After two weeks of celebration, heartache and madness, just 16 teams remain in the 2015 NCAA Tournament.
To preview this week’s matchups and discuss their favorite stories from the tournament thus far, the K-State Collegian sports editor Tate Steinlage sat down with staff writers Emilio Rivera, Tim Everson and Andrew Hammond.
What is your surprise Sweet 16 team and why?
Tate Steinlage: Michigan State. At this point, it’s foolish to bet against Spartans head coach Tom Izzo. The man is simply as good as it gets. Michigan State, however, isn’t as good in years past and they essentially had to learn a new defense overnight before beating No. 2 Virginia. Yet, here is Izzo and his posse, busting down the doors and burning brackets.
Emilio Rivera: North Carolina State. The Wolfpack have managed to not only down No. 1-seeded Villanova in the Round of 32, but also put themselves in a very winnable match against ACC foe Louisville, a team they already beat in a hostile environment in Louisville, Kentucky.
Tim Everson: Xavier. The Mack is back. Head coach Chris Mack has the Musketeers back in Sweet 16. Many people picked the winner of the play-in game (before it was played) to win over this Xavier team, but they’ve shut down an offensively talented Ole Miss team and an upstart Georgia State side. Plus, senior forward Matt Stainbrook is a beast on the block and gives hope to slightly chubby white guys with a dream.
Andrew Hammond: UCLA. This team scored seven points in a half … of college basketball … this season … in real life. This team shouldn’t even be in the tournament but, well, here they are. Kudos to the Bruins for proving America wrong.
What is your favorite Sweet 16 matchup and why?
Steinlage: Oklahoma versus Michigan State. Those in Las Vegas probably didn’t bet on this matchup coming to fruition before the tournament got underway, but here are the Sooners and Spartans fighting for a berth in the Elite Eight. At their best offensively, Oklahoma is among the best in the country. The same goes for Michigan State defensively, though. It’ll likely be a dogfight that goes down to the wire between these two solid programs and their historic head coaches.
Rivera: Notre Dame versus Wichita State. Both teams have had a good season coming into the tournament. The Shockers haven’t put up any “shocking” stats, but they are a team built to win. The Fighting Irish, on the other hand, have managed to put together one of the best offenses in the country, averaging a dangerous 78.8 points per game.
Everson: Kentucky versus West Virginia. I want to preface this by saying that even though it is interesting, Kentucky may blowout West Virginia. Still, the Wildcats have never had to play a team that is as physical and exhausting as the Mountaineers can be. Look for West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins to slap John Calipari’s team around a little bit before Kentucky suffocates them for the win.
Hammond: Wisconsin versus North Carolina. Even if North Carolina is without sophomore forward Kennedy Meeks, the Tar Heels match up well with the Badgers. And even if Badgers senior forward Frank Kaminsky goes for 20 points and 10 rebounds, the Tar Heels are good enough to stop Wisconsin.
What is your favorite story from the NCAA Tournament thus far?
Steinlage: Georgia State. Listen, I’m a sucker for a good Cinderella story. David taking down Goliath is what March Madness is all about. Georgia State’s tournament run was so much more, though. Georgia State junior guard R.J. Hunter hit a game-winning bucket in the first round to stun No. 3 Baylor. He got to celebrate it with his father, Ron Hunter, who just so happens to be the head coach of the team. Rather than play down the father-son relationship, Ron embraced it, as did his son. That’s what sports is all about.
Rivera: Shockers shocking Kansas. This matchup had been brewing for years, with fans around the state wanting to see the under-respected Shockers play national powerhouse Kansas. But, because of politics and schools’ disdain to play against each other, it just hasn’t happened … until it did, and Wichita State knocked the Jayhawks out of the tournament.
Everson: Lon Kruger. Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger has taken a record five teams (K-State, Florida, Illinois, UNLV, Oklahoma) to the Sweet 16. Kruger, a native Kansan and K-State legend, is adding a little splash of purple to a Sweet 16 cocktail so dreadfully devoid of anything K-State.
Hammond: Kentucky. As much as everybody is tired of Kentucky, seeing a team go No. 1 all season long and undefeated on top of that is a great story. It’s hard to win these days in college basketball, so finishing undefeated would be unbelievable.
Who do you having winning their Sweet 16 games?
Steinlage: Kentucky, Wichita State, Wisconsin, Arizona, NC State, Michigan State, Duke and Gonzaga.
Rivera: Kentucky, Wichita State, Wisconsin, Arizona, NC State, Oklahoma, Duke and Gonzaga.
Everson: Kentucky, Wichita State, Wisconsin, Arizona, NC State, Oklahoma, Utah and Gonzaga.
Hammond: Kentucky, Notre Dame, North Carolina, Arizona, Michigan State, Louisville, Duke and Gonzaga.