What a crazy first weekend of college tournament hoops! We saw a number of upsets from Cinderellas, close games from dark horses, and dominant performances from favorites. With the 16 teams left in the field, only four teams will be left standing when the dust settles Sunday evening.
Here’s how the Midwest Region will look all the way through the weekend:
(1) North Carolina vs (5) Auburn
The Tar Heels are coming off of a pair of wins against Iona and Washington. Nassir Little has been a consistent offensive threat during this tournament. He struggled during the regular season averaging just 10 points. During the first two games of the tourney, Little is averaging 19.5 points while shooting over 70%.
Coby White has also been a factor offensively despite struggling against Iona with a 17-point performance against Washington. But when its all said and done, the UNC will ride on the backs of their seniors.
Luke Maye has been nothing for of spectacular averaging a double-double in points and rebounds for UNC, most notably his performance against Washington where he tallied 20 points and 14 rebounds. And Cam Johnson is their go-to scorer with all the offensive tools averaging 17 points in their first two games. Roy Williams has done a phenomenal job preparing UNC for the tournament, and it shows with a pair of double-digit wins against the MAAC Champions and the PAC-12 runner-ups.
On the other side, the Tigers of Auburn are dark horses no more. With double-figure scoring contributions from guards Jared Harper, Chuma Okeke, J’von McCormick, and Bryce Brown, the Tigers survived by just a few hairs against the Aggies. The same story can’t be said against Kansas as the Tigers ate the Jayhawks alive with a 25-point win.
Auburn has caught fire at just the right time, winning 10 straight games heading into the Sweet 16. As arguably the hottest team left standing in college basketball, Bruce Pearl hopes to bring Auburn to its second Elite Eight appearance in school history.
In this matchup, I see North Carolina ending the hot streak of Auburn. North Carolina’s presence inside will be too much for Auburn to handle.
Auburn does have a great set of perimeter offense from Harper, Brown, and McCormick manning the outside, but with no real threat in the paint, the Heels will simply have their way inside. The perimeter play from Johnson and White should also matchup well for the UNC against the guards of Auburn. Expect Maye to dominate the glass and rebound like a mad man, powering UNC to the Elite Eight.
(2) Kentucky vs (3) Houston
The Wildcats of Kentucky are back in the Sweet 16 for the fifth time in the last six seasons. John Calipari is just expanding his excellence as one of the greatest coaches in college basketball history.
Kentucky absolutely steamrolled Abilene Christian by 35 points and took care of business against Wofford. UK is one of the most balanced teams left in the tournament. Tyler Herro, Jermari Baker, and Keldon Johnson man the wings as athletic sharpshooters, along with a bruising inside presence from Reid Travis and EJ Montgomery.
Not to mention, Ashton Hagans doing a phenomenal job setting the tempo for the Kentucky offense and the game in general. UK has a great chance to win it all as much as anyone else.
On the flip side, the H-Town Cougars have made to the Sweet 16 for the first time since they had Hall-of-Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon on their team back in 1984. A historical appearance did not come on accident however.
After coming short against Cincinnati in the AAC championship, Houston have absolutely annihilated whoever has gotten in their way. They defeated both Georgia State and Ohio State by 15 points or more. Led by offensive dynamo Corey Davis, who is averaging 23.5 points in their first two games, and Fabian White, the Cougars are ready for a cat showdown.
Expect a high scoring game and a game that can very well come down to who has the ball last. Houston’s depth in the front court will give the Cougars an advantage on the glass, but the blue chip talent that Kentucky has on the perimeter can prove to be too much for Houston’s Davis to keep up with offensively.
Although the game can very well go down to the wire, I believe Kentucky has the edge for two reasons. First, Calipari will be coaching in his eighth Sweet 16 game with UK alone while Kelvin Sampson will be coaching in just his third overall. Coaching will prove to be a difference maker as the game unfolds.
Secondly, will PJ Washington be active and ready to play this weekend of the tournament. Kentucky would love to add Washington’s perimeter shooting, experience, and veteran leadership to their team. An addition like that can very well be the kick Kentucky needs to run the tables later in the tournament.
Elite Eight Scenario
(1) North Carolina vs (2) Kentucky
Its Williams versus Calipari for the seventh time since Calipari was hired as the Kentucky head coach. A matchup always worth price of admission, both North Carolina and Kentucky are capable of making it to the Final Four.
A Final Four appearance would mean either a third appearance in four seasons for Williams or Calipari’s third in five seasons.
In terms of matchups, the interior will be dominated by North Carolina. Maye has proven himself as one of the best big men in the country with his nose for the loose ball and sheer determination to grab 50/50 balls despite being short for a big men.
Travis and Montgomery best get a good night sleep before waking up to a hungry Maye. To go along with a hot Little who can play both inside and out, UNC’s front court is capable of using their athleticism and strength to blow open a game.
On the perimeter, White and Johnson will have their hands full dealing with Johnson, Hagans and, Herro who can all catch fire in an instance. But again, the X-factor of the matchup will be the availability and capability of senior Washington.
If Washington picks up where he left off prior to his injury, the Wildcats will survive by the skin of their teeth. If not, I see North Carolina punching their ticket to Minnesota as one of the Final Four.