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 slate will make a casual college hoops fan tune in and a basketball junkie salivate.
Here are some key matchups and storylines to watch in Thursday's games.
Moritz Wagner vs. switchy OregonRick Pitino looked like a defensive genius in the first half of Louisville’s loss to Michigan. The Wolverines bomb 3s. That’s no secret, so what did Pitino do? He switched all screens. Michigan was flustered in the first half – mismatch basketball isn’t its forte; a pick-and-roll-centric, drive-and-kick ballet is. Switching renders such a style obsolete. The Wolverines scored 28 points in the first 20 minutes.
Good coaches adjust, so John Beilein did just that. Switching creates mismatches – and goodness, did Wagner make life miserable for the poor Louisville guards who had to stick him in the second half. Wagner scored 26 points against Louisville by overpoweing the likes of Quentin Snider, Donovan Mitchell and Deng Adel.
Why is this relevant? Because Oregon coach Dana Altman is privy to switching in the half court, too. The Ducks’ zone may not be playable against a team that’s making almost 40 percent of its 3s, and Michigan can pick apart standard man-to-man coverage.
It really is pick your poison against the Wolverines. If the Ducks switch anyone not named Jordan Bell onto Wagner, he could become the star of this tournament. A matchup like this is where losing Chris Boucher really stings if you’re Oregon.
Press Virginia vs. Gonzaga’s treesNotre Dame seemed like a team that should've been able to handle Press Virginia. Going into that game, the Fighting Irish turned the ball over less than anyone – Notre Dame sports ball-handlers at five positions. Its center is a 6-5, closeout-attacking nightmare. Good luck rattling those guys.
Well, West Virginia did – and fairly easily. Gonzaga, like any non-Big 12 team, hasn’t seen anything like what the Mountaineers are about to throw at it. The Bulldogs have four solid post players, the best of which is Przemek Karnowski. Karnowski is a 7-1, 300-pound defensive cinderblock who whips canny passes from the high post with the best of them, but if West Virginia is able to control tempo, will he able to lumber up and down the floor and still make an impact?
On paper, Gonzaga should be able to weather the West Virginia storm. The Bulldogs play two high-level point guards together in Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins. But as we saw with Notre Dame, the press affects teams in unique ways; truthfully, nobody knows what to expect from this game.
One thing Gonzaga has going for it: the Bulldogs have the best defense in the country. That’s great in itself, but it’s especially valuable against a Mountaineer offense that struggles in the half court; if they can’t set up their press after a make, their primary weapon is useless. This is an intriguing battle.
Kansas small ball vs. Purdue's behemothsThis is the most fascinating contrast in styles you’ll see in the Sweet 16. Kansas is playing smaller than ever – the Jayhawks use a four-guard lineup to surround Landen Lucas, their only big who plays heavy minutes.
Purdue, on the other hand, has Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas – stud post players who combine to weigh 540 pounds. For what it’s worth, Matt Painter rarely uses Swanigan and Haas together. But he whipped out the jumbo lineup against Vermont, and the Boilermakers played well.
It will be tempting to do so against Kansas, which uses the explosive but slender Josh Jackson at power forward. Jackson wouldn’t stand a chance against Haas or Swanigan in the post, but Swanigan struggled to defend Deonte Burton on the perimeter in the Round of 32. Burton is great, but Jackson is in a different stratosphere. Painter could hide one of his giants on Svi Mykhailiuk, but Mykhailiuk is skilled and bouncy enough to punish a mismatch.
Perhaps Painter opts to use Vince Edwards at the four and play it straight, but the Boilermakers feel like a watered-down version of the Jayhawks if they simply try to emulate them. If nothing else, perhaps the jumbo lineup could put Lucas in foul trouble – that would leave Bill Self scrambling. This’ll be fun.
The Sean Miller Bowl: Xavier vs. Arizona
Miller coached for five years at Xavier before leaving for Arizona. He was replaced by his protégé, Chris Mack. As if this Sweet 16 needed any more spice.
Xavier and Arizona have each gone through adversity this season – but the Wildcats’ turmoil happened early on, while Xavier is shorthanded… now. That hasn’t stopped the Musketeers in the tournament – Trevon Bluiett was arguably the best player in the field over the weekend.
Still, Arizona is in a different category than Maryland and Florida State. The Wildcats have two superstars in Allonzo Trier and Lauri Markkanen and depth at every position; the Musketeers have Bluiett and role players who have shined in the tournament but were inconsistent for most of the season.
Mack likes to use Bluiett at power forward to manufacture spacing. That means he could match up against Markkanen, everyone’s latest Dirk Nowitzki comparison. The smooth-stroking big man has a finesse game, but his size will be an advantage here – and if he can get Bluiett in foul trouble, Mack’s squad is in trouble. Miller’s Wildcats can play small or big; against Xavier, it will be in his best interest to leverage his interior talent.