By Matt Norlander, CBS Sports
(CBS Sports) Fewer games, bigger drama.
With the wacky first and second rounds in the rearview mirror, the NCAA Tournament turns to an octet of regional semifinals that offer an interesting variety of match-ups. The left side of the bracket has gone sideways, while the right side has maintained a lot of stability with the exception of Syracuse sneaking out of the bottom right corner.
For the 31st time in the 33 years of the 64/68-team era, at least one double digit seed has reached the second weekend. We have two No. 11 seeds in play (Syracuse, Loyola), marking the fourth time since 1985 that two No. 11s broke on through to the other side. It is surprising, though, that when you look around at the tournament now, after a lot of calamity, the lowest seed on the board is No. 11.
Last weekend may have been one of the three best in tournament history, but it strangely didn’t give us any No. 12s, No. 13s, No. 14s or No. 15s winning two games.
However, half of the No. 1s, 2s and 3s are gone — as are three of the No. 4s. So let’s check out what awaits us on Thursday and Friday night. For tip times and TV info, head right here.
8. No. 4 Gonzaga vs. No. 9 Florida State (West). LINE: GONZAGA -5.5.
Gonzaga is the trendy non-top-two-seed Final Four pick, going back to Selection Sunday, that is still standing. (Michigan State and Arizona can’t say the same.) The Bulldogs’ game vs. Florida State in LA is pretty clearly the least compelling of the eight regional semifinals, though.
Gonzaga is the more talented team, but Florida State has an underrated player in 6-foot-6 junior Terance Mann. The Zags have a top-15 offense and defense at KenPom, while FSU ranks 32nd and 55th in each, respectively. The ‘Noles are getting a generous line; will they keep it closer than you might think? Another thought: Will this be a big-time game for Zags sophomore Rui Hachimura, or will GU freshman Zach Norvell Jr. follow up his career-high 28-point performance with another 3-point barrage? The Zags look dangerous again.
7. No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 5 Clemson (Midwest). LINE: KANSAS -4.5.
I’m ranking this game as the second-least compelling heading in … yet I see the potential for it to be close late. Clemson is receiving less pub and talk than any other team playing this Thursday/Friday. But despite being a chic upset victim vs. New Mexico State, then being expected to lose to Auburn in the second round, Clemson has reached its first Sweet 16 since 1997 by winning its first two games by a total of 42 points. The Tigers have proven their season to be legitimate by getting to this point. Now comes Kansas, which got pushed early by Penn and tested late by Seton Hall.
The question is: Does Clemson have the steady play in the backcourt to overcome KU? Remember, the Tigers have been playing two months without their best player, Donte Grantham.
6. No. 5 Kentucky vs. No. 9 Kansas State (South). LINE: KENTUCKY -5.5.
These programs combine for 60 Sweet 16 showings, the most of any two teams playing each other in the regional semifinals. K-State has a better program historically than it gets credit for, but when compared to UK, it’s blindingly pale. That’s just how great Kentucky has been for 60-plus years. Kentucky is a comfortable favorite here: it’s much more talented all around than K-State.
This game will be in Atlanta — “Catlanta,” as Big Blue Nation has dubbed it — so it will feel very much like a road game for Kansas State. Given Kentucky’s 3-point issues and K-State’s top-20 defense, there is a possibility of a close game in the mid-60s with two minutes to go here. Which Kevin Knox will show up? After scoring 25 points and grabbing six rebounds vs. Davidson, Knox had eight points, four fouls and four turnovers against Buffalo. Fortunately for UK, it has Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who is reliable night in, night out. For K-State, Dean Wade’s return is vital. The 6-10 junior has missed the past three games with a stress fracture in his foot. He said on Sunday he’s “98 percent” to play, and in fact was practicing with the team Wednesday.
5. No. 2 Duke vs. No. 11 Syracuse (Midwest). LINE: DUKE -11.5.
It’s the biggest line of any game this weekend, which indicates it’s expected to be the least competitive matchup. But come on. It’s Duke. It’s Syracuse. Two Hall of Fame coaches and two programs with mainstream appeal. Even if Duke blows out the Orange, which is what it did on Feb. 24 (60-44), you’ll tune in to watch Marvin Bagley III and to see what Grayson Allen does. Plus, there is a macabre factor to Syracuse’s zone attack. What it did to Michigan State was bewitching.
The plot here is of course Mike Krzyzewski ripping not a page, not a chapter, but half the damn book from Jim Boeheim. Duke has employed a 2-3 zone this season to much success. With both teams going to a zone look here, the over/under is 133.5. Tempting you to take the under.
Can Syracuse pull a stunner? If so, it would be among the most impressive wins of Boeheim’s career.
4. No. 2 Purdue vs. No. 3 Texas Tech (East). LINE: PURDUE -1.5.
Texas Tech is one of three teams playing this weekend which is trying to get to its first Elite Eight (Nevada and A&M the other two). The Red Raiders bring an infectious ferocity to the floor. Will Purdue try to shoot over TTU’s man-to-man by ball-screening the Red Raiders over and over and over? Potentially. The Boilermakers are only a slight favorite because Isaac Haas isn’t anticipated to play due to a fractured right elbow. In absence of that, Purdue gets smaller and its modus operandi gets tweaked.
Key matchup? I’d love to see how senior Vincent Edwards does if he’s matched up against Texas Tech standout freshman Zhaire Smith. The best player on the floor in this game is Keenan Evans of Tech, but he’s got a nagging toe sprain. Will it affect his performance? He powered through against Florida and make big plays late. This one should be close from tip to horn, I think.
3. No. 3 Michigan vs. No. 7 Texas A&M (West). LINE: MICHIGAN -2.5.
Jordan Poole has Jordan Peele tweeting about him, so life’s pretty great for the Michigan freshman.
Against North Carolina, A&M looked like the type of team we expected it to be most of this season. Michigan’s defense against A&M’s big men is going to be interesting. A&M has more talent than Michigan. No Wolverine can match Robert Williams or Tyler Davis one-on-one, but John Beilein’s made a career out of overachieving and out-scheming more talented opponents.
For Michigan, can it take advantage in the backcourt? It has the edge there, especially if Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman winds up playing a lead guard role. Zavier Simpson is going to be matched on A&M’s T.J. Starks in a point guard battle, and Simpson should win that. It’s unconventional to try to win with a bigs-first mentality, but Billy Kennedy probably needs to do that. I’m not sure what to expect overall from this game in terms of style (Beilein wrinkle coming?), but I think it’s going to be borderline terrific.
2. No. 7 Nevada vs. No. 11 Loyola-Chicago (South). LINE: NEVADA -1.5.
It’s a meeting between dark horse and Cinderella. The best part is how good these teams are. Nevada was clearly the top team in the Mountain West; Loyola was streets ahead of all other teams this season in the Missouri Valley. So not only will this game give us an unexpected team in the Elite Eight that will be playing for the Final Four, but it’s going to be a fun watch too.
Nevada is the No. 6 team in offensive efficiency in college basketball. The Ramblers are a top-15 team in shooting from 2-point and 3-point range. Plenty of March star potential here as well. The Wolf Pack have the Martin twins and Jordan Caroline. Loyola has two guys who have hit end-of-game winning shots to get to this point in Donte Ingram and Clayton Custer. Who gets the next shining moment?
If Nevada wins, maybe it will be coach Eric Musselman, who has gone on record to say he’s taking off his shirt again if his team moves on. So there’s that. Plus, more Sister Jean is a great thing. She alone warrants this game at No. 2. I’m still loving the fact that a 98-year-old nun has become the biggest celebrity of this NCAA Tournament. Only in college basketball.
1. No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 5 West Virginia (East). LINE: VILLANOVA -5.5.
First off: Glaring mismatch in the coaching wardrobe genre. Jay Wright vs. Bob Huggins = Gucci vs. Goodwill. A sartorial stand-off. Meanwhile, Villanova looked better than any team through the first weekend, but West Virginia has the veterans and the coaching to make this game interesting. After some hype with Jalen Brunson vs. Collin Sexton in the second round, those players wound up barely making contact with each other in their game in Pittsburgh. But now? Senior point guard Jevon Carter should almost certainly be matched up on Brunson for this one, and he’ll obviously embrace the challenge. That could be great. Carter (49 points, 13 assists, 11 steals in this tournament) is the best defender left in the tournament. Brunson, on the other hand, has this unemotional determination to him that seems like it will benefit him against a respectable pest like Carter.
That matchup alone has my attention, but how about Sagaba Konate and Mikal Bridges? Will Konate face up on Bridges, or will they primarily face off near the rim? Konate is one of the best shot-blockers in college basktball; Bridges has boosted his draft stock immensely this season. Villanova’s striving for a second Final Four run in three seasons. West Virginia was done in last year in this same spot: it lost to No. 1 Gonzaga in the Sweet 16. Former Big East foes face off in a former Big East town (Boston). I’ll be on hand to cover it. Friday night should be marvelous.