We've officially hit full swing March Madness mode, and the Sweet 16 looms.
The East Region of the 2016 big dance has been a fascinating one, with the two, three, and four seeds already gone after two crazy rounds of play. Surviving up to this point at the top of the region are a pair of powerhouses, first-seeded North Carolina and fifth-seeded Indiana, while the bottom half has seen the favorites fall and sixth-seeded Notre Dame and seventh-seeded Wisconsin emerge as the new contenders.
Or perhaps not new, seeing that the Badgers once again used some March heroics Sunday night to claw out a win on a Bronson Koenig buzzer-beating three, inching one step closer to getting back to the title game they lost a year ago to defending champions Duke.
Before any more is spoiled, here's the full look at what has so far transpired in the East Region, and what's to look for early on at the Sweet 16 matchups and who will advance to the Elite Eight.
What We've Seen So Far
Florida Gulf Coast dominated Farleigh Dickinson to bring back memories of their 2013 tourney run and earn the honor of facing Roy Williams' top-seeded Tar Heels in the East.
In a more impactful matchup for the chance to play the Fighting Irish as an eleventh seed, Michigan outlasted Tulsa, 67-62, to advance and instantly be named potential first-round bracket busters (though that didn't work out too well).
Round of 64
FGCU and its 'Dunk City' hype were able stay toe-to-toe with UNC for the first half of play in the 1-16 matchup, but they couldn't endure the full 40 minutes, falling by sixteen, 83-67.
The 8-9 game between USC and Providence to determine who would play the Tar Heels stayed close for its entirety, however. It came down to the final seconds, where the Trojans held a one-point lead, 69-68, with the Friars banking on a single last chance. Kris Dunn missed the shot with three ticks left, but Providence gathered the offensive board and Rodney Bullock knocked down a bucket in the final second to beat the clock and help his team advance to a date with UNC in the Round of 32.
Indiana-Chattanooga and Kentucky-Stony Brook, the 5-12 and 4-13 matchups, as built up as they were for potentially huge upsets, were nothing but glorified blowouts. The Hoosiers looked fantastic, all-out bashing the Mocs for a 99-74 win, while John Calipari's Wildcats took care of business, defeating the Seawolves by an 85-57 margin.
The bottom half of the region is where it got interesting. Notre Dame was able to take down the 11th-seeded Wolverines, 70-63, but they didn't get who they expected as the next round's opponent.
Scorching-hot Stephen F. Austin stormed into the tourney as a 14th seed, thoroughly dominating third-seeded West Virginia for one of the biggest upsets throughout the tournament, winning by a 70-56 scoreline to keep their streak of consecutive victories, carried over from the last calendar year, alive.
And finally, at the lowest portion of the East Region on the bracket, Wisconsin handled Pittsburgh, 47-43, in an extremely low-scoring affair. Meanwhile, Weber State was unable to trouble second-seeded Xavier, and the Musketeers comfortably won, 71-53.
Round of 32
Brice Johnson started out the action by taking control for North Carolina, gathering a double-double of 21 points and ten rebounds en route to an 85-66 win over Dunn & Ben Bentil's Friars. Providence's two stars combined for 50 of the team's points, but it wasn't enough to take down a much more balanced Tar Heels squad.
Next up, in possibly the most greatly anticipated matchup of the round, the Hoosiers and Wildcats squared off in a barnburner. Tyler Ulis had 27 for Kentucky, but IU was able to hold their lead all the way to the end, escaping with a six-point win, 73-67.
On Sunday afternoon, the SF Austin Lumberjacks once again provided the threat of another unexpected win against Notre Dame, leading in the final moments before the miraculous happened for the Irish. Rex Pflueger somehow scored a tip-in with a second-and-a-half to go for ND, sinking the stunned Lumberjacks, 76-75, and advancing to the Sweet 16.
Last, but certainly not least, Wisconsin and Xavier battled it out in a tournament game for the ages. It was neck-and-neck until the very, very end, but it all came down to a halfcourt set from the inbounds, the game tied at 63 with two seconds to go.
After a Badgers timeout, Bronson Koenig maneuvered his way to the right corner, caught the pass from the sideline, and absolutely nailed a three as time expired. He knew it too, celebrating with his teammates as the crowd watched the ball swish through the net to sink the Musketeers and return Wisconsin to the Sweet 16.
What To Look For In Sweet 16 Play
#1 North Carolina Tar Heels vs #5 Indiana Hoosiers
The Heels and Hoosiers are two historic college basketball programs with loads of tournament experience, and with the form Indiana has exhibited in the tournament thus far, especially against Kentucky, it's all up-for-grabs.
North Carolina is a proven team, being the region's top seed, and has a variety of options on both ends of the court, whether it be Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson, or Justin Jackson, or any of their top-tier options throughout the rotation. It's not a squad with any glaring weaknesses, just one waiting for the right contender. And that very well could be the cream and crimson-hot Hoosiers.
Indiana, after a rough patch near the end of the regular season and a loss to Michigan in the Big Ten Conference tournament, has recovered to return to the shape it was in to win the conference's regular season title.
Yogi Ferrell leads the Hoosiers from the point, and complimented by James Blackmon Jr., Troy Williams, and Thomas Bryant, among others, the team has really shaped itself into a unit capable of putting up 100 points (a feat they nearly reached against Chattanooga) or shutting a renowned offensive opponent like Kentucky down to under 70 points on any given night.
This battle between storied basketball schools will come down to grit, who wants it more, and who the March Madness gods are feeling when play tips off late Friday night.
#6 Notre Dame Fighting Irish - #7 Wisconsin Badgers
It seems like both these teams benefited from quite the Irish luck on St. Patrick's Day weekend in tournament play, both with buzzer-beating victories to send them through to where they now stand, the Sweet 16.
From the perspective of experience, the Badgers should have the advantage, reaching this stage just a season after being the tournament runners-up. But ND has stuck around this far, so that's not as major of a thing to consider.
Strategically, the Fighting Irish are a much more scoring-centered team, with higher numbers in points averages and shooting, but Wisconsin is a dominant team on D and has allowed less than 100 points through its first two games in the tournament.
Demetrius Jackson leads Notre Dame with 15.5 points and 4.7 assists per game, while Zach Auguste averages a double-double of 14.3 points and 10.9 rebounds per game. Overall, the Irish have five scorers who average double-digits, and also rank top-40 in shooting efficiency.
The Badgers are led by the scoring of Nigel Hayes, who averages 15.9 per game along with 5.8 boards, and Koenig, who scores 13.3 points per contest. Wisconsin has the 26th best scoring defense in the nation, giving up under 65 points per game.
Wisconsin generally has trouble when it can't enforce it's tempo and control the flow of the game. The Badgers' losses simply seem to indicate that the team can't compete in shootouts and struggles itself against scoring teams who can also defend well. The rebounding battle is another area of struggle.
Under the glass is an even bigger problem for the Irish, who, in their last two losses to UNC and Miami, were outrebounded by a combined 31 boards. Notre Dame also struggles to create opportunities capped off with assists, relying on isolation and individual playmaking. It's no wonder ten of their eleven losses saw the Irish score less than their game-to-game average of 75 points; when they're figured out, it's an uphill battle for the offense.
A lot will come down Friday to whether Notre Dame is shooting the ball well, as well as how easily the Badgers are able to lock down at each matchup across the board. This is another one of those unpredictable matchups until you see the teams come out on gameday and you can get a look at who's more comfortable.
Stick around VAVEL USA for more in-depth game previews as the action dawns upon us. The tournament is rolling and you don't want to miss anything that goes on.