The NCAA men’s basketball tournament will start whittling its teams from 16 to eight starting tonight with four games on tap.
Tonight’s four Sweet 16 games will include two games each from the Midwest Region and two games from the West Region.
The Midwest Region has the most intriguing matchups of the two regions, as it features Wichita State vs. Notre Dame and the main event: undefeated Kentucky vs. West Virginia. The Wildcats are attempting to be the first men’s team to go undefeated since Indiana accomplished the feat in 1976.
West Virginia freshman guard Daxter Miles is one person who believes the Wildcats run to perfection will end tonight. Miles talked with reporters on Wednesday.
“I give them their props. Salute them to getting to 36-0. But tomorrow they’re gonna be 36-1.”
Here’s a preview of the Midwest Region games, which take place at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.
No. 7 Wichita State (30-5) vs. No. 3 Notre Dame (31-4)
Notre Dame advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003, with a hard-fought 67-64 overtime victory over Wichita State. The Fighting Irish are 33-37 in 33 NCAA appearances though they have only made one Final Four.
The Fighting Irish, who are used to close games, have won eight straight — four of those wins have been by single digits. In total, Notre Dame has played in 16 games decided by less than 10 points and is 7-2 in games decided by four points or less.
Notre Dame ranks No. 12 in the nation in scoring with 78.8 points a game and is No. 2 in the country in shooting percentage (51.0). Defensively, the Irish surrender 65.6 points a game.
Senior guard Jerian Grant (16.8 ppg, 6.8 apg), who has scored in double-figures in 16 straight games, leads four Irish players in double figures: Zach Auguste (12.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg), Pat Connaughton (12.5 ppg, 7.4 rpg), and Demetrius Jackson (12.4 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 3.0 apg). Sophomore guard Steve Vasturia led the way for Notre Dame against Butler with 20 points while Grant (16) and Jackson (13) also reached double figures.
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Wichita State “shocked” No. 2 Kansas in the third round as all five starters scored in double figures. Senior guard Tekele Cotton scored a season-high 19 points to lead the Shockers while junior guards Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker, and Evan Wesel contributed 17, 12, and 12 points, respectively. Senior Darius Carter finished with 10 points and four rebounds. Wichita State is 15-12 in 11 NCAA appearances and have been to four Elite Eights and two Final Fours, with the last occurring in 2013.
Wichita State has won 11-of-12 though they are just 1-2 against ranked teams this year. The Shockers, who average 69.7 points a game (No. 108 in the country), have topped the 70-point mark in three of their last five games. Defensively, Wichita State ranks No.9 in the nation, surrendering 56.7 points a game.
Baker (14.9 points, 4.4 rpg), VanVleet (13.2 ppg, 5.3 apg, 4.4 rpg), and Carter (11.1ppg) are the Shockers’ leading scorers.
Game Time: 7:15 p.m. on CBS.
Prediction: Should be a highly contested game but Notre Dame will likely prevail 72-65. Mike DeCourcey of the Sporting News ranks Notre Dame No. 11 and Wichita State No. 12 in his Sweet 16 power rankings.
No. 1 Kentucky (36-0) vs. No. 5 West Virginia (23-11)
Kentucky has run through its competition, winning by an average of 20.9 points a game, but that doesn’t mean it has been a cake walk for the Wildcats. Kentucky has been involved in two overtime games, including one double overtime, and escaped the grasp of the LSU Tigers (71-69) on February 10.
The Wildcats, who rank No. 3 in the nation in scoring defense (53.9 points a game), have been terrific on the defensive end during the tournament. Kentucky swatted away nine Cincinnati shots in its 64-51 second-round victory. The Wildcats held the Bearcats to 31.7 percent from the floor and forced 14 turnovers. Kentucky shot just 37.0 percent from the field. Aaron Harrison led the way with 13 points while Trey Lyles contributed 11 points and 11 rebounds for his third double-double of the season.
Kentucky is very talented and uses a nine-man rotation. Sophomore guard Aaron Harrison leads a balanced squad with 11.1 points a game. Freshmen Devin Booker (10.1 ppg) and Karl- Anthony Towns (10.0 ppg, 6.8 rpg) are also averaging double figures. Junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein (9.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg, sophomore guard Andrew Harrison (9.2 ppg, 3.6 apg) and freshman Trey Lyles (8.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg) round out the Wildcats’ top-five scoring options.
Kentucky is ranked in the top 42 in the country in several offensive categories. The Wildcats are No. 29 in the nation (74.9), No. 40 in field goal percentage (46.9) and No. 42 in assists (14.2).
Greg Ahern of USA Today Sports is predicting big things from the Wildcats frontcourt trio of Cauley-Stein, Towns, and Lyles against West Virginia.
West Virginia has reached the Sweet 16 for the sixth time since 1998 with its 69-59 victory over Maryland in the second round. The Mountaineers had four players tally double figures led by Devin Williams, who recorded a double-double with 16 points and 10 rebounds. Gary Browne added 14 points while Daxter Miles and Jonathan Holton chipped in with 12 apiece.
West Virginia likes to press its opponents for 40 minutes of the game. The Mountaineers have used some sort of press 37 percent of the time, which is tops in the nation. The Mountaineers have forced their opponents into turnovers around 30 percent of their possessions. West Virginia forced the Terrapins into 23 turnovers, marking the 16th time they have forced their opponents into at least 20 turnovers according, to ESPN research and stats.
Senior Juwan Staten leads the way for the Mountaineers, who average 73.9 points a game (No. 36) in the country. Staten averages 14.2 points to go along with 4.8 assists. Devin Williams is the only other Mountaineer in double figures with 11.6 points and 8.2 rebounds a contest. Williams, according to ESPN’s Eammon Brennan, is the key player for the Mountaineers in this matchup. West Virginia is shooting just 41.2 percent from the field, which ranks No. 282 in Division I.
Despite their pesky pressure defense — West Virginia leads the nation in steals with 10.9 a game — the Mountaineers only rank No. 164 in the nation in scoring defense (66.5). The Mountaineers permitted Maryland to shoot 47 percent from the field in the third round game.
The biggest question for Kentucky will be how will they handle the Mountaineer press? The Wildcats have turned the ball over 26 percent of their possessions when they have been pressed.
According to Elias Sports, Bob Huggins is one of two coaches to have coached against John Calipari’s teams at least 10 times and have a winning record. Huggins is 8-2 against Calipari.
Game time: 30 minutes following the Notre Dame-Wichita State contest and can be seen on CBS.
Prediction: Kentucky 75-62.
[Photo by Jaime Squire/Getty Images]