SI’s Pat Forde and Kevin Sweeney provide the latest on what you need to know from the Big Dance:
Which Sweet 16 game are you most looking forward to?
Sweeney: Gonzaga vs. UCLA is the obvious choice, and for good reason. But Houston’s matchup with Miami on Friday intrigues me. Miami is undersized but incredibly tough, and, after hammering Indiana on the backboards, it won’t be afraid to mix it up with Houston down low. Plus, if any team has the guards to match Marcus Sasser and Jamal Shead, it’s the Hurricanes, with Isaiah Wong and Nijel Pack being two of the better shot makers still in the field.
Forde: I second the notion that UCLA-Gonzaga is the best theater, has the best backstory (with several of the same key participants from the teams’ 2021 meeting) and might simply be the best game. But I’m also fascinated by Connecticut-Arkansas, which matches two sideline madmen coaches with talented rosters. UConn has arguably overachieved this season, and the Razorbacks have done the opposite—but does anyone really want to face an Eric Musselman–coached team with multiple NBA draft picks? The Hogs are liable to do anything at any time on any offensive possession, which adds its own element of intrigue.
Who is a player that we didn’t know about before the tournament but needs to be a must-watch this round?
Sweeney: UConn’s Jordan Hawkins. As he goes, the Huskies follow, and in Albany, the sophomore’s big second-half shooting performances helped the Huskies cruise to the second weekend. His ability to hit threes (particularly in transition) is a big spark to the UConn offense, and he plays with a passion and fire that is fun to watch. Coach Dan Hurley needs Hawkins on his game to get out of a loaded West region.
Forde: If you aren’t in love with Markquis Nowell by now, you’re late to the party—but the party isn’t over. The Kansas State point guard, who is listed at 5'8" but probably shorter, began his college career at Little Rock. And he’s become a must-watch March player, with from-the-logo shooting range and a gift for dazzling passes. His NCAA tournament averages through two games: 22 points, 11.5 assists and three steals. And now the Harlem native comes home from the Little Apple to the Big Apple, with the Wildcats set to play in Madison Square Garden.
What does Princeton need to do to become the first Ivy League school to reach the Final Four since 1979?
Sweeney: Control the pace, for one. Princeton has been effective so far in sucking the life out of two teams that love to run, in Arizona and Missouri. Creighton is a bit more measured in its tempo, but potential Elite Eight foe Alabama plays at one of the fastest paces in the country. The Tigers have proved they can hang around with any team in this tournament when they limit possessions, run good half-court offense and win on the glass. They’ll also need three-point shooting closer to the 12 of 33 they made against Missouri than the four of 25 they made against Arizona.
Forde: More than it is capable of doing, one would think. But, dare to dream—if Princeton can shoot the lights out from the perimeter, dictate a deliberate tempo and rebound effectively, you never know. (It’s a bit amazing the Tigers have made just 16 of 58 threes and gotten this far, but it’s also been a tourney filled with bad perimeter shooting.) Creighton is not an impossible matchup, but a potential regional final against Alabama presents all kinds of problems. So if Princeton is going to have a chance, it needs San Diego State to do some giant slaying in the Sweet 16 to present a more favorite opponent in the Elite Eight.
Regardless of Gonzaga’s finish, will Drew Timme still go down as one of the best tournament performers in history?
Sweeney: Timme probably needs at least a second trip to the Final Four to go down as an all-time tournament performer. That said, his numbers so far in every game he’s played outside of the beatdown against Baylor in 2021 are rather remarkable. His taking this group to a Final Four without costars like Jalen Suggs or even Andrew Nembhard would add him to the list of March greats. If he comes up short, I’m not sure how different his legacy will be compared to other great Gonzaga players before him.
Forde: In terms of talent and trophies, Timme is not Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Patrick Ewing, Christian Laettner or Joakim Noah. But he is a very good player who has been a star player in a lot of Gonzaga tourney victories. His NCAA record is 9–2 and would have been better if the 2020 Zags had gotten to play in the Big Dance. He has averaged 23 points and 7.9 rebounds in those games—yeoman work. He’s been in Ken Pomeroy’s top 10 for national Player of the Year three straight years. And in terms of entertainment value, he has never met a microphone he doesn’t like. All that said—if Timme and Gonzaga don’t at least make another Final Four, his historic hero status will be more local than national.
Which team will be feeling the most pressure?
Sweeney: Houston. It’s impossible for a team or coaching staff to think this way in the moment, but there’s no telling whether the Cougars will have this strong of a chance at a title again. From the start of the season, they’ve been the only true championship-or-bust team in my eyes, and this group of players along with coach Kelvin Sampson deserve tremendous amounts of credit for living up to those expectations. But a potential Elite Eight matchup against in-state rival Texas for a spot in a Final Four played in the Cougars’ own city? That has to be weighing on this group a bit.
Forde: While the reasoning behind Houston here is sound, the clear choice is Alabama. The Crimson Tide have the best team. They have also has been playing under incredible—perhaps unprecedented—scrutiny in a predicament that is entirely of its own making. The most talented player in this tournament is being accompanied by armed security. We’ve never seen anything like this before.
Which coaching celebration do you want to see most this weekend?
Sweeney: A pay-per-view channel just showing Musselman’s and Hurley’s reactions for two hours would be well worth whatever it costs. Few are more entertaining on the sidelines (and postgame) than these two coaches, and both love playing to the crowd.
Forde: If Musselman is willing to take off his shirt for a round-of-32 celebration, I don’t want to know which article of clothing would come off next if Arkansas wins again. In a different vein, more happy tears from Michigan State coach Tom Izzo would add another layer to his love affair with that university.
Predictions: Who is going to Houston?
Sweeney: I’ve got Alabama, Texas, UConn and Kansas State. The Tide’s path is rather fortuitous, the Longhorns have a number of ways to beat you, the Huskies are playing as well as they have all season, and I can’t shake my belief in first-year coach Jerome Tang in the wide-open East.
Forde: I’m going with Alabama, Houston, Gonzaga and Kansas State. The sea has parted for the Crimson Tide in the South. I originally had Texas over the Cougars in the Midwest, but seeing Sasser come back strong from injury against Auburn has reaffirmed my faith in Sampson’s team. No one has shot better than UConn so far, which is 21–47 from three-point range, but that’s difficult to sustain. And I think the Zags are playing more freely without the weight of a No. 1 seed this time around. I give K-State a slight edge in a wide-open East Region, but it would not shock me if any of those four teams won. (I mean, Florida Atlantic would, in a vacuum, but that’s a legitimately good team.)