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March Madness Crib Notes for Thursday’s Sweet 16 Games

After a three-day break, the Madness continues Thursday with the commencement of the Sweet 16. And according to the FiveThirtyEight power ratings of the teams involved, Thursday’s games are pretty clearly better than Friday’s slate of matchups. Headlining the action, as always: undefeated Kentucky, who’ll take the court against West Virginia in their sternest test yet (granted, the Wildcats still have an 87 percent chance of advancing). But the most intriguing game of the night might just be North Carolina versus Wisconsin in a battle of contrasting styles.

Read on for more about Thursday’s NCAA tournament action …

No. 1 Kentucky (87 percent win probability) vs. No. 5 West Virginia

Location: Cleveland

When to watch: At 9:45 p.m. EDT on CBS

Power ratings: Kentucky 97.9, West Virginia 85.5

Upset probability: 13 percent

Player to watch: Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky

West Virginia is a deep, balanced squad with a great swarming defense, but its run likely ends Thursday night against the nation’s most talented team. While the Mountaineers do employ some high-variance strategies that could help their upset chances — particularly a pressing defense that specializes in forcing turnovers — there are plenty of weaknesses for Kentucky to exploit if it can adequately protect the ball. Kentucky had the third-best shooting efficiency differential in the country during the season, while West Virginia had the nation’s 30th-worst; the Mountaineers also allowed the highest free throw rate in the country on defense. (For its part, Kentucky’s offense ranked 30th-best in forcing fouls and 74th in free throw accuracy.) So if this game is decided by conventional means, West Virginia probably won’t win; the Mountaineers will need takeaways and a lot of good fortune to hand Kentucky its first loss of the season.


No. 3 Notre Dame (53 percent win probability) vs. No. 7 Wichita State

Location: Cleveland

When to watch: At 7:15 p.m. EDT on CBS

Power ratings: Wichita State 88.1, Notre Dame 87.2

Upset probability: 47 percent

Player to watch: Fred VanVleet, Wichita State

After prevailing in what was arguably the round of 32’s most exciting game, Notre Dame’s next hurdle will be a terrific all-around Wichita State team that is coming off one of the biggest victories in program history. These two teams are very evenly matched; the Fighting Irish are better offensively (according to KenPom.com’s ratings), but the Shockers have the better defense. There are a few peculiarities that could decide the matchup — Wichita State’s defense is good at gathering rebounds and stopping 2-point field goals, which should mitigate two of the Irish’s offensive strengths. Notre Dame, meanwhile, has the superior long-distance shooters. But this is such a tossup that it might come down to something as obscure as travel distance. Notre Dame is favored to win in part because South Bend is almost four times closer to Cleveland than Wichita is. Wichita State has the better power rating in the FiveThirtyEight model, but the travel is what makes the prediction tilt Notre Dame’s way. File it under “every little edge counts,” I suppose.


No. 1 Wisconsin (73 percent win probability) vs. No. 4 North Carolina

Location: Los Angeles

When to watch: At 7:47 p.m. EDT on TBS

Power ratings: Wisconsin 93.6, North Carolina 88.0

Upset probability: 27 percent

Player to watch: Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin

Worlds are colliding in Thursday’s most interesting pairing. The Badgers, known for slowing the pace of the game down to a veritable crawl, will meet the Tar Heels, one of the nation’s fastest-paced teams. During the season, Wisconsin’s average possession lasted nearly six seconds longer than North Carolina’s, while the proportion of UNC’s plays on which they had a transition opportunity was more than double that of Wisconsin. (The Badgers were at the bottom of Division I with a 7.5 percent rate of transition chances per play, according to Synergy.) The tempo of this game will be worth watching. Beyond that, the possibility of an upset might come down to whether UNC can get the 2-point shots upon which they thrive against a tough interior Wisconsin defense and — relatedly — whether the Heels can do any damage on the offensive glass versus the Badgers’ great defensive rebounders.


No. 2 Arizona (87 percent win probability) vs. No. 6 Xavier

Location: Los Angeles

When to watch: At 10:17 p.m. EDT on TBS

Power ratings: Arizona 94.8, Xavier 85.5

Upset probability: 13 percent

Player to watch: T.J. McConnell, Arizona

By navigating past a tough Ohio State team with relative ease in the round of 32, Arizona earned the right to face Xavier in one of the Sweet 16’s easier matchups. The Musketeers aren’t a bad team, but they are among the weaker remaining squads in the field. And that’s not good when facing the second-highest-rated team in the FiveThirtyEight power ratings. There are stylistic reasons to think Xavier is overmatched here. The key to the Musketeers’ success has been their offense, particularly on 2-pointers (big men Matt Stainbrook and Jalen Reynolds both shot in excess of 62 percent on twos this season), but the Wildcats excel at short-circuiting opponents’ 2-point efficiency. And in the absence of its bread-and-butter, Xavier might have trouble knocking down enough threes or forcing enough turnovers to make life difficult for Arizona. The Musketeers shouldn’t feel too bad, though: Despite being the No. 2 seed, Arizona is a 58 percent favorite to emerge as the West’s representative in the Final Four.


Check out FiveThirtyEight’s March Madness predictions.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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