How sweet it is to still be relevant in late March.
Welcome to the Sweet 16. Of course, no game is more important than the first one that tips off in Madison Square Garden on Friday evening but I have previewed the other seven for your reading and viewing pleasure, ranking them in order of quality.
No, Arizona and San Diego State is not going to be eye candy of any kind, but you should watch it anyway. To the games…
1. (3) Iowa State vs. (7) Connecticut | Friday, 6:27 p.m. | My pick: Iowa State, 75-72
As incredible as this season has been for ISU, there’s no need to complain about what’s fair and what’s not. But the fact that this game is a stone’s throw from Storrs is just a tad bit sucky. Still, this is a matchup that bodes well for the Cyclones, with or without Georges Niang. UConn has four guys who get regular minutes that are taller anyone on the court for ISU, yet they still don’t rebound particularly well. Pulling a raw seven-footer in Amida Brimah away from the basket often and containing Shabazz Napier will be the two biggest keys in this one. Capitalize on that, control the glass and Iowa State should have one more game in MSG.
2. (2) Michigan vs. (11) Tennessee | Friday, 6:15 p.m. | My pick: Tennessee, 71-68
This is a Volunteer team that scored 59 and 49 points in two SEC Tournament games yet is averaging 82 thus far in the NCAA Tournament. Michigan does not win games defensively nor will they beat you up in the interior — neither quality being particularly conducive to handling this Tennessee team. They are scorching, much like the VCU team that carved up everyone in its path en route to the Final Four as one of the "last four in" in 2011. In the end this will come down to Michigan’s finesse vs. the Vols’ physicality, and I tend to lean toward the latter. You won’t find a much better matchup Friday than Jordan McRea vs. Nik Stauskas.
3. (2) Wisconsin vs. (6) Baylor | Thursday, 6:47 p.m. | My pick: Wisconsin, 71-67
Take absolutely nothing away from what Scott Drew and the Bears have accomplished in the tournament thus far — it’s tough find a hotter team anywhere. But they have faced both a maligned Nebraska offense and an invisible Creighton defense up to this point. The Badgers are a far more balanced squad with an entire lineup of guys that can beat you from any spot on the floor, from Frank Kaminsky down to Traevon Jackson. What I think will ultimately hurt Baylor is their inability to defend the 3-point shot (243rd nationally), and Wisconsin is hitting 10 of them a game in postseason play.
4. (1) Virginia vs. (4) Michigan State | Friday, 8:57 p.m. | My pick: Michigan State, 65-61
I don’t remember the last time we saw a 1-seed as much of a perceived underdog as Virginia is in this game. If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: Michigan State is finally healthy and clicking at the right time. The individual matchups in this game are phenomenal, but Sparty’s team defense will be the key. At 347th nationally in tempo and 20th in offensive efficiency, UVA basically plays a chess match in their half court sets — and they’re good at it. Tom Izzo has never gone without taking group of four-year players to the Final Four, and I don’t see that trend being bucked this year with Adreian Payne and Keith Appling.
5. (4) Louisville vs. (8) Kentucky | Friday, 8:45 p.m. | My pick: Louisville, 72-67
The selection committee knew what it was doing. Throw Wichita State in the "Midwest" to make them feel good, load it up with both teams from last year’s title game and make them play Kentucky in the Round of 32. You saw this coming. Pitino vs. Calipari. Red vs. Blue. "Right way" vs. "wrong way," if you so choose. Simply, Louisville’s ability to force turnovers, defend the perimeter (2nd nationally in both departments) and their experience should be enough to control this game. The Cardinals have lost once since January.
6. (1) Florida vs. (4) UCLA | Thursday, 8:45 p.m. | My pick: Florida, 74-68
Florida is putting teams away at an alarming rate, now boasting a 28-game winning streak (and 33 of their last 34). Incredible. Nothing is more critical than the Gators defense in this one. At 20.2 seconds per, Florida forces the second-longest possessions in the entire country, rendering opponents ineffective in the half court. UCLA doesn’t shoot a ton of threes so if they fail to get penetration (a likely fate facing Patric Young) and settle for perimeter looks, expect the Gators to notch another sub-65-point defensive performance, something they’ve accomplished in nine straight games.
7. (10) Stanford vs. (11) Dayton | Thursday, 7:15 p.m. | My pick: Stanford, 75-69
I thought I would have a chance to be in Palo Alto for tipoff of this game (which would be pure insanity), but my flight lands later than I thought. As far as what’s important here: Stanford and Dayton are actually alike in a ton of ways. The Flyers will have the edge offensively and should get a lot of production from their bench, but neither team will blow you away in any statistical category. I’m slightly more impressed with Stanford’s ability to handle physical New Mexico and Kansas teams than I am with Dayton’s wins over a couple under-acheivers in Ohio State and Syracuse — still spectacular in its own right. Chasson Randle and Dwight Powell is the most underrated 1-2 punch left in this tournament.
8. (1) Arizona vs. (4) San Diego State | Thursday, 9:17 p.m. | My pick: Arizona, 64-57
It’s hard to get excited for this one. These two met back in November (a nine-point win for Arizona) and was actually SDSU’s lone blemish until the month of February. What you get in a matchup like this is 40 minutes of guys punching each other in the mouth and eating up 20+ seconds of the play clock every time down the floor. Arizona has a massive advantage on the interior and Steve Fisher’s guys don’t shoot threes, so I don’t foresee any way the Aztecs remain in this game offensively. This should set up an Elite Eight date with Wisconsin where the Badgers pose a completely opposite complication for Arizona.