Sweet Sixteen Storylines: South and East Regionals

Posted by Henry Bushnell on March 27th, 2015


Tonight the Sweet Sixteen moves to Syracuse and Houston, so let’s take a look at the top five storylines in the East and South Regions.

South Storylines

1. Is this finally Gonzaga’s year? Mention Gonzaga to a casual college basketball fan, and more often than not, the word ‘overrated’ pops into his head. The Bulldogs have had some really impressive regular seasons under Mark Few, making the NCAA Tournament every year since he took over in 1999. But time after time, the Zags have come up short in March. Few has never taken Gonzaga past the Sweet Sixteen as a head coach, but this could be the year that the drought ends. This year’s team is more complete and well-rounded than most previous editions, and the final hurdle on the path to the Elite Eight is a #11 seed — albeit a strong one — in UCLA. A program-first Final Four might also be within reach, but let’s not put the cart before the horse just yet — for many reasons, the Zags need to win tonight.

Is this finally the year for Mark Few and Gonzaga? (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Is this finally the year for Mark Few and Gonzaga? (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

2. Duke’s recent Tourney hiccups. Since winning the 2010 National Championship, Mike Krzyzewski’s postseason record has actually been pretty lackluster. He came into this year 5-4 in the NCAA Tournaments from 2011-14 and he has been on the wrong end of some stunning upsets — losses to #15 seed Lehigh in 2012 and #14 seed Mercer a year ago. Even the 2011 Sweet Sixteen loss to #5 seed Arizona was unexpected. It’s exactly that kind of loss that Duke will be hoping to avoid this time around against a dangerous Utah squad.

3. Back aboard the Utah bandwagon? The Utes faded from the spotlight late in the season. They lost three of their last five games and exited the Pac-12 Tournament by losing to Oregon for the second time in less than a month. But they were businesslike last weekend in handling Stephen F. Austin and Georgetown, and come into tonight’s contest as only a five-point underdog against Duke. Utah has been a top 10 KenPom team since early January, and after a methodical but strong second half dispatching of the Hoyas, it seems like everybody has fallen back in love with the Utes as a Final Four sleeper.

4. UCLA gets its Gonzaga rematch. The Bruins hosted the Bulldogs on December 13 but they were really never in the game. They did nothing to disrupt Gonzaga’s offense from rolling to an 87-74 win on 1.26 points per possession. For UCLA, the loss marked the start of a five-game slide that epitomized the team’s early season struggles. Three months later, UCLA is a totally different team. Steve Alford has molded his offense to suit his talented starting five, and the Bruins have taken a little more pride in their defensive performance on the other end. They’re much better equipped now in March to take another shot at the Zags.

With guys like potential #1 pick Jahlil Okafor in action, NBA Scouts will be all over the place. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

With guys like potential #1 pick Jahlil Okafor in action, NBA Scouts will be all over the place. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

5. NBA Scouts are in dreamland. A plethora of intriguing NBA prospects will be on display in Houston tonight. In Friday’s first game, UCLA’s Kevon Looney, a projected lottery pick, will go head to head with Gonzaga’s top two potential pros. Freshman Domantas Sabonis isn’t a star yet, but he oozes potential and  has improved throughout the season. Kyle Wiltjer is a year or two away but he too has been outstanding for the Zags this year. In the nightcap, Jahlil Okafor is likely the top prospect in the 2015 NBA Draft but he’ll get quite the battle from Utah’s seven-footer Jakob Poeltl on the blocks. Poeltl himself ranks in Chad Ford’s top 20. The backcourt matchup also features three future pros in Utah’s Delon Wright and Duke’s Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones.

East Storylines

1. Michigan State looks like a Final Four favorite. The Spartans don’t just look like the favorite; they are the favorite to advance out of the East. In fact, heading into tonight’s games, Vegas lists Michigan State at 14-to-1 to win it all, the sixth-best odds of the 16 remaining teams. The Spartans looked fairly ordinary earlier this season but the experienced trio of Travis Trice, Denzel Valentine and Branden Dawson has led a Michigan State resurgence in recent weeks. And was there ever any doubt that Tom Izzo would have his team ready to play in March?

The Sooners have had to fight for every inch of respect this tournament. Will Friday be their welcome party? (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

The Sooners have had to fight for every inch of respect this tournament. Will Friday be their welcome party? (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

2. Oklahoma, amazingly, is still flying under the radar. With the East’s top two seeds falling by the wayside, you would think that #3 seed Oklahoma, a borderline KenPom top-10 team throughout conference play, would be grabbing more attention. After all, Oklahoma has gone 12-3 with seven top-50 wins since January 28. But the Sooners aren’t even favored in their Sweet Sixteen matchup with the Spartans tonight. Oklahoma can be an incredibly streaky team on offense, which perhaps turns some people off, but the Sooners play tremendous defense and that is the reason they should probably deserve more credit.

3. Statistically, Izzo and Rick Pitino are the kings of March. According to the statistical methodology used by FiveThirtyEight’s Neil Paine, Izzo consistently overachieves in March. He’s only won one national title in 2000, but since the NCAA Tournament field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985, Izzo’s teams have outperformed their seeding by roughly 14 wins since his first year in charge. Second on FiveThirtyEight’s list, though, is Pitino, and it just so happens that the two could meet on Sunday afternoon with a Final Four berth on the line.

4. Louisville has overcome the loss of Chris Jones. When Jones was dismissed from the Cardinals’ program in February, Louisville’s season appeared to be on the verge of cratering. Not only was the situation a huge distraction, but the Cardinals lost by 10 to Syracuse in their first game without Jones. The team followed up his permanent dismissal with a loss to Georgia Tech followed by a double-figure home defeat against Notre Dame a week later. But since that point, the Cardinals have found some stability. Freshman Quentin Snider has stepped up to mitigate the effects of Jones’ absence, and the Cardinals have recaptured their hard-nosed defensive identity that make them so tough for teams to score on.

5. NC State doesn’t look like a #8 seed at all. For much of Thursday’s first round game against LSU, NC State looked like a #8 seed or worse. But since a 16-point second half run to win that game, the Wolfpack have exploded onto the scene. NC State’s guards really struggled against LSU, but role players like Abdul-Malik Abu, Kyle Washington and BeeJay Anya were huge for the Wolfpack down the stretch. Against top-seeded Villanova two days later, the Wolfpack sprung their biggest surprise. The most stunning part was that Mark Gottfried’s team appeared to be the team playing with the confidence of a favorite while Villanova was the team wilting under pressure. NC State in no way looked like the inferior team last weekend. It’ll carry that same mentality into tonight’s matchup with Louisville.

Henry Bushnell (39 Posts)

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