NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 predictions: Is Michigan State emerging as the favorite?

As the tournament enters the Sweet 16, it's time to reassess the bracket. While three No. 1 seeds remain, it's becoming evident No. 4 Michigan State is as talented as any team in the country.

SB Nation 2014 NCAA March Madness Coverage

The first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament draw you in with chaos, that volatile combination of chance meeting opportunity in a win-or-go-home scenario that leaves favorites shook, underdogs doing the robot and exactly zero people with the faint hope of taking home a billion dollars from Warren Buffett. As always, the opening rounds of March Madness lived up to the name last week. Seven double-digit seeds won at least one game, No. 1 Wichita State lost its perfect season in an instant classic against Kentucky and top freshmen Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins were eliminated before the Sweet 16.

Now it's time to reset with four four-team mini tournaments across each regional. Three No. 1 seeds made it out alive last weekend, but the bracket hardly went chalk. After gauging each of the 16 teams that remain over the last two games, some new favorites have started to emerge.



The favorite: Florida

The sleeper: UCLA

How we did on our predictions: 3 out of 4

Kansas and Syracuse had impressive paper resumes, but it isn't that surprising neither team was good enough to reach the Sweet 16. Losing stud freshman center Joel Embiid was a huge blow for a Jayhawks team that was already dealing with shaky point guard play from Naadir Tharpe and a roster that struggled to shoot from the outside. Syracuse started out 25-0 but lost four of its last six in the regular season. Anyone who saw how the Orange lost in the ACC Tournament -- missing, like, 100 shots in the final 20 seconds against N.C. State -- can't be surprised Jim Boeheim's team blew it in crunch time against Dayton. This is the type of thing 'Cuse has been known for the last two months.


What's left is two heavyweights throwing down at the top half of the bracket and a pair of double-digit seeds fighting for the right to get a game away from the Final Four in the bottom half.

UCLA and Florida could be one of the best games of the tournament. The Gators have been the best team in college basketball for most of the season, but they struggled in the first round against Albany before getting in gear to blow out Pittsburgh in the Round of 32. Billy Donovan hasn't been ecstatic about his team's effort lately, and Florida is going to need to be firing on all cylinders if it is going to make it past a hot UCLA bunch.

The Bruins have won five straight including a victory over West No. 1 seed Arizona in the Pac-12 title game. Florida may seem like the clear favorite, but UCLA might actually have more talent. The Bruins have at least three NBA prospects in Kyle Anderson, Zach LaVine and Jordan Adams. The Gators, who start four seniors, might not have any unless freshmen Kasey Hill and Chris Walker develop in the next few seasons.

The question is twofold for UCLA. Can it control the tempo and get the game going up-and-down against a Florida team that likes to play slow? If not, will the Bruins be able to execute in the halfcourt against Florida's incredible defense?

The Bruins have the shot-makers and playmakers to pull off the second question. Kyle Anderson is a 6'9 matchup nightmare on the wing, and he has a team complete with slashers and shooters to get points against Florida. Of course, it will take a nearly perfect game to score enough to win against the Gators if UCLA can't push the tempo.

Dayton and Stanford should be a good game too, pitting the Flyers' No. 38 offense (per Ken Pom) against Stanford's No. 35 defense. The Cardinal will have a big-time advantage on the inside with Dwight Powell and Josh Huestis. Stanford point guard Chasson Randle is the best player in the game.

Prediction: I'm expecting Florida and Stanford to meet in the Elite Eight, but wouldn't be shocked if UCLA pulled off the upset. From there, take UF to the Final Four.



The favorite: Michigan State

The sleeper: Iowa State

How we did on our predictions: 4 out of 4, son.

Michigan State isn't only the favorite against No. 1 Virginia in its own region. After two games, I'm starting to think the Spartans are the favorite to win the entire tournament, despite picking Florida a week ago. The Spartans didn't have an easy time against Harvard in the Round of 32, blowing a 16-point lead and trailing by two with seven minutes left before getting in gear down the stretch to come away with a victory. I'm not sure it matters. Harvard is pretty damn good. Tom Izzo's team still seems to be peaking at the right time.

Michigan State came into the season No. 2 in the AP poll behind only Kentucky. After dealing with injuries throughout the season, the Spartans are playing like the team everyone expected they would be. There isn't a more complete, athletic or experienced starting lineup 1-5 left in the tournament. Gary Harris and Adreian Payne are game-changers, Keith Appling is the type of steady point guard teams need to win in March; even Branden Dawson popped off for a career-high 26 against the Crimson.

Virginia is no slouch -- Tony Bennett's team plays hellacious defense -- but No. 1 beating No. 4 would qualify as an upset in this instance.

The bottom half of the bracket is going to be awesome, too. Full disclosure: I enjoy watching Shabazz Napier play basketball, and he was feeling it in that upset win over No. 2 Villanova. Napier is basically a folk hero at this point, the smallest player on the court at any given time but still the leader in scoring, rebounding and assists for the Huskies in the regular season. Shabazz and the Huskies will meet No. 3 Iowa State, who just barely survived against North Carolina in the Round of 32 thanks to a game-sealing bucket by DeAndre Kane.


Iowa State is dealing with the loss of Georges Niang, who broke his foot against North Carolina Central in the Round of 64. Niang is arguably Iowa State's third-best player, but the Cyclones should still have enough scoring behind Kane and Big 12 Player of the Year Melvin Ejim to match shots with Napier. Iowa State has no size and struggles with elite big men, but it shouldn't be a huge problem against UConn. It will be against MSU.

Prediction: Sparty over Virginia, Iowa State over UConn in a tight and high-scoring game. I'll take Michigan State against the Cyclones in the Elite Eight now, even though my original bracket has Iowa State coming out of this region.



The favorite: Arizona

The sleeper: Baylor

How we did on our predictions: 3 out of 4.

Arizona vs. San Diego State is going to be a really fascinating matchup, if only because these two teams have so much in common. Arizona is No. 1 in defense according to Ken Pom, while San Diego State is No. 7. Both teams lack outside shooting and occasionally struggle to score. Each roster is filled with long, explosive athletes.

These two teams played on Nov. 14 with Arizona winning 69-60, but a lot has changed since. The Wildcats lost power forward Brandon Ashley to injury, but freshmen forwards Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson have only become more comfortable and capable. Each scored 18 points in the blowout win over Gonzaga in the Round of 32.

San Diego State is the rare team that can match the Wildcats' size and athleticism. Play the Aztecs, and this is what you have coming at you: 6'8 Josh Davis, 6'7 J.J. O'Brien, 6'10 Skylar Spencer, 6'8 Winston Shepard, 6'7 Dwayne Polee. It's a roster tied together by Xavier Thames, a dynamo senior point guard and the Aztecs' best player. Thames scored 48 percent of his team's points in the Round of 32 victory over North Dakota State, dropping 30 on the Bison.

The West's other matchup, Wisconsin and Baylor, is another game that pits similar teams against each other. Wisconsin is No. 4 in Ken Pom's offensive efficiency ratings; Baylor is No. 6. Both teams like to play slow. Both teams have outstanding, floor-stretching centers in Frank Kaminsky and Isaiah Austin.

Baylor is impossibly tough in the frontcourt with the skinny and skilled Austin joining bruisers Rico Gathers and Cory Jefferson. The Bears were just way too big for No. 3 Creighton in the last round, but a 30-point victory still registered as a shock.

How will Baylor's zone defense fare against a Wisconsin team that can knock down three-pointers? Will the Bears be able to punish the Badgers inside the same way they did to Creighton?

Prediction: I had Arizona vs. Baylor in the Elite Eight originally, so let's stick with that.



The favorite: Louisville

The sleeper: Tennessee

How we did on our predictions: a mere 2 out of 4.

The Midwest is the most wide-open region after No. 1 Wichita State fell in the Round of 32 and No. 3 Duke was eliminated in the first round. Each of the four teams remaining is good enough to get to the Final Four.

I must admit that I'm very surprised Kentucky made it this far. It only happened because the Wildcats played their best game of the season against the Shockers on Sunday. It all started in the backcourt with Aaron and Andrew Harrison, who combined to score 39 points. The highly touted recruits struggled through the majority of their freshman year, but if they play like that again, UK is going to have a great chance against Louisville. Of course, that's a big question.

The Cardinals would seem to have an advantage in the backcourt with Russ Smith leading the charge. The advantage Louisville has in the frontcourt against most teams with big man Montrezl Harrell won't be there when he's matched up against 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein and power forward Julius Randle.

Michigan vs. Tennessee might seem like a lopsided No. 2 vs. No. 11 matchup, but it's secretly a meeting of two big-time teams.

Rick Pitino's team entered the tournament rolling, but it has had a tough time in both games on the way to the Sweet 16. Louisville was very nearly upset by Manhattan in its opening game, and then let Saint Louis hang around way too long in the Round of 32. Still, the Cardinals have only lost once since February and remain the defending champs. It's hard to go against Louisville in this matchup for those reasons.

Michigan vs. Tennessee might seem like a lopsided No. 2 vs. No. 11 matchup, but it's secretly a meeting of two big-time teams. Both the Wolverines and Volunteers are top-10 squads according to Ken Pom. No. 11 seeds generally do not have monsters in the middle like Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon.

Tennessee has combined to win its first two games of the tournament by 39 points, a margin no other team in the region can match. Senior guard Jordan McRae is in the zone right now. There's talent up front and in the backcourt for the Vols. It wasn't a fluke that they placed in the top 20 of both offensive and defensive efficiency, according to Ken Pom. Tennessee is really good.

Guess what? So is Michigan. The Wolverines don't have much inside after losing Mitch McGary for the season to injury, but few teams can compete with Michigan on the perimeter. Nik Stauskas is a great all-around offensive force for the Wolverines. Caris LeVert and Glenn Robinson III can play, too. Michigan hit 14 three-pointers against Texas to win in the second round. If the Wolverines are not hitting threes like that again, Tennessee's size might be too for Michigan to handle.

Prediction: I had Michigan originally, but Tennessee just seems like a more complete team. I'll take the Vols over the Wolverines, and Louisville over Kentucky. Louisville over Tennessee to get to the Final Four.

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