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2021 NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Picks: West, East Regions


Evan Mobley, USC

West Region

(1) Gonzaga Bulldogs vs. (5) Creighton Bluejays

After rolling through the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, Gonzaga gets their first significant test in the form of fifth-seeded Creighton. The Bluejays entered March Madness with some serious off-the-court questions, but they've managed to fend off upset bids from UC-Santa Barbara and Ohio. 

The best offensive team in the country all season, Gonzaga has continued to score at will over the first two rounds. They dropped 98 against Norfolk State and then 87 against Oklahoma, as sophomore Drew Timme went for 30 points. In order for Creighton to have any chance at pulling the upset, they'll have to find some way to slow down this offense, which no team has been able to do effectively. It's a group with an abundance of scoring options, from Corey Kispert, to Drew Timme, to Jalen Suggs. Even the complementary pieces on this roster have proven they can play vital roles, such as Joel Ayayi and underrated Andrew Nembhard. In order to contain this offense, Creighton will have to find a way to slow them down in transition and make them play in the half-court. The Bulldogs still have an elite half-court offense, but slowing down their tempo is the first step. The Bluejays have to find a way to stop Gonzaga in the paint and force them to shoot. They aren't a bad jump-shooting team, but they have not had to lean on the three ball much this season and forcing them out of their comfort zone is critical. 

Creighton will have to put up a lot of points themselves, which could be an issue for an inconsistent offense. This lineup does have some playmakers, chief among them lead guard Marcus Zegarowski, but it will need more production from the supporting cast. That means shooters like Christian Ballock and former Duke transfer Alex O'Connell will have to open up the offense, while slashers Damien Jefferson and Denzel Mahoney get to the rim. The Bluejays have done a good job of slowing the game down and taking good looks against UCSB and Ohio but again, Gonzaga is a complete different animal. They control the pace and tempo as effectively as anybody in the country and defensively they are adept at forcing turnovers. Zegarowski versus Suggs should be the matchup to watch; if Zegarowski can limit turnovers and put his teammates in good position, the Bluejays have a chance. If not, you get the feeling this could turn into another Gonzaga rout.

Creighton might not have the explosiveness Gonzaga has, but there's a reason this team won 22 games and was a five seed in this Tournament. They're a well-coached team that plays a really smart and disciplined form of basketball. They've played tremendous defense over the season's second half, but they haven't faced an offense that gets up and down the court quite like Gonzaga. I don't doubt that the Bluejays can hang around, but they need to play their best basketball of the season for the entire 40 minutes to pull off an upset. Perhaps they can do it, but the smart money is obviously on Gonzaga, who should roll to the Elite Eight.

The Pick: Gonzaga by twelve

(7) Oregon Ducks vs. (6) USC Trojans

The Pac-12 Conference has become somewhat of a punchline among the Power Five programs in college football and basketball, but the league has responded with an amazing 2021 NCAA Tournament. Four Pac-12 teams remain alive (Oregon, USC, Oregon State, UCLA), the most out of any conference in the country. Now, two of the league's best collide, with a berth in the Elite Eight on the line.

Oregon dealt with injuries all season long but now playing at full strength, the Ducks look like an extremely dangerous basketball team. They advanced to the second round due to COVID issues at VCU but then responded by dominating second-seeded Iowa, 95-80. The offense was so effective against the Hawkeyes that they shot 56% from the field and overcame 36 points from National Player of the Year favorite Luka Garza. It's hard to imagine Oregon continuing that level of shooting, but they may not need to if they're able to play better on the defensive end. It will be interesting to see how the Ducks choose to attack USC. Chris Duarte and Will Richardson are their two top scorers when fully healthy, but I'd imagine they still want to maintain some interior presence. Eugene Omoruyi had a really good game against Iowa, but he's undersized at 6'6" and will have a tough matchup against Trojan freshman phenom Evan Mobley. With traditional big N'Faly Dante sidelined, that could mean we see more of freshman Franck Kepnang, who enrolled for the spring semester. Kepnang's main focus will be on defending Mobley the other way, but Oregon could try and draw up some lobs to get him involved. He also provides great energy on the glass, and this is a decent offensive rebounding Ducks team. If they can string together a few extra possessions against the Trojans, it could make all the difference.

The Trojans are fresh off a 34-point victory over Kansas that ranks as one of the worst defeats in the history of KU basketball. This is certainly not a signature Kansas team, but it was still fairly shocking how dominant USC looked on both ends. They held the Jayhawks to under 30 percent from the field and built a shocking 43-27 advantage on the boards. The one-two punch of Evan Mobley and his older brother, Isaiah, has proven to be overwhelming when both are playing well. Evan is in many ways a traditional big but he can step out and hit a three once in awhile, while Isaiah has a more diverse offensive skillset. Those two are going to be very tough matchups for Oregon, but the supporting cast will also have to play well. Guards Tajh Eaddy and Drew Peterson don't get the attention of the Mobley brothers, but they've certainly played an important role on this team. They're going to be particularly important guarding a high-energy Oregon backcourt that will look to run at every opportunity. Peterson didn't have a good shooting night against Kansas, so he'll look to get back on track here.

I'm very conflicted on who I end up choosing to move on to the West Regional Final. On one hand, I've liked Oregon's chances to go on a run all season long and this is the type of high-octane offensive team that would match up really well with Gonzaga. On the other hand, USC is a tremendous defensive team who has the best player on the court in Evan Mobley. I think the pace and flow of this game will determine who comes out on top. If the Ducks are able to run and get some easy looks in transition, I like them to win the game. If the Trojans are able to slow it down a bit and force Oregon's offense to be a little bit stagnant, I like them. USC won the only matchup the two teams had in the off-season, but that was not against a full strength Oregon squad. I think the Ducks respond this time around, and do just enough to overcome the Mobley brothers.

The Pick: Oregon by three

East Region

(1) Michigan Wolverines vs. (4) Florida State Seminoles

While Iowa and Illinois ended their Big Ten schedules playing better basketball, Michigan was the most consistent team atop the league for the 2020-21 season. Now, they remain the conference's last hope still alive in the NCAA Tournament, with every other team washing away in the first weekend. Standing in their way of an Elite Eight appearance is fourth-seeded Florida State, who has beaten UNC-Greensboro and Colorado en route to the Sweet 16.

The Wolverines are not playing at full strength, as senior Isaiah Livers has a stress injury on his foot that will likely cost him the remainder of the season. The absence of Livers, one of their best pure scorers, has forced others into more feature roles. That includes sharpshooter Eli Brooks, who had 21 points in the win over LSU, as well as skilled defender Chaundee Brown. It's not an ideal situation, but Michigan has proven they can roll with the punches, and they dispatched a really strong push from LSU. They key in this game likely won't be Brooks or Brown, but what Wolverine starters are able to do. Big man Hunter Dickinson has been tremendous all season, but he had a frustrating game against the Tigers, dealing with constant foul trouble. He should have an advantage in the post against Florida State that might just be what he needs to get going again. Point guard Mike Smith also had a rough go in the second round game, and needs to get some confidence back. He has never been their go-to scorer, but plays an important role as the team's floor general. Then there's Franz Wagner, who has really stepped and been a difference-maker down the stretch. The two-way wing will be especially important, going up against a plethora of Seminole guards with size and length. Michigan still proved they could score without Livers when they dropped 86 against LSU, but they absolutely need Dickinson and Smith to play better. Florida State is a pretty good defensive team, but the Wolverines should still be able to keep the scoreboard operators busy.

The Seminoles have not played a pretty brand of basketball in their first two wins of the Tournament, but they've still managed to advance. This is a team with a couple of stars, but the lineup as a whole is fairly balanced throughout. M.J. Walker is their top scorer, but Scottie Barnes and Anthony Polite also put pressure on opposing defenses. Barnes might end up being an X-factor here; the former five-star recruit has been tremendous when FSU is playing well, but he's been awfully inconsistent. He had just nine total points in their first two games, but will need to get going if the Seminoles are to move on. Walker, Polite, and Wyatt Wilkes are also going to have to shoot the three better than they have as of late. With Brooks feeling it for Michigan, the Wolverines have been stroking from deep. Florida State simply doesn't have the offensive punch they need to hang on if this trio isn't shooting the ball well. Then there's the big men, RaiQuan Gray and Balsa Koprivica, who will likely rotate defending Dickinson. I'm interested in this matchup because they are both physical bigs, but Dickinson is pretty crafty. If they're able to contain the fabulous freshman just enough, FSU is in a good spot.

In my original bracket I picked Florida State to win this matchup, en route to an eventual Final Four berth. Yet, Michigan answered a lot of concerns for me in that second round win, even though it wasn't necessarily pretty. They took a few punches from a really tough LSU team and were able to come back and throw enough punches of their own to win the game. I always thought it was a little bit unfair to think this basketball team was just going to fold because Livers is out. It's an extremely tough team that should be ready for another dogfight against Florida State. I still think the Seminoles are an exceptionally tough Sweet 16 matchup, but I'm back on the Wolverines train.

The Pick: Michigan by six

(2) Alabama Crimson Tide vs. (11) UCLA Bruins

One of the last teams to gain entry into the Field of 68, UCLA has proven the detractors wrong by amassing three wins over the last week-and-a-half. However, their toughest test of March so far arrives in the form of second-seeded Alabama. The Crimson Tide blew out Maryland this past weekend to advance to the Sweet 16, and get one step closer to becoming the first school since 2006-07 Florida to win both a basketball and football title.

Alabama is led by an extremely balanced, fun-to-watch offense. Their backcourt is loaded with playmaking potential, from Jahvon Quinerly to John Petty Jr., to Jaden Shackelford and Herb Jones. They have an ideal blend of shooters (Shackelford and Petty) with aggressive guards and wings that can attack the rim consistently (Jones and Quinerly). They don't offer a ton of size in their frontcourt or many traditional big men, but that hasn't stopped them from evolving into one of the best rebounding teams in the entire country. The Tide have occasionally been inconsistent on offense, but dropping 96 against Maryland in the second round seems to indicate the team is playing with a lot of confidence and energy. The bigger questions remain on the defensive end, where the team has occasionally lacked the focus and discipline to defend tough for the entire forty minutes.

While Alabama has more depth throughout their lineup than UCLA, the Bruins still offer a nice variety of offensive weapons. The three to really keep an eye on are former Kentucky transfer Johnny Juzang, bruising wing Jaime Jaquez Jr., and lead guard Tyger Campbell. This trio isn't your traditional set of Bruin stars, but they are still effective. Juzang was merely a complementary piece during his one year in Lexington, but he's shown a tremendous ability to become a go-to option on offense. Jaquez went for 27 points against Michigan State in the "First Four" and has a really well-rounded game. Campbell has a funky head of hair that even has its own Twitter account but he's a tough, Mick Cronin-type guard. The entire trio can hit the three ball at a decent rate, which they might have to against this high-powered Alabama attack. It's interesting that this particular UCLA team is similar in many ways to past Cronin-coached teams, but also quite different in other ways. They're not as strong defensively as some of those Cincinnati teams Cronin led, but they're still tough and bruising. The Bruins tend to play a lot of isolation basketball, but it's generally still a strong offensive team. I'll be interested to see whether this team wants to get out and run with Alabama or go the usual Cronin route, which is to slow things down and extend possessions.

I'll be the first one to admit I wasn't very high on either of these teams coming into the NCAA Tournament. Alabama had a dominant year in the SEC but they're still a little bit streaky, and it's a team without a signature star. UCLA had just one win against an at-large Tournament team (Colorado), but they've gotten hot at the right time and find themselves in the Sweet 16. I think the Bruins will be a tough team to overcome, but the Tide are better rested, and more athletic. They won't run away with it, but I do think they'll end up moving on.

The Pick: Alabama by eight

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