(1) Kentucky vs. (5) West Virginia
Although the Cincinnati Bearcats challenged Kentucky early in the round of 32 before the Wildcats finished them off in the second half, the game was very familiar to those who have watched the Wildcats play all season- even when the offense isn’t operating on all cylinders, Kentucky’s suffocating defense eventually wears its opponents down. The second half of that game can be summarized by a posession where Kentucky amassed four blocks. But the numbers still support undefeated Kentucky as the top overall seed while it continues to smash the world. Hampton scored just 0.75 points per possession against Kentucky in the second round, and Cincy registered just 0.82 points per possession.
The Mountaineers are one of just two teams representing a Big 12 Conference that was praised as one the nation’s best this season before watching two of its 3-seeds falter on a disastrous day one of the tournament. But credit must be given when due- West Virginia survived an extremely difficult first round matchup against a dangerous Buffalo team and completely wore down Maryland with tireless and tenacious defense. Bob Huggins’ squad forced 23 turnovers and scored 26 points off those turnovers in Sunday’s win over Maryland and, per ESPN Stats & Information, the Terrapins scored just four points against West Virginia’s press in the second half. Juwan Staten certainly played a large role in the Mountaineer’s defnensive success thus far, but for West Virginia to have any hope against Kentucky, he will have to go off on the offensive end on the floor.
Prediction: Kentucky Wildcats
Defense wins championships and boy, does Kentucky have a good one. Ranked as the country’s top defensive team in both overall efficiency and effective field-goal percentage, the Wildcats have yet to get much of a scare, despite shooting just 37% from the field last round. The 40-o record remains a strong possibility thanks to said defense and balanced scoring. Meanwhile, the Mountaineers do not seem to have the defense to make this one a slugfest. Despite its strong efforts against Maryland, West Virginia does not force a lot of turnovers and ranked 301st nationally in effective field-goal percentage allowed this season. Looking at its 3-8 record against top-25 teams this season, an upset seems extremely unlikely.
Notre Dame has made it here by the skin of its teeth but, as the saying goes, the tournament is about one thing: survive and advance. The Irish have had their share of questionable defensive stretches thus far, but its offense has led to two hard-fought wins, similarly to their successful season in the ACC. Butler is a very strong team, so getting passed the Bulldogs, overtime or not, can only be considered as a success. To move on to the Elite Eight, this Jerian Grant-led offense will need to show why it was the third most efficient offense in the nation this year, while tightening the screws on defense against another formidable offense in Wichita State.
Wichita State returns to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since making its epic Final Four run in 2013. With wins over Indiana and Kansas, the Shockers have the most impressive pair of wins of just about anyone to get to this position. Fred VanVleet has stepped up in the limelight,finished with 27 points, 4 assists, and 2 steals against the Hoosiers, and 17 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists, and 4 steals versus the Jayhawks. Ron Baker remains a potent complimentary option to VanVleet, and the teams overall defense has been very impressive, holding Kansas to 35% shooting last round.
Prediction: Wichita State Shockers
Going into the tournament, I had a Kentucky vs. Notre Dame Elite Eight matchup pretty confidentially slated, despite also seeing a Wichita State upset over Kansas. Things have changed after witnessing how these teams have got to this point, however. Despite its, albeit underseed ranking, people tend to forget that this is essentially the same top-seeded squad from last year that was ranked in the top-10 a mere two weeks ago. Ranked in the top-20 in offensive and defensive efficiency this season, this balanced team seemed to put it all together against Kansas. Although Jerian Grant will provide an extremely entertaining matchup with VanVleet, Notre Dame seems to lack the weapons that Wichita State possesses (see Ron Baker, Evan Wessel, and Tekele Cotton).