I’ve got a prediction. This Sweet 16 will be … sweet.

Sorry. I’ll show myself out.

In all seriousness, we’re set up for a fantastic weekend of hoops. As great as the Cinderella stories are during opening weekend, they usually set us up for a disappointing second weekend. With just 1 team seeded lower than 6 remaining in the field (11-seed NC State) and all the 1-2 seeds still alive, we should have heavyweight fights galore.

That’s why this tournament is as good as there is. There’s always a silver lining, no matter what the result is.

I won’t pretend to have a crystal ball, but I picked how I thought the rest of the tournament would play out.

Instead of providing answers to that, let’s ask some pressing questions ahead of a sure-to-be-sweet Sweet 16:

1. How does UConn defend the 2024 version of Jaedon LeDee?

It’s a national championship rematch, but it feels like 2 extremely different teams this year. A big part of that is because of the player LeDee has become. He was a role player on last year’s runner-up squad — he had 5 points in 17 minutes against UConn. Now, he has become an unstoppable force for the Aztecs. How does UConn contain LeDee? Or are the Huskies OK with letting him get 20 and 10?

As versatile as UConn is with the ways it can win games — that explains the double-digit spread via DraftKings — one thing it hasn’t really had to work against was Donovan Clingan getting in foul trouble. He has yet to foul out of a game this season. Could we see Alex Karaban handle LeDee on some switches? He’s a unique matchup for a UConn team that hasn’t faced a lot of bigs with his size (6-9, 240 pounds) and experience (he’ll be 25 in July). Even UNC’s Armando Bacot, who had 13 points in a loss at UConn earlier this year, isn’t as polished as LeDee.

The defending champs might’ve gotten a fortunate bounce by not having to face Auburn, but LeDee could give them everything that they can handle.

2. Can Clemson slow down Caleb Love and Arizona?

I don’t mean “slow down” from a game-to-game momentum standpoint. I mean actually slow down the pace that Arizona wants to play at. Arizona is No. 16 in America in adjusted tempo while Clemson is No. 256. Here are the adjusted tempo rankings of the teams that Arizona lost to this season (via KenPom):

  • Purdue: No. 173
  • FAU: No. 132
  • Stanford: No. 71
  • Washington State (twice): No. 322
  • Oregon State: No. 310
  • USC: No. 138
  • Oregon: No. 196

That’s 8 losses, all of which came against teams outside the top 70 in adjusted tempo, 7 of which were outside the top 130. Where does Clemson rank in adjusted tempo, you ask? No. 256. It’s worth noting that Arizona adjusted well in the Round of 32 against a Dayton team that ranked No. 334 in that department. Can the Wildcats control the pace? That could determine if they reach their first Elite Eight since 2015.

3. In the battle of Mark Sears vs. RJ Davis, who prevails?

If you’re a fan of elite guard play, you should be fully dialed into Alabama-UNC, where 2 of the nation’s best guards will square off. Both seniors have blossomed into elite scorers even though they’re usually the smallest players on the court. They’re fearless driving to the basket and they can make you pay from 3-point range with clips between 41-43%.

If this game is close, we could get a fun back-and-forth with both guys going back and forth on late-in-the-shotclock isolation plays. Davis has more experience doing that on this stage, but it’s hard to deny how brilliant Sears has been for the Tide so far in the NCAA Tournament. He averaged 28 points, 8 rebounds and 5.5 assists on 55% shooting and 47% from beyond the arc. Any path for an Alabama calls for Sears to win that battle against Davis.

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4. Will Alabama continue this whole “defense” thing against UNC?

It’s well-documented how much the Tide have struggled on that side of the ball. That’s why it was such a surprise to see Alabama defend as well as it did during the opening weekend. Nate Oats’ squad defended well in 3 of 4 halves, though the second half against a high-scoring Charleston squad also felt like the byproduct of the Tide possessing a double-digit lead.

If Alabama gets big minutes out of Mouhamed Diabate and Grant Nelson can bring the type of defensive effort we saw against Grand Canyon, that’ll make it a 40-minute game. UNC is old, prolific and unafraid. In other words, don’t expect the Heels to be anywhere near as scatterbrained as Grand Canyon was. Still, though. Alabama’s defensive effort will be the deciding factor on Thursday night in Los Angeles.

5. How does Iowa State’s elite defense handle Terrence Shannon Jr.?

The Cyclones are the No. 1 team in America in adjusted defensive efficiency. Will that translate against arguably the best pure scorer in America in Shannon? It’s a fair question in a game that has the smallest spread (Iowa State -1.5 at DraftKings) of any Sweet 16 matchup. Iowa State hasn’t faced a ton of elite pure scorers. You could make the case that the last one the Cyclones saw was Texas A&M’s Wade Taylor IV back in November. That was a game in which Taylor was contained to 14 points without a single made 3-pointer, yet the Aggies came out with a victory.

Shannon is a much different player than the 6-6 Taylor — the Illinois guard is half a foot taller — so it’s not a perfect comp from a defensive game plan standpoint. But it’ll be interesting to see how he’s defended. Shannon has scored at least 25 in 6 consecutive games — all Illinois wins. The last time a player hit 25 points against Iowa State was when Houston All-American Jamal Shead dropped 26 — 20  which came in the second half — in a 73-65 Cougars win on Feb. 19.

When Shannon hits 25 points, Illinois is 11-2. It’s safe to say his ability to get to the rack will have a major impact on whether the Illini reach the Elite Eight for the first time since 2005.

6. What’s the true immovable force — NC State or Marquette with Tyler Kolek back?

What a missed opportunity that was for me to say that DJ Burns is an immovable force. My bad. I’ll be better.

NC State is indeed an immovable force. Seven consecutive victories in the postseason — with 5 different leading scorers — have many wondering if we’re witnessing a modern-day version of Jim Valvano’s 1983 Cardiac Pack who won it all as a 6-seed. The road to repeating that feat is still long, especially knowing that Marquette awaits.

Kolek’s return to the lineup has been everything for Shaka Smart’s squad. He was the first player since Jason Kidd to have 10 points, 10 assists and 5 rebounds in consecutive NCAA Tournament games. The Golden Eagles have won 13 out of the past 14 games that he’s been healthy, and the lone loss was at UConn. There’s no denying that Kolek is Marquette’s key. The question is if he unlock a winning plan to finally halt this NC State run.

7. Is Purdue actually over the hump?

Blasting Grambling and Utah State showed that this Purdue team was mentally tougher than last year’s squad. But did it show that the Boilermakers are ready for a deep run? That, we don’t know. Matt Painter’s well-documented 1 trip to the Elite Eight — a game that Purdue was 1 defensive stand from beating eventual-national champ Virginia — looms large, especially with who awaits.

Mark Few’s 5 Elite Eight trips in the past 8 years get lost in the shuffle of the “will he ever win the big one” conversation. Gonzaga’s opening weekend performance also got lost in the shuffle. All the Zags did was dismantle trendy upset pick McNeese and follow that up by routing a depleted Kansas squad. They handled Jayhawks All-American 7-footer Hunter Dickinson just fine. Will that translate to the ever-unique task of defending 7-4 Zach Edey? It could, which would immediately quiet the notion that Purdue’s opening weekend showing was the beginning of a 2019 Virginia-like run.

8. Will Tennessee find some life from 3?

I’m not breaking any news to Tennessee fans here, but it’s worth repeating. The Vols started an NCAA Tournament game by going 1-for-21 from 3-point range and survived. That’s not supposed to happen. But when you defend as well as Rick Barnes’ squad does, well, there’s some margin for error. One would think against a dynamic offensive team like Creighton, there’s less margin for error. The Bluejays’ prolific scoring attack — they have 3 players averaging at least 17 points per game — can put a ton of pressure on an opposing team to make shots.

The past 6 games, the Vols shot 29.8% from 3-point range and 37.2% overall. The confidence issues of Santiago Vescovi are still a question, as are other non-Dalton Knecht scoring options Josiah Jordan-James and Zakai Zeigler. As decorated as Knecht is, Tennessee needs a more versatile attack if it wants to reach the Elite Eight for the first time in 14 years.

9. Does Houston have enough left in the tank for Duke?

Here’s all you need to know. Houston’s depth was gutted so badly by the end of that overtime thriller against Texas A&M that it had a walk-on shooting free throws to try and put the game away. Granted, a whistle-happy officiating crew sidelined Houston’s 3 best players late. Still, though. Kelvin Sampson has been blunt about his depth in March. Being without 2 rotation guys, with the way his team defends, is significant. As bad as that collapse late was against A&M, it’s a testament to Sampson that his team found a way to pull that game out in overtime.

With a bit of rest, can Houston recharge for a matchup against red-hot Duke? The good news is that it should feel like a Houston home game with it being played in Dallas. That’s not an easy advantage to have against a national fan base that travels like the Blue Devils. This Duke team wants to play in the half-court and create quality looks with 5 guys who pass the ball well. That’s usually tough to do against Houston’s defense … as long as it isn’t running on fumes. To be determined on that.

10. We can’t get all 1-2 matchups in the Elite Eight … right?

That’s essentially hitting an 8-leg parlay with these moneyline odds for each 1-2 seed to win (odds via DraftKings):

  • No. 1 Houston (-192)
  • No. 1 Purdue (-230)
  • No. 1 UNC (-185)
  • No. 1 UConn (-625)
  • No. 2 Iowa State (-122)
  • No. 2 Arizona (-310)
  • No. 2 Tennessee (-162)
  • No. 2 Marquette (-290)

My guess is that this is more like 2019 when all the 1-2 seeds were still alive in the Sweet 16, but the Elite Eight consisted of 5 top-2 seeds, a pair of No. 3 seeds and No. 5 seed Auburn. Either way, it’s a wildly different tournament than last year when all the 1-seeds were eliminated before the Elite Eight for the first time.

A sweet couple of days are in store.