The 2016 NCAA Tournament has reached the Sweet Sixteen, and that means we have games that aren't really crapshoots to deal with at this point. We can sit and analyze and predict based on tendencies and seasons to date, rather than hoping teams won't get lost in the chaos of the opening rounds of March Madness.
So let's make some Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight predictions for the Midwest and East Region brackets that begin play on Friday and conclude on Sunday.
Friday, March 25
No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 4 Iowa State, 7:10 p.m., CBS
Virginia hasn't been to the Elite Eight since 1995. Iowa State hasn't been since 2000. If there's a shortage of hunger in this game, it will be incredibly surprising. The Cavaliers are the third team in that "top-10 on offense and defense" triad, and with no other team left in the East in the top 15 of KenPom, I'm picking Virginia to go to the Final Four based on difficulty of road alone.
But Iowa State is the only one of the other East teams that could meaningfully speed up Virginia, and while this year's Cavs have lost both in 68- and 54-possession games, their losses in games with 60 or fewer possessions are all to top-20 KenPom teams, and their four in faster contests have come to Florida State, George Washington, Georgia Tech, and Virginia Tech -- all NIT teams.
No. 10 Syracuse vs. No. 11 Gonzaga, 9:40 p.m., CBS
Thanks to the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee and its slavish devotion to RPI, we have a Sweet Sixteen matchup of double-digit seeds that are recognized brand names and among the nation's 30 best teams. (Thank goodness the layperson only cares enough about NCAA Tournament seeding to whine about it for a week, rather than get the RPI ditched.
Anyway: Gonzaga has the exact sort of big in Domantas Sabonis that I think could be unstoppable even in the 2-3 zone, and has Kyle Wiltjer to play the point man in the middle of the zone if need be. Syracuse was the beneficiary of inexplicable seeding and a massive upset, and has come far enough, frankly.
Sunday, March 27
No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 11 Gonzaga
While it's tempting to say Virginia's defense and Sabonis are each immovable objects, that was a much fairer description of injured Gonzaga center Przemek Karnowski; Sabonis is actually mobile enough to be a bit of a matchup challenge for the Cavaliers, who could double him on the catch without Mike Tobey in, and hope Tobey can cover him one-on-one in his minutes.
The difference here should actually be Virginia's offense: The Zags are certainly good defensively, but I don't think they can score with the Cavaliers if both Malcolm Brogdon and London Perrantes are hitting threes, because Anthony Gill should just match or exceed Wiltjer's production.
Friday, March 25
No. 6 Notre Dame vs. No. 7 Wisconsin, 7:27 p.m., TBS
Virginia-Iowa State may be the stylistic clash of the Sweet Sixteen, but Notre Dame-Wisconsin isn't far behind, with the Irish's indifference to defense being matched by the Badgers' deliberation on offense. Wisconsin is particularly bad at defending the arc, though, so Notre Dame should be fine to feast from outside.
No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 5 Indiana, 9:57 p.m., TBS
Indiana's road to the Final Four could well be Chattanooga, and then Kentucky, North Carolina, and Notre Dame in succession. Wouldn't that be neat? Wouldn't a world in which Yogi Ferrell led the Hoosiers and Tom Crean to an unlikely Elite Eight be a cool one?
Too bad North Carolina is better at going fast than the Hoosiers, then, and equipped with enough horses to outrace even the hottest shooting from the Crimson and White.
Sunday, March 27
No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 6 Notre Dame
There's zero reason to believe that North Carolina wouldn't be able to run back something like its 78-47 destruction of Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament. Notre Dame committed two turnovers (two!) in its four-point home win over the Tar Heels earlier in the year, and while the Irish had another game of just three turnovers this year, it strains credulity to think that's not a major outlier.
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March Madness: Does 10-seed Syracuse qualify as a Cinderella story?
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