#4 Indiana Hoosiers vs. #1 North Carolina Tar Heels
How They Got Here: Indiana defeated Chattanooga in the Round of 64, 99-74 and squeaked by Kentucky 73-67 in the Round of 32 to advance to the East regional semifinals in Philadelphia. North Carolina defeated 16th seed Florida Gulf Coast 83-67 in the first round before dominating Providence 85-66 in the second round to advance to the Sweet 16.
What To Expect: This matchup of perennial NCAA powers could very well be the best matchup of the first two days this weekend. No one in the country is feeling better than Indiana after dispatching Final Four hopeful Kentucky in the second round. The Hoosiers did an excellent job defensively on freshman sensation Jamal Murray, limiting him to 16 points on just 39 percent shooting. However, for Indiana to get to the Final Four, they will have to get through Brice Johnson and the deep, experienced Tar Heels.
North Carolina’s front court depth creates matchup issues for Indiana that Kentucky and many other teams simply cannot replicate. Brice Johnson was sensational on both sides of the ball in the first two games of the tournament. He averaged 19.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, and remarkable five blocks per game, including eight blocks in Friday’s victory over Florida Gulf Coast. Johnson, along with fellow senior Kennedy Meeks, will be a nightmare for Tom Crean and the Hoosiers to game plan for.
While North Carolina clearly has the advantage in the front court, Indiana’s backcourt could be the difference. Senior Yogi Ferrell and freshman OG Anunoby provides the perfect combination of offense and defense for Indiana. Ferrell scored 18 points in Saturday’s victory over Indiana and has led the Hoosier in scoring all season. Anunoby, one of the better on-ball defenders in college basketball, made his presence felt defensively with three blocks and two steals versus Kentucky. Ferrell and Anunoby, along with senior Nick Zeisloft form a backcourt that can take advantage of North Carolina’s whom have struggled for most of the year.
People made a mistake by jumping off the Indiana bandwagon after their loss to Michigan in the second round of the Big Ten tournament. Tom Crean has done a remarkable job with this Hoosiers squad and when they’re at their best, Indiana can beat any team in the country. If Marcus Paige and Joel Berry II can make enough shots, then the Tar Heels should advance. However, Indiana’s athleticism and defense can give UNC a run for their money. This game will be as good as it gets.
#7 Wisconsin Badgers vs. #6 Notre Dame Fighting Irish
How They Got Here: Notre Dame put together a furious second half comeback to avoid an opening round upset against Michigan 70-63 and later survived another scare from 14th seed Stephen F. Austin on a game winning tip in from freshman Rex Pflueger. Wisconsin defeated Pittsburgh in an ugly 47-43 game in round one, and then upset #2 seed Xavier 66-63 on an unforgettable baseline three pointer as time expired by senior Bronson Koenig.
What To Expect: When the bracket was released on Selection Sunday, few would have predicted a Notre Dame vs Wisconsin Sweet 16 matchup. However, Stephen F. Austin’s upset over West Virginia gave Notre Dame an easier path and up to this point Wisconsin has taken advantage of it.
If Wisconsin wants to have any chance to defeat Notre Dame and return to the Final Four for the third consecutive season, senior Nigel Hayes will have to be much more effective. In two tournament games, Hayes went 5/27 from the field and scored 18 combined points. For Wisconsin to still be playing despite the play of Hayes is absolutely remarkable. Hayes should have an opportunity to excel against the Irish due to their small lineup. 6’6 Bonzie Colson gets the most minutes for Notre Dame at the four position and would draw the assignment of Hayes. The 6’8 Hayes not only has the height advantage but also has the speed to take over the less athletic Colson.
Because Bronson Koenig’s defense will mitigate the impact of pro prospect Demetrius Jackson, Notre Dame will have to take advantage of their mismatch at the center position. Zach Auguste has arguably been the Irish’s best player this season, and will have an opportunity to have a major impact Friday night. Auguste is coming off a game against Stephen F. Austin in which he only missed one shot from the floor, scored 16 points, and grabbed an impressive 15 rebounds. While freshman Ethan Happ has had an excellent tournament thus far, he will face his toughest test by far against Auguste.
Ultimately, the play of Nigel Hayes will make or break the Badgers in this one. Although Wisconsin has survived so far without Hayes playing well, they will need him to be a major factor in order to get past the Irish. In the last two seasons under Mike Brey, Notre Dame has won four of its five tournament games by single-digits. Will the luck of the Irish be enough to propel them into the Elite Eight for the second straight season?