Only 16 teams remain in March, and there’s plenty to watch for on Friday and Saturday as the bracket starts to shrink. When the tournament began, it was a question of who – if anyone – could stop Kentucky, and even though last Thursday saw a bunch of early upsets, a lot of high seeds still made their way into the second weekend.
No. 1 Duke and No. 1 Wisconsin are still hoping to make it out of their respective regions unscathed, while the East is wide open after both Villanova and Virginia failed to make it out of the opening weekend. Other things to watch are obviously Arizona, hoping to stop a suddenly surging Xavier team, a dialed-in Gonzaga, as well as what is sure to be an up-tempo and downright joyful game between Wichita State and Notre Dame.
You can find a full viewing guide below. (Times are Eastern so keep that in mind if you’re one of those time-traveling people in another zone.)
No. 3 Notre Dame vs. No. 7 Wichita State, 7:15 p.m., CBS
I know a lot of the other games matter just as much on Thursday and Friday, but for some reason, this is the game I’m probably looking forward to most out of the eight. There’s something about this Notre Dame team that invites exciting play, whether it’s the Fighting Irish’s guards Demetrius Jackson and Jerian Grant, or the always-ready Pat Connaughton. And Wichita State is getting a shot at redemption after last year’s early exit at the hands of the Kentucky team that made it all the way to the final game.
Following the Shocker’s emotional win over Kansas, Wichita State moved to 30-4 on the year. This is not your average No. 7 seed out of a non-power conference. They have confidence, a bunch of really good players including Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker, and they have no real weaknesses. Maybe I’m overly biased here, but I really think this game should be incredible.
No. 1 Wisconsin vs. No. 4 North Carolina, 7:47 p.m., TBS
My only regret about this game is that we can’t devote our full attention to it for its entirety, what with the Notre Dame-Wichita State game still happening. That’s okay; that’s why we can go second screen in the first place. Wisconsin and North Carolina play different styles and have very different makeups of their teams, and as we’ve seen in matchups like this in the past, this could end up being a blowout or a one-point thriller.
The Tar Heels have a lot of size, and if they can guard the perimeter and force Wisconsin to take contested shots inside, this could be a good opportunity for North Carolina to get transition buckets and try and speed the game up. Oregon was able to do this in stretches in the previous round against the Badgers, but even tough Wisconsin was outrebounded, and all-world player Frank Kaminsky wasn’t at his best, Bucky still won by seven. UNC is going to have to play perfectly – and hit some outside shots – if it hopes to spring the minor upset.
No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 5 West Virginia, 9:45 p.m. (approx.), CBS
The Wildcats have another chance to stay undefeated and keep their dream season alive, but they’ll have to match the pressing and physicality of West Virginia, and that’s easier said than done. The Mountaineers completely commit to their style of ball and generally make a mess of things if you’re unprepared for what they’re trying to do.
And an unlikely figure helped lead Huggins there: former Cleveland State coach and press defense maestro Kevin Mackey. In 1986, Mackey led Cleveland State to the Sweet 16 behind Ken “Mouse” McFadden before alcohol and drug issues cost Mackey his job. Huggins bumped into Mackey at LeBron James’ camp while out recruiting last July and began picking his brain on pressure defense. Mackey, now a scout with the Indiana Pacers, attended a WVU practice early in the season and told Huggins he had the perfect personnel to run pressure. When Mackey came back later in the preseason, Huggins invited him to show up two hours earlier to discuss the nuances of pressure. Mackey scouts hundreds of games every season and says the brutish and skill-less modern college basketball player is ideally susceptible to full-court pressure.
The problem? Kentucky doesn’t exactly have brutish or skill-less players on its team.
No. 2 Arizona vs. No. 6 Xavier, 10:17 p.m. (approx.), TBS
Kudos to Xavier for taking advantage of tasty matchups – Ole Miss playing its second game of the tournament before the Muskateers even set foot on the floor, and drawing a 14-seed in their second game – but this slightly takes away from how good Chris Mack is as a coach. There’s no Wooden Award candidate on this team, just a bunch of smart, hard-playing guys who believe they’re going to get it done on both ends of the floor.
That belief is going to have to stick around against an Arizona team that has length at every position and all kinds of skill in guys like Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. The Wildcats probably deserved a No. 1 seed, and they sure played like it last weekend, winning games by an average of 18 points. Arizona is the definite favorite here, but counting out Xavier something Sean Miller’s team can’t afford to do. If they do that, the Musketeers could make them pay.
No. 2 Gonzaga vs. No. 11 UCLA, 7:15 p.m., CBS
The team nobody thought should be in this bracket in the first place is not only still around, but they’re one of the last 16 teams remaining. That’s the beauty of a one-and-done scenario: it’s a new season, and talent sometimes wins out over the inconsistency you might have shown over the year. And UCLA has plenty of talent. Steve Alford’s team looked mighty impressive in the win over UAB, and even though the Bruins benefitted from the goaltending call against SMU, they easily could’ve fallen flat against the Blazers.
The next test is a big one – perhaps no team looked better offensively in the round of 32 than Gonzaga, and between Kyle Wiltjer, Domantas Sabonis, Kevin Pangos, and others, the Zags look as fearsome as ever. This was the first time since 2009 that the Bulldogs made it to the second weekend, but if they keep this up, they could find themselves playing next weekend as well.
No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 8 NC State, 7:37 p.m., TBS
The ACC has had one heck of a showing so far in March. Virginia is the only team with a loss thus far, although in this game between the Cardinals and Wolfpack, at least one more team from the conference is guaranteed to pack up its bags and go home. Rick Pitino’s team has had some bumps and bruises trying to figure things out since dismissing Chris Jones earlier in the season, but Louisville looked pretty impressive in the win over Northern Iowa. Plus, if anything, the Cards have some extra incentive to make up for a loss to the Pack back in February.
For NC State, this is a team playing with nothing to lose. Nobody gave them a shot against Villanova, and they needed every second to beat LSU to even draw a date with the Wildcats. The Wolfpack played at their best when they were facing elite competition, getting wins over Duke, North Carolina and Louisville over the regular season, and they have a mixture of size and perimeter play to get another win if they can stay focused and play mistake-free. That’s been easier said than done for NC State this year, though.
No. 1 Duke vs. No. 5 Utah, 9:45 p.m. (approx.), CBS
The Blue Devils barely broke a sweat last weekend, winning both games convincingly, but Utah is a much better team than both Robert Morris and San Diego State. The Utes play great defense, can hit their threes and have one of the best players in the country in Delon Wright. Duke needs to play well defensively and stay out of foul trouble, or Coach K might start pacing a little bit.
As for Duke, the game plan is the same as it always is: get Jahlil Okafor his touches, find open shots for Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones, and let Justise Winslow do his thing in transition and on defense. The Blue Devils are extremely well balanced, and they have a variety of styles they can beat you with, but they really make things hard on you if you allow them to get out and run and get easy buckets. This is a Duke team that can put a 10-0 run on you in a hurry.
No. 3 Oklahoma vs. No. 7 Michigan State, 10:07 p.m. (approx.), TBS
March Izzo is back and better than ever. After dispatching of a higher-seeded Virginia team for the second straight year, Michigan State is fighting to get back into the final eight teams of the tournament once again. The Spartans haven’t exactly been consistent all year, they still struggle to make their free throws, and they give Izzo a headache far too often to make anyone feel comfortable, but it’s hard to bet against them when they start to put it together.
Oklahoma’s going to need Buddy Hield to play the way he did against Dayton, and the Sooners need the same sort of defensive intensity that allowed them to keep the Flyers scoreless for a huge chunk of the second half when Oklahoma was making its run to go up for good. Lon Kruger is a heck of a coach, and he’s not far from a truly memorable season.
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