It has been an incredibly wild 2018 NCAA Tournament thus far as the first 96 hours of the Big Dance (not counting the First Four games, of course) featured some of the craziest action we have seen in recent years.
History was made when we saw the tournament’s first-ever No. 16 seed upset a No. 1 team, while huge comebacks also became a theme.
Let’s take a look at the storylines to watch in a Sweet 16 that features several unexpected squads.
Loyola (IL) remains one of the hottest teams in the country, and the Ramblers advanced in this tournament on a couple of buckets scored in the final seconds. Loyola’s offense is fun to watch because of its crisp passing, but this is a squad that has relied on its defense. The 62 points put up by Miami (FL) and Tennessee in Loyola’s first two games were the most the unit has allowed over its last seven games. It has been stingy all season, but Loyola has really done a great job on the defensive end over the last week.
Fellow Cinderella Nevada, however, is looking to break the hearts of Loyola’s team chaplain Sister Jean and Co. The Wolf Pack have shown tremendous fight on their way to the Sweet 16, coming from 14 down against No. 10 Texas in an overtime win. Nevada also rallied from a 22-point deficit against No. 2 Cincinnati to advance to the Sweet 16, and it now will have a size and athleticism advantage for the first time in this tournament. Veteran Jordan Caroline’s inside-outside game may be the difference.
Can Kansas end its Final Four drought?
Since falling in the national championship game in 2012, Bill Self’s Jayhawks have been a No. 1 seed four times and a No. 2 seed twice. However, Kansas has failed to reach the Final Four during that span (one of those No. 1 seeds includes this season). Can the Jayhawks come out of the Midwest region this year?
Clemson is peaking and looked dominant last Sunday in its 84-53 throttling of Auburn, while KU struggled against No. 16 Penn and slipped by Seton Hall. The Tigers made it to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1997 despite losing No. 2 scorer Donte Grantham to a torn ACL that ended his season.
Kansas doesn’t get to the free-throw line that often and relies on the 3-pointer a little too much. But it has won five in a row and 11 of its last 12. Shooting guard Malik Newman, who has averaged 22 points and a .594 3-point shooting percentage over the past five games, needs to remain hot. If he does, that should end Clemson’s run.
UK’s stress-free path to the Final Four
John Calipari’s Wildcats had a very lucky draw after all. Despite being a No. 5 seed after winning an uninspiring 25 games, the South region broke open for UK to arrive in Atlanta, which in the past became a second home during the SEC Tournament when it was dubbed “Catlanta.”
The Wildcats will be joined by the No. 7, No. 9 and No. 11 seeds at Philips Arena, and they will have the clear athletic advantage after Virginia, Arizona, Tennessee and Cincinnati were knocked out. The highest seed the Wildcats can possibly play en route to San Antonio is a No. 7 seed. What a draw. And that’s why it’s March.
Gonzaga’s Sweet 16 streak
The Zags haven’t played the prettiest brand of basketball over the first two games of this tournament, but they advanced to the Sweet 16 to extend the nation’s longest current streak to four. While it’s nowhere near the mark set by UCLA (14 straight), it does tie the Zags for the sixth-longest of all time.
If the Zags beat Florida State on Thursday, they will advance to the Elite 8 for the third time in four years. It won’t be easy, though, as the Seminoles possess one of the deepest teams in this tournament and like to play a fast pace. Can Mark Few’s squad keep up?
The Seminoles are trying to reach the Elite Eight for the first time since 1993 and perhaps even the Final Four, which hasn’t been done since 1979 — the Seminoles’ only trip. This is only the second time they are in the Sweet 16 since that 1993 visit (they also made it as a No. 10 seed in 2011). FSU has the momentum after its comeback victory over Xavier, which was the program’s first over a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
A Few-coached team seems destined to win a national championship at some point. Despite losing a ton of talent from last year’s squad, which made it to the national title game for the first time, the Bulldogs would not have to face a No. 1 or 2 seed until the title game. However, both Michigan and Texas A&M are tough outs if the Zags can get by FSU.
The inexplicable case of Syracuse
Jim Boeheim’s program is incredible.
After getting into the Big Dance — shockingly, as was the case in 2016 — the Orange are on yet another tournament run after winning a First Four contest and two subsequent games. The Orange have done it with great defense and a short rotation led by Tyus Battle, Oshae Brissett and Frank Howard.
The Orange will battle Duke in a matchup of 2-3 zones after Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski made the defensive shift in the middle of the season. These two teams matched up in February with Duke winning 60-44 at home. Wendell Carter and Marvin Bagley Jr. were difference-makers inside, combining for 35 points and 17 rebounds in the win.
Can Syracuse, which already has an upset over No. 3 Michigan State in this tournament, and its zone make Duke’s offense inefficent? Brissett only scored six points in the first meeting, but the freshman has played better as of late. Syracuse will likely need his best performance yet.