No. 3 UCLA vs. No. 2 Kentucky
It’s almost a shame these two have to play in the Sweet 16 and not deeper into the Big Dance. UCLA has won a record 11 national championships with Kentucky second with eight. They each have played in 17 Final Fours (officially), tied for second-most behind North Carolina’s 19. The NCAA Tournament committee did the Bruins a disservice by giving them not just a third seed but sticking them in the same region as the Wildcats and Tar Heels.
There are going to be several future NBA players on the floor at Memphis’ FedExForum on Friday, led by sensational UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball and the UK backcourt of Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox. Those three freshmen are going to declare for the NBA Draft and be lottery picks. Ball could go No. 1 overall. Fellow freshman TJ Leaf (UCLA) and Bam Adebayo (Kentucky) also could declare and would be first-round picks. So the college careers of some talented players will end here. It’s a rematch of a barn-burner on Dec. 3 at Rupp Arena as UCLA, then ranked 11th nationally, upset No. 1 Kentucky 97-92. The Bruins shot 53 percent from the field to the Wildcats’ 41.2. Kentucky had won 42 straight home games. “They manhandled us. They physically manhandled us. You don’t see that very often, especially in this building,” UK coach John Calipari said after.
No. 4 Butler vs. No. 1 North Carolina
The first game in Memphis on Friday is almost an afterthought. Butler had one of the easiest paths ever to reach a Sweet 16, beating a No. 13 seed (Winthrop) and a No. 12 (Middle Tennessee). The Bulldogs are far from pushovers, however, as during the season they beat Villanova twice and Arizona. There’s chatter that Indiana will go after Butler coach Chris Holtmann for its open job if the Hoosiers can’t lure UCLA’s Steve Alford, a former Indiana All-American. ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight gives Butler a 32 percent chance of winning. The Bulldogs have faced North Carolina twice in the past five years – both in November neutral-site tournaments — and won both.
North Carolina’s best player is ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson, but arguably its most important is junior point guard Joel Berry. The Heels’ ACC semifinal game against Duke turned in the second half in favor of the Blue Devils when Berry sat out a long stretch. In Carolina’s struggle last weekend against Arkansas, Berry was dealing with an ankle injury and hit just 2-for-13 from the field, 4-for-7 from the line with a scant three assists. On Thursday, Coach Roy Williams said this of Berry: "He does look better. … He's still not Joel yet." Berry says he’s “almost close to 100 percent.” Under Williams, North Carolina has made it to at least the Elite 8 the six previous times when it was seeded No. 1.
Saturday’s Elite Eight
No. 11 Xavier faces No. 1 Gonzaga in the West Region final in San Jose. The Zags opened as high as -10 in Vegas but it was down to -8 when this show was being recorded. The Musketeers, who barely got into the Big Dance, closed out No. 2 Arizona with a 12-2 run on Thursday night. Xavier was very undersized against the Wildcats and will be again against Gonzaga. Musketeers star Trevon Bluiett has 75 points in his team’s three games. Teddy & Pauly’s top play for Friday … is this Saturday game on Xavier.
The other matchup features No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 3 Oregon in the Midwest final. It will be essentially a home game for KU in Kansas City as Jayhawks backers will find their way to get all of the Purdue/Michigan tickets after those two schools lost Thursday and their fan bases went home. This line has seen early action bet Kansas up to a 6.5-point favorite.