No. 8 Wisconsin vs. No. 4 Florida
Perhaps no school was seeded more improperly by the NCAA Tournament selection committee than the Badgers, who were a Top 10 team much of the season before a bit of a hiccup in February. When the calendar turns to March, the Badgers usually play their best. It’s the fourth straight trip to the Sweet 16 for Wisconsin and for senior stalwarts Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig. That’s how UW is different from the Dukes and North Carolinas and Kentuckys of the world: The Badgers’ kids aren’t five-star recruits (or even four) and generally stay in school all four years. In the Koenig/Hayes Era, this team is 13-3 in the Big Dance and 11-4-1 against the spread. Those two have miraculously played exactly 381 career NCAA Tournament minutes each. Those three straight-up losses, to Notre Dame (2016), Duke (2015 national title game) and Kentucky (2014 Final Four) all easily could have been victories. Wisconsin led late in each.
It’s the sixth trip to the Sweet 16 in the past 10 years for Florida, tied for the most nationally with North Carolina. The Gators are 8-1 all-time in this round for a winning percentage of .889. That’s not just the best of all the Sweet 16 schools this year, but the second-best in tourney history (minimum of five games). Florida is one of the nation’s best defenses and completely shut down No. 5 Virginia in the Round of 32 as the Cavaliers’ starting lineup had all of 16 points on 6-for-28 shooting. Overall, the Cavs were 1-for-15 from long range. This will not be a high-scoring game as both teams work deep into the clock.
No. 7 South Carolina vs. No. 3 Baylor
The Gamecocks are the surprise team standing of three SEC schools in the Sweet 16 as they were just 3-6 in their final nine games before the NCAA Tournament. South Carolina occasionally can’t hit the side of a barn offensively but plays shutdown defense. USC forced 18 turnovers against No. 2 Duke in the Round of 32 upset and 17 in the first round against Marquette. Those are two of the nation’s high-powered offenses. Turnovers are likely to be key here as USC’s defense ranks fourth nationally in turnover percentage, while Baylor’s offense is 301st in giving the ball away. If Baylor handles South Carolina’s press and makes this a half-court game it could favor the Bears. They are an excellent rebounding team led by double-double machine Jonathan Motley (17.3 ppg and 9.9 rpg). This is not likely to be a shootout, either.
L.A. Clippers at Dallas Mavericks
Just a five-game schedule in the NBA on Thursday night opposite the first four games of the Sweet 16. The Clippers have won three straight as they battle Utah for the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference and home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. L.A.’s key players will be well-rested here as the team’s past three games have been blowouts, allowing the likes of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan to take the fourth quarters off. Both Paul and Griffin missed chunks of games earlier in the season due to injury so the might be truly hitting their stride physically instead of wearing down like those who have played every game thus far.
The Mavericks are sliding out of the playoff race in losing four of six. Their past three losses have been by 22 points or more. Trade acquisition Nerlens Noel is struggling through a knee injury, and the backcourt of Seth Curry and Yogi Ferrell has come back to earth while perhaps reminding those around the NBA why neither was drafted. The Clippers have won six of their past nine trips to Dallas.