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Bracket Breakdown: Navigating the Sweet 16

The pinnacle of college basketball reaches new heights this weekend as the NCAA tournament continues with the Sweet 16. On Thursday and Friday, 16 hopeful squads will enter the fray once again, but by Sunday night only four will continue on the journey for the national championship. 

Annika Morris | Senior Graphic Artist

The first-round frenzy of unforeseen upsets and big-time performances has subsided. We can now analyze the remaining contenders and each game through a closer lens. With eight amazing games on Thursday and Friday, here are the most exciting match-ups of the Sweet 16.

Starting with as good of a storyline as any — a rematch of last year’s national championship, the UConn Huskies take on the San Diego State Aztecs on Thursday night. Last year, the Aztecs struggled against UConn in a lopsided 76-59 win for the Huskies.

SDSU enters as massive underdogs against the number one overall seed. But if the Aztecs can manage to shoot the three as effectively as they did in round of 32 –– when they bombarded Yale, shooting nearly 50% from beyond the arc –– anything is possible. 

The Aztecs have their star player in Jaedon Ledee who can take over any game and a strong identity on the defensive end where they rank top eight in adjusted defensive efficiency. If they can pair that with some offensive spark, an upset isn’t completely out of the question.

The other match-up in the East Region is one of the most anticipated of the Sweet 16, where No. 2 seed Iowa State takes on No. 3 seed Illinois. This game encapsulates the battle of defense vs. offense; with the No. 1 ranked defense of Iowa State going toe to toe with the No. 1 ranked offense of Illinois. 

Iowa State’s defense is intimidating to say the least. The unit has allowed no more than 80 points once this whole season and is currently allowing an average of 60.5 points per game in their two double-digit wins thus far. Not to mention, the Cyclones dismantled the previously top-ranked Houston Cougars in the Big 12 championship game 69-41 and have proven to be able to win big games. 

On the other hand, the Fighting Illini have demonstrated their offensive prowess this season. Senior guard Terrance Shannon Jr. leads the way in scoring, averaging 23.3 points per game, the third-highest mark in the country. 

Illinois also won the Big 10 tournament, powered by explosive offensive performances, including a 40-point game from Shannon Jr. This potent offense powered by the iso-play of Shannon Jr. and senior forward Marcus Domask, is a tough draw for any defense. 

On Friday the action continues, in the South Region where two powerhouses faceoff between No. 1 seed Houston and No. 4 seed Duke. The game comes after a concerningly close bout between Houston and Texas A&M. 

Houston is a team that ranked No. 1 for a large portion of the season and looked unstoppable before falling apart in the Big 12 championship. Now they’ve given up nearly 100 points to ninth-seeded Texas A&M in a second round overtime shootout where many key players got into foul trouble. This is especially concerning for the Cougars, who were right behind Iowa State as the best defense in the country, known for their relentless mentality.  

Meanwhile, Duke has been shooting the lights out and playing well down the stretch. In their second-round demolition of James Madison, Duke shot 50% from three behind a 30-point performance from freshman guard Jared McCain. The Blue Devils have size and skill, but it will certainly be difficult for them to get good looks against that stingy Houston defense.

Next, a fascinating Cinderella run is in the works with No. 11 seed NC State making their surprise Sweet 16 appearance against No. 3 seed Marquette.

The NC State Wolfpack got into the tournament off a shocking run to win the ACC championship. 

The team is characterized by a unique player in DJ Burns Jr. who stands at 6 foot 9 inches, 275 pounds. He’s a bruiser who works to dominate the post but he’s also a skilled distributor who’s able to attract double-teams and dish it out. Burns has been impressive all season, but now it’s been the help of his supporting cast to make this run so successful. 

However, Marquette is no slouch. The Golden Eagles are a serious team with a star in Tyler Kolek. The senior guard is a former Big East Player of the Year and he excels at facilitating this offense of lengthy, athletic scorers. Marquette gets after it on defense, forces turnovers and plays smart offense. They will be a tough out for anyone.

Last but not least, the final game of the Sweet 16 features the No. 2 Tennessee Volunteers taking on the No. 3 seed Creighton Blue Jays. 

Creighton is a team with a high-powered offense that has been shooting the lights out. Their offense is run through a three-headed monster starting with their star shooters in the backcourt Baylor Scheierman and Trey Alexander. Down low, senior center Ryan Kalkbrenner can finish shots and is a vital part of the Creighton defense as a rim protector who can avoid foul trouble. 

On the other side, Tennessee is a deep two-way team that is led by first-team All-American senior Dalton Knecht. Knecht is a taller guard who is a lethal shooter which is key to Tennessee’s identity as a shooting offense. 

They’re coming off a game against Texas where the shots weren’t falling, but their solid defense kept them in the game. Toward the end, they heated up and showed some encouraging resilience. This game should be an offensive masterclass.

 

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