An NCAA Tournament field that began with 68 teams has been whittled to only 16 in a matter of days, and all who withstood the first weekend of the Big Dance now have eyes on advancing even further. With regional semifinal matchups set, scouting work has already begun for the Sweet 16 as the teams remaining in the bracket are just two wins away from reaching the Final Four.
This is familiar ground for programs like Arkansas, Houston, Gonzaga and UCLA. But for the likes of Princeton and FAU, it marks uncharted territory. The rhythms of the regular season are gone, and the opponents are unfamiliar. While these seasons are already guaranteed to go down in history for some programs, the opportunity to accomplish something legendary awaits.
Considering what we saw during the first weekend with No. 15 and 16 seeds winning games and previously dominant teams like No. 1 seeds Kansas and Purdue making early exits, it's probably smart to expect the unexpected this week. Ultimately, just four teams will be left standing by Sunday night as the Big Dance shrinks to a mere quartet of national title contenders.
Now that the Sweet 16 matchups are set, let's take an early look at what's ahead for the Sweet 16.
Thursday -- T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas
- Scouting the Huskies-- UConn can beat opponents in a variety of ways. Jordan Hawkins, Alex Karaban and Joey Calcaterra are excellent 3-point shooters. They get plenty of open looks, too, because of the attention that Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan command in the post. Sanogo is coming off a pair of monster performances on the NCAA Tournament's first weekend, and Clingan is a 7-foot-2 shot-blocking menace. UConn spent five consecutive weeks ranked in the top-five of the AP Top 25 poll earlier this season. Though the Huskies are just a No. 4 seed, they enter the Sweet 16 looking like a top-five team once again.
- Scouting the Razorbacks -- Arkansas dropped four of its last five games entering the NCAA Tournament before pulling a stunner and taking down reigning champion Kansas last weekend. The Razorbacks are a terrible 3-point shooting team but make up for it with relentless defense, which creates transition opportunities. Teams turn the basketball over 14.3 times per game against the Razorbacks, who have five players averaging double figures. Coach Eric Musselman is just as big of a star as anyone on the roster as he tries to reach a third consecutive Elite Eight.
(2) UCLA vs. (3) Gonzaga
- Scouting the Bruins -- UCLA may have the best pair of veteran leaders in the Sweet 16 in the form of senior point guard Tyger Campbell and senior forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. The two lead the Bruins in scoring and have been through some battles during their careers. The Bruins are unusually reliant upon 2-pointers in an era that prioritizes 3-pointers. But Jaquez knows how to find good looks, and the Bruins have evolved into one of the nation's top defensive squads over the course of the season.
- Scouting the Bulldogs -- Gonzaga is led by a familiar face in Drew Timme as the senior forward tops the roster in points and rebounding. But, per usual, the Zags have multiple offensive weapons. Julian Strawther is a dynamic playmaker on the wing who has dramatically improved his 3-point shooting this season, and forward Anton Watson has come on strong lately as well. The Zags are a bit mercurial on defense because they lack the elite rim protection they enjoyed last season with Chet Holmgren on the roster. But keeping up with the Zags is a challenge even when they aren't playing much defense.
Thursday -- Madison Square Garden in New York
(4) Tennessee vs. (9) FAU
- Scouting the Volunteers -- Tennessee's identity is found on the defensive end of the floor as the Volunteers have ranked as the nation's top defensive squad for most of the season, according to KenPom.com. Opponents are averaging just 57.3 points per game against this physical bunch, which imposes its will with a rotation of four bigs who aren't afraid to pick up some fouls while trying to swat your shot. Offensively, senior guard Santiago Vescovi is the engine that makes things go, especially amid a season-ending injury to point guard Zakai Zeigler.
- Scouting the Owls -- FAU is a great 3-point shooting team, both in volume and percentage. The Owls like to play fast, but they also defend. What's arguably most important about this team, though, is its depth. FAU is among the national leaders in bench minutes. No one averages more than 26 minutes per game, and nine players average at least 15 minutes per contest. That allows FAU to keep its offensive tempo and defensive intensity high throughout the game.
(3) Kansas State vs. (7) Michigan State
- Scouting the Wildcats -- Kansas State's heartbeat is 5-8 point guard Markquis Nowell. He's the team's second-leading scorer and he led the Big 12 in both assists and steals this season. Nowell and Keyontae Johnson make quite a combo as Johnson is a dynamic and physical wing capable of scoring at all three levels. The Wildcats are not a great 3-point shooting team, but they like to run and are excellent in transition. They force 14.8 turnovers per game, so there are plenty of fast-break opportunities for this fast-paced squad. First-year coach Jerome Tang is a steadying presence and National Coach of the Year candidate for the remarkable turnaround he's orchestrated.
- Scouting the Spartans -- Michigan State's two leading scorers, Tyson Walker and Joey Hauser, both shoot better than 40% from beyond the arc for a team that is one of the best in the country in terms of outside shooting percentage. But as the Spartans showed in a second-round victory over No. 2 seed Marquette, they can win even when their outside shots aren't falling if they are locked in defensively. MSU made only 2-of-16 long-range shots in that game but won 69-60 because it forced 16 turnovers and won the battle of second-chance points 15-8. Walker and Hauser are the types of veterans you want this time of year, and the legendary Tom Izzo is among the best March coaches of all-time.
Friday-- T-Mobile Center in Kansas City
(1) Houston vs. (5) Miami
- Scouting the Cougars -- Questions surrounded the health of star guard Marcus Sasser entering the NCAA Tournament, but he answered them resoundingly in a second round victory over Auburn by scoring 22 points on 7-of-14 shooting. The Cougars outscored Auburn 50-23 in the second half of that game to roar back from a 10-point deficit and demonstrate just how incredible they are when at their best. This team ranks in the top-10 at KenPom in both offensive and defensive efficiency and has few discernible flaws. Sasser is the star, but five players average double figures for this squad.
- Scouting the Hurricanes -- Miami is undersized but doesn't mind a bit. The Hurricanes have elite guards and a dynamic small-ball big man in Norchad Omier, who is 6-7 but rebounds as though he's 7-1. He's among a group of four Miami players averaging 13 or more points per game. Isaiah Wong is the leading scorer and a familiar face in his fourth season as a key player for the 'Canes. Jordan Miller and Nijel Pack are also dangerous offensive weapons who make it difficult for opposing defenses to shut everyone down at once.
- Scouting the Longhorns -- Texas ranks No. 6 nationally in Division I experience, according to KenPom, and it shows in the way it plays. The Longhorns rank among the nation's best teams at avoiding turnovers and barely missed a beat after the midseason firing of coach Chris Beard. Combo guard Marcus Carr leads the team in scoring, but Texas has numerous weapons and a deep bench. Five players average 9.1 or more points per game for a squad that seems impossible to fluster.
- Scouting the Musketeers -- Offense is what Xavier does best. The Musketeers like to play fast and are one of the top 3-point shooting teams in the country because of excellent perimeter threats Souley Boom and Adam Kunkel. But the Musketeers can beat you in a variety of ways. Even amid the loss of key forward Zach Freemantle to injury, Xavier still has a couple of interior producers in Jerome Hunter and Jack Nunge. This is coach Sean Miller's first season back with the program, and he's got his team one win away from returning to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2008, which was the fourth year of his first five-year run as coach.
Friday -- KFC Yum! Center in Louisville
(1) Alabama vs. (5) San Diego State
- Scouting the Crimson Tide -- Alabama is the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament for a reason. With a deep rotation full of elite athletes, including a handful of NBA prospects, the Crimson Tide are excellent on both ends. They score 82.3 points per game on a whopping 10.1 made 3-pointers and also rank third in defensive efficiency, per KenPom. Versatile freshman forwards Brandon Miller and Noah Clowney are both likely first-round NBA Draft picks, but this team also has veteran guards such as Mark Sears and Jahvon Quinerly providing leadership.
- Scouting the Aztecs -- San Diego State hangs its hat on defense. The Aztecs are holding opponents to only 63.1 points per game and limit them to just 28.8% 3-point shooting. They prefer to play at a slow pace and are excellent at forcing opponents to play slow. Physical guard Matt Bradley is the only SDSU player who averages double figures. This isn't an attractive offensive team, but the Aztecs are fully bought in to the imposing style that sixth-year coach Brian Dutcher prefers as they make their first Sweet 16 appearance since 2014.
(6) Creighton vs. (15) Princeton
- Scouting the Bluejays -- Creighton's excellent defense centers around 7-foot rim protector Ryan Kalkbrenner, who makes scoring inside a chore for opponents. In fact, Creighton is so willing to let you try and score against Kalkbrenner that its strategy is to actively funnel opponents into his domain. The idea is for Creighton to avoid fouling on the perimeter, and that shows up in a couple of ways. Kalkbrenner ends up blocking a ton of shots, and opponents rarely get to the free-throw line. Offensively, Kalkbrenner leads in scoring, though all five starters average double digits. The Bluejays don't have a ton of depth, which is another reason why actively avoiding fouls works for this team.
- Scouting the Tigers -- Princeton turned into a defensive juggernaut during the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament by holding Arizona 27 points below its average and Missouri 16 points below its average. The Tigers also rebound like maniacs, which limits the number of second-chance points that opponents are able to accumulate. If the Tigers continue defending like they did last weekend, they will be a tough out. Offensively, the players to watch are Tosan Evbuomwan, a versatile forward, and Ryan Langborg, who hoists 6.2 attempts from 3-point range per game.