Sweet Sixteen Preview: East Region

Sweet Sixteen Preview: East Region

This article is part of our NCAA Tournament Preview series.

East Region
West Region
Midwest Region
South Region

SIte: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA
Tip-Off: Friday, March 25, 7:09 p.m. EST

This tournament never ceases to amaze, and make so many of us look like fools. Kentucky a lock to the second weekend, and the Final Four favorite? No, they're losing in the first round as 18.5-point favorites. Defending National Champion Baylor comes back from a 25-point deficit, only to lose in overtime to a team that plays five starters 29+ minutes nightly and was without two of them for the extra stanza? Makes perfect sense. 

No.4 UCLA vs. No. 8 North Carolina

Key Matchup: Leaky Black vs. Johnny Juzang. Black has emerged as one of the better defenders in the country, something most of the rest of the Heels aren't known for. He helped limit Marquette star Justin Lewis to a 2-of-15 showing in the opening round, followed by locking down Baylor's Matthew Mayer to force a 3-of-8 shooting performance. He seems highly likely to draw Juzang often. The Bruins breakout star in last year's Final Four run, Juzang has been up and down this season. If Black can force him to struggle from the floor, as he did in the opener against Akron (3-of-11), UCLA will be facing an uphill battle for consistent scoring, especially if they aren't at full strength (see below). 

UCLA will win IF: It forces UNC to play 1-on-1. North Carolina was ridiculously efficient in the opening two rounds, assisting on 51

East Region
West Region
Midwest Region
South Region

SIte: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA
Tip-Off: Friday, March 25, 7:09 p.m. EST

This tournament never ceases to amaze, and make so many of us look like fools. Kentucky a lock to the second weekend, and the Final Four favorite? No, they're losing in the first round as 18.5-point favorites. Defending National Champion Baylor comes back from a 25-point deficit, only to lose in overtime to a team that plays five starters 29+ minutes nightly and was without two of them for the extra stanza? Makes perfect sense. 

No.4 UCLA vs. No. 8 North Carolina

Key Matchup: Leaky Black vs. Johnny Juzang. Black has emerged as one of the better defenders in the country, something most of the rest of the Heels aren't known for. He helped limit Marquette star Justin Lewis to a 2-of-15 showing in the opening round, followed by locking down Baylor's Matthew Mayer to force a 3-of-8 shooting performance. He seems highly likely to draw Juzang often. The Bruins breakout star in last year's Final Four run, Juzang has been up and down this season. If Black can force him to struggle from the floor, as he did in the opener against Akron (3-of-11), UCLA will be facing an uphill battle for consistent scoring, especially if they aren't at full strength (see below). 

UCLA will win IF: It forces UNC to play 1-on-1. North Carolina was ridiculously efficient in the opening two rounds, assisting on 51 of their 62 made field goals. But when the game was on the line against Baylor, it was straight isolation, not even a pick and a hoisted (unsuccessful) 3-pointer. The Heels ranked a modest 72nd nationally, assisting on 55.4 percent of their field goals during the regular season, while UCLA's defense allowed just a 50.5 percent ratio. We know UNC will want a faster pace, and UCLA a slower one. That should ebb and flow throughout the game. But if the Bruins are locked in defensively, leading to forced shots late in the shot clock, UNC will have to have a perfect shooting night to prevail.

North Carolina will win IF: Its starters stay on the floor. UNC has gotten out to huge leads in both of their first two games, which has allowed head coach Hubert Davis to go deeper into his bench than he has all regular season. I expect he'll try to steal some first half minutes again with Dontrez Styles and Puff Johnson. But the Heels need their starters to play as much as possible. The offense bogged down against Baylor once Caleb Love fouled out, as he and RJ Davis weren't able to work off each other. There's minimal shooting options off the bench as well, which creates no spacing and allows teams to double Armando Bacot in the post. It's no secret what UNC wants to do. Can UCLA force someone off the court and the Heels out of their comfort zone?

Player to watch: Jaime Jaquez, G/F, UCLA. Jaquez left the Bruins second-round game against St. Mary's with an ankle injury that initially looked severe. Postgame reports were encouraging, and perhaps by tipoff Friday, this is a complete non-story. But if Jaquez isn't at close to 100 percent, the Bruins are going to be in trouble. He's scored in double-digits in 10 straight, averaging 18.7 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.2 steals in that stretch. UCLA will need all of that to keep pace with UNC. An honorable mention can be noted for Tar Heel forward Brady Manek. You could ignore the fact that he was white hot in Dallas last weekend; postgame reports are he's distraught over the (bogus) ejection for an elbow. If that remains in his head and effects performance, UNC isn't in a good spot.

Prediction: Head over heart. I'm as big of a UNC fan as there is, so it's hard to be unbiased, but I'm also overly hard in analysis on my own team. There's no doubt the Tar Heels are peaking, and on talent alone, they're certainly in the nation's upper tier. Them advancing shouldn't be viewed as a surprise. But UCLA's core came back for this moment. After coming up just short a season ago, that experience reigns supreme. UCLA advances and UNC is a season away from its own major run.

No.3 Purdue vs. No. 15 St. Peter's

Key Matchup: Zach Edey/Trevion Williams vs. St. Peter's front line. Edey goes 7-foot-4, 295 pounds and Williams 6-foot-10, 255 pounds. How on earth are the Peacocks going to combat that when their roster lists just two players north of 200 pounds? They could look to speed the pace up and force Purdue to play small, but that's not St. Peters' game, as they rank 241st in tempo, per KenPom. This profiles as a David vs. Goliath matchup both figuratively and literally, with the Boilermakers seemingly set to dominate the paint, leading to easy baskets, second chance points and no room for error from St. Peter's.

Purdue will win IF: It takes St. Peter's seriously. Everyone loves the Cinderella story, but the Boilermakers opened as 12.5-point favorites, the only double-digit spread throughout this round's eight games. They rank second in offensive efficiency, and 13th in two-point field goal percentage (55.8 percent), an area St. Peter's has excelled defensively at over the last month. There's an obvious talent gap here, so as long as Purdue comes to play and doesn't take a win for granted, they'll have no issues advancing.

St. Peter's will win IF: Someone new steps up. The Peacocks are relatively deep, playing nine players double-digit minutes both throughout the regular season and in their first two tournament games. Only two players average double-digit scoring during the regular season, and that too manifested itself last week. Daryl Banks hung 27 on Kentucky, but followed it up with a 1-of-7 showing against Murray State, finishing with just six points. KC Ndefo had 17 points, 10 boards and six blocks against the Racers, but seven points, three boards and five turnovers against the Wildcats. Can the Peacocks find another hero and propel them to the Elite 8?

Player to watch: Jaden Ivey, G, Purdue: For as much of an advantage as the Boilermakers have on the interior, it will be Ivey's job to force that issue. The future lottery pick is the most talented player in this game, and is coming off a mighty fine opening weekend where he scored a combined 40 points, while hitting 5-of-10 from 3-point range and 15-of-18 from the charity stripe. But he also had six turnovers and only four assists. Ivey needs push tempo, get into the lane and distribute to the Purdue bigs, taking St. Peter's out of their comfort zone in the process.

Prediction: St. Peter's hasn't lost since February 20th, emerging victorious in their last nine games. The Peacocks will show up believing, but it will only last through the first few media time outs. Purdue is too big, too dynamic and too offensively efficient. 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chris Bennett
Bennett covers baseball, college football and college basketball for RotoWire. Before turning to fantasy writing, he worked in scouting/player development for the Atlanta Braves and Montreal Expos. He's also a fan of the ACC.
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