NCAA Tournament 2017: Picks, predictions for Thursday's Sweet 16 games

The Sweet 16 is only sweet for eight teams.

Think about that, and remember these predictions of which eight teams shall enjoy the round are for entertainment purposes only. Let's dive into Thursday's games for now. There's plenty of intrigue with these West and Midwest Region matchups.

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(4) West Virginia vs. (1) Gonzaga

A lot of what happens in this game will come down to how physically West Virginia is allowed to operate in its press. I’ve seen games where the opposition planned well to execute press-breaks only to be overwhelmed by the Mountaineers with no help coming from the officials. If the game is called as the rules are supposed to be enforced, Gonzaga should be skilled enough to make it through the press. What should it do then?

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If Gonzaga relaxes, the second wave of the defense will attack. If it fires every open 3-pointerthat develops, WVU will have the Zags playing faster than they prefer, and they’ll be diminishing Przemek Karnowski’s impact. Keeping Karnowski involved is important; backup Zach Collins is a tremendous talent, but Karnowski is unique.His size, strength and skill set him apart from most other bigs this season. If he’s a factor, the Zags will be fine.

The pick: Gonzaga squeezes through.

(11) Xavier vs. (2) Arizona

The emergence of big man Sean O’Mara has made the Musketeers competitive in every high-level game they’ve played in March: the wins over Butler, Maryland and Florida State, even the loss to Creighton in the Big East semifinals. Arizona has multiple bodies to throw at him, though, and Kadeem Allen does a nice job pressuring the basketball to make entry passes a challenge.

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The trick for Arizona is finding someone to defend Musketeers star Trevon Bluiett. The natural choice is wing Rawle Alkins, and certainly he’s physical and athletic enough. But trusting that matchup to a freshman could be problematic. In the end, Arizona’s primary objective is to be aggressive and productive on offense. The Wildcats’ ability to drive the ball should stress the XU defense and perhaps lead to foul trouble.

The pick: Arizona to another Elite Eight.

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(4) Purdue vs. (1) Kansas

The Boilers’ most essential ingredient is the defensive assignment of stopping KU’s Josh Jackson. Who takes that on? It seems inevitable that 6-5 Dakota Mathias will have to defend someone bigger than himself, except when the Boilers are using their bigger lineup with Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas together.

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But it might make more sense to have Mathias handle stretch-4 Svi Mykhailiuk and use forward Vince Edwards against Jackson to limit his post scoring ability and keep him away from the offensive boards. Jackson can’t be allowed to go marauding through the defense. Frank Mason is going to get his 20; that happens every night. But Jackson’s developing excellence is the reason KU is on such a roll.

The pick: KU reigns in KC.

(7) Michigan v. (3) Oregon

The Ducks struggled terribly to cope with Rhode Island for 40 minutes and couldn’t guard Arizona in the Pac-12 championship game. Michigan’s offense at this point is a far greater challenge and will punish Oregon’s lack of interior might as well as its periodic struggles to contain penetration.

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The injury to Chris Boucher has altered the Ducks’ defensive personality. If they try to keep a shot-blocker on the floor, they lose mobility and sacrifice offense, which is why they don’t do it much now. Michigan can play one or two bigs, depending on how the opponent wants to line up and where it wants to attack. The Wolverines have excelled in several different alignments.

The pick: UM gets its shot at KU.

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