Sweet 16 primer: Teams, times, outlooks, more

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Now’s the Sweet part.

We’re through the early madness of the men’s NCAA tournament and onto the regional semifinals, just two games away from the Final Four. Only four of last year’s Sweet 16 made it this season, which should make for a refreshing change of pace.

Kinda.

Duke, Butler, Ohio State and Kentucky are the repeaters, but Kansas, North Carolina, UConn and Arizona are hardly regional semifinal rookies. Still, there are some new faces.  San Diego State, VCU and Richmond have never been this far. BYU’s hasn’t made it here since 1981.

It’s not a powerhouse field by seed, either. With four double-digit seed and an average seed of 5, it’s just as “chalky” as last season.

Read on for a little more about each Sweet 16 team.

EAST REGION

No. 1 Ohio State Buckeyes

Record: 34-2
How it got here: Beat No. 16 Texas-San Antonio 75-46; beat No. 8 George Mason 98-66.
Last Sweet 16 appearance: 2010
Next up: No. 4 Kentucky

Essential info: The tournament’s top overall seed played like it the first week and then some. Ohio State hit 16 of 26 attempts from beyond the arc vs. George Mason and 12 of 24 vs. Texas San Antonio. Scoff at the competition if you like, but that’s 56 percent on 50 attempts. That’s absurd, no matter who the Buckeyes are playing. I’d be shocked if opponents allow them to shoot as many 3s the rest of the tournament. Ohio State’s unlikely to continue shooting like that, but even if it only makes 38 percent of those 3s, it’s still a dangerous team. Best take your chances with Jared Sullinger “only” getting 2 points inside.

Tip-off: 9:45 p.m. ET on Friday (TBS)

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No. 2 North Carolina Tar Heels.

Record: 28-7
How it got here: Beat No. 15 Long Island 102-87, No. 7 Washington 86-83.
Last Sweet 16 appearance: 2009
Next up: No. 11 Marquette

Essential info: The Heels’ frontcourt has filled up the box score – Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Harrison Barnes has scored 139 of UNC’s points in two games and grabbed 51 rebounds – but the play of point guard Kendall Marshall has been even more impressive. He was spectacular vs. Washington, scoring 13 points, dishing 14 assists and grabbing five rebounds, defying the conventional wisdom about freshmen in March. He’ll be looking for more of the same vs. Marquette as the Heels will have a size advantage inside. Henson, with his considerable reach, will be particularly vexing for the Eagles. 

Tip-off: 7:15 p.m. ET on Friday (CBS)

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No. 4 Kentucky Wildcats

Record: 27-8
How it got here: Beat No. 13 Princeton 59-57; beat No. 5 West Virginia 71-63.
Last Sweet 16 appearance: 2010
Next up: No. 1 Ohio State

Essential info: Brandon Knight’s doing his best to make Big Blue Nation forget John Wall. (Kidding. That’ll never happen.) He hit the game-winner vs. Princeton then dropped a career-high 30 vs. West Virginia. He wasn’t the only reason the Wildcats advanced (Jorts!) but was the main one. But to beat Ohio State, they’ll need Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb to boost their scoring (combined for 17 and 15 in two games) and for DeAndre Liggins to perform some defensive magic on the Buckeyes shooters. Of note: Kentucky can match Ohio State with talent and perimeter shooting. Will the post players keep up?

Tip-off: 9:45 p.m. ET on Friday (TBS)

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No. 11 Marquette Golden Eagles

Record: 22-14
How it got here: Beat No. 6 Xavier 66-55; beat No. 3 Syracuse 66-62.
Last Sweet 16 appearance: 2003
Next up: No. 2 North Carolina

Essential info: Those 14 losses? Ignore them. Marquette’s always been far better than its record indicates. Thirteen of those losses came to NCAA tournament teams and 11 were by single digits. Think your team got an unlucky bounce or two? The Eagles had more. Jimmy Butler and Darius Johnson-Odum are the main scoring threats, but anyone out on the floor can score and create shots for others. And for a team that doesn’t roll out a nasty defense, it sure looked nasty vs. Syracuse. The Orange committed 18 turnovers, mostly because Marquette was making them so uncomfortable. They’ll be able to run with the Tar Heels, but they won’t fall into any needless up-and-down exchanges. Marquette’s too smart for that. It just needs to hit its shots.

Tip-off: 7:15 p.m. ET on Friday (CBS)

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WEST REGION

No. 1 Duke Blue Devils

Record: 32-4
How it got here: Beat No. 16 Hampton 87-45; beat No. 8 Michigan 73-71.
Last Sweet 16 appearance: 2010
Next up: No. 5 Arizona

Essential info: The defending champs survived a second-round scare by Michigan, but is in an unusual position entering the Sweet 16. Freshman guard Kyrie Irving – who missed 26 games this season due to a toe injury – finally got back on the court for the Big Dance. He’s played 41 minutes in two games, scored 25 points and showed impressive quickness for a guy who sat out three months. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Irving will get even more time this week, which provides the Devils with yet another offensive weapon and a solid on-ball defender. But they still need senior Kyle Singler to find his shooting form.

Tip-off: 9:45 p.m. ET Thursday (CBS)

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No. 2 San Diego State Aztecs

Record: 34-2
How it got here: Beat No. 15 Northern Colorado 68-50; beat No. 7 Temple 71-64, 2 OTs.
Last Sweet 16 appearance: Never
Next up: No. 3 UConn

Essential info: The Aztecs’ historic season keeps getting better. They breezed to their first-ever NCAA tournament win, then turned in a classic vs. Temple to reach the Sweet 16. The athletic frontcourt frustrates opponents, the guards are steady and smart. It’s a tough, defensive minded team. All good things. But reaching the Final Four presents much more formidable challenges than reaching the Sweet 16. If the Aztecs get past UConn, they’ll face either Arizona or Duke, teams that thrive by hitting 3-pointers and grab defensive rebounds well. That’s a formula that’s burned SDSU twice this season.

Tip-off: 7:15 p.m. ET Thursday (CBS)

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No. 3 Connecticut Huskies

Record: 28-9
How it got here: Beat No. 14 Bucknell 81-52; beat No. 6 Cincinnati 69-58.
Last Sweet 16 appearance: 2009
Next up: No. 2 San Diego State

Essential info: Kemba Walker’s on his game. He nearly put up a triple-double vs. Bucknell and dumped 33 on Cincy. He’s one of the few players left in the tournament who can win a game by himself, but he’s even better when the rest of the Huskies come to play. Guard Jeremy Lamb’s only missed five shots in two games – and has 30 points to show for it. The Aztecs will almost certainly use guard D.J. Gay on Walker at first, but if he struggles  6-7 Kawhi Leonard could switch over.) Leonard was effective in limiting Jimmer Fredette earlier this season.) They can’t stop Walker from getting his points, but they can make him work for it. That happens, Lamb becomes crucial.

Tip-off: 7:15 p.m. ET on Thursday (CBS)

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No. 5 Arizona Wildcats 

Record: 29-7
How it got here: Beat No. 12 Memphis 77-75; beat No. 4 Texas 70-69.
Last Sweet 16 appearance: 2009
Next up: No. 1 Duke.

Essential info: Two games, two last-second victories. That’s the Wildcats’ tournament thus far. The first came off a Derrick Williams’ game-saving block, while the other saw Williams make a 3-point play in the final seconds vs. Texas. Some might call that lucky. They wouldn’t be wrong. But give some credit to Arizona for shrugging off a sub-par performance from their star (Williams) by getting 16 points from both Solomon Hill and Jordin Mayes and making 8 of 14 3-point attempts. They’ll need that kind of production against the Blue Devils, who will be aggressive on defense and try to force Kyle Fogg and Momo Jones into turnovers.

Tip-off: 9:45 p.m. ET Thursday (CBS)

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SOUTHEAST REGION

No. 2 Florida Gators

Record: 28-7
How it got here: Beat No. 15 UC Santa Barbara 79-51; beat No. 7 UCLA 73-65.
Last Sweet 16 appearance: 2007
Next up: No. 3 BYU

Essential info: The Gators drove into the Sweet 16 thanks to their aggressive guards, Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton, who made their shots and were too much for the UCLA defense to handle. That hasn’t been true all season, but it’s worked lately. Expect more of the same when the Gators match up with BYU. The Cougars can’t match the Gators’ athleticism, but they’ll happily run and shoot with Florida. That means Boynton and Walker, two average shooters, will be tasked with maintaining their hot shooting from the first two rounds. If that fails, Florida’s not toast because of its balance – and the chance for some revenge on BYU. That’s some powerful motivation.

Tip-off: 7:27 p.m. ET on Thursday (TBS)

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No. 3 BYU Cougars

Record: 32-4
How it got here: Beat No. 14 Wofford 74-66; beat No. 11 Gonzaga 89-67.
Last Sweet 16 appearance: 1981
Next up: No. 2 Florida

Essential info: Florida better be ready to guard the perimeter. BYU will come out shooting. Question is, will they connect? Ever since center Brandon Davies was dismissed from the team, the Cougars have attempted roughly two more 3-pointers per game (about 25), but are making just 32 percent of those attempts. With Davies, it was nearly 38. It’s not that they’re a one-dimensional team, it’s that defenses can afford to creep toward the arc more often. It worked vs. Gonzaga when BYU hit 14 of 28. Will the Gators have more success? About the only certainty is that BYU senior Jimmer Fredette will get his. He’s gone for at least 30 points in six of the seven games without Davies.

Tip-off: 7:27 p.m. ET on Thursday (TBS)

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No. 4 Wisconsin Badgers

Record: 25-8
How it got here: Beat No. 13 Belmont 72-58; beat No. 5 Kansas State 70-65.
Last Sweet 16 appearance: 2008
Next up: No. 8 Butler

Essential info: Jon Leuer (41 points in two games) and Jordan Taylor (33 points) get the headlines, and rightly so. Most of Wisconsin’s offensive sets rely on those two making shots, but it’s possible to win if they struggle. Ask K-State. Taylor missed 14 of 16 shots and Leuer missed six of his 12 attempts. The rest of the team went 13 of 22. That’s how it goes with Bo Ryan’s team, which prizes high-percentage shots or 3-pointers in order to maximize points on every possession. It’s close to the same offense Butler runs, with some variations and slightly more athletic players. Can the Badgers run it better?

Tip-off: 9:57 p.m. ET on Thursday (TBS)

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No. 8 Butler Bulldogs

Record: 25-9
How it got here: Beat No. 9 Old Dominion 60-58; beat No. 1 Pitt 71-70.
Last Sweet 16 appearance: 2010
Next up: No. 4 Wisconsin

Essential info: Last year’s Cinderella team is back for another Final Four run. The Bulldogs won two games in the final second, one on a layup, the other on a free throw. Chalk it up to business as usual for Brad Stevens’ team, which won four of its five NCAA tournament games last season by an average of three points. This version doesn’t have a Gordon Hayward, who was a matchup nightmare for opponents, does everything else. It doesn’t turn the ball over, grabs every defensive rebound and is a solid 3-pooint shooting team. It’ll face a Wisconsin team that emphasizes many of those same qualities and plays at the same deliberate pace. Butler will be in the game. Only question is if it’ll come down to the last second again.

Tip-off: 9:57 p.m. ET on Thursday (TBS)

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SOUTHWEST REGION

No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks

Record: 34-2
How it got here: Beat No. 16 Boston 72-53; beat No. 9 Illinois 73-59.
Last Sweet 16 appearance: 2009
Next up: No. 12 Richmond.

Essential info: Check out the remaining teams in the Jayhawks’ region. If that looks favorable for a Final Four run, that’s because it is. (In ’08, Kansas played teams seeded 16, 8, 12 and 10 en route to the Final Four.) Look at it two ways: Bill Self’s squad can punch its ticket to Houston by beating inferior teams or it’ll face more pressure than ever because of those teams. Provided the Jayhawks stay motivated, expect more of the same of what’s worked thus far – getting the ball to Marcus and Markieff Morris inside. They’ve combined for 72 points and 41 rebounds in two games.

Tip-off: 7:27 p.m. Friday (TBS)

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No. 10 Florida State Seminoles

Record: 23-10
How it got here: Beat No. 7 Texas A&M 57-50; beat No. 2 Notre Dame 71-57
Last Sweet 16 appearance: 1993
Next up: No. 11 VCU.

Essential info: Florida State makes one of the oldest clichés around come true: defense wins games. The nation’s most efficient defense was on full display in their tourney wins. A&M isn’t an offensive powerhouse, but Notre Dame is one of the nation’s best shooting teams – and it made barely 30 percent of its shots. Considering that 6-9 forward Chris Singleton – the team’s best player and atop defender – only played 10 minutes due to health issues, it’s even more impressive. Question is, will the ‘Noles’ continue their run of solid offense? That’s back-to-back games where they’ve surpassed their usual shooting standards.

Tip-off: 9:57 p.m. Friday (TBS)

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No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth Rams

Record: 26-11
How it got here: Beat No. 11 USC 59-46; beat No. 6 Georgetown 74-56; beat No. 3 Purdue 94-76.
Last Sweet 16 appearance: Never
Next up: No. 10 Florida State.

Essential info: You win three games, you’re usually in the Elite Eight. Not so with the Rams. But hey, they’re in the Sweet 16 for the first time, so they’re not complaining. If anything, they’ve only gotten better as the tournament’s progressed. They dished 26 assists, had just four turnovers and hit eight 3-pointers vs. the Boilermakers. They’ve always boasted an efficient offense – especially when it comes to taking care of the ball – but that was impressive against a proud defense. Hope they’re ready for more. FSU’s even better on defense than Purdue, especially at challenging shots and forcing turnovers. But the Rams’ guards have handled that pressure thus far.

Tip-off: 9:57 p.m. Friday (TBS)

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No. 12 Richmond Spiders

Record: 29-7
How it got here: Beat No. 5 Vanderbilt 69-66; beat No. 13 Morehead State 68-48.
Last Sweet 16 appearance: 1988
Next up: No. 1 Kansas.

Essential info: The Spiders rode their two stars (Justin Harper and Kevin Anderson) and a zone defense to the Sweet 16. Especially that zone. It created enough issues for Morehead’s inside-outside combo of Kenneth Faried and Demonte Harper that Richmond breezed into the Sweet 16. Vanderbilt’s shooters were only slightly more effective against it, but only a little bit. That zone will be the key vs. the Jayhawks, too. Kansas thrives when facing man-to-man defense, but has issues when zoned because it lacks a guy who can penetrate the zone consistently, then find open teammates.

Tip-off: 7:27 p.m. Friday (TBS)

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