The time has arrived for the Sweet 16 of America's greatest sporting spectacle, the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Our hoops contributors Amaar Abdul-Nasir, Maurice Merrell and Martin Sumners break down this upcoming phase of March Madness as we take our next steps toward crowning the 2017 national champion.


Biggest Loser

Amaar Abdul-Nasir: SMU

I know it’s popular to pile on the ACC right now, but here’s my thing: Just because the conference had a bad tournament, it doesn’t mean the conference was not a beast this season. What happens in March doesn’t erase or invalidate what happened in the 4-5 months beforehand.

And wasn’t it still a big deal when the ACC struggled? South Carolina (plus the entire Internet) wouldn’t have been partying like rock stars on Sunday if they’d beaten Arizona or Oregon. It was extra special because it was Duke. And let’s not downplay how that was basically a home game for the Gamecocks.

Louisville got taken out by the hottest team in the country; no shame in that. Miami lost to Tom Izzo in March; definitely no shame in that. Notre Dame, Virginia and Virginia Tech lost to higher seeds. The only real “C’mon son” ACC loss was Florida State getting mopped by Xavier.


And so, for this spot, I’m going with SMU. The Mustangs were a feel-good story, bouncing back from the mess of the Larry Brown era to win the AAC. They got to face First Four play-in winner USC, who would be playing their second game in three days while SMU was rested and never sweating out being on the bubble.

But then SMU didn’t just lose to USC. They lost a heartbreaker. Shake Milton’s floater that would’ve been the game-winner looked good going up, but hit the rim going down. Now the Mustangs could lose Milton and star forward Semi Ojeleye to the NBA Draft. Who knows when they’ll be this good again.


Martin Sumners: East Coast Bias

It could be the reputation of the referees who missed call after call and spent more time watching TV (replay monitors) than kids home on a snow day.  What about the Pitino coaching family as Rick (Louisville) and Richard (Minnesota) lost to lower seeds?  Maybe it’s the ACC, which is left with only UNC alive, but was heralded as the best conference with the most bids, yet went down like Zab Judah.  

However, it has to be the bracketeers who picked Villanova or Duke to win the championship.    


Maurice Merrell: The ACC

The ACC got eight teams into the tournament this year and only UNC made it to the Sweet 16. How Sway?

After the whole country drank all that Atlantic Coast Conference Kool-Aid, the conference strong enough to have a No. 1 seed and two No. 2 seeds put on a historically underwhelming performance. Not that much was expected out of Virginia Tech or the University of Miami (who both saw first round exits) but Florida State, Notre Dame, Louisville and Duke broke more brackets than Rick Ross had Spotify streams last weekend.

Leaving the Tar Heels with a message similar in sentiment to Rozay’s album for its conference mates: Better you than me.


Boy In His Bag

Amaar: Oregon guard Tyler Dorsey.

On March 4, Dorsey scored one point in 20 minutes against Pac-12 cellar-dweller Oregon State. He shot 0-for-4 and had more fouls (3) than rebounds, assists and steals combined (2).

I don’t know who talked to Dorsey after that game – Mom, Dad, coach Dana Altman, Ducks legend Terrell Brandon, or Duke from the Rocky movies – but the kid has been on fire ever since.


Dorsey has averaged 23.6 points in the five games following that Oregon State disaster, almost 10 full points higher than his season average. In Oregon’s first-round win over Iona, he scored 24. Against Rhode Island in the second round, he dropped 27. He’s shooting 78 percent from the field (18-for-23) in the last five games and 66 percent from three (6-for-9).

If he keeps this up, Dorsey might end up being the bad guy for ending Michigan’s miracle run.


Martin: South Carolina Guard Sindarius Thornwell

Although we used to say “he blew up”, there apparently is new slang unknown even to urban dictionary. Then term fits South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell as would his name in this viral Key & Peele skit.   The 6-foot-5 guard, despite being named the SEC player of the year, played in the deep dark crevices of Kentucky’s shadow.  

Not anymore.

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He destroyed a son of Duke, Marquette’s head coach Steve Wojciechowski with 29 points, 11 rebounds and two assists in South Carolina’s 93-73 first-round win, the program's first NCAA Tournament win since 1973.  Then he whipped the daddy, Coach K, with 24 points, six rebounds and five assists in USC’s 88-81 second-round victory over Duke.  


Maurice: Caleb Swanigan

Big men haven’t exactly been the talk of the tournament, but Purdue center Caleb Swanigan, a.k.a. “Biggie,” has 357 ways to simmer-sauté the competition. Averaging 18 points,13 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 2 blocks through two games, he’s the Boilermakers anchor and driving force if they’re to advance through to the Final Four.



They’d need to first beat Kansas and then the winner of Michigan vs. Oregon to get there, but if anyone’s capable of separating the weak from the obsolete, it’s B.I.G. Swanigan.



More Life: Best season-saving clutch performance

Amaar: Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina.

It looked like the Tar Heels were going down. They’d blown a big lead to Arkansas and trailed by five with about three minutes left. UNC appeared to be wearing down under the Razorbacks’ hellacious pressure.

A lot of coaches might have taken Meeks out of the game. The 6-foot-10, 260-pounder is not exactly the athlete, ball-handler or shooter you need on the court at that time. But Roy Williams stuck with his senior, and Meeks delivered during UNC’s ensuing 12-0 run to win the game.

Meeks had a block, two rebounds and a tip-in for a clutch bucket in that last run, finishing with 16 points and 11 rebounds to help the Tar Heels stay in the title picture.

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Martin: UNC

No.1 seed North Carolina raced to a 17-point lead over No. 8 Arkansas with five minutes left in the first half.  But UNC’s off-and-on relationship with ball security led to turnovers and a mere five-point lead at halftime.  

Head coach Mike Anderson’s (mentored by the great Nolan Richardson) Razorbacks grit and grind put the Tar Heels on its, well, heels. But down 65-60 after a Jaylen Bradford layup at 3:31, UNC’s Roy Williams forgoes a timeout. Instead, Joel Berry II immediately hoists an off-target three.  Two offensive boards and two free throws later started a 12-0 run and the Tar Heels escape.   


Maurice: Tyler Dorsey

The Pac-12 strengthened its case for the most overlooked High-Major conference. With only four teams making the draw this year, three are in the Sweet 16.

But the roads weren’t easily paved and the player who proved to be ready to ride is Oregon’s Tyler Dorsey. Known for making big shots since his high school days, Dorsey’s become the Duck we can’t wait to watch.

Shooting 9-of-10 for the game versus Rhode Island, Dorsey hit a walk-up three with 40 seconds left in the game that gave Oregon a go-ahead lead. Drake’s got a song called Portland on his new playlist More Life. If things go Dorsey’s way, the rapper from the Six will be rocking his jersey the next time he performs in his new favorite Pacific Northwest city.


Most Exciting Sweet 16 game

Amaar: Kentucky vs UCLA

Wisconsin vs. Florida is a great styles-clash matchup on paper. Two deep and experienced rosters with solid defenses, shooters, and good coaches.

But for sheer star power and skill, it’s Kentucky vs. UCLA. The Wildcats and Bruins played earlier in the season in Lexington, Ky., and UCLA won. But Kentucky has gotten better since then. This game is full of intriguing matchups: Lonzo Ball vs. De’Aaron Fox, Isaiah Briscoe vs. Bryce Alford, T.J. Leaf vs. Bam Adebayo, Malik Monk vs. Isaac Hamilton, Steve Alford vs. John Calipari.

The marquee program on the West Coast vs. the marquee program of the South, arguably the two biggest brand names in the sport. And in a loser-goes-home scenario? This is like if USC and Alabama met in a college football playoff game.


Martin: Kentucky vs UCLA

Wait, what, the two most winningest programs in college basketball meeting in the Sweet 16?  That’s 3X Dope!  

Earlier this season in Lexington, UCLA ran up into then No.1 UK, 97-92.  Will UCLA show it wasn’t a fluke or will the Wildcats get revenge?  But other, even larger, questions loom.  

Will Poppa Ball get into it with Coach Cal?  Will Lonzo Ball dazzle Malik Monk? Will Bam Adebayo be like Oz’s Adebisi and shut down the Bruins big men who can shoot from the perimeter?  If the Bruins lose, will head coach Steve Alford go straight home to coach Indiana?      


Maurice: Kentucky vs UCLA

When the two teams met in December, UCLA ended the Wildcats 42-game home winning streak and the Bruins proved they were more than just the Lonzo Ball show. This time, the two featured teams are deep enough in their seasons where freshmen mistakes don’t happen too often and players experiences couple with their passions.

And if there’s any duo that plays with passion, it’s Kentucky’s Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox. The second go-round between these blue bloods should be a goody. 



Final Four 

Amaar: Three of my original Final Four picks are still in the tournament and still looking like Final Four teams: Arizona, Kentucky and Michigan.

To fill that fourth spot, where I previously had Villanova, I’ll go with Baylor.

The Bears’ nickname doesn’t even do them justice. They’re like a squad of Uruk-Hai soldiers from “Lord of the Rings.” All arms and legs and hair and dunks and blocks, with savvy and skilled point guard Manu Lecomte orchestrating the whole thing on the court, and coach Scott Drew playing the role of Sauron.


Martin: Midwest: Kansas

The Jayhawks already handled an almost always tough-out in Tom Izzo’s Michigan State squad with a 90-70 thumping.  Potential formidable challenger No. 2 seed Louisville lost to upstart No. 7 seed Michigan. The Wolverines haven’t lost since its plane scare and appear to be on another spring roll like in 1989, when they won it all despite entering March Madness with a new coach in Steve Fischer.



Similarly, other Michigan teams marched to the championship game like the Fab Five in 1992 and in 2013. However, KU should bounce Purdue then defeat the winner of the Oregon – Michigan game.  

South: UCLA

Backpedaling from my previous UNC pick here and going with UCLA.  On a bad offensive night, the Bruins will score almost 80 points.  Lonzo Ball orchestrates, but they have six players scoring in double figures led by TJ Leaf (16.2 ppg), the coach’s son, Byrce Alford (15.6) and Aaron (the last) Holiday (12.5).

They will simply outshoot Kentucky and comfortably win the rematch. Look for the Tarheels to just outclass Butler in the Sweet16 round.  Then in the regional finale, UNC stays shaky while UCLA, the more consistent team in the tourney to date, will prevail over the Tar Heels.  

West:  Arizona

The Wildcats next opponent, Xavier, may be the most underrated program of recent history.  They have several Sweet 16 appearances and a couple of Elite Eight finishes, yet this season’s run as a No. 11 seed may be the most remarkable after losing point guard Ed Sumner to injury and fifth-year senior Myles Davis left school.



However, seven-footer Lauri Markannen, who had 16 points and 11 rebounds over St. Mary’s, will eat up all three of the Musketeers frontcourt players.    Gonzaga may derail West Virginia, but the brilliance of Allonzo Trier will carry head coach Sean Miller to his first Final Four.    

East: Wisconsin

Everybody’s East bracket probably looks like summertime hot garbage in New York during a sanitation worker’s strike. Madison Square Garden was looking forward to hosting the reigning champs Villanova and perennial power Duke instead has a foursome of football schools.  The highest remaining seed, No. 3 Baylor, is the least likely to win the region.  Look for South Carolina, led by Thornwell, to beat Baylor and Wisconsin to defeat Florida.

The Badgers have three seniors in Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koening and Zak Showalter who have reached two Final Fours and a national championship game (2015). They should prevail in the regional final.    


Maurice:

East: Wisconsin

I hate that I’m picking the Badgers, but I can’t front on them. Not after Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes went straight street and freaked his defender on the baseline for the go-ahead reverse layup. He’s a kid that stands up for people off the court and a leader that delivers on it. I won’t make the mistake of betting against him again.

West: Arizona

Aint ish change in my West Region. Gonzaga’s still there but Arizona out of the Pac-12 is still the favorite to advance to the Final Four. And now that Duke’s back in Durham, Arizona is my pick to get to the championship game. Players outside of their first round bound duo of Alonzo Trier and Lauri Markkanen have stepped up (Rawle Alkins went 8-for-8 from the field against North Dakota for 20 points in the first round) which them that much more dangerous.

South: North Carolina

Don’t break out those Michael Jordan memes just yet, Tar Heel haters. Nothing’s been the same since MJ told the football team the Ceiling’s the roof. It’s been better. UNC played veteran basketball in the last two minutes of the second round game against Arkansas. Roy Williams and the family face Butler and then the winner of UCLA vs. Kentucky, a tough two games. But at this point, no games are easy. Survive and advance.

Midwest: Michigan

There’s always that team that feels a little shaky but you have to pick them because of destiny. So you trust your gut, pick them in your bracket and then boom: they get smacked by 40 in the second round. Luckily, the Wolverines are still in the field. Making me look like a basketball genius.


    

Chip

Amaar: Still Kentucky.

Twenty years after the UK Wildcats lost to the Arizona Wildcats in the 1997 national championship game, Kentucky gets some get-back. Do it for Ron Mercer.


Martin: Kansas

For all its lore, the Kansas program only has won three championships. The man who invented the game, Dr. James Naismith, coached there. The legendary coach Phog Allen won the title in 1952. Danny Manning and the Miracles, coached by Larry Brown, upset Oklahoma in 1988. And the current coach Bill Self won with Mario Chalmers in 2008 over Memphis, led by Derrick Rose and coached by John Calipari.

However, the Jayhawks will win again on the backs of guards Frank Mason III, Devonte’ Graham and all-everything wing player Josh Jackson.  


Maurice: North Carolina

Well the East Region is in shambles but there’s good news for eh remaining teams. One of them, Wisconsin, Florida, Baylor, South Carolina, will get to be the team no one really thought would be in the Final Four this year. The bad news: they’ll probably get clapped by Arizona. But hey, thanks for the effort. And on the bright side for any of those four is taking solace in the fact that North Carolina is now the returning title game team, so ‘Zona’s probably going to have hold an L, as well.


MOP 

Amaar: I had Kentucky sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe here before, and I haven’t changed my mind. Briscoe had a quiet five points, four rebounds and two assists in UK’s second-round win over Wichita State, but his first-round stat line against Northern Kentucky is more of what I’m expecting from him in the Final Four: 17 points, eight rebounds, two steals and two blocks.

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Martin: Josh Jackson

Another logical choice would be Lonzo Ball.  If UCLA wins the title, its run may include wins over Kentucky, UNC, and Kansas even before the championship game.  Such an unprecedented trek would only be achievable with a marvelous Ball performance.



However, anticipating a Kansas title, Jackson is averaging 20 points per game in the tournament on 14-for-22 shooting inside the arc and 3-for-6 from the three-point line. He also has added three steals and three blocks.  It will be JJ who will bring to the Good Times back to Lawrence.  


Maurice: Kennedy Meeks

Kennedy Meeks is the man amongst boys out there. Josh Jackson and Joel Berry make the engine go, but it’s Meeks who’s doing the dirty work. After Joel Berry II nearly traveled on the last play of roaring Tar Heel comeback, Meeks got the tip-in off the glass like he’s so routinely done the past four years. Every team needs that player who just knows where to be to make the right play. Meeks’ nose for the ball saved UNC’s season. The big fella will do it again when it’s time to cut the nets.