Around this time last week, there were 64 times that all more or less believed that they had a great chance of going far in one of the most grueling yet beloved postseason affairs in sports. Now, after a plethora of upsets and bombastically shocking buzzer beaters, the battlefield has now been condensed into a much smaller yet still highly competitive series of contests that will be vital in deciding who gets to move on to the Final Four. For some, the Elite Eight is familiar territory that is a stepping stone towards garnering another place in the Final Four, adding to their already impressive cache of postseason success. For others, this is a wholly unique and somewhat intimidating experience as it is no longer possible to hide behind the guise of being the lovable underdog. Now, regardless of what seed these programs are marked with, the assumption is now that whoever has made it this far should be rightfully considered a respected competitor that is not to be underestimated in any way. Can the likes of Loyola-Chicago and Kansas State win this weekend to become one of the four teams that will have earned the right to go to San Antonio? Let’s find out.
Loyola-Chicago Ramblers (11) vs. Kansas State Wildcats (9)
Winning their three contests in March Madness by a combined score of five points, the Ramblers have been able to live on the fringe of being eliminated as their disciplined defense (26 defensive rebounds against Nevada) in conjunction with their highly efficient offense (55.8 FG% against Nevada) has allowed them to pull away during the waning seconds of tight contests. Despite turning the ball over 16 times against Nevada, the Ramblers were able to prevent the Wolf Pack from finding a rhythm from long range, which was vital in preventing the tenacious offense of Nevada from making another comeback. While the shooting inadequacies have been well documented throughout the tournament for Kansas State, they have somehow been able to rely on their opportunistic defense to persevere against prolific offensive teams. Garnering 11 steals while turning the ball over just 10 times, Kansas State was able to overcome a lengthy Kentucky team that outrebounded them 38-29. While the defense of the Wildcats will make it difficult for the Ramblers to get off accurate jump shots, Loyola-Chicago proved emphatically that they can get to the rim with their swift and cerebral athletes, something that Kansas State’s anemic offense will struggle to do consistently in this contest.
Final Score: Ramblers 65 Wildcats 62 Spread: Kansas State -11.0
Florida State Seminoles (9) vs. Michigan Wolverines (3)
Holding the dynamic offense of the Gonzaga Bulldogs to shooting just 33.9% from the field, the Seminoles stepped up in a big way to prove that their gifted rebounders could make plays on both offense and defense. Pulling down 30 defensive rebounds against the Bulldogs, the Seminoles were able to capitalize off of their extra opportunities as they tenaciously pursued the rim in transition to eventually wear down the overwhelmed defense of Gonzaga. While Texas A&M was able to have their way with North Carolina when it came to rebounding the basketball, they were not prepared to contend with the formidable defenders of Michigan as the Aggies turned the ball over 14 times with 12 of those turnovers being steals by the Wolverines. Although they struggled to shoot the basketball during the first two games of the tournament, the Wolverines came out firing and shocked the college basketball world by shooting 58.3% from three-point range. While the Seminoles will most likely be better at rebounding the basketball, the Wolverines dynamic defense combined with their productive perimeter shooters will be the deciding factor in sending them to the Final Four in San Antonio.
Final Score: Seminoles 71 Wolverines 78 Spread: Michigan -4.5
Texas Tech Red Raiders (3) vs. Villanova Wildcats (1)
An intriguing matchup that will display one of the most efficient defenses in college basketball (Texas Tech) against arguably the most prolific offense in the country (Villanova), this could be one of the most thrilling contests of the tournament. Against the Boilermakers, the Red Raiders forced 17 turnovers, which their offense was efficiently able to convert into 78 points and 47.5% shooting from the field. With guard Keenan Evans appearing to be at full strength, the Red Raiders possess a dynamic playmaker that is just as adept at defending the hoop as he is at scoring the basketball. Although the Wildcats struggled in the first half to score against the full court press defense of the Mountaineers, their incredibly accurate shooters eventually won out as Villanova shot 54.2% from three-point range. If the Wildcats can be supremely accurate from beyond the arch as they have been throughout the tournament, the Red Raiders will be in serious trouble no matter how formidable and cerebral their defense is. It will be a hard-fought contest, but I see the Wildcats making enough clutch shots down the stretch to pull away from the scrappy defense of the Red Raiders.
Final Score: Red Raiders 72 Wildcats 79 Spread: Villanova -6.5
Duke Blue Devils (2) vs. Kansas Jayhawks (1)
Despite shooting an abysmal 19.2% from three-point range, the feisty Blue Devils were able to pull away from the resilient Orange thanks to their proficient zone defense which was able to garner eight steals. Although it’s easy to focus on Duke’s adept perimeter shooters as the reason for their impressive success in the tournament thus far, it has actually been their lengthy defenders that have allowed them to comfortably defeat their opponents even when they struggle to score on offense. Against one of the best transition defenses in basketball, the Jayhawks played to their strengths by getting the ball in the half court consistently and cycling it around to their open shooters, thereby exploiting the inconsistent perimeter defense of the Tigers (45.5 3P%). Even without a competent defense, the scorers of the Jayhawks are so explosive and confident that they can often overcome their lack of physicality on the other end of the court. However, against the lengthy and formidable defenders of Duke, Kansas will have a tough time getting to the rim and will have to rely heavily on their perimeter shooting capabilities. While the Jayhawks could win with their gifted offense alone, it will most likely not be enough to overcome a Blue Devils team that is more well-rounded and possesses slightly better athletes.
Final Score: Blue Devils 81 Jayhawks 75 Spread: Duke -3.5