In attempting to pick the winners of all eight Sweet 16 games, I produced an entirely underwhelming .500 record: four right, four wrong.
In my defense, two of those losses were by a single point and another was by just two, which demonstrates the hazards of predicting the outcomes of NCAA Tournament games.
Also, that record just might qualify me to become the next head basketball coach at Duquesne.
So let’s take another crack, shall we, as the Elite Eight commences?
(1) Gonzaga vs. (11) Xavier
Here is the challenge for Xavier: A lot of teams that are making surprising runs to the Sweet 16 will throw out a nothing-to-lose performance that works to produce an even more surprising advancement to the Elite Eight. At this spot in the tournament, though, comes the realization that 40 more minutes of surprise means progressing to the Final Four. That can be a lot to handle. It’s really more about that than the blizzard of Xs and Os coach Chris Mack might manufacture. In that regard, it actually helps Xavier to be playing Gonzaga.
The Bulldogs never have been to the Final Four, either, so the expectation of what ought to occur is not the same. If Xavier were matched against Kentucky or North Carolina, the jersey would do some of the work for the Cats and Heels. Gonzaga has its own psychological barriers to conquer, but again it isn’t being asked to prove itself against a Final Four regular. Gonzaga’s edge in the game is that its defense is not only statistically superior to the one the Musketeers punished in Thursday’s semifinal win over Arizona, but it’s also not as static. Gonzaga will play zone or man, depending on what might work best in a situation. Gonzaga doesn’t really have an ideal player to contain XU’s Trevon Bluiett, but the Musketeers can be beaten even when he’s highly productive.
The pick: The Zags reach their first Final Four.
(1) Kansas vs. (3) Oregon
The frightening thing for KU is that this Oregon team has about 40 minutes of tape available to study. Because the Ducks were much different against Michigan in the Sweet 16 than they’d been at any point this season. They used backup center Kavell Bigby-Williams for eight minutes against the Wolverines. They said: We’re small, but we’re quick. Oh, and Jordan Bell is a man. Deal with it. Michigan wound up having to sideline center Mo Wagner, the hero of their second-round win over Louisville, and use a smaller lineup. So what does Kansas do with center Landen Lucas? Can Lucas keep up with Bell’s dynamism?
If not, what do the Jayhawks do with their frontcourt? They could try to use their own small-ball approach and ask Josh Jackson to deal with Bell. It’s not the game we would have expected had Chris Boucher been in the rotation. Given that Lucas and his reserves have not overpowered many opponents with their offensive skill, it seems likely the Jayhawks will wind up playing OU’s game. They’ll do it with better players, but less practice.
The pick : Kansas really needs help from the KC crowd but will move on to Bill Self’s third Final Four.