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With the NCAA Tournament field narrowed from 68 to 16 teams after the first weekend, it's time to gear up for the Sweet Sixteen, which begins on Thursday. At this point in the tournament, anyone is a realistic Final Four threat, so every game has a certain level of intrigue. However, undoubtedly there are some games in this round that are a bit more intriguing than some of the others. I've ranked all eight games by level of intrigue and here are my results:
8. NC State vs Louisville
NC State is riding high after knocking off Villanova to advance to the Sweet 16. Louisville took care of business, avoiding a scare against UC-Irvine and then beating 5-seed Northern Iowa. Louisville's strength is defense, so while I don't think that they'll blow NC State out of the water, I'm not sure if the Wolfpack's below-average offense will give them much of a chance to win. I expect Louisville to be playing for a Final Four spot on Sunday, and this game probably brings the least to the table in terms of intrigue; I put his one behind the next two games due to the relative lack of star power.
7. Utah vs Duke
Duke came into the tournament with probably the best chance of beating overall No. 1 seed Kentucky and after their first two games, they have only strengthened that line of logic. The Blue Devils won their first two games by 29 and 19 respectively, and they should be able to 5-seeded Utah on Friday night. The Utes took care of business against the high-powered offense of mid-major Stephen F. Austin in their first game, then triumphed over Georgetown to earn a berth in the Sweet 16. Duke is lead by by Jahlil Okafor, perhaps the top prospect in the tournament, so his play merits some intrigue, but I don't expect this to be one of the closer Sweet 16 games.
6. Xavier vs Arizona
Arizona is another team with two potential first-round picks in this summer's NBA draft, in Stanley Johnson and Rondae-Hollis Jefferson. Like Okafor, their presence will make this game intriguing at the very least, but I'm not sure if Xavier will be able to hang with the talent of Arizona. The Musketeers beat an 11-seed and a 14-seed to get into the Sweet 16, so facing Arizona, who finished No. 5 in the AP Poll provides them with a steep increase in the level of competition they will face.
5. Michigan State vs Oklahoma
Michigan State beat 2-seed Virginia to make it to the Sweet 16, while Oklahoma narrowly defeated 11-seed Dayton. The Spartans play great team basketball, they are 4th in the nation with 17.1 assists per game, and head coach Tom Izzo always get's the best out of his squad. Although neither team is laden with star players, Michigan State will make this an intriguing game. I expect Michigan State to advance, but I'd be surprised if it wasn't a entertaining, hard-fought contest.
4. UCLA vs Gonzaga
UCLA is the lowest-seeded team remaining in the tournament. The beat SMU to advance to the 3rd Round before beating 14-seed UAB to get to the Sweet 16. Gonzaga has had an outstanding season so far; their 2 losses put them behind only undefeated Kentucky for best record in Division 1. They've yet to have too much trouble in the Tournament, winning both their previous games by double-digits. Gonzaga's high-powered offense will be difficult for UCLA to stop, but in the NCAA Tournament, anything can happen
3. North Carolina vs Wisconsin
Wisconsin is another of the select number of teams that I think could potentially beat Kentucky. Their best player, 7-footer Frank Kaminsky is probably the frontrunner at this point for player of the year. They beat Oregon 72-65 to advance to this stage. North Carolina survived a scare by Harvard in their first game, then defeated a feisty Arkansas squad to make to to the Sweet 16. Wisconsin could have a field day against the Tar Heels' defense, which ranks 238th in division one in points allowed.
2. Notre Dame vs Wichita State
This game went ahead of UNC-Wisconsin for one reason; the winner will (probably) face Kentucky in the Elite Eight. Notre Dame is in the Sweet 16 by virtue of narrow wins versus Northeastern and Butler. Wichita State beat Indiana then knocked off 2-seed Kansas to make it here, proving they can play with the teams from the Major conferences. Wichita State boasts one of the best defenses in college basketball, allowing 56.7 PPG, 9th in Division 1. Notre Dame on the other hand has one of the most prolific offenses in college basketball, ranking 2nd in efficiency and 12th in scoring. It will certainly be interesting to watch these teams fight for the right to (perhaps) take on Kentucky
1. West Virginia vs Kentucky
This game is the obvious choice for most intriguing due to the historical ramifications. As Kentucky looks to complete a potential 40-0 season, the first in college basketball history, all eyes are on the Wildcats' pursuit of perfection. They had to fight their way through a slugfest against Cincinnati in the 3rd Round where they shot just 37% from the field. They face a better opponent on Thursday in West Virginia, who defeated 4-seed Maryland to advance to this stage. The Mountaineers are a pretty good offensive team, but they face a formidable defense in Kentucky, one of the best in the nation. Its unknown if they will be able to knock of Kentucky, but it certainly is the most anticipated game of the round.