The first two rounds of March Madness are over, and 16 teams remain — all very good ones, mind you. So we asked ESPN.com’s panel of college basketball experts about which very good 1-seed teams could have a rough go this weekend, and also how they feel about the 12 other teams still capable of cutting down the nets in Minneapolis.
Duke was extremely lucky to survive against UCF. Virginia and North Carolina had rough first halves against 16-seeds in the first round. Which No. 1 seed are you most worried about heading into the Sweet 16?
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: This is when region matters most. And North Carolina has the most treacherous path. In the Sweet 16, the Tar Heels must tussle with an Auburn squad that made 41 percent of its 3-pointers and forced 32 turnovers in the first two rounds. The Tigers ran Kansas off the floor last weekend. I think the other No. 1s have familiarity, which should work in their favor. Gonzaga faced Florida State a year ago. Duke has already faced Virginia Tech this season. Virginia and Oregon will meet for the first time, but the Cavs have played an ACC slate filled with the kinds of bouncy, big athletes Dana Altman will use against them. But Auburn is different, and the Tigers have been hot for six weeks, making their 3-pointers and forcing turnovers at a ridiculous rate. Coby White is a phenomenal young point guard — but the Tar Heels freshman is playing in a high-stakes matchup against a disruptive opponent. Oh, and the prize if UNC wins? A three-loss Houston team or a Kentucky team that dominated the Tar Heels in December.
Jeff Borzello, college basketball Insider: I think Gonzaga is the lone 1-seed to fall short of the Final Four, but I also think the Bulldogs have the toughest Sweet 16 opponent in Florida State — and then could have another grinder of an Elite Eight game against the winner of Michigan and Texas Tech. Florida State was underseeded with a 4-seed, but the Seminoles have size and length across the roster. Mfiondu Kabengele is a potential first-round pick and Leonard Hamilton can throw tons of bigs at Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke. I do think Gonzaga will win that game, but I think either the Wolverines or Red Raiders could be a nuisance. Both teams play grind-it-out, half-court, defensive games. Gonzaga can win playing like that, but it would prefer to move a little quicker offensively. It could be a tough weekend for the Zags.
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: I’m most worried about Virginia, and I say that as someone who picked the Cavaliers to cut down the nets in Minneapolis (both in the preseason and again when the brackets were announced). I keep thinking of Tony Bennett’s team being pushed out of the ACC tournament by a very tall Florida State team, and now the Hoos are up against a very similar-sized Oregon rotation: Payton Pritchard plus four guys who are 6-foot-9. The matchup plus the famously shaky first 12 minutes Virginia played against Gardner-Webb have me thinking of how crazy March can be even if it hasn’t been crazy so far in 2019. True, speaking of matchups, the one between the Ducks’ offense and the Cavaliers’ defense should tilt heavily in the direction of Bennett’s guys.
If you had to pick a team other than a 1-seed to win this tournament, your pick would be ________?
Medcalf: I’ll go with Michigan. John Beilein ran into a great Louisville team in 2013. He had to battle a Villanova squad with three first-round picks and a Wooden Award winner last season. But Beilein is going to win one. Why not this season (if a No. 1 fails to take it)? He has a defense that has exceeded last season’s output. Iggy Brazdeikis, Charles Matthews and Jordan Poole have led this team to its second consecutive 30-win season. The Wolverines have victories over Purdue and North Carolina, and their point guard, Zavier Simpson, nearly finished his first two games in the NCAA tournament with a 3-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Perhaps the third time’s a charm for Beilein’s crew.
Borzello: As the resident Texas Tech bandwagon driver, I’m obligated to say the Red Raiders. But also, I think they will be the lone non-1-seed to reach Minneapolis, so I’m rolling with Chris Beard & Co. They have the best defense in the country and are meticulous in their game prep at that end of the floor. They’ve won 11 of their past 12 games, including a dominant victory over Buffalo in the second round Sunday. And at the other end, they have a legitimate top-10 draft pick in Jarrett Culver to carry them offensively. They’re far from perfect offensively, as they have a tendency to go through long stretches without hitting shots, but Davide Moretti‘s emergence in conference play — his 0-for-7 3-point performance in the NCAA tournament notwithstanding — has at least given them another perimeter option.
Gasaway: Cassius is the new Kemba! No, seriously, there’s a lot to like with Michigan State even though the Spartans did get stuck with that 2 next to their name in the bracket. Let’s not overthink this: Tom Izzo’s guys have made their shots and forced opponents to miss theirs all season. Cassius Winston is quite possibly the Sweet 16’s most lethal decision-maker with the ball in his hands in a half-court set. Xavier Tillman has very quietly graduated from standard-issue Izzo blue-collar supporting player to secret weapon. Heck, the Spartans even got a break from the committee: Indiana isn’t in their region. I kid, I kid, but really, this team is dangerous.
Give us one player still in the tournament who has impressed you, and one you might have expected more from to this point.
Medcalf: Mfiondu Kabengele is the man for Florida State right now. Terance Mann has been a superstar for FSU, too, but Kabengele is a force who tore through the first two rounds and led his squad to the Sweet 16. He has made 63 percent of his 3-pointers and had three blocks in FSU’s lopsided victory over Murray State in the second round. He’s averaging 21.5 points through two games. The 6-foot-10 Canadian is the player Gonzaga must stop to win Thursday’s game. Earlier this season, Ignas Brazdeikis was a breakout freshman. He has to show up for the Wolverines this week after shooting 6-for-18 overall and 1-for-7 from beyond the arc in the first and second rounds. He’s better than that.
Borzello: Throughout the season, Lamonte Turner‘s ability to make shots from the perimeter has provided a different element to Tennessee’s offense. In the Volunteers’ five losses this season, Turner shot a combined 8-for-37 from 3-point range. In the NCAA tournament so far, though, Turner has made five 3-pointers, dished out nine assists and totaled 28 points. He’s also been more of a factor on the defensive end. On the flip side, Virginia needs Kyle Guy to find his shot. The Cavaliers were fine against Gardner-Webb and Oklahoma without consistency from Guy, but he will have to do better than 1-for-15 from 3-point range moving forward. He was a 44.9 percent 3-point shooter in ACC play, so the law of averages say his performance should improve.
Gasaway: Brandon Clarke has impressed me, and I started the tournament already on the record as thinking he’s the best player in the country not named “Zion” or “Ja.” Not sure I need to add much to that sentence other than referring any questions to the Baylor-Gonzaga box score. As for expecting more, Tremont Waters has been the distributor and ball hawk that I anticipated (12 assists and four steals in two tournament games), but he’s just 1-of-9 on his 3s so far. If that keeps up, opponents will start shouting at him to shoot the way they do at Tre Jones.
Which team not in this Sweet 16 do you feel most confident about being here next season?
Medcalf: I like Maryland’s chances, especially if Bruno Fernando comes back. But even if Mark Turgeon loses him, I think we saw enough from Jalen Smith (15 points, five blocks in loss to LSU in the second round) to trust that he’s going to evolve into a dominant (consistently) player for the Terps, ranked 350th out of 353 teams in experience on KenPom.com. They have the pieces to grow and win a couple of games in next season’s tournament.
Borzello: Marquette. There’s a caveat here, of course, as Markus Howard could always decide to go pro and leave the Golden Eagles without one of the best scorers in college basketball. But if Howard returns, Steve Wojciechowski will have his entire starting five back from a team that started the season 23-4 and seemed to have the Big East title in the bag before stumbling down the stretch. Moreover, Utah State transfer Koby McEwen redshirted this season after averaging 15.6 points and 3.2 assists as a sophomore for the Aggies. McEwen’s arrival will allow Howard to play off the ball more often, where he can run off screens and pin-downs to get open shots.
Gasaway: My patented forecasting method says that Villanova in the Sweet 16 next year is a sure thing. Fine, my method is noticing that the Wildcats have made the regional semifinal in each of the past two even-numbered years. Oh, and by the way, Jay Wright’s guys also went on to win a national title in each of those seasons. I’m not promising another championship in 2020, but there are some strong tendencies toward success shown by a program that has gone 90-18 in Big East play since 2013-14. Wright has his best recruiting class in years coming in next season in the form of Bryan Antoine and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. Plus, while you never can really tell in March who will return in November, some portion of Collin Gillespie, Saddiq Bey, Jermaine Samuels and Jahvon Quinerly should be rather formidable. The Cats will be back next season.