All season we heard how strong the Big Ten was from top to bottom. If the Big Ten wasn’t the best conference in the country, it was certainly among the top two along with the Big 12. The question entering the NCAA tournament was: How dominant would the Big Ten be in March? Could the league crash the Final Four and put two or three teams into college basketball’s final weekend? With the Big Ten having two No. 1 seeds and two No. 2 seeds, the conference was primed and ready to bring home a basketball championship for the first time since Michigan State raised the banner in 2000.
When it came to Pac-12 basketball, only Bill Walton was a believer. The experts picked on and disregarded any member of the Pac-12 as a real contender. The conference’s best-seeded team was No. 5 Colorado. The Pac-12 would have received only four bids had Oregon State not run the table in the conference tournament and secured the conference’s automatic bid. One of the conference’s at-large bids went to UCLA, and the Bruins had to win a First Four game just to get into the 64-team bracket.
Then the usual madness broke out. The heralded Big Ten entered the tournament with nine teams, but only Michigan remains as we head for the Sweet 16. The Pac-12 had only five teams in the bracket, but four are still dancing. The Pac-12 was also a perfect 5-0 in the first round. The Conference of Champions did not back into the tournament’s second weekend — it destroyed everything in its path. In the second round, USC won by 34 over Big 12 power Kansas, Oregon by 15 over Iowa of the Big Ten, Oregon State by 10 over Big 12 member Oklahoma State and UCLA by 20 over mid-major Abilene Christian. The Pac-12 won four second-round games by a mere 79 points!
The top two conferences coming into the tournament, the Big Ten and the Big 12, have a total of two teams remaining, while the Pac-12 has double that with four teams left. Two other basketball power conferences, the ACC and the Big East, have four teams total remaining. Any way you look at the first two rounds, the big winner is the Pac-12. Maybe Walton isn’t as crazy as we all thought he was just a week ago.
As the Sweet 16 approaches, the clear darlings are Oral Roberts and Loyola-Chicago. Oral Roberts started by knocking off second-seeded Ohio State then took down Florida with a stunning comeback. The Golden Eagles rely heavily on the 3-pointer, and they were falling last weekend. You cannot help but notice the heart and passion they play with.
The Ramblers showed the country just how great a program they have with a Final Four run in 2018. Loyola is led by a superstar coach in Porter Moser. The Ramblers play tight, in-your-face, man-to-man defense with surprise traps coming from all over. They beat top-seeded Illinois in every aspect of the game. They execute Moser’s offense as well as any team in the country runs its sets. They knock down 3-pointers, and when you overplay their outside shooting, they cut back door for layups. The Ramblers are led by Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year Cameron Krutwig. The 6-foot-9 star was on the Final Four team in 2018 and knows how to win big games in this tournament. Loyola is deep and talented at guard and wing with Lucas Williamson, Marquise Kennedy, Aher Uguak and sharpshooter Braden Norris. This No. 8 seed is no fluke, and don’t be surprised if Loyola makes another Final Four run.
Now let’s see if we can find some Sweet 16 winners.
Oregon State vs. Loyola
The Beavers will need their best defensive effort of the season to disrupt the extremely efficient Ramblers’ offense. The Beavers’ 7-1 center, Roman Silva, will need to slow down Krutwig’s scoring and passing. On offense, Oregon State must push the ball and try to get some easy transition baskets before the Ramblers set their lockdown defense. Look for Loyola’s deep, experienced team to win it.
The Pick: Loyola
Villanova vs. Baylor
If Villanova All-American guard Collin Gillespie had not torn his MCL, this would be the best matchup in the Sweet 16. But when the Wildcats lost Gillespie, they lost the heart and soul of the team. You need everyone and everything when playing Baylor. The Bears are loaded with talent and have depth on their bench with players who would start for many tournament teams. Baylor has what it takes to win the title, and I look for this team to play on Championship Monday.
The Pick: Baylor
Oral Roberts vs. Arkansas
Arkansas’ Eric Musselman is one of the best coaches in the country and has two outstanding guards. Justin Smith and Moses Moody compose a superior backcourt. Coaching and guard play win in the NCAA tournament, and Arkansas checks both boxes. The Razorbacks want to push the pace and will need to guard the 3-point line, as the Golden Eagles live by the 3. Arkansas will end a great run by Oral Roberts with too much firepower and athletes all over the court.
The Pick: Arkansas
Syracuse vs. Houston
Look for points in this matchup as both teams can shoot from the outside. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim will rely on someone he knows really well, his son and top scorer Buddy Boeheim. Buddy can shoot once he passes half-court, and the Cougars’ defense better know where he is at all times. Last weekend we saw the famous 2-3 Syracuse zone confuse San Diego State and West Virginia. If you don’t play in the ACC and see the Orange zone defense regularly, it is trouble for opponents who have only a few days to prepare for it. Houston has its best team since the Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler days and is looking for its first Final Four since 1984.
The Pick: Syracuse
Creighton vs. Gonzaga
This will be the most exciting matchup of the Sweet 16. I expect to see tons of points as both teams run very efficient offensive sets. If the 3s are falling for Creighton, look for this contest to come down to the final minutes. Marcus Zegarowski is as fun to watch as any player in the country. He excels on both ends of the court, and coach Greg McDermott trusts his junior point guard. When Mitch Ballock and Denzel Mahoney knock down shots from the outside, Creighton’s offense is tough to guard, and the Bluejays crash the boards with passion. Gonzaga is strong at every position, and coach Mark Few’s Zags are looking for their first national championship. But Few’s team better not look past the Bluejays.
The Pick: Gonzaga
Florida State vs. Michigan
Both teams have the makeup to win the title. This year’s Seminoles shoot well and still have the inside height and athletes. Michigan’s big man, Big Ten Freshman of the Year Hunter Dickinson, cannot afford to get into foul trouble, as the Wolverines rely on him on both ends of the court. FSU has its own freshman star in sixth man Scottie Barnes. Look for this fantastic matchup to come down to the final minutes.
The Pick: Florida State
UCLA vs. Alabama
Just like SEC mate Arkansas, Alabama likes to push the tempo and get up and down the court fast. Look for UCLA to try to slow it down and play this game in the 50s or 60s; a game in the 80s will favor the Crimson Tide. Superstar coach Nate Oats has Alabama peaking at the perfect time. Alabama is led by senior guards John Petty and Herb Jones, who will be tested by UCLA coach Mick Cronin’s tough, defensive-minded team. The Crimson Tide might just have too much offense for the Bruins.
The Pick: Alabama
Oregon vs. USC
These Pac-12 foes know each other well and won’t be surprised by anything thrown at them. They met only once this season, when the Trojans won 72-58 on the road in February. Expect a much closer game this time around. Ducks coach Dana Altman will rely on All-American guard Chris Duarte’s fantastic floor game. The Trojans will turn to the stud brother tandem of Evan and Isaiah Mobley. Evan is a freshman and might be the best talent in college basketball. Look for the last Sweet 16 battle of the weekend to be a beauty. Whoever gets the big defensive stops down the stretch will win.
The Pick: Oregon