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March Madness 2023: Sweet 16 Picks (South, Midwest Regions)

Marcus Carr, Texas

 South Region

1 Alabama Crimson Tide vs. 5 San Diego State Aztecs

Alabama earned the 2023 NCAA Tournament's top seed after an impressive regular season, and the Tide have looked every bit deserving over their first two games of March Madness. They ran past 16-seed Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and then dismantled 8-seed Maryland, earning them a spot in the Sweet 16. Their opponent is San Diego State, the Mountain West regular season and tournament champion, who has beaten Charleston and Furman to get to this spot. The Tide remain the clear favorite, but don't overlook the Aztecs, a well-coached, balanced foe.

All eyes will be on Alabama's star freshman Brandon Miller entering this contest, as he has been less than 100 percent since injuring his groin in the SEC Tournament. It hasn't stopped the Tide, clearly, but this is a significantly more dangerous team with Miller full-go. He's one of the most dominant isolation scorers in recent memory, at least as a true frosh, but his defense is vastly underrated. He won't necessarily block a bunch of shots or force turnovers, but Miller's energy and activity makes him a force on both ends. He's expected to start, but is likely to still be limited. That's likely to put a magnifying glass on the other athletes Alabama boasts, who have shown they can handle the load. The backcourt trio of Mark Sears, Jahvon Quinerly, and Jaden Bradley remains one of the best in the country, but I think it's the battle in the frontcourt that could end up deciding this one. Sophomore center Charles Bediako isn't going to be leaned on as a scorer very much, but he's proven to be an extremely effective player in the post whose role could be even larger with Miller still not 100 percent. Bediako is a physical rebounder and plus-defender who was the unsung hero in the Tide's win over Maryland. His play against San Diego State's primary big, Nathan Mensah, could be a deciding factor.

Alabama has played an up-tempo style since Nate Oats took over, playing at a relentless, breakneck pace. Not only are they in the top ten nationally in scoring, they're sixth in possessions per game, and look to maximize every single opportunity. San Diego State is almost the complete opposite; they play incredibly short-paced and thrive in the half-court offensively. It's an extremely methodical approach, but one that has yielded good results over the course of 2022-2023 and into the Tournament. It also helps that the Aztecs feature a balanced, well-rounded offense. Although Matt Bradley is the primary scorer, just about every Aztec can step up and make plays when needed, as was the case with 16 points from Micah Parrish in the win over Furman. This San Diego State team also features one of the stingiest defenses you will find in Division I basketball. They block a bunch of shots on the inside and even though they don't force a bunch of turnovers, they feature nasty perimeter defense. The defense has been tremendous in the Tournament so far, holding both Charleston and Furman under 60 points and just 32% shooting from the field.

This truly is a matchup of contrasting styles. Alabama is going to play as fast as possible and take their chances offensively. It's worked all season, but the Aztecs may be the best defense they've seen all season, and know how to keep offenses off-balance. San Diego State is going to try and slow things down and muck it up, but that's easier said than done when you're facing Brandon Miller and company. I think the Aztecs are still being a bit overlooked by the general public, and they can certainly topple the Tide, particularly if Miller isn't completely healthy. But the smart money is still on Alabama to keep on rolling to the Elite Eight.

Alabama by ten

15 Princeton Tigers vs. 6 Creighton Bluejays

For the third straight year, a 15-seed enters the second weekend with a chance to move on to the Elite Eight. This year, it's Princeton, who shocked Arizona in the first round and followed it up by handling Missouri. The team that stands in their path is sixth-seeded Creighton, who looked awfully impressive in their win last weekend against Baylor and is searching for their first Elite Eight since 1941.

Princeton has won in two different ways this NCAA Tournament. Despite a poor shooting performance against Arizona, the Tigers shut down the Wildcats down the stretch on the other end and made the big shots when they needed. The offense found its rhythm against Missouri, particularly from three, and has generally been a strong shooting team all season. They're unlikely to move on without a quality offensive showing; Creighton has an abundance of offensive weapons and seems to be hitting their stride at the right time. Princeton will lean on forward Tosan Evbuomwan as they have all season, but senior guard Ryan Langborg may be the X-factor. He was the best player on the court in the win over Missouri and can take over when he's on, but the inconsistency has also been there. Either way, keeping turnovers to a minimum will be a point of emphasis for Mitch Henderson's team. They did a great job taking care of the ball against Missouri and have featured a disciplined offense all season, but the Bluejays capitalize on turnovers as well as anybody in the country.

I'm a huge fan of the roster Greg McDermott has built at Creighton and after a rough Big East Tournament defeat at the hands of Xavier, the Bluejays have looked dangerous in the first two March Madness victories. Ryan Nembhard paces the offense as the team's floor general, but the Bluejays can score from every place on the court. Ryan Kalkbrenner is a load to handle in the low post, Baylor Scheierman can take over games, and Arthur Kaluma and Trey Alexander are tremendous complementary pieces. Yet, the three-point shot still dictates so much of Creighton's success. When the Bluejays are firing on all cylinders from three, it's a legitimate Final Four team. But too often, the shooting from deep has been bad, and the offense gets bogged down. Princeton has enough defensively to make it a difficult night, but it's hard to know which version of Creighton is going to come out Friday night.

Princeton has been a tremendous story and something tells me this team is not going to roll over and let Creighton breeze to an Elite Eight. Marshall Henderson has a hard-nosed basketball team that will compete on both ends the entire way. But, it still feels like the Bluejays just have too much to offer and at some point, the clock always strikes midnight for Cinderellas.

Creighton by twelve

Midwest Region

5 Miami Hurricanes vs. 1 Houston Cougars

Houston enters the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament just two wins away from playing in their home city in the Final Four. On the other side, Miami survived a thriller against Drake in the opening round and then dominated Indiana to move on to the Sweet 16. It's another clash of contrasting styles, as Houston's stifling defense will test Miami's high-flying offense.

There's nothing pretty about the way Houston plays, but there's no arguing against its effectiveness. Kelvin Sampson's program just keeps on winning and despite an underwhelming first two games, they're going to be an incredibly tough out. Their star, Marcus Sasser, remains banged up but should be a full go for this one, as is the case with fellow backcourt mate Jamal Shead. More so than most lead guards, Sasser really carries this Cougar offense. It's not just the scoring, but the way he opens up space for Houston's other playmakers, and creates opportunities. Still, he'll need some supporting help, which is likely to come from either Shead or Tramon Mark, who finished with 26 points in the win over Auburn. As long as the Cougars are able to enough offensively, they should have a clear advantage in nearly every other facet of the game. The defense is such a pain to play; Houston does an incredible job playing physical but not fouling, and they actively push you away from the rim every time down the court. Just as important, they don't allow any second-chance opportunities. This is about as good of a rebounding team as you'll find at this level, and they have a slight advantage in size over the 'Canes.

Isaiah Wong, Nijel Pack, and Jordan Miller have been a three-headed monster all season for the Hurricanes, leading an offense that averages nearly 80 points per game. Wong is the player that really strikes fear into opposing defenses. He'll take and make difficult shots and seems to turn it up a gear in the big games. Wong is fresh off a 27-point showing in the win over Indiana, and his rebounding prowess for his position will be huge in this game. Big man Norchad Omier will be a key player in the middle for Miami. The 6'7" sophomore plays much larger than his height may suggest and he's a relentless rebounder, but will have his work cut out for him in this one. Staying out of foul trouble will be just as important; Houston is great at forcing contact and finishing through it, and Omier has been taken out of several contests because of fouls. Expect Pack and Miller to still be featured heavily, and they've proven to be much more than complementary pieces. Pack is the team's best three-point shooter and may be leaned on heavily against this Cougar defense, while Miller can play multiple positions and has been generally more consistent scoring the ball than Wong.

Miami's going to want to get out and run, turning up the pace and forcing Houston to play off-balance. It's certainly a strategy the Hurricanes can succeed at, but the Cougars are simply a defensive force. It's rare to see collegiate teams control the pace quite the way this team does, and they should look forward to the challenge of stopping Miami's high-scoring trio. As long as the Cougars do just enough offensively, I see them leaving Friday night on the doorstep of a Final Four.

Houston by eight

3 Xavier Musketeers vs. 2 Texas Longhorns

Although Xavier and Texas both earned top seeds in the Midwest Region, it's still pretty amazing both programs have gotten to this point. Xavier missed the NCAA Tournament a year ago and were breaking in a new head coach in Sean Miller, but have looked the part all season long. Texas has been perched near the top of the polls throughout 2022-2023, but they've done so despite the offseason drama that surrounded Chris Beard and his dismissal. Now, the two collide in Kansas City with the opportunity to be one of the final eight teams remaining in the 2023 NCAA Tournament.

Xavier had plenty of talent under former head man Travis Steele, but Miller has cultivated it into a real force on both ends. Souley Boum has been one of the most impactful transfers in college basketball this year, coming from UTEP and providing a major spark to the Musketeer offense. He's not only their leading scorer, but the heart-and-soul of the team. He'll be the focal point of the Xavier attack once more, but the Musketeers have plenty of other pieces that can fuel one of the nation's highest-scoring offenses. Colby Jones and Adam Kunkel are an underrated pairing on the wings, and Jack Nunge has taken on an elevated role with the absence of Zach Freemantle. Everybody in the rotation can score, but what really stands out about Xavier is how well they move the basketball. They're one of the top passing teams in the nation and it enables them to get good looks every time they're down the court. They do so without turning the ball over, a testament to the discipline and control that Miller has instilled into the program.

There's no shortage of playmakers for the Longhorns, spearheaded by veteran Marcus Carr. The former Pittsburgh and Minnesota transfer is having a splendid final season of college basketball, leading the team in scoring, assists, and steals. He's also learned to be more efficient and make better decisions, both in shot selection and passing. Playing alongside Tyrese Hunter has been a net-positive for both. Although Hunter cooled off down the stretch, he's one of the best distributors in the nation and has found other ways to impact the game. Then there's the unsung hero of the team's success, Sir'Jabari Rice, the Big 12's Sixth Man of the Year. Rice has been a joy to watch all season and has been particularly effective in the NCAA Tournament. His shot has been falling at an impressive rate, but Rice can do so much more than just score. He's a good passer, effective on the glass, and is an excellent on-ball defender. He will still come off the bench, but averages over 25 minutes per game, and finds a way to make his presence felt every time he's on the court. Add in Timmy Allen, Dylan Disu, and Christian Bishop in the frontcourt and Texas should have no troubles hanging with Xavier's offense. Important for them will be maintaining their edge defensively, which is when they play their best basketball. They did a great job running Penn State off the three-point line in their previous win, and must do so again in this one.

I wasn't super high on Xavier entering the NCAA Tournament, but this team deserves a lot of respect. They've faced down a brutal schedule and have been consistent all year long, but I still envision Texas as the better pick here. There's simply too many athletes Texas can throw at you over the course of 40 minutes, and Carr is the best player on the court. If the defense can maintain its intensity, interim head coach Rodney Terry takes the Longhorns to the Elite Eight, and moves one step closer to the full-time gig.

Texas by five

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