The South region will host the best Sweet 16 matchup of the season when Arizona takes on Houston in a matchup between the second and third best teams in the nation according to KenPom. To the surprise of most, Houston is the team ranked second and deemed the favorite according to the advanced metrics system. We have four national championship contenders preparing for epic battles, so let’s get into the game previews.
No. 1 Arizona vs. No. 5 Houston
How Arizona made it here: Big shots from one of the best players in the country. Bennedict Mathurin showed up when the lights were brightest for the Wildcats and it is the only reason they were able to survive an immense threat from the Horned Frogs in the round of 32. Tommy Lloyd and his squad brought in close to zero NCAA Tournament experience and the nerves that were evident down the stretch reflected that, but surviving a major test early in the tournament will provide this young team all the experience they need to make a deep run from here on out.
How Houston made it here: Physical defense and offensive rebounding. That reputation preceded the Cougars coming into the tournament, but no one can seem to stop them anyway. Kelvin Sampson reached the Final Four last season despite an injury to the preseason player of the year in the American Athletic Conference. Now he is two wins away from doing it again with two of his best players out for the season. How does he do it? Physical defense and offensive rebounding, which he preaches to his players more than I will discuss it in the keys to the game.
Key to the game: Take a guess. Physicality of the defense and the rebounding battle. TCU was able to take advantage of the Wildcats on the offensive glass and nobody is better at this than the Cougars. Arizona boasts one of the tallest frontcourts in the nation, but their struggles on the glass are concerning with the best rebounding team in the nation coming to town. If the officials let the players play and allow them to be physical, I don’t like Arizona’s chances of surviving this challenge.
Matchup to watch: Bennedict Mathurin vs. Kyler Edwards
Edwards is one of the most underrated stars in America, but he will have his hands full with Mathurin, who is playing like the best player in college basketball of late. He is fresh off a 30-point performance against the Horned Frogs and played even better than the box score suggests. Houston’s star makes up for the talent gap between the two with experience and physicality, which he can use to his advantage as he attempts to frustrate the future lottery pick. The winner of this matchup between each team’s best player could easily determine the outcome of this thrilling game.
No. 2 Villanova vs. No. 11 Michigan
How Villanova made it here: Focusing on the fundamentals. Watching the Wildcats practice tells you all you need to know about why Jay Wright is as consistent and successful as any coach in the nation. He preaches the fundamentals and his players rarely turn the ball over or make mistakes because of it. You’ll never see one of his teams beat themselves, so it is up to the opponent to beat them, which is a lot easier said than done with the pressure of the NCAA Tournament mounting.
How Michigan made it here: Hunter Dickinson. It’s a clear and easy answer as to why the Wolverines made it this far, but it doesn’t make Dickinson’s play any less impressive. His growth from the perimeter is astounding from his freshman season until now and the additional threat from the outside opens up so much of the floor for the guards to attack the basket. If DeVante' Jones can return and Eli Brooks can continue to shine, the Wolverines Cinderella run could continue into April.
Key to the game: Can Michigan’s big men keep Villanova off the 3-point line? The versatility and speed of Nova’s big men allow them to get to the perimeter and knock down uncontested threes while they leave opponents in the dust. Colorado State was able to take advantage of their stretch forwards against the Wolverines and no one is better at that position than Jay Wright. If Jermaine Samuels and Eric Dixon are knocking down their triples, it’ll be over quickly for Juwan Howard and his squad on Thursday night.
It took the four-star freshman awhile to get going, but Collins is really stepping up for the Wolverines in the postseason. The absence of Devante Jones opened the door for him to step up and he is doing just that. However, there is no greater challenge at the point guard position than trying to defend Collin Gillespie. His ability to get defenders in the air and knock down threes, paired with his strength and craftiness to back people down in the post, is a lethal combination that no one can seem to defend. I don’t think Collins can stop the veteran guard, but if he can slow him down, he can give his team a chance to continue their fairytale run to the Final Four.
Final Four Prediction
I can’t see Michigan pulling off a third consecutive upset against a team as experienced and well-coached as the Wildcats, but there is another set of Wildcats in this region that I can see falling to a lower seed. TCU provided the blueprint for how to beat Arizona and it is by creating second chances against an otherwise efficient defense. Kelvin Sampson essentially manufactures these second-chance points and his Cougars are capable of cranking up this pressure that will already be on the shoulders of the top seed in the region with physical defense that speeds you up even if you don’t want to. That momentum will carry them past Villanova and into their second consecutive Final Four, bringing flashbacks to the days of Phi Slama Jama.