The Sweet 16 will kick off on Thursday, and the beautiful thing about the final four rounds of this year’s NCAA tournament is that we are guaranteed to have 15 games that will feature dynamite matchups.
There’s an argument to be made that the top 15 teams in the country are still alive, with the 16th being the hottest team in all of college basketball.
With that in mind, we are going to dive into every team left, region by region, and give you the biggest question that needs to be answered if they are going to have a chance to win the national title.
We covered the South here, the West here and the East here. Last up, we have the Midwest.
NORTH CAROLINA: So about Nassir Little …
At this point, we just about know everything that North Carolina has to offer.
Coby White is going to spend his evenings attacking in transition as quickly as he is physically capable of doing. Cam Johnson is going to shoot and shoot and shoot. Luke Maye may not be having his best season as a Tar Heel, but he’s struggling and still averaging 14.9 points and 10.6 boards while pulling defenses out of the lane because of the threat of his ability to shoot. We know what Kenny Williams is. We know what Garrison Brooks is. We know all about UNC’s bench … for the most part.
The guy that has been the enigma all season long has been Nassir Little, but over the course of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, he played his best back-to-back games of the season, averaging 19.5 points. Now if we’re being fair, part of that production was a by-product of the matchup. Iona wanted to run and Washington played a zone. Both of those styles are exploitable for a super-athletic 6-foot-7 forward who plays in an impressive motor.
The matchup against Auburn is similarly beneficial for Little, and I don’t think it’s crazy to say that Little getting into a rhythm for the last two weeks of the season totally changes what UNC’s ceiling can be.
KENTUCKY: What’s up with P.J. Washington?
I’ve made this point before, and I’ll make it again right here: The reason that Kentucky went from being a team that had the potential to be a top six team in America to actually being a top six team in America came during the six-week stretch where P.J. Washington turned into a monster.
And in case you haven’t heard, Washington spent the first weekend of the tournament in a cast. Not a soft cast. Not a boot. Not even an elaborate brace. An actual hard cast:
P.J. added some fuel to the fire on Wednesday when he posted a video clip of himself walking without the cast on, which is not entirely unexpected, but the question still remains: Just how healthy is he? Going from needing a hard cast for an injury on your foot to playing at the level required to be a contributor for a team battling the likes of Houston, North Carolina and Auburn in a matter of days is a big ask.
And if he’s not totally healthy, is it worth it to risk further injury for a kid with lottery pick potential?
And if it is, will be capable of performing up to the level that we have come to expect?
We won’t actually have answers to any of these questions until the games tip off on Friday night.
HOUSTON: Are the Cougars good enough to beat the big boys?
Before I dive into this fully, let me just say this: The Cougars are a really good basketball team. Kelvin Sampson is a really good coach. It’s not a fluke that they are sitting here at 33-3 in the Sweet 16.
That said, they haven’t exactly played the toughest schedule. They beat LSU at home by six points earlier this season, but that is far and away their best win. Knocking off Oregon when Oregon was still bad is not all that impressive. Sweeping Cincinnati and picking off UCF in Orlando is solid, but neither of those teams made it out of the first weekend of the tournament. What else have they done that would ‘wow’ you? Beating Utah State? Or Ohio State?
My point isn’t to say that Houston can’t go out and win two games against the teams that are left in the Midwest Region, rather that we have yet to see them do it.
And part of my concern is that the level of talent on this Houston roster just isn’t commensurate with the rest of the teams in their section of the bracket. Houston doesn’t have a pro on their roster. They have a slew of really good, tough, veteran guards, but is that going to be enough when Kentucky has a bunch of first round picks manning their perimeter? As good as Houston’s frontcourt as a whole has been, this is still a group where the whole is much great than the sum of the parts. Will that be enough against Kentucky when Kentucky is firing on all cylinders?
AUBURN: What happens when the transition game isn’t their best option?
The way that Auburn wants to play under head coach Bruce Pearl is not all that dissimilar from what Shaka Smart was trying to do at VCU during the Havoc years. They are going to pressure teams, they are going to gamble for steals, they are going to sacrifice from second chance points for leak-outs and they are going to do everything they can to turn defense into offense.
Auburn leads the nation in defensive turnover percentage and steal percentage. They play at one of the fastest tempos in the sport. Their goal is to get a stop, get out in transition and get a quick three up from the likes of Bryce Brown, Jared Harper or Malik Dunbar.
But what happens when Auburn is forced out of their transition game?
Or, as is the case against North Carolina, playing as fast as possible is not necessarily the optimal way to play?
Can Auburn win a game where they have to rely on executing in the halfcourt?
Because that may end up being this case this weekend.