Sweet 16: What to watch for (Ranking and discussing every matchup)

Jace Frederick

While the Gophers are off until Tuesday, when they head to Madison Square Garden for their NIT semifinal matchup with , fans can catch what should be some fantastic NCAA Tournament action this week.

I can’t remember a slate of Sweet Sixteen matchups in recent history as compelling as the ones set for Thursday and Friday.

From the bluegrass rivalry between Kentucky and Louisville, to one of the best programs of the last decade in Florida against one of the best programs of all time in UCLA, to arguably the most underrated ACC regular season and tournament champion ever Virginia against one of the national favorites in Michigan State, this should be a fun couple of days.

So I decided to take a moment to rank the eight games based on watchability – with No. 1 being a can’t miss contest, and No. 8 being one I probably will still tune into, but if you need to run an errand, that might be the best time slot (all times in this blog are Central) to do it.

No. 1: #4 Louisville vs. #8 Kentucky (Friday at 8:45 on CBS) – Come on, now, could it be anything other than this matchup? The last two national champions, who just happen to be two in-state adversaries that make up one of the best rivalries in college basketball, are going to tee it up in the round of 16. Better yet, both of these teams are playing at a championship level. Kentucky just knocked off undefeated Wichita State in what was the best-played game of the tournament, while Louisville came into the tournament as a favorite to win it all, and hasn’t made anyone think it is anything else after two impressive wins en route to this point – including a 15-point win over Atlantic-10 regular season champ St. Louis.

When these teams met in December, Kentucky topped the Cardinals by seven. It was at that point when Louisville point guard Russ Smith told ESPN’s Jeff Goodman “Its not a good matchup for us," per a tweet from Goodman on Sunday.  So while Louisville is likely the favorite this baby is going to be interesting.

I just got through talking about this game without mentioning a coaching matchup between legends John Calipari and Rick Pitino (A Pitino is coaching in the NCAA Tournament, Gophers fans – you have to watch), so you know it’s an intriguing battle.

This guy’s prediction – Kentucky 76, Louisville 72

No. 2: #1 Virginia vs. #4 Michigan State (Friday at 8:57 on TBS) – Virginia is actually the better seed in this matchup, in case anyone forgot. Despite the Cavaliers being the ACC’s regular season and tournament champions – an incredibly impressive feat — it’s the Spartans who are the favorite to not only win on Friday, but the favorite of many to win the NCAA Tournament.

Don’t get me wrong; Michigan State deserves all the respect they’ve received. The Spartans are one of the most complete teams in the country, and have hit their stride of late once they regained some semblance of a healthy squad. 

These are two really good teams, which should produce one really interesting matchup.  Virginia features the fifth-best defense in the nation, according to KenPom.com, while Michigan State has the ninth-best offense.

If this game is played in the 70s, Michigan State wins. If it’s in the 50s or 60s, Virginia pulls the (somewhat of an) upset.

This guy’s prediction: Michigan State 71, Virginia 64

No. 3:  #1 Florida vs. #4 UCLA (Thursday at 8:45 on CBS) – Remember that uninspired UCLA team the Gophers easily disposed of a year ago in the NCAA Tournament? Yeah, this year’s edition of the Bruins is nothing like that. UCLA is playing its best ball of the season – fresh off of a Pac-12 Tournament title and two NCAA wins by double-digits to get to this point. Only problem for UCLA now is, it faces the Gators. Florida is by many people’s opinion, the most complete team in the country. Florida last lost on December 2nd.

This should a classic guard matchup. Bruins sophomores Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams make up one of the most formidable backcourt duos in the country.  Senior Scottie Wilbekin leads Florida, but the Gators’ X-factor might sophomore Michael Frazier II – one of the best sharpshooters in the country — who’s stroked the three-ball at a cool 44 percent this season.

I actually think the Bruins will win the backcourt battle – as I expect a special performance from Anderson – but fellow Daily sports reporter Jack Satzinger, who’s far more knowledgeable on the topic of UCLA basketball than I am, predicted 25 points and 12 boards for Gators senior center Patric Young. If Florida can get anywhere near that type interior production against, the Gators should advance.

This guy’s prediction: Florida 78, UCLA 73

No. 4: #1 Arizona vs. #4 San Diego State  (Thursday at 9:17 on TBS) – Arizona walks into the Sweet 16 as 7.5 point favorites over the Aztecs. The Wildcats won the previous matchup between these two teams by nine points. But all four of Arizona’s losses have come in its last 15 games – not exactly a Syracuse-type collapse, but still notable. The Wildcats were arguably playing their best basketball of the season at the beginning of the year. 

Expect a low-scoring dual, as both of these squads sport top-10 defenses in the country, according to KenPom’s efficiency ratings – with the Cats ranking No. 1 in the land. So I expect the game to come down to the spectacular individual matchup between Arizona’s Nick Johnson and San Diego State’s Xavier Thames. Both players are in the top-10 of KenPom’s player of the year standings (Johnson No. 3, Thomas No. 8). This will be the most entertaining individual matchup of the round, earning this contest it’s No. 4 ranking.

This guy’s prediction: San Diego State 60, Arizona 59 (Thames with the game-winner at the horn)

No. 5: #3 Iowa St. vs. #7 Uconn (Friday at 6:27 on TBS) – If you’re a fan of athleticism and scoring – otherwise known as basketball – you’ll want to tune in to this one. Iowa State has two premier athletes who can all fill it up in multiple ways in DeAndre Kane and Melvin Ejim. Uconn has Shabazz Napier and the athletes to defend the Cyclones – something not many teams can claim to be true. 

The difference in this one comes down to length. The Huskies are 21st in the nation in effective height, according to KenPom, while Iowa State is 325th. Expect the Huskies big men to make an impact, much like they did in the first two rounds.

This guy’s prediction: Uconn 71, Iowa State 68

No. 6: #2 Wisconsin vs. #6 Baylor (Thursday at 6:47 on TBS) – Two of the most-efficient offenses in the nation (Wisconsin No. 4, Baylor No. 6) take the court. The thing about these offenses, they are also really slow. So don’t expect an up-and-down game in the 90s, but expect a lot of made field goals and not many turnovers. 

Baylor’s athletes vs. Wisconsin’s shooters and Frank Kaminski — That should be a good watch. Whoever can slow the opposing offense more will likely come out on top.

The interesting matchup in this one could be Kaminski vs. Baylor center Isaiah Austin. Both have the ability to step away from the bucket, though Austin is certainly a longer player, which could prove advantageous.

This guy’s prediction: Wisconsin 71, Baylor 63

No. 7: #2 Michigan vs. #11 Tennessee (Friday at 6:15 on CBS) – Think the Wolverines are going to run away with this one against Cinderella? Well, KenPom begs to differ. The analytics site has Tennessee as the better team in its power rankings, and the odds-on favorite to win the game on Friday night.

It’s not that KenPom doesn’t think Michigan is a good team, it’s that the site thinks the Volunteers are a great team – No. 6 in the nation, to be exact.

Tennessee is playing its best basketball of the year, no doubt about that. But the Volunteers haven’t beaten a team like Michigan. The Wolverines are good on both ends of the floor, highlighted by the sixth-most efficient offense in the country.

The difference in this one will be Michigan’s three-ball. If the Wolverines can hit from deep like they did against Texas, they’ll cruise. If not, this would turns into a coin flip.

This guy’s prediction: Tennessee 66, Michigan 64 (Never doubt KenPom)

No. 8: #10 Stanford vs. #11 Dayton (Thursday at 6:15 on CBS) – The bad part about a multitude of early round upsets is, from time to time, you end up with a Sweet 16 matchup like Dayton-Stanford. The good news is, it’s the first game of the weekend, so this could be a good time to go on a grocery run to stock up for the rest of the games.

These are obviously two good teams that have beaten great teams proven they belonged in the dance. Now one of them is going to end up in the Elite Eight. 

Stanford is LONG , especially inside, which could present the Flyers some with some problems – not on the glass, the Cardinal aren’t interested in offensive rebounds – but in the paint, where Stanford is really good at swatting away potential buckets. Dayton is going to have to hit some jumpers to win this one, and that’s not exactly its forte.

This guy’s prediction: Stanford 66, Dayton 53 (The Cardinal are going to the Elite Eight the year before Reid Travis comes.. Wow)