March 24, 2005 | ESPN.com's NCAA Tournament coverage
We're ready for excitement galore as the Sweet 16 games are played Thursday and Friday, followed by the regional finals this weekend. By Sunday night, we'll know the four teams that have punched their tickets to St. Louis for the Final Four.
Let's break down the Sweet 16 matchups at all the regional sites (team's seed in parentheses):
AUSTIN REGIONAL | Friday
Michigan State (5) vs. Duke (1)
Duke is in its eighth straight Sweet 16. To show how impressive that is, nobody else still alive has been in more than two straight!
The Blue Devils have a rematch with Michigan State, a team it defeated in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge earlier this season. The Duke tandem of senior guard Daniel Ewing and junior guard J.J. Redick combined to hit 10-of-16 in that contest, something that has to concern Spartans coach Tom Izzo.
Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and Izzo rank 1-2 among active coaches in NCAA Tournament winning percentage. Coach K has done a remarkable job this season, the best ever in his career, in my opinion. He has maximized the potential of this club to get them where they are now. There isn't much depth, yet here they are again in the Sweet 16.
Redick has to come back to life and hit 3-pointers against the hungry Spartans. Redick, my national Player of the Year, hit just 3-of-15 trifectas in the tournament's first two games. Ewing had the hot hand, scoring 22 points in the win over Mississippi State.
Look for the Spartans, a veteran club, to come out with tremendous intensity and emotion. Izzo's team was competitive in November's Challenge matchup, but fell short 81-74.
One key battle will be inside, as Duke junior Shelden Williams squares off with Spartans junior center Paul Davis.
Duke goes as its Big Three goes (that is, Redick, Williams and Ewing). But junior forward Lee Melchionni might have to step up and hit a few shots here.
The Spartans have to handle the rock against Duke's tenacious defense. Diaper dandy point guard Drew Neitzel and senior Chris Hill cannot afford turnovers. That would be a nightmare for Michigan State.
An outstanding shooting team, the Spartans must be selective in their choices and make them count. Depth could be a positive factor in Michigan State's favor. Remember, Duke has been vulnerable in the Sweet 16, dropping three of its past five round-of-16 games falling to Kansas in 2003, Indiana in 2002 and Florida in 2000.
Duke is 10-1 in Elite Eight games under Coach K, the one loss coming in St. Petersburg to Kentucky in 1998.
This should be a Maalox Masher, but I see Duke squeezing out the W!
Utah (6) vs. Kentucky (2)
The other Austin Regional showdown features Kentucky against Utah. This is the sixth time these schools have met in the NCAAs since 1993, and the Wildcats have won the previous five.
Kentucky coach Tubby Smith's freshmen have really grown up. Guard Rajon Rondo and center Randolph Morris now have a full season under their belts and no longer play like diaper dandies. Rondo shows tremendous poise.
I think Kentucky is too deep and too talented for Utah, led by national Player of the Year candidate Andrew Bogut.
Junior Kelenna Azubuike has to make shots, and senior forward Chuck Hayes has to help neutralize Bogut inside. The Utes' sophomore center is the best post man in America.
In the end, Kentucky's suffocating defense will carry the Wildcats to victory. Tubby has gotten the maximum from his team's ability.
Wow, that would set up Kentucky versus Duke in the regional finals again two of the premier basketball programs in the land, squaring off for a trip to St. Louis.
SYRACUSE REGIONAL | Friday
Villanova (5) vs. North Carolina (1)
It's the Big East against the ACC as Villanova challenges the region's top seed, North Carolina. Villanova coach Jay Wright has done an outstanding job the Wildcats are back in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1988.
The Tar Heels have an explosive attack, as shown by their 90-plus points in the first two games of the tournament. Carolina's offense has been impressive all season long. The Big Three have been outstanding all are juniors, with Sean May at center, Raymond Felton at point guard and Rashad McCants at shooting guard. And diaper dandy big man Marvin Williams has scored 20 points in both tourney contests.
Villanova has battled injuries all season but still has won 24 games. Junior forward Jason Fraser was out earlier this year. Now junior forward Curtis Sumpter, the team's leading rebounder and second-leading scorer, is sidelined with a knee injury. Wright remains confident in his veteran guards: juniors Allan Ray and Randy Foye (plus sophomore Mike Nardi at the point).
I feel that North Carolina is too talented to be stopped. Villanova's one chance is to slow down the up-tempo attack of the Tar Heels and make it a five-on-five, half-court battle. That isn't the Wildcats' style, though they like to go up and down the court. Just ask Florida about the first half of their second-round game!
Transition leads to success for coach Roy Williams' Tar Heels, and I feel that will be the case here.
NC State (10) vs. Wisconsin (6)
The other Syracuse Regional matchup features a couple of surprise teams, NC State and Wisconsin. These teams are here instead of No. 2 Connecticut and No. 3 Kansas (if seeding had held to form).
NC State coach Herb Sendek has done a phenomenal job. Consider that back in February there were detractors screaming that he should be fired. Wolfpack senior Julius Hodge has responded with a number of big tourney plays. Just ask coach Jim Calhoun and Connecticut about that!
The Wolfpack are in the middle of the Tobacco Road triangle with fellow ACC members Duke and North Carolina. All three teams are still alive.
The Badgers also have an outstanding coach, Bo Ryan, one of the best in America.
Front-line play has been a positive for Wisconsin. Against Bucknell, All-Big-Ten standout Mike Wilkinson, a senior forward, hit 9-of-15 from the floor and scored 23 points. Senior forward Zach Morley made 6-of-7, including 3-of-4 trifectas. Sophomore forward Alando Tucker was golden on the free-throw line, making 15-of-18.
With senior guard Sharif Chambliss and sophomore Kammron Taylor on the perimeter, the Badgers are very dangerous.
But Hodge is on a mission, and in the end, I see NC State pulling out a close battle. That's right, I predict it'll be North Carolina vs. NC State for the right to go to the Final Four. Who would have thought that before this tourney began?
Editor's Note: If you're still interested in Dickie V's previews of Thursday's Sweet 16 games...
CHICAGO REGIONAL | Thursday
Wisconsin-Milwaukee (12) vs. Illinois (1)
Of all the opponents for Wisconsin-Milwaukee coach Bruce Pearl, he has to go against Illinois. Do you think he cares about what happened in the past? He's just happy to be in the Sweet 16 after doing an outstanding job upsetting Alabama and Boston College.
A lot is being made of an incident from 1989, when Pearl then an assistant at Iowa tape-recorded phone conversations regarding the recruitment of Deon Thomas. Pearl turned Illinois in on a recruiting violation related to Thomas.
Pearl is a terrific communicator, and people should consider what happened in the past just that history.
So let's talk about Wisconsin-Milwaukee basketball! Senior guard Ed McCants and junior forward Joah Tucker have played so well in the tournament. The Panthers love to run, press and flat-out score. UWM has hit double-digit 3-pointers in each of their two wins.
Meanwhile, Illinois plays tremendous defense, especially on the perimeter. Junior guard Dee Brown has been spectacular at times, though he went 0-for-4 against Nevada in the second round. Junior guard Deron Williams has been the stabilizer, while senior guard Luther Head has really improved.
Don't forget the inside play of junior James Augustine and senior Roger Powell. Senior big man Jack Ingram has come through with some valuable points off the bench.
Coach Bruce Weber has kept his club focused, and the "Orange Crush" have a big-time advantage playing in Chicago.
The Illini, who fell just short of an undefeated regular season, will move on.
Arizona (3) vs. Oklahoma State (2)
The Oklahoma State-Arizona matchup has the potential to be a great one. Wow, Wildcats coach Lute Olson vs. Cowboys coach Eddie Sutton in a classic showdown on the sidelines!
I feel that senior guard Salim Stoudamire's sharpshooting will be the difference for Arizona against an experienced Oklahoma State squad that is trying to get back to the Final Four. Remember, the Cowboys fell to Georgia Tech last year in a national semifinal.
Senior forward Joey Graham of Oklahoma State has not played up to his ability in the tourney's first two games he's had foul trouble and he must be ready with his "A" game. An All-Big 12 performer, Graham is averaging just 7.5 ppg (in 20 minutes per game) in the tournament. He has taken a mere 10 shots and must establish himself early against the Wildcats.
Sutton has gotten a lot out of freshman guard JamesOn Curry, who has improved in the backcourt. Senior point guard John Lucas will have to be superb against Arizona's quickness.
Does Oklahoma State have an answer for senior center Channing Frye in the post? He has been one of the premier big men in America this season scoring, rebounding and blocking shots.
Stoudamire and Frye should be too much for the Cowboys, setting up a regional-final battle between Illinois and Arizona. Ultimately, I feel that perimeter play (and playing in nearby Chicago) will mean the Illini get that long-awaited bus trip to St. Louis and the Final Four.
Yes, Illinois is hoping to go to the Final Four without ever having to get on a plane taking bus trips to the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, Ind. (for the first two rounds), Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Ill. (for the regionals) and then St. Louis for the Final Four.
ALBUQUERQUE REGIONAL | Thursday
Louisville (4) vs. Washington (1)
Washington has had a great start in this tournament, even though there was some question about whether the Huskies should be a No. 1 seed.
Coach Lorenzo Romar's Huskies have answered that question with quickness and great balance. It could be junior guard Nate Robinson, junior forward Bobby Jones or senior guards Tre Simmons and Will Conroy they all get the job done and cause problems for opposing defenses.
Washington has so many weapons, led by the explosive Mr. Robinson. Conroy is an underrated ball handler who can dish the rock as he handles the point.
But Louisville will be a challenge. The Cardinals easily could have been a No. 2 seed instead of a No. 4 in the regional semifinal.
Junior Francisco Garcia has been sensational, and junior Taquan Dean can shoot the 3-pointer with the best of them. Louisville has some size inside, with senior Ellis Myles and freshman Juan Diego Palacios and that could be a big factor.
I feel that coach Rick Pitino and his Cardinals will find a way to march on in a close contest. Look for a lot of points in this one!
West Virginia (7) vs. Texas Tech (6)
Texas Tech and West Virginia are surprises in the other half of the Albuquerque Regional.
Give Texas Tech coach Bob Knight time to evaluate and break down an opponent, and watch out! Senior Ronald Ross, the former walk-on, has become a premier guard. I believe that the backcourt of Ross and sophomore Jarrius Jackson will be too strong for the Mountaineers and coach John Beilein, who does a super job.
West Virginia can flat-out shoot the 3-pointer, led by junior center Kevin Pittsnogle (40.3 percent). But you know that Knight is going through tape right now and figuring out a way to defend on the perimeter.
I see Pitino vs. Knight in a classic regional final!
Dick Vitale coached the Pistons and the University of Detroit before broadcasting ESPN's first college basketball game in 1979. Send a question to Vitale for possible use on ESPNEWS.