The Sweet 16 kicks off tomorrow night with the South and West Region action beginning. Before we begin clipping the field down to the Final Four, we asked our stable of writers what they find most surprising heading into the tournament’s second weekend:
Raphielle Johnson: Full disclosure, I picked Baylor to reach the Sweet 16. I thought they matched up well with the Bluejays due to their length ans athleticism in the front court, but to win by 30? Even in prior losses this season when they didn’t hit threes, Creighton at least had a fighting chance. That wasn’t the case Sunday, with Baylor doing a very good job of identifying scorers and making sure those players were out of their comfort zones. The Bears have been hot, but the way in which they won stood out to me.
Rob Dauster: Kentucky finally put it all together. We’ve been waiting four months for the Wildcats to have the kind of performance they did when they handed No. 1 Wichita State their first loss since last season’s Final Four. The Harrison twins played like NBA-caliber guards, James Young hit a handful of big shots and Julius Randle went all-Julius Randle, finishing with 15 points, 10 boards and six assists. If this continues, if Kentucky can bring that kind of an effort for two more weeks, they can win a national title.
Three weeks ago, Kentucky lost to South Carolina. That’s wild to think about.
Matt Giles: Tennessee’s offense has looked unstoppable these past three games. Weeks after chatter emerged regarding the possibility of a coaching change in Knoxville, coach Cuonzo Martin has revitalized this already proficient offense. The Vols have never been a team to rely on three-point shooting, and true to form, the team is only taking one-third of their field goals from deep (and making just 22 percent), but UT’s scoring within the arc has completely overwhelmed their tourney opponents. The squad is converting a whopping 63 percent of their two-point field goals (posting an offensive efficiency rating of 1.26 points per possession), and when UT doesn’t connect from the field, they’re getting fouled: the team’s free throw rate is 53 percent, which means that UT has been wildly successful putting pressure on opponents and getting to the stripe (where the Vols are making 83 percent of their free throws). Jarnell Stokes and Jordan McRae, both nationally known, have played well, but the Vol to watch, should the team beat Michigan and then either Louisville or Kentucky, is Josh Richardson — the wing has taken 19 twos and made 90 percent of those attempts.
Terrence Payne: The bottom half of the South Region is the biggest surprise of the NCAA tournament so far, as its Elite 8 matchup is between No. 11 seed Dayton and No. 10 seed Stanford. The Flyers earned one of the final at-large bids, and made it to Memphis with an upset win over in-state opponent Ohio State, followed by another narrow victory over Syracuse. Stanford has had an equally surprising run to the Sweet 16. The Cardinal began the tournament against New Mexico, pegged as the dark horse to come out of the South. After sending the Lobos home early, the Cardinal sent Kansas (without Joel Embiid) back to Lawrence with a great defensive effort. Johnny Dawkins began the season on the hot seat. Fast forward five months later, and he’s got his Cardinal one win away from a berth in the Elite 8.
Scott Phillips: I fully believed that Kansas was susceptible to a Round of 32 loss without Joel Embiid — why can’t I quit you, New Mexico? — but I never expected Stanford to be the team to do it. I was in St. Louis on Sunday for the upset and the Cardinal were incredibly impressive, especially on the defensive end. To beat No. 2 seed Kansas without knocking down a three-pointer just shows how good of a game plan Johnny Dawkins had for his team and how well the entire team executed that plan despite going cold from the outside. If Stanford continues to defend like that, their shooting will only improve and their length and physicality could make them a dangerous potential Final Four team.