After the first weekend, we’ve seen the loaded South Region go chalk — as the top-four seeds all advanced to the Sweet 16.
UNC and Kentucky both struggled to advance — defeating scrappy teams in Arkansas and Wichita State, respectively.
After a sluggish first 20 minutes UCLA blitzed Cincinnati in the second half en route to a 12-point victory. Butler had no issue with Middle Tennessee in the second round. The Bulldogs neutralized the high-flying Blue Raiders’ attack with a stifling defense, ultimately winning the contest by nine points.
The South Region is the only one to feature the four lowest-ranked teams in the Sweet 16. Storylines emanating from these two contests are boundless, and it sets the scene for potentially three great games.
No. 3 UCLA Bruins v. No. 2 Kentucky Wildcats
This is a dream matchup for any fan.
UCLA and Kentucky are universally regarded as two of the most successful college basketball programs in the history of the sport. Both combine for 19 National Championships, and have had plenty of big-time talent grace their respective universities.
This year is no different — as each team possesses elite talent. UK has a dynamic trio of freshmen including PG De’Aaron Fox, SG Malik Monk, and PF Bam Adebayo. UCLA has a senior backcourt (Isaac Hamilton, Bryce Alford), a stellar freshman power forward (T.J. Leaf) and arguably the nation’s best player in freshman PG Lonzo Ball.
Along with UCLA freshman big man Ike Anigbogu, there could be six 2017 first-round picks featured in this contest. This contest easily features more NBA talent than any other game in the field.
In the first matchup between both teams, UCLA shot 53-percent from the field — including 44-percent from three-point range. Kentucky put up an eye-popping 92 points in the contest…but also allowed 97 en route to the Bruins’ victory on the road in Lexington. One would be hard-pressed to come up with a better win for any team this season.
Fast-forward to this upcoming Friday, and the two square off yet again in the Sweet 16.
Both teams are tasked with slowing down extremely lethal and efficient transition teams. UCLA likes to get out and shoot the three-ball — whereas Kentucky thrives when attacking the rim.
The biggest match-up to watch will include Ball and Fox. It’s very feasible to believe both will be the first two point guards selected in this year’s draft. Fox is excellent at driving the ball to the basket. He’s also very capable as an on-ball defender.
Ball’s ability to push the ball and find open teammates is special. He’s also an exceptional three-point shooter, and can also drive the ball when needed.
If UCLA can control the boards and avoid second-chance opportunities against the athletic Wildcats’ roster, it has a great chance to advance. Duly, if UK can limit UCLA’s effectiveness from deep, it also has very good odds to reach the Elite Eight.
No. 4 Butler Bulldogs v. No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels
On paper, it appears as if North Carolina has the decided advantage. The No.1-ranked Tar Heels have an athletic roster littered with 4 and 5-star recruits. Butler is a bunch made up of unheralded players who’ve flown under the proverbial radar.
Through the first two games of the tournament, North Carolina has looked a bit shaky. It breezed by first-round opponent Texas Southern — before being tested big-time by an undersized Arkansas team. In fact, the Razorbacks held the lead deep in the contest before UNC exploded for a big run to end the game.
Butler has been quiet, yet efficient in both of its contests. It dismantled Winthrop in the round of 64, and had their way with a dangerous Middle Tennessee team this past Saturday.
It would behoove North Carolina to not overlook this squad. Butler beat Villanova twice during the regular season. It also has a squad rooted in togetherness and team chemistry. In the victory over Middle Tennessee, Butler shot 8-of-15 from three-point range, and 51.1-percent from the field.
North Carolina will have to contest the Butler perimeter game. Duly, the Bulldogs will likely pack the paint as a means to combat the size advantage UNC will possess.
It should be a great battle of two teams possessing dissimilar styles of play.
Source: Kelley L. Cox, Mark Zerof, Brandon Robinson /USA TODAY Sports