March Madness rolls on Thursday night, as men’s Sweet 16 action from the South Regional in San Antonio and the West Regional in San Francisco will continue what has been a captivating 2022 NCAA tournament.
The Duke Blue Devils will be among the most prominent storylines as usual, facing a difficult Texas Tech team that will try to stand in the way of another tune being played in Coach K’s last dance. No. 1 seeds Arizona and Gonzaga, both of which withstood difficult tests in second-round victories, will have to deal with a pair of formidable contenders in Houston and Arkansas, respectively.
And though the true Cinderella Saint Peter’s Peacocks won’t play until Friday, Thursday’s Sweet 16 will include a double-digit seed. The Michigan Wolverines, who have turned it on in March after an up-and-down regular season, will attempt to get back to the Elite Eight for a second straight year when they face March-tested No. 2 seed Villanova.
As 16 teams are trimmed to 12 on Thursday, ESPN’s panel of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi helped set up what they expect from the four matchups.
Thursday’s March Madness schedule:
No. 4 Arkansas vs. No. 1 Gonzaga, 7:09 p.m. ET (CBS)
No. 11 Michigan vs. No. 2 Villanova, 7:29 p.m. ET (TBS)
No. 3 Texas Tech vs. No. 2 Duke, 9:39 p.m. ET (CBS)
No. 5 Houston vs. No. 1 Arizona, 9:59 ET p.m. (TBS)
We’ve seen Duke look shaky over the past two-and-a-half weeks, both in wins (Michigan State, Miami) and in losses (North Carolina, Virginia Tech). Based on your observations over that stretch, do you expect Texas Tech to be the team that ends Coach K’s last dance?
Borzello: Before the NCAA tournament, I had Texas Tech beating Duke, and I haven’t seen anything through two rounds that would make me change my mind.
There have been a few ways to beat Duke this season. One, crowd the paint and make the Blue Devils more one-dimensional on offense. They can make shots from the perimeter, but Paolo Banchero and Wendell Moore Jr. would prefer to drive to the rim than shoot jumpers. Two, spread the floor offensively and force Mark Williams away from the rim. Three, take care of the ball and don’t let Duke get live-ball turnovers and easy transition baskets. Tech checks the first two boxes: The Red Raiders are as good as any team in the country at keeping opponents out of the paint, and their top six players are all capable of shooting from 3. They will have to take care of the ball, though, something they’ve done better in the NCAA tournament, coughing it up 20 times in two games.
Medcalf: In 2019, the Duke team led by Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish was certainly more talented than the Michigan State squad it faced in the Elite Eight that year. But that Michigan State squad had a bunch of grown men who weren’t impressed by the NBA buzz around that team. You look at that MSU roster again, and you don’t see any future NBA stars. One of Mike Krzyzewski’s most impressive squads lost to Cassius Winston, Matt McQuaid, Kenny Goins, Nick Ward and Xavier Tillman. Those Spartans were tough and determined. And I know we like to call this the “one-and-done era,” but you would have made a lot of money if you’d bet on the more experienced team over the freshman stars at this juncture of the NCAA tournament over the last 15 years.
Teams led by freshmen rarely win titles. And Texas Tech has that same we-don’t-care-who-you-are bravado to snatch Duke from its comfort zone and send the Blue Devils home. I think a Duke team that wants to eat around the rim will struggle against a strong, mature Texas Tech group that has held its opponents to a 41.3% clip inside the 3-point line this season (third in the nation). So yes, I think Thursday could be Coach K’s final game.
Gasaway: This is the end of the line for Coach K. He and his team did well to survive against Michigan State after trailing late in that contest. Now the Blue Devils are up against a defense that’s just day-and-night superior to anything the ACC could throw at you this season. (Most seasons, Virginia does a better job of preparing its fellow conference members for what they might see defensively in the tournament. Not this year.)
Granted, Duke is far superior in terms of talent, and given another year this team could likely handle the Red Raiders with little difficulty. But this climb is going to be too steep for what is by far the youngest rotation in the Sweet 16. To quote Myron, Texas Tech has grown men. Obama was still president when Adonis Arms started his college career. Yes, Kentucky won with amazing first-year players in 2012, and of course Duke did as well in 2015. But those two teams were No. 1 seeds who won their round-of-32 games by an average of 17 points. This year’s Blue Devils don’t fit that profile.
Lunardi: Considering I had the Blue Devils losing in the second round, it would be pretty disingenuous to pick Duke now. And I won’t. Texas Tech is exactly the kind of team — older, physical, tough and unafraid — that figures to give the finesse-oriented Blue Devils all they can handle. I like the Red Raiders a lot. Mark Adams collects his third NCAA tournament win at the expense of Coach K’s 100th.
Seth Greenberg and Stephen A. Smith react to Duke advancing to the Sweet 16 after a win over Michigan State.
Which 1-seed are you most worried about on Thursday night: Gonzaga or Arizona?
Gasaway: If you had told me after Gonzaga’s first half against Memphis that I’d be answering this question with anything other than the Bulldogs, I would have thought you were crazy. But then I saw Arizona need an incredible 3 from the incredible Bennedict Mathurin, plus a swallowed whistle in order to survive against TCU. With all due respect to the Horned Frogs, that was just the appetizer for the Wildcats. Houston is the main course.
The Cougars wrote the book on incredible offensive rebounding and constant defensive pressure. If I were building a tournament team from scratch I might start with Mathurin and Christian Koloko, but five-on-five Houston can give Arizona a game. The only thing that gives me pause with my pick for the Cougars to reach the Final Four is that they’ve been allowing tournament opponents to shoot a high number of 3s. That’s worked out so far — UAB and Illinois were unable to capitalize on open looks — but if the Wildcats are on from the perimeter they could end up looking very much like the No. 1 seed in this game after all.
Medcalf: Yeah, I think it has to be Arizona. TCU successfully lured Arizona into a bar fight in the second round. And now the Wildcats have to deal with the toughest guy in the whole bar. Everything that TCU did, Houston can do even better. TCU grabbed 40% of its missed shots in the second round, and Eddie Lampkin was rumbling around the rim (20 points, 14 rebounds, two blocks) all night. Kelvin Sampson will throw Fabian White Jr., Josh Carlton, Reggie Chaney and J’Wan Roberts at Arizona and tell them to employ the same physicality TCU showed.
I also think Houston is playing like a 1-seed. The Cougars have held both Memphis and Illinois (both top-40 in offensive efficiency on KenPom) to 53 points apiece in the last 11 days. We also saw Arizona nearly lose as it faced some unexpected adversity. Houston thrives in those moments. Its whole season has been defined by adversity after the team lost both Tramon Mark and Marcus Sasser to season-ending injuries in December. Still, Arizona has Mathurin and Koloko, and those tough games in the NCAA tournament are often dictated by the top players. Arizona will have the top two or three players on the court. That matters, too.
Borzello: I’m worried about both, but Arizona’s matchup against Houston concerns me more. Much of it comes down to the Wildcats’ inability to consistently rebound on the defensive end. TCU grabbed 20 — 20! — offensive rebounds on Sunday night, constantly getting open putbacks and second-chance points in key moments. Houston, as it always is under Kelvin Sampson, is one of the elite offensive rebounding teams in the country and is coming off a game against Illinois where it grabbed 40% of its misses. The Cougars have rebounded at least 30% of its misses in 12 straight games.
The other concern is turnovers. Arizona ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in turnover percentage and has turned it over 35 times in two NCAA tournament games. Houston thrives on half-court pressure and making teams uncomfortable; the Cougars rank in the top 30 nationally in defensive turnover percentage and just forced 17 against Illinois. I think I’d still pick Arizona, but the Wildcats need to dictate tempo and keep Houston off the glass.
Lunardi: Can Arkansas beat Gonzaga? Yes. Can the Razorbacks make the Zags feel like they’re spending 40 minutes in an orthodontist chair? No. Only Houston can do that, and that’s why the Cougars against high-flying Arizona is the most fascinating matchup of the night. I think the Wildcats will ultimately prevail, but it’ll take a couple of days for the Novocain to wear off.
Gonzaga advances to the Sweet 16 thanks to a scoring rampage from Drew Timme in the second half.
Michigan has strung together perhaps its best three halves of the season in wins over Colorado State and Tennessee. What’s different about the Wolverines, and do you expect the good times to continue against Villanova?
Medcalf: Big Ten coaches with whom I spoke in the days after Juwan Howard’s suspension all praised his coaching ability. He had that respect. And I think it was easy to forget, through the late drama of the season and stumbles this year, that this was still the head coach who nearly led his team to the Final Four a year ago. Being deliberate about relying on Hunter Dickinson and really allowing him to utilize his full skill set is a strategic decision. But the fact that DeVante’ Jones has played 12 minutes total in the NCAA tournament and the Wolverines still have found a way to advance to the Sweet 16 says a lot about who they are.
Frankie Collins has stepped up to fill Jones’ shoes as he continues to work back from a concussion. With Collins on the court in two NCAA tournament games, Michigan has registered 123 points per 100 possessions and held its two opponents to 87 points per 100 possessions, per hooplens.com. He’s a freshman who has played like an experienced guard. I think the magic will continue against Villanova because the Wolverines can play the way they did in the first two games and still win. Michigan doesn’t even look like the team we saw in the Big Ten tournament a few weeks ago. Villanova is a very good team with one of the top guards in America in Collin Gillespie. But I think Tennessee was a greater challenge and Michigan found a way to win. I think the Wolverines will win again Thursday.
Borzello: I talked to a few Big Ten coaches about this exact topic earlier this week, and the consensus seems to be clear: The Wolverines are making a concerted effort to get the ball to Dickinson and run their offense through the big man. Dickinson has been terrific through two games, scoring 21 points on 10 shots against Colorado State and going for 27 points, three 3-pointers and four assists (and 11 rebounds) against Tennessee. When Dickinson is the focal point of Michigan’s offense, it opens up space for everyone else since teams generally need to commit a second defender to help.
I think Michigan’s run ends against Villanova, though. The Wildcats have some physicality down low with Eric Dixon and their perimeter players are playing at an extremely high level right now. I also think Dixon and Jermaine Samuels‘ ability to make shots from the perimeter could cause issues for Dickinson and Moussa Diabate.
Gasaway: Put me down as agreeing wholeheartedly with Jeff’s Big Ten coaches: Michigan is scoring in the paint. Never mind the plentiful turnovers (on 22% of the Wolverines’ tournament possessions) and forget the average shooting from the perimeter (33% in the last two wins). When you’re getting shots at the rim and converting them, you can win some games.
Speaking of points in the paint, Villanova has been allowing plenty of those in the tournament. Delaware and Ohio State combined to shoot 55% inside the arc against the Wildcats. You can take the Blue Hens’ numbers with a grain of salt if you wish since the issue was decided early in the second half. Still, I fully expect Dickinson to put up some nice numbers against Villanova. I also expect the Wildcats to score even more efficiently and to come away with a close win.
Lunardi: This is going to be one of those games that is never out of reach for the Wolverines, but likely never duress for the Wildcats. That is the new Villanova way. The Cats do not overwhelm you with NBA draft picks like the elite 2018 national champions. Instead, they squeeze the life out of you by exploiting mismatches on offense and taking away their opponent’s top threat on defense. Hunter Dickinson will be surrounded, and Villanova will advance, if only because it has Collin Gillespie and Michigan doesn’t.
Michigan guard Eli Brooks flips in the hook shot over the defender, putting the Wolverines up four with under a minute left.
Who will be the star of Thursday’s Sweet 16 games?
Borzello: It’s an easy answer, but one of the Gonzaga bigs — and I lean toward Chet Holmgren against Arkansas. The Razorbacks use one of the smaller lineups left in the NCAA tournament, with the 6-foot-6 duo of Au’Diese Toney and Stanley Umude at the forward spots. That could pose an issue against Gonzaga’s big man duo of Holmgren and Drew Timme.
I think Jaylin Williams will guard Timme on the block; Williams is a terrific defensive player, and he’ll be better-suited to defending the post. That will leave one of the 6-foot-6 forwards to defend the 7-foot Holmgren. Holmgren has had some issues with length and athleticism this season, but I think his size will give him some free looks against Arkansas. At the other end, Holmgren’s elite shot-blocking ability will be a huge asset against the Razorbacks, who struggle to shoot from the perimeter and rely heavily on scoring inside the arc and at the free-throw line.
Medcalf: It still doesn’t feel like we’re talking about Holmgren the way that we should be, but that will change on Thursday, I think. He is 12-for-15 from inside the 3-point line. At 7-foot-1, he is averaging 14.0 PPG, 13.0 RPG and 5.5 BPG through two NCAA tournament games. Timme was the star who saved Gonzaga against Memphis. But I think this smaller Arkansas crew is less equipped to deal with both bigs. He already has silly numbers, but I think Thursday could be the day when everyone understands what all the buzz is about with Holmgren. He’s doing it all, and his 3s aren’t even falling yet.
Chet Holmgren steals the inbound pass and races down the court to stuff down an and-1 dunk for Gonzaga.
Gasaway: I’m not sure whether Arizona will win, but I’m certain that Bennedict Mathurin will have another amazing game. He only shot 3-of-11 on his 3s against TCU, and he still put up 30 points. In his latest mock draft, Jonathan Givony has Mathurin going to the Knicks with the No. 11 pick. I’m not a Knicks fan, but if I were I’d be doing cartwheels down Seventh Avenue all the way to the Garden if that pick really materialized. Mathurin knows how to play the game.
Lunardi: I saw Chet Holmgren block an opponent’s 3-pointer at the West Coast Conference tournament. From the foul line. That is not normal basketball behavior, and Holmgren is not a normal basketball player. This weekend the nation will see it first-hand.