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March Madness 2023: Sweet 16 Picks (East, West Regions)

Drew Timme, Gonzaga

East Region

 7 Michigan State Spartans vs. 3 Kansas State Wildcats

January, February, Izzo. The legendary Michigan State head coach has once again exceeded expectations in the NCAA Tournament, engineering an upset of second-seeded Marquette and leading the lone Big Ten to make it to the second weekend. Next up is Kansas State, who was picked last in the Big 12 preseason, but has been one of the best stories of the 2022-2023 season.

This isn't the flashiest team Izzo has had in East Lansing nor is it the most explosive, but they do a lot of things well and play a tough brand of basketball. The upset of Marquette this past weekend was a great example of why you can never count out Izzo-led teams. Despite the fact the Spartans shot horrendously from three-point territory, just 13%, their tough defense and methodical offense helped them overcome the Golden Eagles. Of course, it did help that lead guard Tyson Walker had a superb showing, pacing all scorers with 23 points. Walker has been inconsistent throughout his short MSU career after transferring from Northeastern, but he's been playing the best basketball of his career down the stretch. He's joined by two capable guards in A.J. Hoggard and sniper Jaden Adkins, and I love the frontcourt duo of Joey Hauser and Malik Hall. Hauser has been playing with much more confidence all season and it looks like Hall is finally getting his feet under him after injuries impacted his 2022-23, which is bad news for opponents. 

The Spartans have been a strong defensive team all season, but they are in store for one of their toughest battles of the season. Kansas State has an explosive offense and one player in particular should strike fear into every opposing team: Markquis Nowell. The 5'8" senior has been a joy to watch all season and had one of the most unstoppable March Madness performances I can remember in recent history against Kentucky. He finished with 27 points and nine assists, and some of the difficult shots he made were quite literally jaw-dropping. Michigan State is going to need a defined strategy to slow him down, or there's no doubt that Nowell will once again be firing away. However, he isn't the only Wildcat that can hurt you defensively. Keyontae Johnson, the former Florida transfer, finished as the team's leading scorer on the regular season and will be a matchup problem. Johnson might not hit the step-back threes that Nowell can, but he's potent in isolation and an insane athlete. Malik Hall is likely to be matched up against him, which should provide plenty of entertainment.

The 1-2 punch of Johnson and Nowell has been the fuel for K-State's success all season, but I'm actually picking Michigan State to spring the upset. The Spartans don't have the firepower, but I generally trust good defensive teams more than offensive ones. They put on a clinic defensively against Marquette, slowing down Big East Player of the Year Tyler Kolek, and should be able to be able to enter this one still riding that wave of momentum. Plus, there's no way their three-point shooting woes from that second round game are as bad here, so they will be able to top the Wildcats in Madison Square Garden.

Michigan State by six

9 Florida Atlantic Owls vs. 4 Tennessee Volunteers

An improbable Sweet 16 matchup rounds out the action in Madison Square Garden on Thursday night. Florida Atlantic, playing in their first Sweet 16 in program history, hopes to keep the momentum going against fourth-seeded Tennessee. The Volunteers and Rick Barnes have become synonymous with March struggles in recent years, but they're looking to change the narrative with a trip to the Elite Eight.

Florida Atlantic may not have faced an SEC slate like the Vols, but they've proven to be a quality basketball team on both ends. Offensively, they feature an abundance of productive guards, with big man Vladislav Goldin patrolling the middle as their go-to guy in the post. Johnell Davis and Alijah Martin have been the main scorers over the course of the season and can both shoot, but the Owls are a much deeper team than the average fan may realize. They're also an athletic team; they won't be shell-shocked by the types of players Tennessee features, and should be able to compete with them for the full 40 minutes. Florida Atlantic also features a strong defense, one that was able to contain Kendric Davis in the first round and pull off an upset. They're feisty on the perimeter, and Goldin has proven to be a capable rim-protector that should impact shots on the interior.

No matter what happens on Thursday, Tennessee deserves plenty of credit for even getting to this stage. The program entered the Tournament as a popular upset pick and are without steady point guard Zakai Zeigler, but they've beaten Louisiana and Duke en route to a Sweet 16 berth. Zeigler is a major loss, but others have stepped up in his absence, namely forward Oliver Nkamhoua and Santiago Vescovi. Nkamhoua has been a complementary piece most of his UT career but dropped 27 in the win over Duke, while Vescovi is a crafty combo guard that can take over games with his shooting. They have a solid offense, but the defense has been key to their run so far in the Tournament, and they'll have their hands full with FAU's guards. They did a fine job containing the Blue Devils in their last game, and their defense in the paint has been extremely impressive. They never let Jordan Brown get comfortable in the Louisiana win, and were also able to hold Kyle Filipowski and Dariq Whitehead in check.

These teams both play similar styles and are both incredibly well-rounded. Both take care of the ball and have a solid collection of playmakers that can open things up offensively. It feels like a coin flip picking between the two, but I error on the Volunteers side. They've looked extremely impressive in the Big Dance up to this point, and despite the criticism Barnes receives, he's a master tactician. I'm picking them to move on to the Elite Eight, setting up an interesting contest with Michigan State.

Tennessee by four

West Region

8 Arkansas Razorbacks vs. 4 UConn Huskies

Despite earning an eight seed after an injury-riddled regular season, Arkansas and Eric Musselman are on the cusp of their third consecutive trip to the Elite Eight. Standing in their way is fourth-seeded UConn, who made easy work of both Iona and Saint Mary's to earn a spot in the Sweet 16 field. With two high-powered offenses and two energetic head coaches, there should be ample fireworks in Las Vegas Thursday night.

The youth on the Razorback roster is maturing at the right time, creating an awfully dangerous Arkansas team. Five-star prospect Nick Smith missed a big chunk of the season with injury but is now fully ready to go, while Anthony Black and Jordan Walsh have been key contributors all season long. Black is the player that really makes the 'Hogs go; he's an efficient scorer, underrated rebounder, and disruptive defender. Although 16 points over the first two games of the Tournament don't jump out at you, Black's winning plays have been a major reason why Arkansas is still alive. Junior guard Ricky Council, the veteran of the backcourt, has taken on most of the scoring load, as he has for most of the season. He dropped 21 points in the upset of the East Region's top seed, Kansas, but he has to learn to be more efficient if the Razorbacks are to keep on humming along.

The Huskies feature a larger lineup than the Razorbacks, one punctuated by junior Adama Sanogo. Sanogo is one of the most forceful bigs in the country, a relentless offensive force and rebounder. He's been tremendous all year, but has unleashed even more in the Tournament up to this point, with 28 and 24 point performances against Iona and Saint Mary's. He'll command attention from Arkansas down low, which should open up lanes for the UConn guards, namely Jordan Hawkins and Tristen Newton. Hawkins' growth as a shooter in 2022-23 has been huge for the Huskies, going from 35% and 33% from the field and the three-point, to 40% and 38%. Along with Newton, UConn should be able to keep up with the Razorback guards, but finding a way to get stops defensively will be their major focus.

The Razorback guards pose a stiff challenge to UConn, but it's unclear if they can counter Sanogo on the block. He's proven he can take over games, and Arkansas has struggled to defend against capable bigs. If Hawkins and Newton can open things up with a three or two, the Huskies move on to their first Elite Eight since Shabazz Napier and company.

UConn by nine

3 Gonzaga Bulldogs vs. 2 UCLA Bruins

There isn't a better matchup in the Sweet 16 than the West Region battle set to take place between Gonzaga and UCLA. These are two of the elite programs on the West Coast, and they have an interesting history together. UCLA's come-from-behind victory over Gonzaga and Adam Morrison in 2006 was one of the wildest March Madness moments of the millennium, but the Bulldogs got their vengeance in 2021 with Jalen Suggs' half-court buzzer beater to move on to the National Championship. 

UCLA will be confronted with a familiar foe in Drew Timme, who is hoping to finish off an illustrious career with a National Title. Timme has been superb all season, but has reached another level in the NCAA Tournament, dropping 21 against Grand Canyon and 28 against TCU. He's an incredibly skilled, consistent big who seems to play for these types of moments. However, it's the guards that will determine Gonzaga's future in this Tournament. Julian Strawther, Rasir Bolton, Nolan Hickman, and Malachi Smith have all had their moments in 2022-23, but the backcourt is wildly inconsistent. Strawther in particular is the X-factor; when he's on, there are few guards better than him nationally. Unfortunately, it's anybody's guess which version of Strawther is going to come out on a given night. When the guards aren't hitting their shots, the offense tends to get bogged down, and it feels like Timme is the only player that can create a spark. That can't happen against a team like UCLA, a team loaded with playmakers who are always ready to score. Gonzaga was given a March gift when Jaylen Clark was ruled out for the remainder of the season, costing the Bruins their top defender. That should allow the Bulldogs more freedom offensively, a real opportunity for Few and company.

The Bruins haven't been quite as explosive as Gonzaga over the course of the season, but they've made do their own way. UCLA has lost one single game since late January, the Pac-12 Tournament Championship Game against Arizona, and have rolled through the first two rounds. They may not put up as many points as Gonzaga, but the offense is still awfully potent, with Jaime Jaquez and a collection of guards leading the way. Jaquez is one of my favorite players in college basketball, a steady veteran who plays both ends and battles the entire 40 minutes. He's not going to step out and hit wild three-pointers, but hits tough shots and always finishes through contact. He'll have to be on his "A" game, although Tyger Campbell, Amari Bailey, and David Singleton have also proven they can punish opposing defenses. It's very much a perimeter-oriented offense; aside from freshman forward Adem Bona, the Bruins really lack much of an interior presence offensively. There's a concern here, too, as Bona was hurt in the Pac-12 Tournament, missed the UNC-Asheville game, and was fairly limited against Northwestern.

Mick Cronin never has an issue getting his teams to play up in March, but this team feels a bit different than some the team Gonzaga saw in the 2021 Final Four. They can still score with the best of them, but it has a bit more grittiness and toughness than past UCLA teams, similar to the Cincinnati teams Cronin coached for many years. They're going to give Gonzaga an absolute battle, and something tells me this one won't be lacking in physicality or tenacity. But, Gonzaga was my National Title pick entering this year's Tournament, and I think they can get the job done. The guards are going to have to show up, but Timme gives them a massive advantage, particularly with Bona banged up. Another tight one between these two and there isn't a Jalen Suggs to settle the score, but I'm still picking the 'Zags to move on.

Gonzaga by three

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