(1) Duke vs. (5) Utah
The Blue Devils beat both of its opponents thus far by 48 points combined, including a physical San Diego State team that was ranked in the mid-30s going into the tournament. Freshman superstar Jahlil Okafor has certainly embraced the spotlight, sinking 21 of 27 field goal attempts through the first two games. As a team, the Blue Devils have gone 16-for-35 from the 3-point line, led by second-team All-American senior Quinn Cook. Justise Winslow has also shown why he is a projected lottery pick by being the ultimate utility man and seemingly coming up with the big bucket when the opposition seems to be finding its way back in the game.
The Utes are in the Sweet 16 not just because of its star guard in Delon Wright. Stephen F. Austin is a top-35 offense but the Lumberjacks scored only 50 against Utah in Thursday’s loss and Utah contested 67% of Georgetown’s shots in the second round. Jakob Poetl has also emerged as an nice inside-out combo to Wright, finishing with 30 points and 6 blocks through his tournament two games.
Prediction: Duke Blue Devils
The Blue Devils are relying on a tight 8-man rotation at this juncture in the season, but Coach K claims that his troops remain energized. Duke also boasts scoring depth outside of Okafor, with the likes of fellow starters Tyus Jones, Quinn Cook, and Justise Winslow all showing off strong individual scoring games at different points in the season, and Matt Jones and Grayson Allen offer potent options from behind the arc. The freshman PG Tyus, in particular, has come up big against marquee opponents thus far, which bodes well for the team moving forward in the tournament. Utah will have its hands full rebounding the ball against Duke, lacking depth in the post outside of Poeltl. When Duke uses its big lineup with Okafor, Amile Jefferson, and Winslow on the floor, this will be a major concern for the Utes. Scoring guards seem to have had the Blue Devil program’s number in recent history, but Cook and Jones should be able to balance out the scoring of Wright in this contest.
(2) Gonzaga vs. (11) UCLA
Gonzaga advances to its first Sweet Sixteen since 2009 and is a heavy favourite in this contest. Its first two games proved that the Bulldogs were worthy of a lofty seed, despite competing in the West Coast Conference. Kyle Wiltjer is averaging 23.5 PPG through two games, and he’s 6-for-9 from the 3-point line. Having a scoring option to compliment fellow Canadian Kevin Pangos is crucial moving forward. If the Zags can play solid defense in addition to its usual strong offense, a title game run isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
To be frank, the Bruins are the worst remaining team in the field. By far. The same UCLA team that entered Selection Sunday with questionable credentials is now, somehow, in the sweet sixteen for the second consecutive year. SMU failed to show up in their first round matchup and UCLA advanced on a “controversial” goaltending call, to be generous. Then, they were given a favourable matchup against UAB in the second round, who upset one of the hottest team’s in the nation in Iowa State, thanks, in large part, to a no-show performance by Georges Niang. If there’s a bright spot in addition to this sweet sixteen run, it’s that Bryce Alford has finally seemed to hit his stride.
Prediction: Gonzaga Bulldogs
In addition to having the country’s fifth most efficient offense, the Bulldogs have great depth, which comes in handy at this point late in the season. Byron Wesley, Domantis Sabonis, and Przemek Karnowski all provide secondary scoring and size. If the Bulldogs are making shots the same way they have all year- at 52.6%, they have the nation’s highest field goal percentage, and they also make 41% from three-point range- this team can literally beat any team not named Kentucky. UCLA, on the other hand, didn’t even belong in the tournament, in my opinion, and although they have beaten mediocre competition thus far, they have just one win away from home against a top-25 team all season. And, oh yea, Gonzaga has already beaten UCLA this season.