Ranking the Best Sweet 16 Games of the 2015 NCAA Tournament

By Jason McIntyre
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The Sweet 16 schedule is out. Cinderella has been sent home. No, UCLA will never, ever be considered a Cinderella, even if it is an 11th seed. We rank the best games on Thursday and Friday.

1. Wisconsin vs. North Carolina (in Los Angeles): The Tar Heels have the talent and size (though the ankle of Kennedy Meeks could be of concern) to play with the Badgers, but UNC’s issue is closing out games. If Marcus Paige has the ball, good things happen. Anyone else? Eh. Wisconsin struggled against Oregon for the 2nd year in a row, but unless Paige puts on a show, and the Tar Heels can find a matchup for Kaminsky inside and out (Justin Jackson? Or does he defend Dekker?), it feels like the Badgers prevail. The Badgers are favored by 5.5. Also, they’re the best free throw shooting team left in the field (12th in the country). Ken Pom says: Wisconsin, 74-68.

2. Wichita State vs. Notre Dame (in Cleveland): Feels like a coin flip. If this were played two days after the Shockers’ win over Kansas, I’d factor that in. But five days later? Notre Dame is a 1-point favorite, and the only significant difference I can find is that the Irish are 104th in Ken Pom defensive efficiency; Wichita State is 12th. Gotta give Marshall the coaching edge over Brey, but for some reason, I like the underdog Irish, who match up well with the Shockers’ best three players (Connaughton vs Baker, Jackson vs VanVleet and Grant vs Cotton). Ken Pom says: Wichita State 69-68.

3. Oklahoma vs. Michigan State (in Syracuse): Tough not to like Tom Izzo in this one, and the 7th seeded Spartans opened as a 1.5 point favorite and the line is current at 2. The biggest difference could be free throws, as Oklahoma shoots them very well (37th in the country) and Michigan State does not (339th in D1). But give Izzo a few days to cook up a scheme and stop Oklahoma’s 3-point offense (9-of-18 vs. Dayton), and the Sooners may not have a counterpunch since its inside game is non-existent. Buddy Hield, stop pressing: He’s 10-for-29 shooting in the tournament; 4-17 on three-pointers. In his last five games, he’s a ghastly 27-of-84, or 32 percent. Ken Pom says: Oklahoma, 68-67.

4. Duke vs. Utah (in Houston): Utah is excellent defensively and it’ll be interesting to see if its star, Delon Wright, defends Tyus Jones to try and slow down the Duke offense. Or does he try to eliminate Quinn Cook? Poeltl vs. Okafor should be fun. The Blue Devils are favored by 4.5. The last time Duke played in Houston, it was embroiled in a barnburner with Baylor but pulled away late. A way to hang with Duke is to kill ’em on the offensive glass, but that’s not a strength of Utah. Justise Winslow could be the difference here, if he can post another line like he did against San Diego State: 13 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals and 3 blocks.  Ken Pom says: Duke, 67-66.

5. Kentucky vs. West Virginia (in Cleveland): Basically, it’s a rematch of Cincinnati vs Kentucky, but West Virginia is better offensively. A wrinkle: Bob Huggins beat the Calipari-coached John Wall team in the 2010 tournament when UK settled for 3-pointers, and missed 28 of 32. This time though … Kentucky’s excellent guards have a week to prepare for the relentless West Virginia pressure, and the Wildcats are much tougher and deeper inside. Maryland turned the ball over 23 times and only made 21 baskets; Kentucky only had 22 turnovers in two games against heavy Arkansas pressure. This will be a rumble, but it’ll be the upset of the millennium if West Virginia wins. Ken Pom says: Kentucky 75-62.

6. Gonzaga vs. UCLA (in Houston): The Bruins got lucky to beat SMU, then handled a bad UAB team. They don’t have a matchup advantage anywhere here, and Tony Parker (28 points vs UAB and Kevon Looney (10 points, 11 rebounds) won’t have much room to operate against Karnowski and Sabonis. Close game for a half, then the Zags pull away and win comfortably. More interesting will be the number of times CBS replays the Gonzaga collapse in 2006 and Adam Morrison crying after his Zags wasted a 71-68 lead (with the ball!) with :20 left and lost. Ken Pom says: Gonzaga, 76-69.

7. Louisville vs. NC State (in Syracuse): Maybe I’ve digested too much Louisville this season, but the Cardinals are a difficult watch. Barely got by UC Irvine Friday, then handled Northern Iowa Sunday night. NC State has the bodies to bang inside; the guard matchups are basically a push. The biggest question for the Wolfpack? Can Abu (13-12) duplicate that Villanova performance? Is Louisville really going to shoot 45 percent from the field again? The advantage here goes to Rick Pitino, because he’s 12-1 all-time in the Sweet 16. Ken Pom says:66-63.

8. Arizona vs. Xavier (in Los Angeles): The only subplot here is that Sean Miller coached at Xavier until 2009, when he left for Arizona. The Wildcats opened as a 10-point favorite; the line has already gone up to 11. Look at it this way: Xavier needed an all-time shooting night to cover against Georgia State – 67% field goals, 53% 3-pointers, 80% free throws – in a hard fought game. This one feels like 80-60. Arizona is vastly superior defensively, and has way too much firepower, plus will have the crowd on its side. Ken Pom says: Arizona, 74-64.

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