I’ve already written a few bold predictions. Most of them are still alive. But the Sweet 16 presents new possibilities that demand a new set of bold predictions.
Without further ado ...
1. Louisville over Kentucky by double digits. The Friday matchup between Louisville and Kentucky will be poetic, really. Two of the top three teams in The Associated Press' preseason poll stumbled at times during the regular season. Louisville regained its mojo in the final weeks, but Kentucky fell short of lofty expectations all season. John Calipari’s fleet of NBA prospects have since risen in the NCAA tournament. The world-beaters who removed Kansas State and top seed Wichita State from the tourney have looked like they could beat anyone in the field. But the fun will end in Indianapolis. I wasn’t impressed by Louisville’s opening weekend (wins over Manhattan and Saint Louis), but I believe that the Cardinals recognize they had more to give in both games. And they’ll prove it with a double-digit win over Kentucky. More experience. More balance. Rick Pitino’s 11-0 record in the Sweet 16. (Calipari is 5-1 against Louisville since arriving at Kentucky, though.) This game won’t live up to the hype. Russ Smith & Co. will pressure the young Wildcats for 40 minutes and avenge an earlier loss against Kentucky.
2. Johnny Dawkins to the Elite Eight. Remember when Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins was on the hot seat? Last season, which ended in the NIT for the Cardinal, athletic director Bernard Muir told the San Jose Mercury News that Dawkins would return for 2013-14, but he also stressed, "We want to play well into March on the grand stage of March Madness.” It wasn’t an ultimatum, but it also wasn’t a vote of confidence. This run to the Sweet 16 has appeared to enhance both the program and Dawkins’ standing in the eyes of Stanford’s administration. Last week, Muir told the same publication that "[Dawkins] will be the coach hopefully for many years to come.” He will be. Chasson Randle and Dwight Powell aren’t going home on Thursday. The Cardinal will be in the Elite Eight with a win over Dayton. From hot seat to extension? Yep.
3. Cuonzo Martin, too. The Tennessee coach dealt with scrutiny all season, too. But Martin earned the first NCAA tournament berth of his tenure, the program’s first since the 2010-11 season. It was a big step for the Vols and a bigger step for Martin. The Vols, however, weren’t content with an appearance. They ran through Iowa, UMass and Mercer by an average margin of victory of 17.3 PPG. Jarnell Stokes (20.3 points and 15.0 rebounds in three NCAA tournament games) has been the key. Meanwhile, Michigan is a difficult team to handle. The Wolverines have the most talented trio of wings -- Caris LeVert, Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas -- in the field. They can hit 3-pointers and run the floor. But Tennessee is built for this matchup. The Vols have big guards in Josh Richardson, Antonio Barton and Jordan McRae. And Jeronne Maymon and Stokes will be a handful for the undersized Wolverines inside. Tennessee, meet the Elite Eight.
4. Dayton-Stanford will be the best game of the weekend. There’s a lot of chatter about Louisville-Kentucky, obviously. Florida-UCLA, Arizona-San Diego State and Iowa State-Connecticut could all be classics, too. But I think Dayton and Stanford will actually be the best game of the Sweet 16. The Flyers and Cardinal gave us some of the best action in the opening weekend. The Flyers earned wins in a pair of dramatic games against Ohio State and Syracuse. Stanford outplayed New Mexico and held off Kansas down the stretch to secure a win over the Jayhawks. There will be fireworks in this matchup between a pair of squads that were essentially afterthoughts entering Selection Sunday.
5. Naz Long will be the difference in Iowa State-UConn. The Cyclones and Huskies will battle this weekend in a must-see matchup. DeAndre Kane vs. Shabazz Napier is the most popcorn-worthy individual matchup of the Sweet 16. But the game won’t be decided by the two talented upperclassmen. Iowa State will advance to the Elite Eight because of what Long, a sophomore from Canada, gives it against the Huskies. With Georges Niang out for the season, the Cyclones need someone to step up. Long is up for the job. He went 4-for-8 from the 3-point line in the team’s win over North Carolina in the round of 32. Iowa State will win because Long will make the difference.
6. UCLA will push Florida to the brink. The Bruins are a unique team. Kyle Anderson is a 6-foot-9 point guard. Jordan Adams is 6-5. Zach LaVine is 6-5. The Wear twins, David and Travis, are 6-10. Florida rarely sees a team that boasts as much size, and the Bruins are a big team that could give Florida fits. They’re confident, too. They’re the Pac-12 tournament champions and earned that crown with a win over Arizona in the title game. Steve Alford’s squad will give the Gators their toughest game of 2013-14. Florida has been tested multiple times this season, but the Gators haven’t faced a team that presents as many matchup challenges as this UCLA squad. Florida will win, though. Barely.
7. Overtime for San Diego State-Arizona. When San Diego State and Arizona faced off in November, the Wildcats were just too big, athletic and quick for the Aztecs. But Steve Fisher’s program didn’t lose again until Feb. 11. A big challenge for the Aztecs in that matchup was the 1-for-7 effort by Josh Davis, who was playing just his second game with the team after transferring from Tulane. He’s far more comfortable now as the anchor of an SDSU frontcourt that will be physical with Aaron Gordon, Kaleb Tarczewski and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. I still think Arizona is a Final Four team, but the Wildcats will need overtime to finish off an SDSU squad that will fight with its West Coast foe until the final seconds.
8. Isaiah Austin’s big night will power Baylor past Wisconsin. Baylor has lost just one game since March 1. Scott Drew’s program has improved its defense and relied on a unit that’s ranked sixth in adjusted offensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy. Now the Bears have earned a Sweet 16 matchup against Wisconsin. The Badgers were down 12 points at halftime against Oregon in the round of 32, but they bounced back to advance. Baylor knocked off Creighton and Nebraska to get here. Austin, a sophomore, registered 30 points and 11 rebounds in those two games. The big man has been playing great basketball in recent weeks, and that will continue against the Badgers. Austin will carry Baylor to another Elite Eight appearance for Drew.
9. The Vols will go down swinging against Louisville in an Elite Eight thriller. Tennessee won’t leave Indianapolis quietly. Although the Vols won’t have enough to upset Louisville and earn a slot in the Final Four, this will be a tough matchup for Pitino’s squad. The Cardinals will need a late comeback to secure their third consecutive trip to the Final Four and a chance to defend their title.
10. Tom Izzo’s Final Four streak will end. To date, every four-year player who ever played for Izzo's Spartans has earned at least one trip to the Final Four. But that streak will end this weekend when the Spartans lose to Virginia. The Spartans are a talented team, and the re-emergence of Brandon Dawson has been a major gain for the program. Virginia, however, has been stalling offenses for months. The Cavaliers held Duke, ranked first in adjusted offensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy, to 1.03 points per possession in the ACC tournament. Michigan State is a more balanced and athletic team, but Tony Bennett’s program has ruined similar programs. So the streak will be over for Izzo as Virginia advances to the Elite Eight.