An unintended consequence of a quiet opening round on the upset front: the Sweet 16 field is loaded.
Villanova, Duke and Louisville may have fallen in the Round of 32, but this round will make a casual college hoops fan tune in and a basketball junkie salivate.
Here are some key matchups and storylines to watch in Friday's games.
Kamar Baldwin vs. Joel Berry
The point guard position is stacked this year, and while UNC's Berry isn’t the flashiest name out there, he’s good enough to be the best player on a national champion. That’s no small feat. He looked hobbled against Arkansas after twisting his ankle in the first round, though, and he hasn’t seen many defenders with the athleticism, timing and sheer relentlessness of Butler's Baldwin.
Middle Tennessee's Giddy Potts threw up a goose egg against Butler; Baldwin was the primary reason why. Winthrop's Keon Johnson shot 37 percent against the Bulldogs; again, credit Baldwin. North Carolina is an outstanding offensive team. That’s because Berry is usually awesome. When he’s not, neither are the Tar Heels; Berry is averaging 11.1 points while shooting 34 percent in UNC’s seven defeats. North Carolina overcame a rough game from its point guard against Arkansas, but Butler is better than Arkansas. Keep an eye on this.
Manu Lecomte vs. South Carolina’s pressure defense
Baylor’s point guard play is much better than it was last season, which is a big reason the Bears have made it this far. Lecomte gives Scott Drew a scoring punch at the point of attack that he lacked last year.
With that said, the Bears cough up the rock more than a top 20 offense should. Baylor turns the ball over on more than 20 percent of its possessions, which ranks 305th. We don’t know what to expect from South Carolina’s offense on a game-by-game basis, but the Gamecocks will deliver the goods on the defensive end. Frank Martin’s crew turns opponents over more than all but three teams. Defense is their lifeblood.
This is important for two reasons. First, the obvious: if the Bears are turning the ball over, it means they’re not scoring. Second, the more errors the Gamecocks force, the less their inconsistent offense matters. South Carolina scored 88 points against Duke in one of its best offensive outputs of the season; while its halfcourt sets looked better, the Gamecocks benefited from Duke’s 18 turnovers. Scoop-and-score buckets were a common sight.
If you’re a Baylor fan, you can live with missed shots early in the game. What you can’t live with is carelessness. Lecomte will carry a heavy burden tonight.
Lonzo Ball vs. De’Aaron Fox
Two of the most electrifying players in the game square off for a chance to reach the Elite Eight. Does it get any better?
Ball overwhelms you with his skill, creativity and pizzazz. Fox overwhelms you with raw athleticism, which could cause Ball problems. For what it’s worth, it didn’t when UCLA manhandled Kentucky at Rupp Arena in December. Fox isn’t always locked in on the defensive end. When he is, he’s special, and if ever there were a time to expend 100 percent energy on both ends, the Sweet 16 against UCLA would be it.
The big difference between now and then: in December, we weren’t sure if Ball’s outside shooting was a fluke. His mechanics are unorthodox, to put it lightly. But he’s draining 42 percent of his 3s on 5.4 attempts per game. That’s a hefty sample size. He has legitimate range.
That’s what’s separates him from Fox, who’s shooting a measly 23.4 percent from behind the arc. Fox is the superior athlete, though, and on a stage like this, expect him to try to show it. This may be the best individual matchup we see in March.
Wisconsin’s interior brutes vs. Florida’s Egbunu-less front line
Florida didn’t miss its best rim protector, John Egbunu, too much against East Tennessee State or Virginia, but it could against Wisconsin, a team that starts three power forwards in Nigel Hayes, Vitto Brown and Ethan Happ.
The good news for the Gators: their perimeter defense is so on point that in most cases, foes struggle to get the ball inside at all. But Wisconsin is clever. Hayes is an elite high-post passer. Happ is low-post fiend who will bury his defender with a textbook seal one possession and find an open 3-point shooter the next.
Against Virginia, Devin Robinson and Justin Leon combined to score 28 points and grab 21 rebounds while playing lockdown defense. This isn’t a mismatch. Florida is a great defensive team with or without Egbunu, but having him would have given Mike White one more weapon to throw at the Badgers.
The Gators gave up 39 points to the Hoos and blocked exactly one shot. Again, Florida forced Virginia into numerous poor looks that weren’t anywhere near the rim. But when trying to stop a team that makes a living in the paint, the threat of the rejection means more than the stat itself. This will be an intriguing chess match.