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#pounditSunday, February 5, 2023

8 biggest storylines entering the Sweet 16

Sean Miller

In seemingly the blink of an eye, the NCAA Tournament was cut from 64 teams to 16 last weekend. As more than three-quarters of teams earning a tournament bid were sent home, we learned quite a bit about what to expect moving forward.

First off, we learned just how good these 16 teams are and what kind of excellent games we can expect to see. With styles clashing and weaknesses capable of being exploited, these eight games appear to be a basketball junkie’s dream.

Each game of the Sweet 16 offers countless things to watch for or that could swing the outcome. Here’s a look at them.

1.) Coaches pursuing major milestones

Of the 16 remaining coaches, only five have ever advanced to the Final Four (John Calipari, Roy Williams, Bill Self, John Beilein, and Bob Huggins). In fact, of the coaches in the East and West Regions, only Huggins has made it to the third weekend of tournament play, losing in the semifinals in 1992 and 2010, but never reaching the championship game.

Whichever coach advances to the championship game from that side of the bracket is guaranteed to be coaching in his first ever title game.

On top of that anomaly, notable head coaches are looking for their first Final Four. That includes an accomplished group such as Sean Miller, Mark Few, and Steve Alford. Each has received the tag of a coach who struggles in March, but any of the three would silence the critics with two wins this weekend.

2.) Sean Miller’s past and present

Miller will continue his journey toward the Final Four by squaring off with his former school, the Xavier Musketeers. Making matters even more personal, Xavier is now led by former Miller assistant (and close friend) Chris Mack.

Both coaches have commented on the situation, recognizing that it’s awkward, uncomfortable, and less than ideal, though they have cracked some jokes.

The two talk multiple times per week, often discussing common opponents or team strategy. Both will know each other’s systems and schemes, which could be an advantage for Arizona’s superior talent. Xavier likely has no answer for Finnish freshman Lauri Markkanen, who will be able to post big numbers in this game.

Regardless of the outcome, expect the cameras to linger a tad longer than usual on the two coaches for their end of game handshake.

Zona and Xavier will close out the action on Thursday night, with a scheduled 10:09 pm ET tip in San Jose.

3.) The West Virginia Press vs. Gonzaga’s size

West Virignia’s vaunted press did wonders against Notre Dame, making the Irish look like a grade school team facing its first ever full-court pressure. The Notre Dame offense, usually effective, was rendered useless as even inbounding the ball or crossing halfcourt proved to be difficult tasks.

Gonzaga’s three guard line-up figures to have a better chance against the Mountaineers, but Bob Huggins’ defense is never easy to solve.

If the Bulldogs can in fact break the West Virginia press, they have the size and skill inside to pound the Mountaineers.

Nathan Adrian starts at center for West Virginia and at 6-foot-9 would struggle with the 7-footers in the Zags lineup. On top of that, Adrian spearheads the West Virginia press and double teams all over the floor usually. If he’s out of position, Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins could really take advantage in the paint.

These two teams will be second up on Thursday, with a 7:39 pm ET tip time in San Jose.

4.) Can Caleb Swanigan break Kansas’ style?

Bill Self always preferred to play multiple big men together, controlling the paint and the glass. This season, his team was better suited for small-ball, with freshman star Josh Jackson at the power forward spot. Against the Jayhawks’ schedule, it has worked like a charm, as Kansas has challenged bigs to chase Jackson to the perimeter.

Purdue, however, is the one team who could challenge the Jayhawks’ small lineup.

With Player of the Year candidate Caleb Swanigan standing 6-foot-10 and Isaac Haas even bigger at 7-foot-1, Purdue can look to dominate the Jayhawks inside.

In the round of 32, Iowa State went small and challenged Purdue to match. Haas struggled to stay on the floor, eventually being seat-belted to the bench, and Swanigan was forced to chase Deonte Burton on the perimeter. Burton had a monster game, though Swanigan had the last laugh in the form of a double-double and a win.

The chess match of big and small lineups between Matt Painter and Bill Self could set the tone for this game, but the players on the court will dictate who has the advantage and who moves on.

Kansas and Purdue will play at 9:39 pm ET on Thursday.

See Nos. 5-8 on Page 2

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