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North Carolina's Armando Bacot, middle, celebrates in the first half against Florida State during the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament at Capital One Arena on Thursday, March 14, 2024, in Washington, D.C. (Greg Fiume/Getty Images/TNS)
North Carolina's Armando Bacot, middle, celebrates in the first half against Florida State during the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament at Capital One Arena on Thursday, March 14, 2024, in Washington, D.C. (Greg Fiume/Getty Images/TNS)

Sweet Sixteen Preview: National Championship rematch highlights Thursday’s action

A natty rematch plus a meeting between the Big Ten and Big 12 tournament champions should make for an exciting Sweet Sixteen Thursday

This year’s first and second rounds treated fans to some incredible games. From No. 14 Oakland beating No. 3 Kentucky in a crazy first round upset, to No. 3 Creighton escaping No. 11 Oregon in double-overtime in the second round, last weekend was as great as March Madness gets. Despite this, the amount of upsets in the second round was historically low, as only one double-digit seed, No. 11 NC State, advanced to the Sweet Sixteen and that was by beating the aforementioned Oakland. 

All this means that most of the top seeds — all the ones and twos for the first time since 2019 — are participating in the Sweet Sixteen. While some may consider this lame and not March Madness-esque, all this means that the fans will get to see several high-profile matchups in the Sweet Sixteen that wouldn’t have occurred if more double-digit seeds advanced. That being said, let's get into all the great matchups we have on the slate. 

West Region (Los Angeles)

Thursday, March 28: No. 6 Clemson vs. No. 2 Arizona; 7:09 p.m. ET on CBS

Clemson's Joseph Girard III (11) lays up a shot against New Mexico Lobos during the first round of the NCAA Tournament at FedExForum on Friday, March 22, 2024, in Memphis. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images/TNS)

The Sweet Sixteen gets its start when Clemson and Arizona battle it out in Los Angeles in the West Region. Clemson has been one of the few surprises this tournament, beating both No. 11 New Mexico and No. 3 Baylor as underdogs, with both games not being particularly close. 

The Tigers boast a very solid lineup highlighted by P.J. Hall, Joseph Girard III, Chase Hunter and Ian Scheffelin. Hall has been Clemson’s best player all year, as he averaged 18.5 points a game, but it was Chase Hunter who took the lead in their two tournament games so far, scoring 20 points in both matchups. 

The Tigers, though, have a very tough team in front of them, as Arizona is looking as good as any group right now, especially because of how Caleb Love is playing. The Pac-12 Player of the Year averaged 18 points a game during the regular season and scored 18 and 19 points in the Wildcats’ tournament games against No. 15 Long Beach State and No. 7 Dayton. Love isn’t alone on this team though, as he has Pelle Larsson, Oumar Ballo, Keshad Johnson and Kylan Boswell all playing great basketball alongside him in the starting lineup. 

When U of A is on, they can be one of the best teams in the country, if not the best, but Clemson is not a team that should be overlooked. The Tigers were solid all year long in the ACC and, while they do not have the overall talent that Arizona has, this one is certain to be a fun and back-and-forth Sweet 16 matchup. 

Thursday, March 28: No. 4 Alabama vs. No. 1 North Carolina; 9:39 p.m. ET on CBS

Following up Clemson/Arizona is the other matchup in the West Region, Alabama against North Carolina. Both these teams have exceptional offenses, but with Alabama especially being offense-focused and lacking on the defensive end. 

Despite this, the Tide have a great roster filled with solid players like Mark Sears, Aaron Estrada, Grant Nelson and Rylan Griffen. This group scored an NCAA-best 90.8 points a game in the regular season and that style of offense has continued into the tournament as they scored 109 points against No. 13 Charleston. Although Alabama had an off game against No. 12 Grand Canyon, scoring just 72, Mark Sears had another incredible game, scoring 26 to follow up his 30-piece against Charleston. The senior guard averaged 21.5 on the season and was in the running for SEC Player of the Year. 

He and his group will have a tough task on Thursday when they meet one-seeded North Carolina. They were the ACC regular season champs and played phenomenal against No. 9 Michigan State in the second round. R.J. Davis was great that game, scoring 20 and following up his 22-point performance against No. 16 Wagner in the first round. He’s complemented by Cormac Ryan, Armando Bacot, Harrison Ingram and Elloit Cadeau, all of whom make this UNC team one of the best in the nation. 

After the Tar Heels’ run to the finals in 2022, many thought UNC was poised for success in this tournament, so a win here would certainly be crucial to getting back to the Final Four. Alabama, though, is elite offensively and should make this a close, high-scoring affair. 

East Region

Thursday, March 28: No. 5 San Diego State vs. No. 1 UConn; 7:39 p.m. ET on TBS

We’ve got a National Championship rematch as a part of Sweet Sixteen Thursday, but it's one that many predict will be lopsided.  This is due to the Huskies’ recent dominance against No. 16 Stetson and No. 9 Northwestern, as both games were pretty much decided before the halftime buzzer sounded. 

Donovan Clingan was high point scorer for the Huskies against Stetson, putting up 19, while Tristen Newton led UConn with 20 against Northwestern. These two are complemented by Stephen Casale, Cam Spencer and Alex Karaban, while also sporting a very strong bench. This team has looked as dominant as ever, which is why many believe that they’ll cruise to the Final Four, but San Diego State may have other ideas. 

Spokane, WA - March 24: San Diego State assistant coach Chris Acker walks off the court after the Aztecs beat Yale during the second round of the NCAA Tournament at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena on Sunday, March 24, 2024 in Spokane, WA. (Meg McLaughlin / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The Aztecs made a surprise run all the way to the National Championship Game last season, so they’re trying to repeat that here. Jaedon LeDeee has been sensational this tournament, scoring 32 and 28 in SDSU’s two games against No. 12 UAB and No. 13 Yale. LeDee averaged 21.5 PPG, a high for the Aztecs, and was phenomenal the entire campaign. He is followed up by Darion Trammell, Micah Parrish, Lamont Butler and Jay Pal, most of whom were big contributors on last year’s team. 

This squad brings tournament experience, as well as immense talent, to the table, which is why they should not be overlooked. The experts may overwhelmingly favor UConn, but in a Sweet 16 game, every team is exceptional, so anything could happen.

Thursday, March 28: No. 3 Illinois vs. No. 2 Iowa State; 10:09 p.m. ET on TBS

The nightcap, and second game in the East Region, features Illinois taking on Iowa State in a battle of conference tournament champions. Both these teams have used the momentum they got from their tourney wins in the first two rounds, obviously moving them on to the second round. 

Illinois in particular has looked dominant so far, cruising by No. 14 Morehead State and No. 11 Duquesne en route to the Sweet Sixteen. Terrence Shannon Jr. has been the focal point of offense in both the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments and has scored over 25 points in five straight games. This is what makes the Illini so dangerous, but it’s not just Shannon who has made an impact. Coleman Hawkins, Marcus Domask, Dain Dainja and Luke Goode have all contributed to their tournament run and look to do the same against Iowa State. 

The Cyclones, similarly to the Illini, have looked very good so far in the tournament. They’ve beaten No. 15 South Dakota State and No. 7 Washington State, using great defense in both games to get W’s. ISU is led by Tamin Lipsey, Milan Momcilovic and Keshon Gilbert, all of whom scored in double figures in both tournament games so far. Curtis Jones and Tre King also are names to know on this team and could also make a big impact. 

Overall, this team uses its great defense to overpower teams on that end, but Illinois is close to the opposite, being a very offensive-minded team. This should make for a very exciting matchup and a great game to end Sweet Sixteen Thursday on, with each team trying to have its style of play take over.

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