While Friday's Sweet 16 games -- highlighted by the Kentucky-Indiana rematch and a potentially Kendall Marshall-less UNC squad facing Cinderella Ohio -- have Thursday's quartet of games defeated in the area of intrigue, it's the first slate that appears to provide the superior matchups.
Michigan State and Louisville, Syracuse and Wisconsin, Ohio State and Cincinnati, and Marquette and Florida are all similar teams in both skill and style, and the result should be the most competitive basketball this tournament has seen.
Here's what to watch for on the first night of Sweet 16 action.
1. SYRACUSE (33-2) vs. 4. WISCONSIN (26-9)
Middle school coaches from all over the country will have their DVRs set as two of the most poised and efficient teams in the country do battle for a spot in the Elite Eight.
In typical Bo Ryan fashion, Wisconsin ranks second in the nation in fewest turnovers per game at 9.0. Syracuse, meanwhile, is equally cognizant of valuing the possession, ranking 10th in the same category thanks to averaging just 10.6 giveaways per night. The assist-to-turnover ratios of the two are nearly as impressive. The Orange are fifth nationally at 1.49, while the Badgers rank 14th at 1.32.
The vaunted Syracuse zone will be running up against a Badger team that is shooting 47 percent from three in a tournament run where it has faced plenty of 2-3 defense. That said, UW hasn't seen a team with anywhere near the combination length and athleticism that Jim Boeheim's club possesses.
Still, the Badgers' recent proficiency from beyond the arc has their confidence sky-high.
"It's nothing we haven't seen," UW guard Jordan Taylor said of the Syracuse zone. "We've all been playing basketball for years now. I know their 2-3 zone is a little different with the length that they throw at you, but it's really no different.''
Syracuse's biggest weakness this season has been a vulnerability on the offensive glass, and that was before starting center Fab Melo was declared ineligible for the tournament. While the Orange have a significant advantage in athleticism and overall offensive skill, second-chance points is an area where Wisconsin could make up for that gap.
Scoop Jardine, Syracuse
Jardine has been prone to bouts of erratic play throughout his career at Syracuse, which is something he has to avoid against a team like Wisconsin which thrives on opponents beating themselves. The senior floor general scored 16 big points in the Orange's round of 32 win over Kansas State, but he also gave the ball away six times. Jardine has to recognize that Syracuse's biggest advantage is the athleticism of players like Kris Joseph and Dion Waiters, and he has to get the ball into the hands of those guys when they have a chance to score. He can be the biggest key to a Syracuse victory without putting up more than a handful of points.
Jordan Taylor, Wisconsin
I'm tempted to just say "duh" and move on, but I'm not going to do that to you. Taylor is the one player Bo Ryan has with next-level potential, and the one guy who can hit the ridiculous shots that the Syracuse zone often forces. One of the most efficient players in Big Ten history, he's on pace to set the all-time NCAA mark for assist-to-turnover ratio. For his career, Taylor's mark currently stands as 2.99 (458 assists, 153 turnovers), which is a whopping .20 better than the current record. The tournament is about stars after the first couple of rounds, and Taylor has to play like one on Thursday for his team to pull the upset.
Prediction: Syracuse 64, Wisconsin 62
It's hard to envision this one being decided by a sizable margin in either direction. Both teams are so good at what they do that the determining factor will eventually come down to pure talent, and that's the one thing Syracuse has more of.
1. MICHIGAN STATE (29-7) vs. 4. LOUISVILLE (28-9)
It's a reversal of roles for Tom Izzo and Rick Pitino three years after Izzo's Spartans upset the top overall seed from Louisville in the 2009 Elite Eight.
In that game, Michigan State point guard Kalin Lucas handled the token Cardinal pressure so well that Pitino called off the dogs in the second half, a move which allowed the Spartans to completely control the tempo. Don't expect that to be the case on Thursday, as MSU is clearly the superior halfcourt team, and Pitino knows his group has to speed the game up and create turnovers in order to have a shot at advancing.
"I know they're really going to get after it defensively," said Michigan State star Draymond Green, a freshman on that '09 team. "That's one thing they did when I played my freshman year. They got after it defensively; they're really going to push the tempo. That's not going to change, that's (Pitino's) philosophy."
Much of the pressure for handling Louisville's, uh, pressure will fall on point guard Keith Appling. The sophomore has been tremendous so far in the postseason, totaling 22 assists against just six turnovers in three Big Ten Tournament and two NCAA Tournament games. Green will also be there to alleviate some of the pressure, while the sometimes erratic Travis Trice will serve as Appling's backup.
This is a matchup of the No. 2 (Louisville) and No. 3 teams in Ken Pomeroy's defensive efficiency rankings, so expecting either team to hit 80 (or 70) points would be foolish. With that being the case, who wins and who loses could easily come down to something as simple as which team hits more of the handful of open shots it's afforded.
It's also worth noting that Pitino has never lost in the Sweet 16, winning nine games in the round by an average of 23 points.
Draymond Green, Michigan State
Green comes into Thursday playing perhaps better basketball than any other individual in the country. He posted a triple-double in MSU's round of 64 win over LIU-Brooklyn, and then came four assists short of repeating the feat against Saint Louis. The thing about Green is that even if he's not killing you with scoring, he's killing you with assists and rebounding. "Day Day" is going to account for points, all you can do is try to keep that number from being staggering.
Peyton Siva, Louisville
The play of the Big East Tournament MVP is the biggest reason Louisville has morphed from a team that had dropped four of its past six games to one with a conference tournament title and two NCAA Tournament wins under its belt. When Siva is playing under control, finishing around the basket and creating open shots for teammates, the Cardinals are awfully tough to beat. When he's over-penetrating or on the bench with foul trouble (a far-too-often occurrence for a point guard), U of L becomes a very average team.
Prediction: Michigan State 63, Louisville 58
The teams that can overcome Michigan State's incredible poise and discipline (and rebounding ability) are the ones that can overwhelm them with offense. That isn't Louisville. Unless the Cardinals can effectively rattle Appling and company with their press or have an uncharacteristically hot shooting night, the top seed should advance to the regional finals.
2. OHIO STATE (29-7) vs. 6. CINCINNATI (26-10)
Despite being separated by less than 100 miles, Ohio State and Cincinnati will be meeting for just the second time in 50 years when they take the floor at the TD Garden on Thursday night.
The Bearcats have long wanted a series with the Buckeyes, but the feeling has not been mutual. Ohio State coach Thad Matta doesn't expect that to change regardless of what takes place on Thursday.
"I doubt it,'' Matta said when asked about a potential series with Cincinnati. "It's probably highly unlikely. I don't know if I can give you a great answer exactly why we don't play. It's one of those things that it is what it is.''
That storyline only adds to the intrigue of a matchup that would still be pretty good without it.
Cincinnati loves to play ugly basketball and beat opponents up inside, but that might prove to be difficult against a Buckeye team that has it overmatched in terms of both size and depth in the post. Bearcat big man Yancy Gates has strung together a terrific postseason, but he's going to have his hands full against the two-headed monster of Jared Sullinger and DeShaun Thomas, a pair of players who play the same style as Gates but who have done it better for the bulk of the season.
If Gates is controlled inside, then the pressure to put points on the board will shift to the perimeter and guys like Sean Kilpatrick, Dion Dixon and Cashmere Wright. Ohio State is one of the better defensive teams in the country, which means it's probably going to take one (or all) of those guys getting hot and staying hot for UC to keep pace on the scoreboard.
The Buckeyes have the more reliable array of offensive weapons, there's no question. Sullinger and Thomas are both extremely proficient scorers in the paint who have taken their games to another level in the postseason, the latter scoring a career-high 31 points in a round of 64 drubbing of Loyola (Md.). William Buford can burn you from the outside if you focus too much on defending the post, Aaron Craft has also showed an increased ability to score in recent weeks, and Lenzelle Smith does a little bit of everything on both ends of the floor.
Jared Sullinger, Ohio State
It's been a somewhat disappointing sophomore year for the preseason national player of the year, but the chance for redemption is out there in this tournament, and so far he's taken advantage. After being held in check by Gonzaga for most of the afternoon last Saturday, Sullinger went off late, including a pair of jump hooks to put the game away for the Buckeyes in the final minutes. Don't be surprised if he uses that late flurry as a springboard into a monster performance Thursday evening.
Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati
Kilpatrick is the one guy Mick Cronin has with the combination of size and skill to make enough plays on his own to keep his team in a game where it would otherwise be out-classed. He's been more miss than hit from the outside in the postseason, but in the two games where he's made more than one shot from beyond the arc (Florida State and Syracuse), he's been a combined 10-for-15. If Sullinger and Thomas do effectively limit Gates, then it's hard to envision any scenario where UC competes in this game without Kilpatrick being a significant contributor.
Prediction: Ohio State 74, Cincinnati 62
Cincinnati wants to make this game so ugly that it's almost unwatchable, but Ohio State is too pretty to let that happen. The Buckeyes can do what the Bearcats want to do, and do it much better. Expect OSU to lead this one for the duration.
3. MARQUETTE (27-7) vs. 7. FLORIDA (25-10)
The evening's first three matchups highlight teams that are prone to scoring droughts and partaking in contests that are less-than-pleasing to the naked eye. The same can't be said for the nightcap, which features a pair of teams that want to get up and down the floor quickly, and won't do all that much to prevent the other from following suit.
The Golden Eagles and Gators can both score in bunches and average right around 76 points per game. Las Vegas set the over-under for this showdown at 145.5, 16 points higher than any of the other three regional semifinal games on Thursday.
Florida's plan for putting points on the board is as well-known as any offensive philosophy in the country. The guard-heavy Gators take and make more three-pointers than anyone in Division-I, and that's not going to change with only two weeks remaining in the season. The rub for Billy Donovan's squad is that it will be facing a Marquette club that has allowed just one team (BYU) to shoot better than 28% from beyond the arc since Feb. 24.
Florida comes to the Sweet 16 with all the confidence in the world after becoming the first team in tournament history to score 70 or more points and allow 50 or less in its first two games. The Gators demolished Virginia 71-49 in the round of 32 and then slaughtered overmatched Cinderella Norfolk State by 34.
Marquette dispatched of BYU by 20 in its tournament-opener, and then won sloppy, up-tempo game against 6th-seeded Murray State by a final of 62-53.
Darius Johnson-Odom, Marquette
Teammate Jae Crowder may have been named Big East Player of the Year, but it's probably been DJO who has been his team's MVP in March. In three postseason games, Johnson-Odom is averaging 20.0 points and shooting just below 45 percent form the field. Still, it'll be his play on the defensive end that may be more important against Florida. His combination of size and speed is an invaluable asset for Buzz Williams against a team that will move the ball quickly around the perimeter in hopes of finding an open three-point shot.
Kenny Boynton, Florida
There's always a concern that Boynton, Florida's leading scorer at 16.1 ppg, is going to let the stage overwhelm him. It happened in the SEC Tournament semifinals against Kentucky when he shot 1-for-9 and scored just two points. The Gators have plenty of players who are capable of going off on any particular night, and Boynton is the distributor who needs to be able to recognize which guy needs the ball in their hands and how often.
Prediction: Florida 81, Marquette 77
Both teams can score in bunches, both teams like to get up-and-down but can also play physical; there are so many similarities here that there's no real way to properly justify or criticize any prediction. Just call it a hunch that the Gators make more shots with the game on the line.