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.
First up, the South.
VIRGINIA: Are they mentally tough enough to win two more games?
Look, this is not going to stop being a thing until Virginia does what they need to do to ensure that it is no longer a thing.
Tony Bennett has had this thing rolling in Charlottesville for six years now. In the previous five NCAA tournament, there were four times that Virginia was a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed. In those seasons, they lost to:
- No. 4 seed Michigan State in the Sweet 16 in 2014.
- No. 7 seed Michigan State in the second round in 2015.
- No. 10 seed Syracuse in the Elite 8 in 2016, when they blew a 15 point lead in the final eight minutes.
And at this point, I think that it is pretty evident that this is a mental thing. If the meltdown against UMBC wasn’t enough to tip you off, then the way that Virginia started against Gardner-Webb in the first round this season — digging a 30-16 hole as they played about as scared as a team as good as Virginia can play — should have been all the proof that you needed.
At this point it is not about the opponent to me, not when the other three teams in their region are all beatable.
It’s about Virginia.
And their ability to handle the moment.
TENNESSEE: How good is Tennessee defensively?
Last year, with essentially this same group of guys, Tennessee finished the season as the No. 6 defense in KenPom’s rankings. This year, that is not the case. The Vols are hovering around the top 40 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. They go through stretches where it seems like they are coasting — frankly, this is a thing on both ends of the floor — and where this has been manifesting is with their ability to run teams off of the three-point line.
In Tennessee’s last six games, they have been lit up from the perimeter. They’re 4-2 in that stretch, which includes the two NCAA tournament games where they blew big leads. When Colgate erased a 15 point second half deficit to take the lead in the first round, they shot 15-for-29 from three. Iowa’s comeback was more a result of the Hawkeyes pounding the ball into the paint, where their bigs were able to go one-on-one because Tennessee didn’t want to leave shooters. Auburn shot 15-for-40 from three in their blowout win in the SEC title game.
I say all that to say this: Tennessee, who ranks 207th in defensive three-point percentage, is likely going to have to get through Purdue — who gets 39 percent of their points from beyond the arc this season — and Virginia — who is sixth-nationally in three-point percentage — to get to the Final Four.
PURDUE: Will we get Good Carsen or Bad Carsen?
The most impressive part about the coaching job that Matt Painter has done this season, the incredible thing about the fact that Purdue won a share of the Big Ten regular season title this year, is that all of this happened while Carsen Edwards was busy operating as a super-high usage and uber-low efficiency player. There were just nine players in college basketball this season that posted a higher usage rate that Edwards — putting that in context, R.J. Barrett wasn’t even all that close — but Edwards finished Big Ten play with an offensive rating of 100.0 (which is not good) while shooting 34 percent from the floor and 30 percent from three. In the four games before exploding for 42 points against Villanova, he shot 26.9 percent from the field. He was 4-for-24 at Indiana. He was 3-for-16 at Nebraska. He was 7-for-35 in two games against Michigan State.
And despite all of that, Purdue still finished the season with the fifth-best offense in the country and the second-best offense in the Big Ten, according to KenPom.
Point being, when Edwards struggles, Purdue is still really good.
But when he gets it going?
When he’s Good Carsen instead of Bad Carsen?
The Boilermakers are downright scary.
Should I mention that Tennessee has really struggled to guard on the perimeter since they lost to Auburn to close the regular season?
OREGON: Just how good are the Ducks?
Oregon might be the hottest team in college basketball right now. They’ve won ten straight games. Eight of those games have been either on the road or on a neutral court. They are in the Sweet 16 as a No. 12 seed, and they are playing precisely the brand of basketball that Dana Altman has become famous for: A talented lead guard surrounded by three big, athletic wings and one ridiculously athletic rim-protector in the middle.
(Let me take a victory lap here: I said before the season started that Oregon would be better playing Kenny Wooten at the five and not playing Bol Bol, and … well … here we are.)
But they haven’t really beaten anyone all that impressive during this run. Eight of the ten wins in this streak came against Pac-12 competition, and even those they won at Washington and beat Washington by 20 on a neutral court, it’s still a Washington team that lost to Cal. The win over Wisconsin is solid, but it seems silly to get too worked up over beating the fifth-beat team in the Big Ten.
Let me be clear here: I think that Oregon is legit, but there certainly is a possibility that all this success is simply a by-product of kicking the tail of everyone in a bad league and getting hot against a No. 5 seed at the right time.