The East Region is going to give us what is probably the best matchup of the Sweet 16. North Carolina and Indiana are two blueblood, powerhouse programs that would be the favorite to get to the Final Four should they win this game. The Tar Heels have been the favorite all season and are peaking at the right time, while Indiana fans may love this team as much as any in recent years given their improvement and what the expectations were for them as recently as December.
The one downside to this region? The best game is going to be played on Friday night.
- Is this the last time that we’ll see Roy Williams in the Sweet 16?: North Carolina has an NCAA Investigation hanging over its head. Roy Williams is old, he’s got bad knees and he’s been battling vertigo for years. He’s got a team that can legitimately win a national title. If he does, is there a better way to ride off into the sunset? I don’t know if it is going to happen. But it is going to be something that is talked about.
- Can Tom Crean actually get Indiana through the Sweet 16?: Tom Crean changed the way that he is viewed by Indiana fans when a win over Kentucky in the second round of this NCAA tournament. No longer is he the coach of a team that couldn’t find a way to guard anyone in December. He’s the coach of a Big Ten champion that beat the biggest thorn in the Hoosier side en route to Philly. This is now the third time he’s been this far in the tournament since he’s been in Bloomington. It’s the furthest he’s been in the tournament with a team that didn’t have Dwyane Wade. Does that qualify as a monkey on his back?
- Is the UNC-Indiana winner the region winner?: Let’s call it like it is: North Carolina and Indiana are hands-down the two best teams in his region. Beyond the whole talent angle, both Notre Dame and Wisconsin are probably lucky to be where they are right now. The Irish beat Stephen F. Austin on the back of a fluky tip-in at the buzzer by a kid that hadn’t made a shot all postseason, and Wisconsin needed a pair of threes and a questionable charge call in the final 15 seconds in order to get past Xavier. It will be interesting to see what the line is on the Elite 8 game in the East.
WHY THEY’LL GET TO THE FINAL FOUR
No. 1 North Carolina: There may not be a team in the country with a higher ceiling that North Carolina. When they’re hitting their threes — they have been the last two weeks — and when they’re playing defense the way that they have since the start of the ACC tournament, they could every well be the best team in college basketball.
No. 5 Indiana: The Hoosiers may have the best player in the region in Yogi Ferrell. And if he’s not the best, he’s arguably the most-capable of putting a team on his back and carrying them to two wins. But there’s more to it than that: The Hoosiers are finally defending like a Big Ten champ, Troy Williams has been a nightmare in transition and O.G. Anunoby suddenly looks like a guy that is going to end up getting looked at heavily by NBA scouts. And that defensive improvement didn’t come at the expense of their ability to score or to play in transition. Indiana is a dangerous team.
No. 6 Notre Dame: There are a couple things to like about this Notre Dame team: Demetrius Jackson can take a game over, Zach Auguste is a hoss in the paint, Steve Vasturia has developed into a pretty good shut-down defender. Throw in a roster full of guys that can shoot the heck out of the ball, and this is a group with a high ceiling that can beat good teams.
No. 7 Wisconsin: I honestly have no idea. I can’t figure out how Wisconsin turned their season around and earned a No. 7 seed, let alone how they managed to play their way into the Sweet 16. It almost feels like they’re playing with house money right now. But I will say this: Nigel Hayes — when he’s not trying to prove that he’s a jump-shooter — and Ethan Happ are a formidable front court duo while Bronson Koenig has proven that he is one of the best clutch-shooters in college basketball. Throw in a coach that has them running the Swing Offense well, and what you have is a team that has surprised us for two months straight. Why would they stop now?
BUT THIS IS WHY THEY WON’T
No. 7 Wisconsin: Nigel Hayes is supposedly the best player on this roster, and he’s shooting 36 percent from the floor and 29 percent from three on the season. It’s not like he’s taking over in the tournament, either. He’s 5-for-27 from the floor in two games. How many more good teams can they beat when Hayes plays that way?
No. 6 Notre Dame: The Irish needed a fluky late-game run and last-second shot to beat Stephen F. Austin. They barely got by a Michigan team playing without Caris LeVert. They lost by 31 to North Carolina in the ACC semifinals and needed a miraculous, 16-point comeback to beat Duke and get to the ACC semis. That’s their last four games. Why should we be impressed?
No. 5 Indiana: The major concern for this Indiana is getting past North Carolina, and the reason that is a concern is because of the size that the Tar Heels have on their roster. When Indiana has their best lineup on the floor, they have Troy Williams and O.G. Anunoby at the forward spots. One of them is going to be tasked with guarding Kennedy Meeks or Isaiah Hicks? That could get ugly, but …
No. 1 North Carolina: … the flip side of it is that Meeks, Hicks or Brice Johnson is going to be asked to guard one of them. My guess is that it will Anunoby, simply because Williams is far too dangerous in transition or slashing to the rim to risk him being guarded by a slow-footed big man. That is why …
- Power Forwards: … that particular matchup is so interesting. Will North Carolina’s size win out? Will Tom Crean be forced to play Max Biefeldt and Thomas Bryant together? Will the Tar Heels punish the offensive glass and prevent run outs? Or will Williams and Anunoby be able to hold their own well enough in the paint that they’ll be able to get out in transition and score with the floor spread? To me, whoever wins that matchup will win that game, and that, in turn, will be what gets them to the Final Four.
CBT PREDICTION: North Carolina gets past Indiana and steamrolls whoever they end up playing in the Elite 8.