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2024 Sweet 16 Picks (East, West Regions)

Tristen Newton, UConn

East Region

(5) San Diego State Aztecs vs. (1) UConn Huskies

Kicking off Sweet 16 action will be a rematch of last year's National Championship Game, with Brian Dutcher and the San Diego State Aztecs looking to avenge their loss at the hands of the Huskies last spring. The Aztecs will be the clear underdog once more, facing off against a UConn team on an unstoppable quest to repeat, but don't count out this San Diego State team. They knocked the top overall seed out of the event last year in Alabama, and have the type of roster to give the Huskies difficulties after rolling through the first two rounds.

With how effortless UConn's offense looks each and every contest, it may be easy to forget that this team lost several key contributors from last year's National Title run, including Adama Sanogo and Jordan Hawkins. Dan Hurley has done a masterful job integrating new pieces into the fold, while holdovers like Donovan Clingan and Tristan Newton have had no issues taking up the leadership mantle. Newton may not be the big shot-maker Hawkins was, but the veteran has run the offense with immense precision and makes this entire group go. He's joined by Clingan down low, do-it-all Alex Karaban, former Rutgers transfer Cam Spencer, and freshman phenom Stephon Castle, quite an imposing front-line. Each bring their own strengths, and they've all grown throughout the season. Take Spencer, for example - he was considered merely a sharpshooter coming over from the Big Ten, but he's rounded out his game and become a much larger factor as a passer and defender. The entire unit gives UConn not only an abundance of weapons to throw at an opponent, the most remarkable part of it all is how well they all work together. This doesn't look like a typical college team, especially one that has experienced notable turnover over the last year. No, the fluidity of this offense and the limited wasted movement looks like a professional team that has been playing together for years.

Devising a game-plan to try and contain that offense is quite the tall order for the Aztecs, but with a defense that allowed just over 66 points per game on the year, they're going to try their best. The Aztecs do bring a few advantages to the table defensively that should make a difference. For one, they're an exceptional team on-ball and do an incredible job getting their hands in passing lanes. Even if they don't get a steal, San Diego State disrupts the opponent's rhythm and makes them work for every shot attempt. Just as important, they have ample versatility and have really embraced position-less basketball, allowing them to mix and match as needed. But, if there is one glaring weakness on the defensive end, it's down low, where they don't have the size they had a season ago. Jaedon LaDee has had a breakout season, but he's not your traditional big man, and Elijah Saunders and Jay Pal are more of a platoon than a true reliable defensive anchor. That lack of size hasn't hurt them just yet, but against Karaban and Clingan? This just isn't a great matchup for the Aztecs down there, and you wonder just how many easy baskets the Huskies are going to get, particularly if they are able to run the floor. San Diego State has a better offense than what we saw last season, but they aren't prepared to get into a shootout here. For as good as LeDee, Micah Parrish, and Lamont Butler are, they are not going to be able to match UConn's top trio for the full 40 minutes.

The Huskies have followed up their regular season dominance by throttling Stetson and Northwestern, quite the reminder that this is still the team to beat as we hit the second weekend. San Diego State is good enough to give them difficulties, especially with a sound and consistent defense that will look to make this is a slow-paced slugfest. But, the Huskies just have too much they are able to throw at you, and too many players who can make the big shot. I suspect this will be close until about the midway point of the second half, when the edge in talent shines in UConn's favor.

UConn by twelve

(3) Illinois Fighting Illini vs. (2) Iowa State Cyclones

Seeing top teams with differing strengths battling it out on the big stage is one of my favorite aspects of the NCAA Tournament, and we get just that when Illinois and Iowa State collide in the TD Garden on Thursday. The Illini will rely on their explosive offense, per usual, fresh off a 89-point effort over Duquesne. For Iowa State, a smothering defense has been their fuel all season long, and they should relish the opportunity to show what they can do against Illinois. Only one can come away as the victor, with a potential date with the defending National Champions waiting. 

Illinois took a half to get going against Morehead State, but has followed it up with a dominant stretch over the last 100 minutes of basketball, punctuated by a blowout win over Duquesne. The two wins have secured Brad Underwood his first trip to the second weekend since taking over at Illinois, but the Illini certainly are not satisfied. This is a team looking to prove themselves on the big stage, and Iowa State presents their first real challenge of the event so far. Despite the increase in competition, I don't envision the Illini changing their game-plan very much - Terrence Shannon Jr. will continue to be the focal point, capturing the attention of the defense and opening up everything for this offense. Shannon is in the midst of a truly incredible run, scoring 25 points or more in each of his last six games, including 26 and 30 pieces to kick off the NCAA Tournament. It will be interesting to see how the Cyclones look to bottle him up - this is a tremendous defensive team on-the-ball that makes opponents work for every opportunity at the rim. Shannon has leaned on his ability to get downhill and force contact to get opportunities at the line, but he may need to focus on his three-point shot to open up space the way ISU collapses the paint. That also means that Marcus Domask will have to be front-and-center, and Illinois is at their best when the former Southern Illinois transfer is involved. Domask has shown an ability to impact the game in more ways than one this March, with a triple-double to open up the Tournament, but it's his sharpshooting ability that will test the Cyclones the most. Yet for all of that, I still believe the X-factor for Illinois will come from their frontcourt pieces, namely the trio of Coleman Hawkins, Quincy Guerrier, and Dain Dainja. In games like this, where the defense is looking to take you out of your game, it's the little things in the paint that can make all the difference. Easy points around the basket, a key offensive rebound or two, what this group does the other way on the defensive end - all of those things are going to have an outsized impact on the Illini's chances to move on to the next round.

It's not always the prettiest brand of basketball, but there's little denying how effective T.J. Otzelberger's system has been in Ames over the last several seasons. The Cyclones are in the midst of their third consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance under Otzelberger, and their second Sweet 16 in that span. But much like the Illini, don't expect the Cyclones to be satisfied by just getting to this stage - this is a team with legitimate Final Four aspirations. But in order to get there, they'll need a strong showing from a deep and balanced backcourt. Tamin Lipsey is the one that really makes things go for the Cyclones, but Keshon Gilbert and Curtis Jones are not only going to be leaned on offensively, their work against Shannon and Domask the other way is going to be crucial. The same can be said up front, where Robert Jones and freshman sensation Milan Momcilovic will have their work cut out for them on both ends against the pieces the Illini can throw at you. Jones is your prototypical back-to-the-basket big, but I'm curious to see how Momcilovic operates in what will be the most important game of his young career. He's more of a wing than a true forward, and his big-time shot-making has been a crucial element of Iowa State's success throughout the 2023-24 campaign. If I'm Illinois, this is a guy I attack when he's on the defensive end - even though Momcilovic has impressed as a defender, make him work and get him off-balance, hurting what he can do the other way. At times, he's been one of the few Cyclones that can make their own offense, and limiting his production should be paramount.

Illinois is my National Title pick because I think they have a roster that can adjust to meet the strengths and weaknesses of their opponent, and because the weapons they can throw at you over a full 40 minutes can be overwhelming. Those two factors alone lead me to stick with the Illini, but this is going to be quite the test for Underwood and company. Iowa State is such a well-coached basketball team, they'll be a tough out for anyone, but I'm just not sure they have the offensive punch the other way to make all the difference.

Illinois by five

West Region

(6) Clemson Tigers vs. (2) Arizona Wildcats

As one of just two teams higher than a five seed still remaining in the Big Dance, Clemson could be a "Cinderella" story as they gear up for a Sweet 16 date against Arizona. But achieving that moniker will require them to play even better than they did against both New Mexico and Baylor, as the Wildcats are zeroed in on the Final Four after two short-lived NCAA Tournament appearances under Tommy Lloyd.

The second-seeded Wildcats are led by a familiar face in Caleb Love, whose play in the 2022 NCAA Tournament will forever earn him a spot in March Madness lore. Love is still as streaky as they come, but he's seemed to dial things down a bit in Lloyd's offense, playing in control and improving his shot selection. The result has been his best collegiate season yet, while spearheading an Arizona offense that is ranked fourth nationally in points per contest. Love is the big name, but he's flanked by an impressive collection of guards, including Pelle Larsson and Kylan Boswell, while Oumar Ballo is the force underneath that every opponent has to contend with. Larsson's shooting opens up everything on the floor for Arizona, but I'm curious to see how Boswell responds after a quiet showing in the second round win over Dayton, one game after dropping 20 against Long Beach State. Look for fellow guards K.J. Lewis and Jaden Bradley to also get involved, giving the Wildcats an unlimited group of athletic playmakers that will be different than anything Clemson has seen on the season.

There were plenty of doubters picking against the Tigers in the first round, but Brad Brownell's club has proved them wrong with a pair of impressive victories. Clemson looked like by far and away the better team in both wins against New Mexico and Baylor, and will be searching for the program's first Elite Eight berth in over four decades. To get there, they need forward P.J. Hall, the star of the show, to continue to be the difference-maker he's been all season long. Hall is exceptionally skilled, a 6'10" center who handles the ball and shoots the rock like a point guard, but he's been limited by foul trouble in their first two games. It's clear teams have recognized an opportunity to attack Hall on the defensive end, and he's also picked up a few frustrating offensive fouls. That will have to be a point of emphasis for the senior if the Tigers are to prevail. But on the plus side, it has allowed other Clemson players to shine through, notably junior forward Ian Schieffelin. Schieffelin is the type of player that every coach loves to have - he's worked hard to improve each year he's been on campus and is a relentless competitor, working hard on the glass and making the most of his opportunities offensively. Combined with Hall, the Tigers have two skilled forwards they can throw at Arizona, which could be a change-of-pace from what the Wildcats have typically seen in the Pac-12. In the backcourt there's steady veteran Joe Girard, who has plenty of NCAA Tournament experience going back to his time at Syracuse. It will be quite the contrast seeing Girard match up with Love, as the two have just about polar opposite games. However, even if he may not be as flashy as Love, Girard's impact on the game goes well beyond the stat sheet, and I think he'll relish this opportunity against a former ACC foe.

Going into the NCAA Tournament, I was not very high on the Tigers, but they've made believers out of me over their first two games and they actually match up nicely with Arizona. I still lean Wildcats here because they have so much firepower, but this game has the makings of a tight one. If the Tigers can do enough offensively, it wouldn't shock me if they pull the upset.

Arizona by six

(4) Alabama Crimson Tide vs. (1) North Carolina Tar Heels

Alabama survived a barn-burner against Grand Canyon to advance to the Sweet 16 and their reward? A date with the top seed in the West Region, the North Carolina Tar Heels, who overcame an early deficit against Michigan State and won handily, 85-69. To say that this will be a star-studded affair is an understatement - with Mark Sears, R.J. Davis, and Armando Bacot, there's plenty of reason to tune in Thursday night.

The Tar Heels showed a lot of perseverance over the weekend by overcoming the Spartans in the second round. Even as a favorite, UNC had to deal with a Michigan State team that seems to hit another gear this time of year, but a dominant defensive showing carried the No. 1 seed to victory. That defense will be crucial once again as the Tar Heels gear up for a loaded Tide offense, but just as important will be the carry over from the four veterans in the starting lineup. Davis, Bacot, and the two former transfers, Harrison Ingram and Cormac Ryan, all scored in double-digits and hit timely shots to spring the hard-fought victory. That quartet has been impressive all season long and each bring their own strengths to the table - Davis and Bacot are the stars, but Ingram and Ryan have been key additions for Hubert Davis and this coaching staff, opening the floor with their shooting and playing important minutes on both end. Add in the high-energy pieces, notably Elliott Cadeau and Jae'Lyn Withers, this is a North Carolina team with a lot of varying strengths who should have the legs they need to survive a likely high-scoring affair. We know Alabama is going to run, which will be an adjustment after the slower, prodding pace of Michigan State, but the Heels have had a week to prepare - I suspect the veterans and Hubert Davis will have them properly prepared.

Mark Sears was already one of the best guards in the SEC heading into the 2023-24 campaign, but the former Ohio transfer has turned it up a notch this season. Not only is he averaging over 21.5 points per game, he's shooting over 50% from the field, 43% from three-point territory, and stuffs the stat sheet full with over four boards and four assists per. His play in the NCAA Tournament so far has been a reminder of just how much of a difference-maker he is, with efforts of 26 and 30 points, along with key plays on the defensive end. Needless to say, he will be the primary focus for the UNC defense heading into this one, and I'll be curious to see how they choose to defend him. He's the type of offensive player that seems to respond and is fueled by on-ball pressure, particularly with how well he sees the floor and keeps his teammates involved. Perhaps the Heels choose to put a larger defender on him than Cadeau and Davis to see if that makes an impact, but the strategy here will be fun to watch. However, he's not thee only Tide player that can hurt you, far from it with this offense. Aaron Estrada has been Robin to Sears' Batman on the year and has played well in the NCAA Tournament so far, while Grant Nelson has given the Tide the spark they need in the frontcourt. The matchups here are also going to be fascinating to watch - do Bacot and Nelson defend each other, or will that fall to senior big Nick Pringle? The Tide haven't seen a big man with the skills of Bacot yet in this Tournament, and there really isn't a complete comparison inside the SEC. I firmly expect them to speed things up to try and diminish his impact, but this roster doesn't match up super favorably with the long-time Tar Heel big.

Two offenses that average over 81 points per contest and have game-changing star power? Needless to say, it should be a high-scoring, fun watch to wrap up the night in Los Angeles. I picked against Alabama in the first round and ended up looking foolish when they rolled past Charleston, but little has changed in my overall view of the West Region. UNC is far from perfect, but Hubert Davis has done an excellent job developing a well-rounded roster that is built for this moment - with their experience giving them a clear edge, I'm still riding with the top seed.

North Carolina by nine

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