.
I’m actually picking the Wolverines to win straight up, but if you want the points, I think there’s a lot to like there, especially with all but 1 of those Sweet 16 games being single-digit spreads. I’ll be interested to see how Hunter Dickinson is defended, but perhaps of even greater significance, Eli Brooks is playing at such a high level. I think he’s plenty capable of going blow-for-blow with a guy like Collin Gillespie.
The Sweet 16 is an excellent reminder that seeds are now useless. If you think of it as an 11-seed upsetting a 2-seed, it sounds so much less likely. If you think of it as a preseason top-6 team that played its best 2-game stretch of the year last weekend, it’s a lot easier to see that path to a victory, especially for a group that reached the Elite 8 last year.
7. What will UCLA get out of Jaime Jaquez?
Perhaps the most important Sweet 16 injury is the one to the veteran UCLA star. He’s nursing a bad ankle after a late injury in the Round of 32 win against St. Mary’s. Mick Cronin has been pretty coy about his availability, but it’d be surprising if Jaquez wasn’t on the floor. The bigger question is whether UCLA will get a full dose of the versatile wing. And along those same lines, can UCLA cool down a red-hot UNC team if he’s not at full go?
It’s fitting that a herky-jerky UCLA season would include a development like this in March. Perhaps that means the Bruins are better prepared to handle it than others would.
8. We hate the officiating. But as bad as that is, let’s also appreciate how incredible the broadcasting is.
Man, one of the best things about March Madness is going from Ian Eagle in one game to Kevin Harlan in another and then back over to Jim Nantz and Bill Raftery. All of those legends will be on the call over the weekend.
Here’s the Sweet 16 broadcasting lineup:
CBS Sports and Turner Sports announce tip times and matchups for Regional Semifinals on Thursday, March 24, and Friday, March 25
— March Madness Men’s Basketball TV (@MM_MBB_TV) March 21, 2022
If I were to say something mean about Reggie Miller and his commentary, I’d say that I wish he kept to his word about watching the entire tournament at Wendy’s. But I won’t do that because my wife is a diehard Pacers fan who grew up loving the Hall of Fame sharpshooter.
Positive vibes only when it comes to college basketball broadcasts.
9. I don’t think Saint Peter’s Cinderella story continues, but …
Never say never in March. Saint Peter’s became the 10th 15-seed to ever take down a 2-seed. Of those 10 teams, 3 of them advanced to the Sweet 16:
- 2013 Florida Gulf Coast
- 2021 Oral Roberts
- 2022 Saint Peter’s
Even crazier? Florida Gulf Coast and Oral Roberts both had double-digit leads that they blew. It wasn’t like they just showed up and were just happy to be there.
What’s to say Saint Peter’s won’t have that same attitude against Purdue after how little the Peacocks were intimidated against Kentucky? I’m not calling for an upset, but don’t be surprised if this one ends up being better than what that 12.5-point spread would suggest.
10. It feels like Texas Tech-Duke will end with 1 of 2 narratives
We’re either going to say “wow, Duke got all the calls and Texas Tech wasn’t allowed to defend,” or “wow, Texas Tech’s defense totally stymied Duke.”
Given how impressionable college refs seem to be, nobody should be surprised if Mike Krzyzewski potentially coaching in his last game gives the Blue Devils a favorable whistle. Can Duke, with all of those future first-round picks, handle a team that pressures the way that the Red Raiders do? We’ll see. Texas Tech is No. 1 in America in points allowed per 100 possessions and Duke is obviously loaded with offensive playmakers.
Here’s hoping the officiating crew can avoid getting caught up in the moment and a fair game is called.
11. I don’t get how Miami was mostly forgettable in the regular season
It makes no sense. Besides that win at Duke and the blowout vs. UNC, Miami really never had any other head-turning wins. They didn’t crack the AP Top 25 once all year. Yet in the NCAA Tournament, the Hurricanes generated scoring opportunities galore against a rock-solid USC team, and then they dominated Auburn in every way to reach the second weekend. Regardless of how this run ends, Jim Larrañaga deserves a ton of credit.
Shoot, so does Iowa State coach TJ Otzelberger. The guy took over a 2-win team and is now advancing to the Sweet 16 after winning what was essentially a true road game against Wisconsin. I’d argue the Cyclones don’t look quite as well-rounded as Miami. Yeah, they’re lights out defensively, but they slowed down an LSU team with an interim coach and a Wisconsin team that plays slow to begin with and was without a fully healthy Johnny Davis.
I say all of that because while I picked Iowa State to reach the Sweet 16 — no big deal — I think it’s Miami that has a pretty clear advantage with its guard play. Isaiah Wong, Kameron McGusty and Charlie Moore do such an excellent job of attacking the basket without turning the ball over or taking bad shots. They play with absolutely no fear:
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 21, 2022
I mean, Miami hasn’t even shot it well from the outside. At all. The Hurricanes were 1-for-14 from 3-point range against USC, and then they were 3-for-15 from deep against Auburn. A 14% 3-point clip isn’t exactly how a team is supposed to pull off upsets. Then again, maybe that’s why Miami doesn’t feel like an underdog. Go figure that coming into the Big Dance, Miami’s last win vs. an NCAA Tournament team was on Jan. 26. You’d never know it based on the opening weekend. I’d be surprised if Miami ran out of gas against Iowa State.
12. If you’re interested in some pre-weekend betting trends for the rest of the way …
I realize that I told you to forget about seeds. As it relates to individual matchups, yes, you should follow that advice. Remember these 2 big-picture trends, though.
One is that the last time in which a Final Four was strictly 1-4 seeds was 2012. That’s right. Each of the past 8 NCAA Tournaments had at least 1 team seeded No. 5 or worse make the Final Four. If you want to get Final Four odds, teams like Houston (5-seed), UNC (8-seed), Miami (10-seed) and Michigan (11-seed) are super intriguing. I think at least 1 of those teams reaches the Final Four. Houston would be my pick, but I also like Miami and Michigan to at least reach the Elite 8.
The other trend relates to the title game. Of the 21 teams that won it all in the 21st century, 15 of them were 1-seeds.
- No. 1 (2021 Baylor, 2019 Virginia, 2018 Villanova, 2017 UNC, 2015 Duke, 2013 Louisville, 2012 Kentucky, 2010 Duke, 2009 UNC, 2008 Kansas, 2007 Florida, 2005 UNC, 2002 Maryland, 2001 Duke, 2000 Michigan State)
- No. 2 (2016 Villanova, 2004 UConn)
- No. 3 (2011 UConn, 2006 Florida, 2003 Syracuse)
- No. 4
- No. 5
- No. 6
- No. 7 (2014 UConn)
From a gambling standpoint, that’s really more of a “stay away” at this point. Why? If a team is seed 1-3, you’re probably not getting great odds on them to hit, and it’s still a 16-team tournament in which you essentially are banking on a 4-game parlay. So for example, even if you decided to put a future on Kansas to win it all at +500 (that’s the latest odds on FanDuel), you’re essentially betting +125 on them per game. That’s barely plus money each game.
If I were a gambling man, Duke at +1500 is somewhat intriguing, but even that might be a tough sell. Why? The Blue Devils would theoretically need to beat Texas Tech, top overall seed Gonzaga, UCLA/UNC/Purdue and then maybe another 1-seed like Arizona or Kansas in the title game. That’s an absolute gauntlet, but I suppose if you’re banking on the Krzyzewski storybook ending — with favorable officiating — then getting 3 times better odds than Kansas +500 makes sense.
13. There are 3 coaches with an incredible amount of pressure riding on this weekend
Surprisingly, I don’t think Krzyzewski is one of them.
Matt Painter, Bill Self and Mark Few are facing the most pressure of any of the remaining coaches, and I don’t think it’s that close.
Painter is trying to right the wrong of the 2019 Elite 8 loss to Virginia and reach a Final Four for the first time. Purdue hasn’t reached a Final Four since 1980. If the Boilermakers want to pull a Georgia and end the 1980 jokes, they have to avoid what would be considered a dreadful loss to Saint Peter’s and beat UCLA/UNC as a likely favorite. It’s not every day that Purdue has a future lottery pick like Jaden Ivey. There’s a sense of urgency perhaps even greater than 2019.
Self is always facing pressure with a job like Kansas, but specific to this group, he has a pretty favorable draw to reach New Orleans. He gets a Providence team who ranks No. 1 in that ever-polarizing KenPom “luck” stat and then he’s guaranteed to face a double-digit seed in the Elite 8 with the winner of Iowa State-Miami. As much as we say seeds are out the window now, they still matter with optics. In theory, this has lined up extremely well for Kansas to reach the Final Four and perhaps make the title game for the first time in a decade.
But Few is the one who has the weight of the world on his shoulders. Is that fair? Probably not. Gonzaga has been to the Elite 8 in 4 of the past 6 tournaments (no other program in America can claim that) and he’s coached in 2 title games in the past 4 tournaments. He has the future lottery pick (Holmgren) and an All-American (Timme) with the top overall seed. If Gonzaga were to stub its toe at any point the rest of the tournament, the anti-Zags crowd will be out in full force about the WCC and how it hurts the Zags (even though the NCAA Tournament results totally disagree with that).
Those 3 coaches are trying to avoid some pretty colossal landmines this weekend. Will it impact their coaching? It’ll be interesting to see.
14. If you still have all 4 of your Final 4 teams alive after the Sweet 16, you might be a liar/cheater
Sorry. That came on a bit too strong. Let me back up.
If you have all 4 of your Final 4 teams alive after the Sweet 16, I’m gonna assume that you filled out multiple brackets. If not, brag about it. Shout it from the mountain tops.
Well, that goes for everyone except my buddy, Ben. He’s the guy who will let you know about his bracket/fantasy football victories a decade later. Of course, he’s the lone person in our 15-person pool who still has all of his Final Four teams intact. He’s got:
I hate how likely that Final Four is. I really do. Then again, I suppose I could throw him a bone after I had 3 of last year’s Final Four teams, including the exact title game participants and winner. No big deal.
As for this year? Well, let’s move on.
15. The only true conference bragging rights would be 2 teams in the Final Four
Sorry, Pac-12. It was darn impressive to see “the conference of champions” put 3 teams in the Elite 8 last year. Less impressive was watching 2 teams lose in the Elite 8 and then 1 (UCLA) lose in the semifinal. Should that have been a charge at the end of regulation? Not in my opinion, but history only cares about the results.
Consider that my way of saying I don’t want to hear about how great the ACC must’ve been in the regular season if it puts 3 teams in the Elite 8. That’s not far-fetched at all.
Having said that, the ACC has the best chance to have multiple teams in the Final Four because it has 3 teams playing in separate regions. A Duke-UNC semifinal would be epic for the obvious reason of them facing off in the NCAA Tournament for the first time and doing so in Krzyzewski’s final season, but it would also be a massive moment for the brand of ACC basketball after being a punching bag in the regular season.
16. If you root for nothing else this weekend, just root for more Doug Edert
I saved my boldest take for last. The best mustache remaining in the field doesn’t belong to Timme; it belongs to Edert.
Oh, and the Saint Peter’s guard also got the best endorsement deal:
Saint Peter’s guard Doug Edert has signed an NIL deal with Buffalo Wild Wings 🍗 pic.twitter.com/l207Tm2P4T
— Front Office Sports (@FOS) March 23, 2022
Root for more Edert. Even you, Kentucky fans.