Sweet 16 Preview: Can Gonzaga's Cinderella Story Continue?
This year’s Sweet 16 lacks the small programs we are used to seeing, but that does not mean there are no teams that were once a long shot to win the tournament still alive.
While the lowest seeded teams, Syracuse and Gonzaga, do not remind anyone of George Mason from 2006, they were both bubble teams during conference championship week.
Now, they are four games away from a national title. Outside of those two, Wisconsin, and Notre Dame, these are mostly the teams we expected to see here.
The other four teams playing tonight, North Carolina, Indiana, Virginia, and Iowa State, have hovered around the top 10 most of the year and have had national championship aspirations throughout the season.
The four games tonight are relatively even matchups that should hopefully supply the same amount of intrigue as the games last weekend after an unexciting slate on Thursday.
(1) Virginia vs. (4) Iowa State
7:10 PM ET, CBS
Virginia is the first of four ACC teams to play Friday night, facing off against an Iowa State team that could be their polar opposite. Virginia runs the slowest Pace of any team left in the field, while Iowa State plays at the fastest Pace.
Iowa State ranked fourth in points per game this season, thanks to their fast Pace and high Offensive Efficiency, 19th in the country according to our numbers. They also own best shooting percentage, 50 percent, among teams in the field. While dominant offensively, the Cyclones will have a tough task ahead of them to find holes in the stingy Virginia defense.
One place they can exploit Virginia is at the three-point line, where the Cavaliers allow opponents to shoot 35 percent, 50th among teams that qualified for the NCAA tournament. They also rank 53rd in the 68-team field in Three-Point Attempt Rate. The Cyclones do not get to the free-throw line much, ranking second to last in free throws per field goal attempt, which means they will need to open up space on the floor to knock down their jumpers.
The Cavaliers' defense benefits from the slower Pace, but contrary to popular belief, their offense is quite efficient. According to our metrics, Virginia ranks 14th in Offensive Efficiency and 40th in Defensive Efficiency, meaning this game is will come down to more than Iowa State’s offense versus Virginia’s defense.
The X-factor will most likely be Virginia’s ability to pick apart Iowa State’s poor defense, as the Cyclones rank 156th in Defensive Efficiency and allow 75 points per game. Virginia’s strong three-point shooting can allow them to hang with Iowa State’s high-powered offense even if the defense does not shut them down.
According to numberFire Live, Virginia has a win probability of 61 percent.
(6) Notre Dame vs. (7) Wisconsin
7:27 PM ET, TBS
Notre Dame and Wisconsin face off in the matchup between the two teams with the lowest nERD left in the tournament. According to nERD, which indicates expected win differential against an average squad on a neutral court, Notre Dame ranks 36th and Wisconsin is 39th in the nation. This is also a matchup that features the teams with the second- and third-slowest Pace left in the tournament.
Small edges will be important for each team to find, as they are very evenly matched.
The Fighting Irish made it to the Sweet 16 by outlasting Michigan and Stephen F. Austin in hard-fought games. Notre Dame ranks as the fifth most efficient offense left in the field but are hampered by the least efficient defense of any team remaining. They counteract their poor defense by limiting turnovers and shooting a decent percentage from both two and three.
Wisconsin is the opposite of Notre Dame, as they are the worst team left offensively but hold their own defensively. The Badgers exhibited their defensive strength and has coupled that with timely shooting to knock off Pittsburgh and Xavier on their way to the Sweet 16. Wisconsin will look to remain one of the hottest teams in the country since mid-January, winning 13 of their last 16 games.
According to numberFire Live, Wisconsin has a win probability of 52 percent.
(10) Syracuse vs. (11) Gonzaga
9:40 PM ET, CBS
The two remaining double-digit seeds clash in the second Midwest regional semifinal, as Gonzaga, who is more used to playing the role of Cinderella, pairs up with Syracuse. Three of the past five times the Bulldogs entered the tournament as a double-digit seed, they have made the Sweet 16, but they've made it to the Elite Eight only once. The Orange have never been a double-digit seed in the NCAA tournament and have reached the Sweet 16 five times since 2009.
Gonzaga is one of the most balanced teams remaining in the tournament, ranking 9th in Offensive Efficiency and 26th on defense. Their rankings are more indicative of the type of team they are than their seeding is, as Gonzaga has handled Seton Hall and Utah to this point with relative ease.
The Zags will need to learn quickly how to translate their recent success into a strong offensive game plan against the Syracuse zone defense. Teams that are not familiar with Syracuse’s zone typically struggle against it, hence why they have been able to hold their opponents to 50.5 points per game through the first two rounds.
If Gonzaga can stretch the defense early from behind the arc, where they are shooting 38 percent, they can find holes in the zone to take higher percentage shots. Helping matters is that Syracuse's 40.2 percent Three-Point Rate against ranked 36th-highest in the nation this season.
According to numberFire Live, Gonzaga has a win probability of 66 percent.
(1) North Carolina vs. (5) Indiana
9:57 PM ET, TBS
For obvious reasons, North Carolina-Indiana will be the premier matchup of the Sweet 16. Both teams have had successful seasons, winning their respective conference regular season titles. This is only the third matchup between these storied programs in the NCAA Tournament and the first since 1984. The Hoosiers look to reach their first Elite Eight since 2002, as North Carolina looks to end their Elite Eight drought at three seasons.
North Carolina ranks second in nERD, and they have been proving why lately, winning nine of their last 10. The Tar Heels have leaned on their great offense, which ranks 13th in efficiency but have also exhibited strong defense, like their effort against Virginia in the ACC title game.
In a basketball world now run by the three-pointer, North Carolina is finding ways to put up points in bunches while shooting a relatively low percentage of threes. They are confident playing through their strong front line, led by senior forward Brice Johnson, who is averaging 17 points and 10 rebounds per game.
Indiana’s first test will be finding a way to deny the ball into the post and cut off driving lanes. Forcing Carolina into taking threes will be their best strategy on defense, as the Tar Heels shoot only 31 percent from three.
Offensively, Indiana’s stellar shooting attack has a chance to be too much to handle for the Tar Heels’ defense. Yogi Ferrell leads a group of four Hoosiers who average at least 17 minutes per game and shoot over 40 percent from three. If North Carolina struggles to defend the three as they have the majority of the season, Indiana can use that strength to pull off the upset.
If UNC is able to slow down Indiana's shooters, they have a great chance to survive this test and move on to the Elite Eight.
According to numberFire Live, North Carolina has a win probability of 63 percent.