The time has arrived for the Sweet 16 of America’s greatest sporting spectacle, the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Our hoops contributors Amaar Abdul-Nasir, Maurice Merrell and Martin Sumners break down this upcoming phase of March Madness as we take our next steps toward crowning the 2017 national champion.
Amaar Abdul-Nasir: SMU
I know its popular to pile on the ACC right now, but heres my thing: Just because the conference had a bad tournament, it doesnt mean the conference was not a beast this season. What happens in March doesnt erase or invalidate what happened in the 4-5 months beforehand.
And wasnt it still a big deal when the ACC struggled? South Carolina (plus the entire Internet) wouldnt have been partying like rock stars on Sunday if theyd beaten Arizona or Oregon. It was extra special because it was Duke. And lets not downplay how that was basically a home game for the Gamecocks.
Louisville got taken out by the hottest team in the country; no shame in that. Miami lost to Tom Izzo in March; definitely no shame in that. Notre Dame, Virginia and Virginia Tech lost to higher seeds. The only real Cmon son ACC loss was Florida State getting mopped by Xavier.
And so, for this spot, Im going with SMU. The Mustangs were a feel-good story, bouncing back from the mess of the Larry Brown era to win the AAC. They got to face First Four play-in winner USC, who would be playing their second game in three days while SMU was rested and never sweating out being on the bubble.
But then SMU didnt just lose to USC. They lost a heartbreaker. Shake Miltons floater that wouldve been the game-winner looked good going up, but hit the rim going down. Now the Mustangs could lose Milton and star forward Semi Ojeleye to the NBA Draft. Who knows when theyll be this good again.
Martin Sumners: East Coast Bias
It could be the reputation of the referees who missed call after call and spent more time watching TV (replay monitors) than kids home on a snow day. What about the Pitino coaching family as Rick (Louisville) and Richard (Minnesota) lost to lower seeds? Maybe its the ACC, which is left with only UNC alive, but was heralded as the best conference with the most bids, yet went down like Zab Judah.
However, it has to be the bracketeers who picked Villanova or Duke to win the championship.
Maurice Merrell: The ACC
The ACC got eight teams into the tournament this year and only UNC made it to the Sweet 16. How Sway?
After the whole country drank all that Atlantic Coast Conference Kool-Aid, the conference strong enough to have a No. 1 seed and two No. 2 seeds put on a historically underwhelming performance. Not that much was expected out of Virginia Tech or the University of Miami (who both saw first round exits) but Florida State, Notre Dame, Louisville and Duke broke more brackets than Rick Ross had Spotify streams last weekend.
Leaving the Tar Heels with a message similar in sentiment to Rozays album for its conference mates: Better you than me.
Boy In His Bag
Amaar: Oregon guard Tyler Dorsey.
On March 4, Dorsey scored one point in 20 minutes against Pac-12 cellar-dweller Oregon State. He shot 0-for-4 and had more fouls (3) than rebounds, assists and steals combined (2).
I dont know who talked to Dorsey after that game Mom, Dad, coach Dana Altman, Ducks legend Terrell Brandon, or Duke from the Rocky movies but the kid has been on fire ever since.
Dorsey has averaged 23.6 points in the five games following that Oregon State disaster, almost 10 full points higher than his season average. In Oregons first-round win over Iona, he scored 24. Against Rhode Island in the second round, he dropped 27. Hes shooting 78 percent from the field (18-for-23) in the last five games and 66 percent from three (6-for-9).
If he keeps this up, Dorsey might end up being the bad guy for ending Michigans miracle run.
Martin: South Carolina Guard Sindarius Thornwell
Although we used to say he blew up, there apparently is new slang unknown even to urban dictionary. Then term fits South Carolinas Sindarius Thornwell as would his name in this viral Key & Peele skit. The 6-foot-5 guard, despite being named the SEC player of the year, played in the deep dark crevices of Kentuckys shadow.
He destroyed a son of Duke, Marquettes head coach Steve Wojciechowski with 29 points, 11 rebounds and two assists in South Carolinas 93-73 first-round win, the program’s first NCAA Tournament win since 1973. Then he whipped the daddy, Coach K, with 24 points, six rebounds and five assists in USCs 88-81 second-round victory over Duke.
Maurice: Caleb Swanigan
Big men havent exactly been the talk of the tournament, but Purdue center Caleb Swanigan, a.k.a. Biggie, has 357 ways to simmer-saut the competition. Averaging 18 points,13 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 2 blocks through two games, hes the Boilermakers anchor and driving force if theyre to advance through to the Final Four.
Theyd need to first beat Kansas and then the winner of Michigan vs. Oregon to get there, but if anyones capable of separating the weak from the obsolete, its B.I.G. Swanigan.
More Life: Best season-saving clutch performance
Amaar: Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina.
It looked like the Tar Heels were going down. Theyd blown a big lead to Arkansas and trailed by five with about three minutes left. UNC appeared to be wearing down under the Razorbacks hellacious pressure.
A lot of coaches might have taken Meeks out of the game. The 6-foot-10, 260-pounder is not exactly the athlete, ball-handler or shooter you need on the court at that time. But Roy Williams stuck with his senior, and Meeks delivered during UNCs ensuing 12-0 run to win the game.
Meeks had a block, two rebounds and a tip-in for a clutch bucket in that last run, finishing with 16 points and 11 rebounds to help the Tar Heels stay in the title picture.
No.1 seed North Carolina raced to a 17-point lead over No. 8 Arkansas with five minutes left in the first half. But UNCs off-and-on relationship with ball security led to turnovers and a mere five-point lead at halftime.
Head coach Mike Andersons (mentored by the great Nolan Richardson) Razorbacks grit and grind put the Tar Heels on its, well, heels. But down 65-60 after a Jaylen Bradford layup at 3:31, UNCs Roy Williams forgoes a timeout. Instead, Joel Berry II immediately hoists an off-target three. Two offensive boards and two free throws later started a 12-0 run and the Tar Heels escape.
Maurice: Tyler Dorsey
The Pac-12 strengthened its case for the most overlooked High-Major conference. With only four teams making the draw this year, three are in the Sweet 16.
But the roads werent easily paved and the player who proved to be ready to ride is Oregons Tyler Dorsey. Known for making big shots since his high school days, Dorseys become the Duck we cant wait to watch.
Shooting 9-of-10 for the game versus Rhode Island, Dorsey hit a walk-up three with 40 seconds left in the game that gave Oregon a go-ahead lead. Drakes got a song called Portland on his new playlist More Life. If things go Dorseys way, the rapper from the Six will be rocking his jersey the next time he performs in his new favorite Pacific Northwest city.
Most Exciting Sweet 16 game
Amaar: Kentucky vs UCLA
Wisconsin vs. Florida is a great styles-clash matchup on paper. Two deep and experienced rosters with solid defenses, shooters, and good coaches.
But for sheer star power and skill, its Kentucky vs. UCLA. The Wildcats and Bruins played earlier in the season in Lexington, Ky., and UCLA won. But Kentucky has gotten better since then. This game is full of intriguing matchups: Lonzo Ball vs. DeAaron Fox, Isaiah Briscoe vs. Bryce Alford, T.J. Leaf vs. Bam Adebayo, Malik Monk vs. Isaac Hamilton, Steve Alford vs. John Calipari.
The marquee program on the West Coast vs. the marquee program of the South, arguably the two biggest brand names in the sport. And in a loser-goes-home scenario? This is like if USC and Alabama met in a college football playoff game.
Martin: Kentucky vs UCLA
Wait, what, the two most winningest programs in college basketball meeting in the Sweet 16? Thats 3X Dope!
Earlier this season in Lexington, UCLA ran up into then No.1 UK, 97-92. Will UCLA show it wasnt a fluke or will the Wildcats get revenge? But other, even larger, questions loom.
Will Poppa Ball get into it with Coach Cal? Will Lonzo Ball dazzle Malik Monk? Will Bam Adebayo be like Ozs Adebisi and shut down the Bruins big men who can shoot from the perimeter? If the Bruins lose, will head coach Steve Alford go straight home to coach Indiana?
Maurice: Kentucky vs UCLA
When the two teams met in December, UCLA ended the Wildcats 42-game home winning streak and the Bruins proved they were more than just the Lonzo Ball show. This time, the two featured teams are deep enough in their seasons where freshmen mistakes dont happen too often and players experiences couple with their passions.
And if theres any duo that plays with passion, its Kentuckys Malik Monk and DeAaron Fox. The second go-round between these blue bloods should be a goody.
Amaar: Three of my original Final Four picks are still in the tournament and still looking like Final Four teams: Arizona, Kentucky and Michigan.
To fill that fourth spot, where I previously had Villanova, Ill go with Baylor.
The Bears nickname doesnt even do them justice. Theyre like a squad of Uruk-Hai soldiers from Lord of the Rings. All arms and legs and hair and dunks and blocks, with savvy and skilled point guard Manu Lecomte orchestrating the whole thing on the court, and coach Scott Drew playing the role of Sauron.
Martin: Midwest: Kansas
The Jayhawks already handled an almost always tough-out in Tom Izzos Michigan State squad with a 90-70 thumping. Potential formidable challenger No. 2 seed Louisville lost to upstart No. 7 seed Michigan. The Wolverines havent lost since its plane scare and appear to be on another spring roll like in 1989, when they won it all despite entering March Madness with a new coach in Steve Fischer.
Similarly, other Michigan teams marched to the championship game like the Fab Five in 1992 and in 2013. However, KU should bounce Purdue then defeat the winner of the Oregon Michigan game.
Backpedaling from my previous UNC pick here and going with UCLA. On a bad offensive night, the Bruins will score almost 80 points. Lonzo Ball orchestrates, but they have six players scoring in double figures led by TJ Leaf (16.2 ppg), the coachs son, Byrce Alford (15.6) and Aaron (the last) Holiday (12.5).
They will simply outshoot Kentucky and comfortably win the rematch. Look for the Tarheels to just outclass Butler in the Sweet16 round. Then in the regional finale, UNC stays shaky while UCLA, the more consistent team in the tourney to date, will prevail over the Tar Heels.
The Wildcats next opponent, Xavier, may be the most underrated program of recent history. They have several Sweet 16 appearances and a couple of Elite Eight finishes, yet this seasons run as a No. 11 seed may be the most remarkable after losing point guard Ed Sumner to injury and fifth-year senior Myles Davis left school.
However, seven-footer Lauri Markannen, who had 16 points and 11 rebounds over St. Marys, will eat up all three of the Musketeers frontcourt players. Gonzaga may derail West Virginia, but the brilliance of Allonzo Trier will carry head coach Sean Miller to his first Final Four.
Everybodys East bracket probably looks like summertime hot garbage in New York during a sanitation workers strike. Madison Square Garden was looking forward to hosting the reigning champs Villanova and perennial power Duke instead has a foursome of football schools. The highest remaining seed, No. 3 Baylor, is the least likely to win the region. Look for South Carolina, led by Thornwell, to beat Baylor and Wisconsin to defeat Florida.
The Badgers have three seniors in Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koening and Zak Showalter who have reached two Final Fours and a national championship game (2015). They should prevail in the regional final.
I hate that Im picking the Badgers, but I cant front on them. Not after Wisconsins Nigel Hayes went straight street and freaked his defender on the baseline for the go-ahead reverse layup. Hes a kid that stands up for people off the court and a leader that delivers on it. I wont make the mistake of betting against him again.
Aint ish change in my West Region. Gonzagas still there but Arizona out of the Pac-12 is still the favorite to advance to the Final Four. And now that Dukes back in Durham, Arizona is my pick to get to the championship game. Players outside of their first round bound duo of Alonzo Trier and Lauri Markkanen have stepped up (Rawle Alkins went 8-for-8 from the field against North Dakota for 20 points in the first round) which them that much more dangerous.
South: North Carolina
Dont break out those Michael Jordan memes just yet, Tar Heel haters. Nothings been the same since MJ told the football team the Ceilings the roof. Its been better. UNC played veteran basketball in the last two minutes of the second round game against Arkansas. Roy Williams and the family face Butler and then the winner of UCLA vs. Kentucky, a tough two games. But at this point, no games are easy. Survive and advance.
Theres always that team that feels a little shaky but you have to pick them because of destiny. So you trust your gut, pick them in your bracket and then boom: they get smacked by 40 in the second round. Luckily, the Wolverines are still in the field. Making me look like a basketball genius.
Amaar: Still Kentucky.
Twenty years after the UK Wildcats lost to the Arizona Wildcats in the 1997 national championship game, Kentucky gets some get-back. Do it for Ron Mercer.
For all its lore, the Kansas program only has won three championships. The man who invented the game, Dr. James Naismith, coached there. The legendary coach Phog Allen won the title in 1952. Danny Manning and the Miracles, coached by Larry Brown, upset Oklahoma in 1988. And the current coach Bill Self won with Mario Chalmers in 2008 over Memphis, led by Derrick Rose and coached by John Calipari.
However, the Jayhawks will win again on the backs of guards Frank Mason III, Devonte Graham and all-everything wing player Josh Jackson.
Maurice: North Carolina
Well the East Region is in shambles but theres good news for eh remaining teams. One of them, Wisconsin, Florida, Baylor, South Carolina, will get to be the team no one really thought would be in the Final Four this year. The bad news: theyll probably get clapped by Arizona. But hey, thanks for the effort. And on the bright side for any of those four is taking solace in the fact that North Carolina is now the returning title game team, so Zonas probably going to have hold an L, as well.
Amaar: I had Kentucky sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe here before, and I havent changed my mind. Briscoe had a quiet five points, four rebounds and two assists in UKs second-round win over Wichita State, but his first-round stat line against Northern Kentucky is more of what Im expecting from him in the Final Four: 17 points, eight rebounds, two steals and two blocks.
Martin: Josh Jackson
Another logical choice would be Lonzo Ball. If UCLA wins the title, its run may include wins over Kentucky, UNC, and Kansas even before the championship game. Such an unprecedented trek would only be achievable with a marvelous Ball performance.
However, anticipating a Kansas title, Jackson is averaging 20 points per game in the tournament on 14-for-22 shooting inside the arc and 3-for-6 from the three-point line. He also has added three steals and three blocks. It will be JJ who will bring to the Good Times back to Lawrence.
Maurice: Kennedy Meeks
Kennedy Meeks is the man amongst boys out there. Josh Jackson and Joel Berry make the engine go, but its Meeks whos doing the dirty work. After Joel Berry II nearly traveled on the last play of roaring Tar Heel comeback, Meeks got the tip-in off the glass like hes so routinely done the past four years. Every team needs that player who just knows where to be to make the right play. Meeks nose for the ball saved UNCs season. The big fella will do it again when its time to cut the nets.