The details: There are all kinds of intriguing storylines in this region. For starters, there is the potential matchup between Duke and UConn, who have played three times in the tournament, all of which have yielded classic games. There is Sean Miller, who has brought the Arizona program back to national relevancy with a Pac-10 title and a trip to the Sweet 16. Then there is Steve Fisher, the coach that went down with the Fab Five, potentially making his return to the Final Four.
No. 2 San Diego State (34-2) vs. No. 3 UConn (28-9)
Time: 7:15 p.m. ET on CBS
No. 1 Duke (32-4) vs. No. 5 Arizona (29-7)
Time: 9:45 p.m. ET on CBS
Team to beat: Duke Blue Devils
I fully expect Kyrie Irving to be close to 100% by the time the Sweet 16 games roll around, meaning that Duke will once again be arguably the most talented team in the country. Kyle Singler was a preseason favorite for national player of the year, Irving was a favorite for national player of the year before he got hurt, and Nolan Smith has emerged as a favorite since Irving was injured. Not many teams can boast that kind of 1-2-3 punch. The problem? Duke’s weakness is on the interior, and the three teams that the Blue Devils can end up facing all have at least one powerful front court presence.
Team with nothing to lose: San Diego State
The Aztecs, despite being the No. 2 seed in the West region, are the underdog heading into the Sweet 16. They play in the Mountain West Conference. They played all of one BCS conference team this season, beating Cal by 20 points. They have a head coach with the reputation of a guy that just rolls the ball out. They were the trendy pick by analysts to get upset in the second round of the dance by Temple. This team has no expectations, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. They head into the Sweet 16 playing without pressure.
Players to watch:
- Kawhi Leonard, San Diego State: Leonard is one of the most entertaining players in the country to watch, and its a shame that he isn’t known on a more national scale. When dreaming up a prototype small forward, you think of Leonard. He’s 6’6″, he’s got long arms, he’s quick and athletic and explosive. He attacks the glass as hard as anyone in the country, but he can also lead the break when need be. By the time he fully develops, he’s the kind of player that can average 15, 10, 5, 2, and 2.
- Alex Oriakhi, UConn: Kemba Walker is the star. Jeremy Lamb, Roscoe Smith, and Shabazz Napier take turns as his sidekick. But Oriakhi may be the most important player on the roster outside of Walker. He’s really the only strong, interior presence the Huskies have. He defends the rim and is one of the best in the country at battling on the offensive glass.
- Derrick Williams, Arizona: Like Leonard, Williams is probably a talent that you haven’t seen enough of this season. He’s a versatile, 6’8″ forward that can score from any where on the floor. He’s been good enough this season to warrant consideration as the No. 1 overall pick come June. And he’ll be a nightmare for the Plumlees to cover.
- Nolan Smith, Duke: I fully expect Kyrie Irving to be back to full strength by the time the Sweet 16 games come around, which puts Smith in an awkward position. Will the senior that has become the team’s leader, star, and is a national player of the year candidate and defending champion be willing to play second fiddle to a freshman with seven games experience?
Coach under pressure: Jim Calhoun
The coach isn’t going to be under pressure as much as the team is. The Big East sent 11 schools to the NCAA Tournament. All but two of them have been eliminated. The other one? No. 11 seed Marquette, playing in the toughest region left. Its too much to say that the fate of the Big East is riding on UConn’s shoulders. But it isn’t too much to say that the Huskies are the conference’s only hope to make the Final Four.
Outcome: Duke is the favorite to reach the Final Four out of this region. But that doesn’t mean that they are going to have an easy road. Derrick Williams will be a matchup nightmare for the Plumlees or Ryan Kelly or Kyle Singler or whoever they end up putting on him. San Diego State’s front line will be even more difficult for Duke to matchup with. Billy White, Kawhi Leonard, and Malcolm Thomas are just that much more physical than Duke’s. Alex Oriakhi is a horse in the paint, and Duke has had issues with players of his ilk this season.
So much of what happens will depend on which Kyrie Irving we see. That said, my money is going to be on the winner of the San Diego State-UConn game.