Ranking the Sweet 16 games

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A quiet first round of the NCAA tournament gave way to a second round that got just a little too out of control.

Particularly in the East Region.

It’s a bit of a snoozer in Madison Square Garden this weekend. But everywhere else, things are going to get a little crazy for the Sweet 16 and the Elite 8:

8. No. 3 Baylor vs. No. 7 South Carolina (East): With all due respect to South Carolina and Baylor, this game just doesn’t do it for me. The Bears play a grind-it-out style offensively, hammering the ball into Johnathan Motley in the post, that is effective but isn’t exactly the most aesthetically pleasing way to play. And South Carolina? They were a train wreck on the offensive end of the floor for the final month of the regular season before somehow averaging 90.5 points through two games during the first weekend. I’d expect the Gamecocks to come back to earth on that end, but that won’t make them any easier to score against. My advice: bet the under.

7. No. 4 Florida vs. No. 8 Wisconsin (East): The intrigue here is the clash of styles. The Badgers want to slow the pace down, pound the ball into Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ and crash the offensive glass. Florida wants to speed the game up, force some turnovers and get their talented perimeter players into beneficial matchups. Here’s the thing that should worry you as an impartial observer: Florida is the third-best defensive in the country, according to KenPom. Wisconsin is the seventh. Neither of them are in the top 25 in offensive efficiency. This probably won’t be all that pretty.

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6. No. 2 Arizona vs. No. 11 Xavier (West): The story line is more enticing than the game itself. Sean Miller used to be the head coach at Xavier. His assistant was Chris Mack, who is now the head coach at Xavier. They’re still close, neither has been to a Final Four and it’s very possible that whoever wins this game will break that streak. That’s heavy. The game itself, however, is weird. Xavier looked like they were done late in the season, then somehow managed to put together one of the fiercest tail-whippings that we’ve seen in this year’s tournament, a 25-point beatdown of Florida State. The Musketeers are without Myles Davis and Edmond Sumner, who were two of their three most important players entering the season. Can the streak continue?

5. No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 4 Butler (South): Butler has turned into something of a Cinderella in their region. That’s what happens when you’re the Big East team trying to escape the South, which also includes three of the biggest brands in college athletics. The Bulldogs are no pushover, however, as they swept Villanova and own wins over two Sweet 16 teams — Arizona and Xavier twice. UNC, for my money, is arguably the best team left in the field. They have the horses inside, they are the nation’s best offensive rebounding team and they can rely on Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson to carry them on the perimeter. With Theo Pinson healthy, they also happen to have one of the nation’s best shutdown defenders, who will likely give Kelan Martin fits. This should be a fun one.

4. No. 3 Oregon vs. No. 7 Michigan (Midwest): What I love about this matchup is the way both teams play. Oregon is small-ball through and through with Chris Boucher out of the lineup, running Dillon Brooks out there at the four and spreading the floor as much as they possibly can. Michigan spreads things out as well, but they also happen to have to 6-foot-10 front court players in D.J. Wilson and Mo Wagner who can play out on the perimeter. This is a quintessential John Beilein roster, and ever since the middle of the season, Derrick Walton Jr. hs been as good as any point guard in the country. I think this game comes down to the battle at the four-spot. Does Brooks for Michigan to go small, or can Wilson handle chasing him around?

(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

3. No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 4 Purdue (Midwest): Let’s start with the obvious here: This is a battle between the two front runners for National Player of the Year. You have everyone’s pick in Frank Mason III, who has been sensational all season long and seems to be the favorite to win the award, and you have Caleb Swanigan, who is putting up Tim Duncan-esque numbers for the Boilermakers. Obviously, those two aren’t going to be guarding each other, and that’s where this game gets even more intriguing. Kansas has one big man on their roster worth his 6-foot-11 frame and that’s Landen Lucas. They play Josh Jackson, who will likely be a two-guard in the NBA, at the four. Purdue has the biggest, most physical front line in the country, and between Swanigan and Isaac Haas, they draw 14.3 fouls per 40 minutes combined. Will Lucas be able to stay on the floor? Will Jackson? This is a more dangerous matchup for Kansas than I think people realize.

2. No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 4 West Virginia (West): Oh, this is going to be so good. Let’s talk about Press Virginia first. They come at you in waves. They play as hard as anyone, they trap, they foul and they make life difficult for whoever is trying to get the ball over half court. Gonzaga, on the other hand, does not have the most athletic back court. Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins have both had really good years, but both of them tend to struggle against quicker, stronger and more physical players. That’s what West Virginia has in boat loads. That said, the way for West Virginia to get into their press is to score, and, believe it or not, Gonzaga currently has the No. 1 defense in the country, according to KenPom. If they keep the Mountaineers from putting the ball in the basket, they keep them from being able to get that pressure rolling. Gonzaga also has a distinct size advantage inside. Let’s see if that pays off, and let’s see if Mark Few will have a chance to play for his first career Final Four.

1. No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 3 UCLA (South): Where do I even start? De’Aaron Fox vs. Lonzo Ball? Malik Monk vs. whoever tries to slow him down? A rematch from December’s thriller in Lexington? The Steve Alford-to-Indiana rumors? John Calipari’s return to Memphis? The bottom-line is this: these are two of the four best teams left in the field, both of whom can win a National Title. This is a Final Four-caliber matchup in the Sweet 16. This is the kind of game that you do not want to miss. I’m not sure how else I can put it.

Gardner, Beekman lift No. 8 Virginia past No. 22 N.C. State

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Virginia coach Tony Bennett had a simple message for his team after a poor defensive performance in a loss at Virginia Tech.

“Talk is cheap. Do it. Show us, to our players, to us as a staff, show up, work in practice, step to between the lines and don’t lose yourself in anything but what your job is,” Bennett said he told his players and assistants in the two days of practice since the 74-68 loss.

The team clearly got the message.

Jayden Gardner scored 18 points, Reece Beekman added 15 and No. 8 Virginia cooled off red-hot No. 22 North Carolina State 63-50 on Tuesday night.

“We had a great two days before State, you know, preparation and just diving in,” Gardner said. “It’s just this is the time of the season we need to lock in and you know, we’re playing for something. … We’re trying to win a championship.”

The Cavaliers (18-4, 10-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) handed the Wolfpack (19-6, 9-5) their second loss in 10 games and moved into a share of first place in the conference with Clemson and Pittsburgh.

The Wolfpack arrived leading the ACC with an average of 79.6 points and were 19-2 when scoring at least 70, but became the 38th consecutive league opponent held below 70 points at John Paul Jones Arena.

“Obviously, as I watched the Virginia Tech game and knew that those guys dropped the game and, you know, any time you’re going to play a very good defensive team on their home floor, you know you’re going to get that energy,” North Carolina State coach Kevin Keatts said.

Terquavion Smith led N.C. State with 19 points and Casey Morsell, who spent his first two seasons at Virginia and was jeered nearly every time he touched the ball in his first game back, had 18 points before fouling out in the final minute.

Jarkel Joiner, the Wolfpack’s No. 2 scorer at 16.2 points per game, missed 12 of his 14 shots and scored five points. D.J. Burns Jr. (eight points) was the only other Wolfpack player to score.

Reserve forward Kadin Shedrick, who did not play in Virginia’s loss at Virginia Tech on Saturday, had 10 points and six rebounds for the Cavaliers.

Virginia scored the first six points of the second half to open its largest lead at 40-20, but the Wolfpack began whittling away, fueled by a 12-6 burst in which Smith and Morsell each hit a pair of 3-pointers.

“In the past, we’ve been able to control the tempo and to get those guys to play a little bit faster and even turn them over,” said Keatts, whose team had won three of the last four meetings. “But we couldn’t.”

N.C. State twice closed within nine points but got no closer. Morsell’s 3 made it 55-46 with 3:46 to play, but Beekman made a free throw and then took a no-look pass from Kihei Clark for an easy backdoor layup.

Virginia closed the first half on an 8-2 run to lead 34-20 at the break. The Wolfpack missed 10 straight shots before Burns scored just before the half.

BIG PICTURE

N.C. State: The Wolfpack got scoring from just three players – Smith with nine points, Morsell with seven and Burns with four – in the opening half. They shot 25.8% with Smith going 4 for 13 and Joiner 0 for 6. … Burns picked up his third personal foul less than a minute into the second half after getting the ball stolen by Beekman. He stayed in the game and drew his fourth foul on a drive by Clark with 16:03 left.

Virginia: Beekman started the game ranking first in the ACC in assist/turnover ratio (3.0) and third in assists (5.1). He had four assists and one turnover. Clark started first in assists (6.0) and second in assist/turnover ratio (2.8). He had six assists and three turnovers.

UP NEXT

N.C. State: At Boston College on Saturday.

Virginia: Hosts Duke on Saturday.

Michigan St. rallies to win after giving up lead to Maryland

Maryland v Michigan State
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EAST LANSING, Mich. – Joey Hauser scored 20 points and Tyson Walker had 17 and Michigan State rallied after scoring the game’s first 15 points to beat Maryland 63-58 on Tuesday.

A.J. Hoggard had 10 rebounds and eight assists for Michigan State.

Jahmir Young scored 17 points for Maryland, Hakim Hart 12, Julian Reese 11 and Donta Scott 10 for the Terrapins.

The Spartans (15-9, 7-6 Big Ten) used an 8-0 run in which Walker made a layup and 3-pointer wrapped around a 3 from Jaden Akins for a 52-48 lead with 7:44 remaining and Michigan State led for the remainder.

The Terrapins erupted for a 12-0 run in less than three minutes in the second half turning a 38-26 deficit into a 38-all tie. Young and Hart posted back-to-back three-point plays, and Hart’s 3-pointer with 13:01 knotted it at 38. Prior to that 3, Hart was 3-for-last-27 shooting from beyond the arc. Maryland finished shooting 3 of 22 from distance.

Michigan State started the game with a 15-0 run and led 31-22 at halftime. Coming off an 81-46 win over Maryland (16-8, 7-6 Big Ten) on Saturday, the Terrapins have yet to win back-to-back contests in almost three years.

The Terrapins host Penn State on Saturday. Michigan State travels to play Ohio State on Sunday.

Arkansas pulls away from Kentucky in 2nd half, wins 88-73

Arkansas v Kentucky
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LEXINGTON, Ky. – Ricky Council IV scored 20 points, Anthony Black had 19 and Arkansas used a blazing second half to pull away and beat Kentucky 88-73 on Tuesday night, giving coach Eric Musselman his 200th collegiate victory.

Black added five assists and five steals. Makhel Mitchell and Davonte Davis scored 15 points each and Jordan Walsh 13 for the Razorbacks (17-7, 6-5 SEC) who have won five straight conference games, including three in a row. It was Arkansas’ third straight win over the Wildcats (16-8, 7-4). The teams meet again in Fayetteville in a regular-season finale on March 4.

Cason Wallace scored 24 points to lead Kentucky, which had won six straight conference games. Chris Livingston added 13 points and Jacob Toppin and Antonio Reeves 11 each.

After a first half with 11 lead changes, there were none in the second when Arkansas shot 72% and Council and Black combined for 25 points.

Three steals, including two by Black who turned them into consecutive dunks, fueled an 11-3 run to begin the second half for a 52-43 lead. A basket by Black made it a double-digit lead with eight minutes left as the Razorbacks sank 7 of 9 over that span to finish the game. They made 8 of 10 free throws over the final two minutes.

Kentucky coach John Calipari was given a technical foul with 33 seconds left in the first half. Black sank the resulting free throws for a three-point lead before Daimion Collins’ midrange jumper made it 41-40 at halftime.

Both teams shot over 50% in the first half with Wallace leading all scorers with 11 points. Kentucky dipped under 50% for the game while Arkansas finished at 63% and outscored the Wildcats 46-28 in the paint.

Arkansas is home against Mississippi State and Kentucky is at Georgia, both games on Saturday.

Tulane secures 101-94 OT win over Cincinnati

Andrew Wevers-USA TODAY Sports
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NEW ORLEANS – Kevin Cross and Jalen Cook scored 27 points each as Tulane took down Cincinnati 101-94 in overtime on Tuesday night.

Cross added 15 rebounds and six assists for the Green Wave (16-7, 9-3 American Athletic Conference). Cook added 14 assists. Jaylen Forbes scored 24 points and shot 6 for 15 (3 for 6 from 3-point range) and 9 of 9 from the free throw line.

Landers Nolley II finished with 26 points, eight rebounds and four assists for the Bearcats (16-9, 7-5). Ody Oguama added 16 points and 13 rebounds for Cincinnati. In addition, David Dejulius finished with 12 points, eight assists and three steals.

Tulane entered halftime down 37-28. Cross paced the team in scoring in the first half with 10 points. Forbes scored 18 second-half points and hit the game-tying 3-pointer with 1:02 remaining in regulation to send the game to overtime.

Tulane scored seven unanswered points to break a tie and lead with 42 seconds left in overtime.

No. 16 Oklahoma women take 1st lead in OT, rally past Baylor

Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman
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WACO, Texas – Ana Llanusa and Skylar Vann each scored 20 points and No. 16 Oklahoma took its first lead of the game in overtime before rallying past Baylor 98-92 on Tuesday night.

The Sooners trailed for 39 minutes in regulation and were down 75-63 with 5:19 left in regulation.

Baylor turned it over twice on inbounds plays in the closing seconds of regulation and Taylor Robertson tied at 83-all on a wide-open 3-pointer with 14 seconds left.

Llanusa started overtime with a 3-pointer, and she finished with eight points during the extra session. Baylor never led in overtime, shooting 2 of 6.

Robertson, who tied Danielle Robinson’s program record of 140 starts, finished with 14 points and three 3s for Oklahoma (19-4, 9-3 Big 12), which trails Texas (18-6, 9-2) in the hunt for its first conference title since 2009. Nevaeh Tot added 13 points, Liz Scott added 11 points and eight rebounds and Madi Williams had nine points, 10 rebounds and four assists.

The Sooners, the nation’s No. 3 scoring offense at 86.5 points per game, have scored at least 88 points 14 times this season, seven in conference.

Caitlin Bickle scored a career-high 30 points with four 3s and Sarah Andrews added 20 points for Baylor (16-7, 7-4). Freshman Darianna Littlepage-Buggs had 14 points and 17 rebounds and Ja’Mee Asberry scored 11. Jaden Owens had 14 of Baylor’s 25 assists on 32 field goals.

Bickle was 8 of 11 from the field, including 4 of 7 from distance, and Littlepage-Buggs recorded her sixth double-double in the last seven games.

It was the first time in 20 years the Sooners were ranked in game against an unranked Bears squad. Oklahoma continues its road trip at Kansas State on Sunday. Baylor plays at Oklahoma State on Saturday.