We started with 68 teams with dreams of making a run to the Final Four. After a week of games, that number is down to 16. While there hasn’t been as much madness as we expected, and there is no Cinderella remaining (no, Oregon does not count as one) that just means that we are in for some excellent basketball this weekend as the top teams remaining try to put their stamp on this year's tournament.
#2 Michigan vs. #3 Texas Tech
Michigan and Texas Tech fans better be ready for a nail-biter because mark my words, this is going to be a very close game. These two teams are almost mirror images of each other as they are #2 (Michigan) and #3 (Tech) in scoring defense this season, and they are both below average on the offensive end, as neither team averages over 72 points per game this season. What that means is buckets are going to be hard to come by as these two defensive heavyweights slug it out in what should be a close-knit affair. While I think Michigan is a more talented team, the best player on the court is projected lottery pick Jarrett Culver from Texas Tech. The Big 12 player of the year is a dynamic guard who has been dominant in this tournament with a 29-point effort in round 1 followed by a double double (16 points and 10 boards) against Buffalo in the round of 32. Containing him will be the key to Michigan grinding out a win over their doppleganger to the south.
Who’s under the most pressure to make it to the Final Four?
Tony Bennett is an excellent coach. He has guided Virginia to its best basketball since the Ralph Sampson days. However, he has yet to guide the Cavaliers to the Final Four, despite the fact that Virginia has been a 5 seed or higher each of the past six seasons, and they were a #1 seed in four of those six years. This year has got to be the year Bennett gets them over the hump, and here’s why: this is the most talented team he has had during his 10 seasons at Virginia, and this is one of the easiest Final Four draws I have seen in recent memory. Deandre Hunter is a lottery pick, and Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome are both NBA-caliber players. These three form the nucleus of what is arguably the most talented team in the country. As far as the road to the Final Four is concerned, Virginia faces Oregon in the Sweet 16. The Ducks are playing great basketball, but this is a #12 seed that only got into the tournament because they won their conference tournament title. In other words, they weren’t one of the top 68 teams in the country for the majority of the year, and Virginia has the talent and should put an end to their Cinderella run. Provided Virginia handles their business against the Ducks, they will face the winner of Tennessee vs. Purdue. Tennessee is lucky to be here as they had to go to overtime and survived an upset bid in the round of 32. The Cavs have the size to cause real problems for Tennessee, and assuming the Volunteers still haven’t solved their defensive lapses, Virginia should beat them. In Purdue’s case, they’re red hot, but they are a one man show with Carsen Edwards carrying the team. With Guy and Hunter hounding him, I don’t think the supporting case around Edwards is good enough to beat Virginia. Bottom line, there are no excuses left for Tony Bennett and the Cavaliers. This is their year to finally get over the hump.
Who’s on upset alert?
We have a Sweet 16 with no Cinderellas, and outside of Oregon, every team is a #5 seed or higher. So there really aren’t any true upsets to be had, but if I had to pick a high seed that could go down to a lower seed, then the answer has to be #1 seed Gonzaga. While the Bulldogs have handled their business in the first two rounds, #4 Florida State is a whole different beast. The Seminoles are one of the tallest teams in the country and really know how to put their size and length to use. We saw this in their round of 32 win over Murray State as they hounded the Racers on both ends of the court and dominated in the paint, outscoring the Racers 44-26. Also, Florida State will not be intimidated by the Zags, as they beat them a year ago in this very round. I do think Gonzaga will be motivated for revenge, but even still, it’s hard to compete against a team with the size and depth of the Seminoles. I expect a very good game, but if I had to pick a #1 seed to go down in the Sweet 16, my money would be on the Bulldogs.
Surprise Final Four team
We are in a rare year where the final 16 teams are arguably the 16 best teams in the country. There are no Loyola Chicagos, no George Masons, no underdog for America to get behind. All of these teams are supremely talented, and as a result, not one of these teams would surprise me personally if they made a Final Four run. That being said, the Houston Cougars have flown under the radar all year, and even though they are a #3 seed, if they made their first Final Four since the 80s, that would surprise much of the country. The reason the Cougars can get there is simple – they are an excellent team that won’t be scared of the moment, as they have great senior leadership and a good draw. While on paper, beating Kentucky in the round of 16 would seem difficult, this is not a typical Kentucky team. With the injury to PJ Washington, the Wildcats have looked vulnerable, and this was illustrated in their survival of Wofford in the round of 32. The Cougars are an excellent defensive team, as they lead the country in defensive shooting percentage. If they play their usual top-notch defense, force Kentucky (which shot just 25% from three in the first two rounds) out of the paint, and take care of the ball, then they can win this game. Get past the Cats, and you have a date with either North Carolina or Auburn, which aren’t easy games, but it’s the Elite Eight; nothing is easy at this point. If there is a team that would surprise people, it is the Cougars, and they have the firepower, leadership, and coaching to make a run to Minneapolis.
Final Four Predictions
Duke, Michigan, Virginia, and North Carolina.