The first weekend of the Men’s Basketball NCAA Championship Tournament is in the books. I love the first weekend for the amount of games, excitement and Cinderella stories. But the rounds of 16 and 8 provide truly great basketball at the highest level. Some of the weaker teams have been weeded out and the cream will truly rise to the top by Sunday. Here are my thoughts for this weekend’s Sweet 16 games.
Most Intriguing Sweet 16 Match-Up – Although it’s tempting to pick UNC/Wisconsin because of the coaching match-up and amount of points that will be scored, I have to go with West Virginia vs Kentucky. It’s Bob Huggins and his 8-2 head-to-head record versus John Calipari and his undefeated Wildcats. It’s not just the intrigue of Kentucky’s undefeated season that has my attention. It’s the gritty and tough brand of basketball the Mountaineers continue to play. Are they the most polished and skilled team that seems to have the best chance to beat UK? No. But they press full court and that could cause problems for UK’s guards. The full court pressure and creating turnovers can negate some of the Wildcats’ height and offensive rebounding. All in all I believe Kentucky wins, but it will be closer than the current -13.5 spread. West Virginia doesn’t shoot it from outside well enough (only 32% from 3pt) to really threaten UK but the contrast in styles will be interesting. One thing is for sure, WVU and Huggins will NOT be intimidated by Kentucky’s size and undefeated record.
The Elite 8 Game I Most Want to See – This was a close call. Notre Dame’s efficient offense vs Kentucky’s defense OR a rematch of last season’s epic tourney game between UK and Wichita State. Jahlil Okafor and Duke vs the size experience of Gonzaga. But my choice is Wisconsin vs Arizona. The Wildcats defense is stifling. The Badgers offense ranks #1 in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. Kaminsky vs Tarczewski. Dekker vs Stanley Johnson. And TJ McConnell vs Bronson Koenig. Bo Ryan’s crew won last year’s Regional Final 64-63 in OT to reach the Final Four. It was a physical, grind-it-out game that both teams are comfortable playing. The seeds were reversed in 2014. Will the result be reversed also? Badgers fans hope not.
Most Impressive Player Thus Far – Tempting to go with Jahlil Okafor. The Duke center is averaging 23.5 pts in 2 games including 21-for-27 shooting. That’s insane. But alas, it’s not that unexpected for Okafor. The player who has impressed me the most is Michigan State’s Branden Dawson. The 6’6″ senior forward carried the team emotionally and physically in the Spartans upset win over 2-seed Virginia 60-54. He is averaging 14.5 pts, 7.5 rebs, 3 blocks through two games. In the win over Virginia, Dawson’s battery mate Denzel Valentine was riddled with foul trouble, but Dawson was able to carry the load. Though his effort has been inconsistent throughout the season, he seems to have hit his stride or been motivated by March. Like his coach, Tom Izzo, Dawson seems to get what the Madness is all about in March.
I can’t wait for this set of games. Everyone will be trying to punch their ticket to Indianapolis. There are great teams, great coaches and surprisingly, senior-laded teams all vying for the “One Shining Moment.” Buckle up, fans, it’s going to be a heck of a weekend of college hoops.