(4) Louisville vs. (8) North Carolina State
The Cardinals faced a serious threat from Big West tournament champion UC Irvine in the first round and Northern Iowa and Seth Tuttle offered an even tougher test in the second round. The game wasn’t always pretty, but Louisville’s stirring defense frustrated its first two opponents and ultimately helped the program reach the Sweet 16 for the fourth consecutive season, a Louisville record. It is also encouraging to see Terry Rozier to step up as a complimentary scoring option to big man Montrezl Harrell. Having Rick Pitino always helps, as well.
The Wolfpack’s streaky ways made them a difficult program to assess entering the NCAA tournament, but also a dangerous one. Would the NC State that lost at Boston College and at Wake Forest show up, or the would the team that defeated North Carolina and Louisville on the road and Duke at home be the squad that took the floor in March? It appears to be the latter- at least, for now. Beejay Anya’s baby hook was the game winner in NC State’s opening-game win over LSU and then, an NC State program that had mostly played average defense all season held Villanova to a 25.9% mark inside the paint in a 71-68 victory over the No. 1 seed Wildcats. Cat Barber has vaulted him upset the draft rankings thus far, averaging 15.0 PPG in the tournament. If this team can maintain its “ceiling,” the Wildcats will continue to be dangerous to any competition.
Prediction: Louisville Cardinals
This simply can’t continue for NC State, can it? Louisville appears to be the team to end their run. The emergence of freshman guard Quentin Snider has been important for the Cardinals squad that dismissed Chris Jones midway through the season and Wayne Blackshear is an important contributor, entering his fourth sweet sixteen in his senior year. Meanwhile, the Wolfpack have simply been too inconsistent this year to have any faith that they’ll win they’re third straight against a quality team. They don’t have a quality frontcourt to challenge pre-season All-American Harrell and the team that lost to three separate teams ranked below 85-overall is bound to show up at some point. Right?
(3) Oklahoma vs. (7) Michigan State
Lon Kruger’s squad fought to get to this stage in the NCAA tournament, with a pair of wins over underrated teams in Albany and Dayton. But the Sooners could encounter trouble in the next chapter of the Big Dance if Buddy Hield (10-for-29, 4-for-17 from the 3-point line), their most credible scoring threat, continues to struggle. They are also about to see a massive step-up in compeition here- has anyone really taken MSU’s 7-see seriously since Selection Sunday?
The Tom Izzo-Michigan State team has been on a crazy run since early March, and that run has continued in the NCAA tournament because of that typical Spartan grit. Since putting a scare into Wisconsin in the Big Ten finals, the nation has been on notice. They held Georgia to a 33.3% mark from the field in a first-round win but more impressively, held the region’s two-seed in Virginia under 30 percent shooting and 2-for-17 from the 3-point line. The Cavaliers could have even been a one-seed and the second round matchup has seemed like it would produce the region’s champion since the bracket was unveiled. Travis Trice has become the alpha dog of this team, and was the best player on the floor in the Spartans upset over the Cavaliers. He has 9 assists and 5 turnovers through two NCAA tournament games.
Prediction: Michigan State Spartans
Through the seeds out the window at this point, Sparty is my heavy favourite in this one. It has been nice to see Branden Dawson live up to his potential so far in the tournament after a disappointing season, but Denzel Valentine needs to step up to provide a potent scoring trio, after scoring just 4 points last game. Shooting just 44% from the field in the tournament, there is even room for offensive improvement for MSU after ranking 14th in the nation in offensive efficiency this season. Meanwhile, the Sooners are the only team not named UCLA to get to this point without facing a top-1o seed in its first two games and are in for a heck of an upgrade in competition. Even if Buddy Hield finds his game this round, Oklahoma lacks Michigan State’s depth and haven’t been overly impressive in its matchups against quality teams this season.