BY JEFF EISENBERG
March 18, 2017
What’s the only upside to a humdrum, uneventful first round of the NCAA tournament in which teams seeded No. 4 or better went 16-0?
It should give way to a second round loaded with quality matchups.
Saturday’s second-round slate is headlined by a pair of tests for No. 1 seeds and two intriguing clashes of style between No. 4 and 5 seeds. Here’s a look at Saturday’s eight games ranked from most to least compelling:
1. 1-Villanova vs. 8-Wisconsin (1:45 p.m. CST, CBS): The reigning national champs will get a huge opening-weekend test from a Wisconsin team gunning for its fourth straight Sweet 16 appearance. The Badgers lost five of six late in the regular season to fall out of Big Ten title contention, but they’ve righted themselves in the postseason. Bronson Koenig sank eight threes two nights ago, Nigel Hayes is averaging 16 points in his last three games and Ethan Happ could be a difficult matchup for an undersized Villanova team lacking a true center. Guard play will be an advantage for Villanova, but the Wildcats really need title game hero Kris Jenkins to rediscover his shooting stroke.
2. 1-Gonzaga (1) vs. 8-Northwestern (4:15 p.m. CST, CBS): Can Gonzaga stay on course for its first Final Four in program history? Can Northwestern reach the Sweet 16 in its first-ever NCAA tournament appearance? The storylines are juicy in this West Regional matchup. The key for Northwestern will be to put game pressure on Gonzaga down the stretch, something the Zags seldom faced in dominating the WCC the past few months. Keeping it close down the stretch will be easier said than done though for the Wildcats. Nigel Williams-Goss is one of the nation’s best point guards, Przemek Karnowski is as skilled as he is big and this is easily the best defensive team that Mark Few has ever coached.
3. 4-West Virginia vs. 5-Notre Dame (11:10 a.m. CST, CBS): The clash of styles in this matchup is what makes it fascinating. Aggressive, swarming West Virginia forces more turnovers than any team in the nation with its full-court press, inducing opponents to cough up the ball on nearly 28 percent of their possessions. Skilled, fundamentally sound Notre Dame is comfortable playing at pace and turns the ball over less than any other team in the nation, giving it away just 13.8 percent of the time. Whichever team wins that battle will win this second-round matchup. The Irish have the shooters to make West Virginia pay for pressing if they can just get it across mid-court.
4. 4-Purdue vs. 5-Iowa State (8:40 p.m. EST, TBS): This is another compelling matchup between two teams with contrasting approaches. It’s Purdue’s size and strength against Iowa State’s speed and quickness with a Sweet 16 berth at stake. Purdue wants to feed Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas in the post, force double teams and kick out for open threes, something against which an undersized team like Iowa State is definitely vulnerable. The Cyclones want to put opposing big men in ball screens, let Monte Morris create off the dribble and either get to the basket or find a shooter spotted up behind the arc, something Purdue won’t have an easy time defending either. Whoever exploits the mismatches better will advance.