The Sweet 16 is when the NCAA Tournament stops being gimmicky and starts getting real. Cinderella had its fun in the opening two rounds, but the time for fairy tales is over. The early round upsets are a large part of what makes the tournament the best event in sports, but they also serve to weed out the big conference teams who never truly found balance. As the tournament resets on Thursday, each team in the remaining field of 16 is both deserving and capable.
With four games on Thursday night and four more on Friday, the Sweet 16 annually provides some of the best basketball of the tournament. Here are 16 things to watch for, in no particular order, before the round tips off.
1. Can Caris LeVert continue to give Michigan supplemental scoring?
The Wolverines might look like the favorite as a No. 2 seed against No. 11 Tennessee, but Michigan will be at a very real disadvantage on the inside. For Michigan to make it to the Elite Eight, it's going to need to continue to dominate from the perimeter, just as it did in draining 14 three-pointers in a Round of 32 victory over Texas. Michigan can count on Nik Stauskas to light up the scoreboard, but he needs help. That's where Caris LeVert comes in.
LeVert was not a top-150 prospect heading into college, but the sophomore has quickly proven himself as one of the more dynamic young wings in the country. When he's feeling it offensively, Michigan is tough to beat.
LeVert scored in double figures in 13 of his last 14 games headed into the Big Ten Tournament Championship against Michigan State. There, he finished just 2-for-10 against the Spartans for seven points, and the Wolverines were dismantled by Tom Izzo's crew.
LeVert scored 14 against Texas in Michigan's last game, and is talented enough to be the sidekick Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III need. He needs to show up on Friday if Michigan is going to compete.
2. Can Branden Dawson continue to be Michigan State's X-Factor?
Think Branden Dawson makes a difference for Michigan State? In eight games since his return --- 12.6 PPG, 7.3 RPG. X-Factor for Sparty.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) March 27, 2014
Dawson played the game of his life in the Round of 32, and Michigan State might not have beaten Harvard without it. The 6'6 junior wing scored a career-high 26 points on 12-for-15 shooting and added nine rebounds to give the Spartans the inside-outside presence on offense they needed to reach the Sweet 16.
Michigan State's lineup is a different type of animal with Dawson on the floor. When he missed over a month earlier this season with a broken hand, MSU struggled on both ends. Dawson is going to need to win his matchup against Virginia's similarly strong and versatile wings for Sparty to defeat the No. 1 Cavaliers and make it to the Elite Eight.
(Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
3. Who wins the Isaiah Austin vs. Frank Kaminsky battle?
The most intriguing individual matchup on Thursday might be a battle of the two most offensively skilled centers left in the tournament. Baylor's Isaiah Austin and Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky are both 7-footers with shooting range that extends out past the three-point line. They've each played well in the first two rounds of the tournament to help their teams make it this far.
Austin is the more athletic player with a higher ceiling, but Kaminsky was more productive and shot a better percentage from the field, the three-point line and the foul line. There will be lots of other talent on the floor surrounding Austin and Kaminsky, but the battle at the five in Baylor vs. Wisconsin will be one of the more unique matchups of big men you'll ever see at the college level.
4. Does Dayton have any magic left?
Syracuse started the season 25-0 and held down the No. 1 spot in the polls for the majority of the year. Ohio State reached as high as No. 3 in the polls. No. 11 Dayton didn't care about any of that, dispatching both teams in dramatic fashion. For their efforts, the Flyers get a Sweet 16 matchup with another double-digit seed, No. 10 Stanford.
The Flyers are the tournament's biggest remaining Cinderella, but their story might not be over yet. They are going to need big games from 6'6 forward Dyshawn Pierre and 6'7 Devin Oliver against the Cardinal's stout front line to win. If this tournament has taught us anything so far, it's not to count out the Flyers.
5. Can Xavier Thames beat Arizona?
Thames scored 48 percent of San Diego State's points as the Aztecs beat North Dakota State in the Round of 32. His 30 points against the Bison was Thames' second-highest total of the season, but his effort was nothing new for those who have been paying attention to the Aztecs all season. Thames is the nucleus of a long, athletic team that struggles to score in the halfcourt without the senior point guard. He'll have to be on his game if Steve Fisher's team can knock off No. 1 Arizona, which looks like the best team on the right side of the bracket through the first two rounds.
6. Will Zach LaVine have a breakout game?
NBA Draft scouts love Zach LaVine's talent, and it's easy to see why. The UCLA freshman has dunk contest-worthy athleticism, a pure stroke from three-point range and is comfortable creating his own shot off the bounce. The problem for UCLA is LaVine's talent has yet to equal production.
LaVine has only six points in his last three games combined. Still, he's a great candidate for a breakout performance in the tournament. If he can do it against Florida's incredible defense, he's bound to rise up draft boards very quickly.
7. Will the Shabazz show continue?
Shabazz Napier is the most exciting player in college basketball, and has been all season. The entire country got to witness the individual scoring brilliance of Napier in the Round of 32 when he popped off for 25 points in 25 minutes against No. 2 Villanova. Napier will have his hands full with DeAndre Kane on Friday, his much bigger counterpart at point guard for Iowa State. Whatever. Napier has slayed bigger and better opponents all throughout his incredible college career.
If UConn is only going as far as Shabazz will take it, the Huskies have to like their chances.
8. What version of the Harrison twins will show up?
Andrew and Aaron Harrison were treated with a savior's welcome when they got to Lexington as part of a recruiting class that featured six McDonald's All-Americans. It didn't take very long to notice the Harrisons might have been a touch overrated by the folks who put together the high school rankings.
Andrew, the point guard, struggled in particular, shooting just 37.7 percent from the floor during the regular season on his way to averaging 11 points and 3.8 assists per game. He stepped up big time against Wichita State in the Round of 32, though, scoring 20 points and battling the Shockers' Fred VanVleet blow-for-blow. His brother Aaron brought his A-game as well against the Shockers, adding 19 points in the win.
If the Wildcats are going to beat Louisville, they'll have to get the version of the Harrisons that showed up against Wichita State, not the one from the regular season. Russ Smith has struggled in this tournament so far as well, but he will eat the Harrisons alive if they don't come out ready to play.
9. Is Jarnell Stokes up for the task?
Stokes has 22 double-doubles this season for No. 11 Tennessee, tied for the lead across Division I with Kentucky's Julius Randle. The 6'8, 260-pound power forward is capable of swinging the game against No. 2 Michigan on Friday if he can assert his will against a weak Wolverines front line.
10. Will Florida's D be able to lock up UCLA?
You already know Florida hasn't lost since Dec. 2. You know Florida has one of, if not the best defenses in the country, ranking No. 2 in defensive efficiency, according to Ken Pom. Those are nice bullet points during an incredible run thus far for the Gators, but it won't matter unless they can slow down a talented and multifaceted UCLA offense on Thursday.
SEC Basketball On the Rise
The Bruins have the No. 12 offense according to Ken Pom, and boast a ton of NBA prospects with size, skill and athleticism. The Gators may not have played an opponent this good all season. After watching what UCLA did to fellow No. 1 seed Arizona in the Pac-12 Tournament Championship, Florida knows what type of defensive intensity it'll have to bring on Thursday to reach the Elite Eight. This should be the best Sweet 16 game.
11. Can anyone score on Arizona?
Noticing a trend? Four of the top five (and five of the top seven) teams in Ken Pom's defensive efficiency rankings reached the Sweet 16, a statistic the Wildcats placed No. 1 in. Arizona has the type of size, length and athleticism few teams can match up with, but it will face a team with similar strengths in San Diego State on Thursday night. The issue for the Aztecs is that they mostly have a one-man offense with Xavier Thames, and Arizona's man defense should be able to limit his opportunities at the rim.
Through two games, the Wildcats are right there with Florida and Michigan State as the favorites to take home the title. Poor Gonzaga might never recover from the 23-point beatdown the Wildcats laid on them in the Round of 32.
12. Will Nik Stauskas' lottery push continue?
Stauskas was not considered much of an NBA prospect before the season began, but he's worked his way up to No. 17 in the latest Draft Express mock. He's displayed the talent of a lottery pick toward the end of the season as a tall shooting guard with great range and sneaky playmaking ability. Stauskas will have the opportunity to raise his draft stock as much as any prospect left in the field with a big performance against Tennessee.
(Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
13. Is Virginia up for the challenge?
The Cavaliers have a No. 1 seed next to their name, but they're the betting underdog heading into Friday night's tilt with Michigan State. The Spartans certainly have more offensive firepower, but Virginia can combat that the way it has all season: with Tony Bennett's incredible man defense.
Virginia is No. 5 in Ken Pom's defensive efficiency, and has the size and strength to give the Spartans trouble. Everyone is picking Michigan State. That might be a good sign for the Cavaliers.
14. Will Stanford's bigs dominate again?
Stanford is huge up front with Stefan Nastic, Dwight Powell and Josh Huestis across the front line. That size gave Kansas all types of problems in the Round of 32, and it could very well do the same thing to Dayton in the Sweet 16.
Size is only a difference-maker at the college level when you have capable guards, and Stanford has exactly that in Chasson Randle. The Cardinal might be a double-digit seed, but they have the makeup of a team that can reach the Elite Eight by no fluke.
15. Can Iowa State keep winning without Georges Niang?
Niang might have been Iowa State's third-best player, but he was lost for the tournament in the Round of 64 to a broken foot. The Cyclones had a very close clash against No. 6 North Carolina in the Round of 32, but DeAndre Kane bailed them out at the end. Kane and Big 12 Player of the Year Melvin Ejim are going to be tasked with keeping the Cyclones afloat again against a UConn team that can get buckets at will.
Fred Hoiberg's small-ball spread attack has been a consistent source of offense for Iowa State over the years, getting his players clean looks from all over the floor. Iowa State might not need Niang to reach the Elite Eight if his teammates keep picking up the slack.
16. Have Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson come into their own?
The Arizona freshman forwards were both McDonald's All-Americans a year ago at this time, but it's taken a season's worth of games for them to grown into what they are today: the most physically imposing set of forwards in the country. Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson are simply too long and too athletic for opponents at this level. Fortunately for Arizona, both are peaking at the right time.
Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson each scored 18 in the win over Gonzaga. If they keep playing this well, Arizona is the team to beat on the right side of the bracket.