NCAA Tournament set for super Sweet 16


NCAA Tournament set for super Sweet 16
  1. NCAA Tournament set for super Sweet 16
    htrnews.com
    If you're looking for Cinderella in the Sweet 16, you're at the wrong…
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If you're looking for Cinderella in the Sweet 16, you're at the wrong ball.

The crop of teams that advanced to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament include some programs that might have been considered upstarts in decades past — Gonzaga, Butler and Xavier — but those are all high-level mainstays now. Even as the only double-digit seed to make the Sweet 16, No. 11 Xavier is hardly a surprise considering it spent most of the season ranked in the top 25.

In fact, of the 16 teams remaining, 15 landed in the top 16 spots of the Associated Press Top 25 at some point this season. The only exclusion? That would be Big Ten tournament champion Michigan, winner of seven games in a row, survivors of an airplane mishap and one of the hottest teams in America. The Wolverines peaked at No. 23 in the AP poll, doing so in the final poll of the season.

With no David over Goliath upsets, no overtime games and no buzzer-beaters, many have pointed to this year's NCAA Tournament as a rather dull affair. However, the first weekend was not without drama.

RELATED: Ranking the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16 teams

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How about Wisconsin going down to the wire with Villanova and knocking off the reigning champions to clinch its fourth straight Sweet 16 — the longest such streak in the nation? Staying in the East Regional, it was an incredible weekend for South Carolina, which got the benefit of a  home state crowd on the way to beating Marquette and Duke for its first NCAA Tournament wins and first trip to the Sweet 16 since 1973.

With no major upsets, every team remaining had to go through legitimate tests to get to where they are now. For example, Kentucky had to turn up its defense late to beat under-seeded Wichita State, Northwestern rallied to give Gonzaga all it could handle, Rhode Island nearly took down Oregon, Purdue and Iowa State treated the BMO Harris Bradley Center to a high-intensity affair, North Carolina — the only team from the vaunted ACC left standing — had trouble with Arkansas and the list goes on.

While the first weekend might have been boring by some people's standards, it set up a bevy of juicy matchups this coming weekend. Even when it's not perceived to be at its best, somehow the NCAA Tournament still finds a way to deliver.

Here's a look at each regional heading into the Sweet 16.

EAST REGIONAL

Overview: Raise your hand if you saw this coming? No. 1 overall seed Villanova and oddsmakers favorite Duke are both gone, thanks to Wisconsin and South Carolina, respectively. Third-seeded Baylor, a team that was popularly picked to be upset during the opening weekend, is the top seed still standing. And Florida? The Gators laid waste to East Tennessee State and Virginia on the path to Madison Square Garden.

This regional in a GIF: Busting up brackets like...

Player to watch: Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina. The SEC player of the year dropped 29 points on Marquette and then followed that performance by scoring 29 points again vs. Duke. Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski called Thornwell "the best, unheralded, great player in the United States." And that was before Thornwell scorched Duke.

Coaching storylines: No matter how things shake out, one of these head coaches — Florida's Mike White, Wisconsin's Greg Gard, Baylor's Scott Drew or South Carolina's Frank Martin — will be coaching in his first Final Four. Drew has held the top job at his school the longest and has established himself as the most successful coach in Baylor's history in his 14 seasons in Waco. He has led the Bears to seven NCAA Tournament appearances in the past 10 years. Before that, Baylor had only been four times.

Clutch player: Bronson Koenig, Wisconsin. Koenig is an assassin in crunch time. This is common knowledge in Wisconsin as well as among Xavier fans.

Stat to impress your friends: Wisconsin's seniors are 13-3 in the NCAA Tournament. In that time span, Baylor, Florida and South Carolina have combined for 12 NCAA Tournament victories.

Predictions: Wisconsin over Florida. Baylor over South Carolina. Wisconsin over Baylor. Betting against the Badgers in March just doesn't seem like a good idea.

WEST REGIONAL

Overview: By seed, this regional featured only two upsets. Both were wins by Xavier as the Musketeers knocked off No. 6 Maryland and crushed No. 3 Florida State.

This regional in a GIF: The not so wild West.

Player to watch: Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga. The 6-foot-3 redshirt junior transfer from Washington does everything well and should be a first-team all-American on just about every list.

Coaching storylines: This regional features two coaches who are constantly discussed as being among the best in the sport without having reached the Final Four — Gonzaga's Mark Few and Arizona's Sean Miller. If Few is going to change that, he'll have to go through West Virginia's Bob Huggins, who has coached his teams to the NCAA Tournament in 22 of the past 25 seasons and has been in two Final Fours. Miller will face Chris Mack and Xavier, his former school, in the Sweet 16 for the second time in three years.

Clutch player: Trevon Bluiett, Xavier. Bluiett has carried the Musketeers all season and has averaged 22 points per game over Xavier's past six contests. The Musketeers may not have made the tournament if it weren't for Bluiett's heroics in the Big East tournament quarterfinals.

Stat to impress your friends: According to Kenpom.com, Arizona (78.8 inches), Gonzaga (75.5) and Xavier (75.5) are the three tallest teams remaining in terms of average height. All three are top 10 in the nation in that regard.

Predictions: Gonzaga over West Virginia. Arizona over Xavier. Arizona over Gonzaga. The Wildcats, now healthy, avenge a loss to the Bulldogs from earlier this season.

MIDWEST REGIONAL

Overview: Kansas rolled as it seeks its first Final Four since 2012. Oregon, playing without injured forward Chris Boucher, who is out for the season with a torn ACL, has handled its business. Purdue escaped the first weekend unscathed for the first time since 2010. Upstart Michigan, as mentioned earlier, has kept its magical run going following a scary incident in which the team's chartered plane slid off a runway.

This regional in a GIF: Each of these teams has taken big steps toward quieting its critics.

Players to watch: Frank Mason III, Kansas and Caleb Swanigan, Purdue. Two of the main contenders…

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