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NCAA Tournament: Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight Preview - South and Midwest Regions

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Baylor looks back on form heading into the tournament’s second weekend.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Syracuse at West Virginia Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

For the third time in a row, the Oklahoma Sooners men’s hoops season ended in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. After cruising past the Missouri Tigers in the first round, OU met the buzzsaw doubling as the Gonzaga Bulldogs.

The fact that the Sooners played well in a 16-point loss underscores just how well the Zags are playing this year. Heading into the second weekend of the Big Dance, it’s not clear if any of the remaining teams can mount a credible threat to Mark Few’s team.

Is the rest of this tournament just a formality? We should have a better sense after this weekend’s action. With that in mind, here’s our breakdown of this year’s Sweet Sixteen and Elite Right rounds.

Midwest Region

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Loyola-Chicago at Illinois Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

No. 8 Loyola Chicago vs. No. 12 Oregon State

TV executives must be thrilled about the opportunity to showcase this glamor matchup on Saturday afternoon. Basketball purists aside, these teams just don’t generate much buzz. (And since we’re here, an Oklahoma State team with the best NBA prospect in the country squandering a friendly path to the Final Four seems kinda on the nose.)

The Beavers rode a hot shooting streak to the second round versus Oklahoma State. Their proficiency from long range waned versus the Cowboys, but coach Wayne Tinkle’s defensive wrinkles flummoxed OSU star Cade Cunningham and his teammates.

If the Beavs don’t start scorching the nets again, the Ramblers are going to grind them into dust. Loyola Chicago is incredibly disciplined, and Porter Moser’s players execute his game plans well. It will take a physically superior team to beat them. That’s not Oregon State.

No. 2 Houston vs. No. 11 Syracuse

At this point, we don’t need to rehash the Orange’s history of overplaying their seed in March. No one wants Jim Boeheim hanging around longer than necessary, but it’s just a reality that must be endured. Think of Syracuse as the colonoscopy of college basketball.

Truth be told, watching Kelvin Sampson’s teams play usually stinks, too. He has molded the Cougars in his image: They play slow, defend their asses off and rebound as well as any team in the country.

UH’s ability to clean the glass on the offensive end could put the Orange in a world of hurt. However, DeJon Jarreau’s hip injury could hamper Houston’s ability to stick with Cuse star Buddy Boeheim on the perimeter. Which one matters more?

One important thing to keep in mind: Sampson has an entire week to prepare his team for Syracuse’s 2-3 zone.

Midwest Region Prediction: Houston over Loyola

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Rutgers at Houston Joshua Bickel-USA TODAY Sports

UH doesn’t have much flash, but the Cougars are solid in all aspects of the game. The extra prep time for Syracuse should offset any matchups disadvantages posed by the Orange’s funky style of play. As for the other game, Loyola center Cameron Krutwig should feast on Oregon State’s lackluster interior defense

In a Houston-Loyola matchup, the most obvious issue for the Cougs is stopping Krutwig. For as well as UH rebounds the ball, the roster is hurting for true big men who can hang with a player of Krutwig’s size.

Even so, UH has enough athleticism everywhere else on the floor to limit any damage the non-Krutwig Ramblers can do when Loyola has the ball. It won’t be pretty, but look for Houston to advance to the Final Four.

South Region

NCAA Basketball: Roman Legends Classic-Villanova vs Hartford David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

No. 1 Baylor vs. No. 5 Villanova

The rejuvenation of Baylor’s defense flew under the radar in the opening weekend. In their first two games, the Bears’ play on that end of the floor finally started to resemble their performance prior to the program’s midseason Covid-19 shutdown.

We’ll see this weekend if that holds up for the Bears against a team with one of the most efficient offenses in the country.

The Wildcats made a recovery of their own in the opening weekend. VU coach Jay Wright finally had a chance to tinker with his team after losing star Collin Gillespie to a knee injury, and it produced results. The Cats shot a combined 42% from three-point range in wins over Winthrop and North Texas. Importantly, guards Justin Moore and Chris Arcidiacono looked as comfortable as they have been in the last month handing the basketball and initiating Nova’s offense.

Unfortunately for Wright and his team, the Cats have struggled defending the perimeter all season. That is bad news against a team that can light it up from deep the way Baylor can.

Nova’s deliberate pace of play may fluster the Bears initially, but Baylor’s athleticism across the board will eventually overwhelm a team that has been downright bad on defense this season.

No. 3 Arkansas vs. No. 15 Oral Roberts

The Razorbacks are cycling between the extremes in their opponents’ styles in this tournament. First, they took on Colgate, which plays uptempo on offense and bombs away from outside. Arkansas then played painfully slow Texas Tech in the second round. The Hogs move back to fast pace and points by the bucket load in the Sweet Sixteen when they take on the Golden Eagles.

Of course, Arkansas loves running and gunning. ORU stars Max Abmas and Kevin Obanor have dazzled so far in the tournament, but battling a more talented team in its comfort zone rarely works out well for underdogs.

South Prediction: Baylor over Arkansas

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Wisconsin at Baylor Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Not so long ago, the Bears were wobbling. They righted the ship in the final weeks of the season, however, and this team now looks like Gonzaga’s toughest remaining challenger.

The Razorbacks can absolutely beat Baylor. They would have beat Baylor if they met earlier this month. They’re not beating the Bears now, though.

Scott Drew in the Final Four. Wouldn’t that be something?