The 2018 men’s NCAA tournament is halfway through the Sweet 16, with two games apiece in the East and Midwest regions slated for Friday.
Compared to the madness of the bracket’s right side, the left has mostly played out as expected. There are some exceptions—most notably Syracuse’s success and Michigan State’s early exit—but the top two seeds are still alive in both regions, along with a No. 3 and two No. 5s.
Will this be the round that rattles the right side? Kansas has looked shaky for a top seed, while fifth-seeded Clemson bulldozed its first two opponents by a combined 42 points. And fellow No. 5 West Virginia has been almost as hot (plus-40), although its top-seeded matchup, Villanova, has rattled off consecutive 23-plus-point victories.
We’ll lay out the current bracket, provide predictions and examine the deciding factors of Friday’s action.
Friday’s Sweet 16 Schedule
No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 5 Clemson, 7:07 p.m. ET on CBS
No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 5 West Virginia, 7:27 p.m. ET on TBS
No. 2 Duke vs. No. 11 Syracuse, 9:37 p.m. ET on CBS
No. 2 Purdue vs. No. 3 Texas Tech, 9:57 p.m. ET on TBS
No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 5 Clemson
Deciding Factor: Devonte‘ Graham Finding His Form
It’s hard to say there’s something wrong with the Jayhawks offense when it’s averaging 79.5 points on 47 percent shooting (42.1 percent outside) in the tournament. But top scorer, senior leader and Wooden Award finalist Devonte‘ Graham has battled inefficiency.
The 6’2″ guard had one of his worst shooting efforts of the season in the second round, when he managed only eight points on 1-of-7 shooting against Seton Hall. And while he tallied 29 points in the opener against Pennsylvania, he needed 24 shots and nine free-throw attempts to get there.
Clemson’s seventh-ranked defense won’t make life easy on Graham, but he’s too talented not to put up an efficient effort in his final trip to the Big Dance.
He’s prone to some off nights inside the arc (39.7 field-goal percentage), but his normally steady hand from three (40.4) has yet to deliver (3-of-12). The law of averages says he’s due for an eruption, and once that happens, the Jayhawks will head to their third straight Elite 8.
Predicted Winner: Kansas
No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 5 West Virginia
Deciding Factor: Villanova’s Perimeter Shooting
West Virginia’s high-pressure defense can make opponents uncomfortable. What it struggles to do, though, is bother those same teams beyond the arc.
The Mountaineers rank 311th in three-point defense with a 37.5-percent mark against them. Murray State couldn’t exploit that weakness (7-of-23), but that’s the one area where Marshall found offensive success (12-of-26).
Those two teams don’t have top-50 offenses. Villanova’s is the most efficient in the nation.
The Wildcats’ top-five scorers all average more than one three per game and shoot better than 39 percent outside. As a team, Villanova tied for 20th in three-point percentage during the regular season (39.8) and sits 10th in tournament play (45.6). That’s too much sniping for Press Virginia to handle.
Predicted Winner: Villanova
No. 2 Duke vs. No. 11 Syracuse
Deciding Factor: Duke’s Superior Offense
Duke’s switch to a zone defense means each team will carry a similar scheme into this showdown. But they won’t be executing it against the same caliber of offense.
The Blue Devils boast five double-digit scorers—led by lottery-pick-to-be Marvin Bagley III’s 21.2 points per game—and rank third in adjusted offensive efficiency. The Orange, who rank just 140th in the category, only counter with three double-digit scorers.
Making matters worse, two of those three can’t seem to find their postseason touch. Tyus Battle is averaging just 13 points on 31.7 percent shooting in the tournament, while his backcourt mate, Frank Howard, is posting 10.7 points with a 35.3 percent success rate.
“Our guards have not played well on offense and we need them moving forward,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said, per Stats LLC (via ESPN). “We’ve got to get them to play better offensively.”
Duke’s dramatic defensive improvement—up to eighth in adjusted efficiency—won’t let that happen. When these teams collided during the regular season, the Orange managed only 44 points on 31.5 percent shooting. Even if both of those numbers improve, it won’t be enough to keep pace with the Blue Devils.
Predicted Winner: Duke
No. 2 Purdue vs. No. 3 Texas Tech
Deciding Factor: Isaac Haas’ Fractured Elbow
As their seed lines suggest, there isn’t much separation between Purdue and Texas Tech. The former ranks fourth in adjusted efficiency margin, while the latter sits just nine spots below.
But whatever gap existed has probably since shifted in Texas Tech’s favor, with Boilermakers big man Isaac Haas—their No. 2 scorer, rebounder and shot-blocker—looking increasingly unlikely to play after fracturing his elbow in the first round.
“I don’t see him playing until he can practice and show me he can shoot a right-handed free throw and get a rebound with two hands,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said, per ESPN’s Jeff Borzello. “In the last two days, he hasn’t practiced. So I don’t see it.”
Without Haas, Purdue won’t be able to solve a Texas Tech defense that hasn’t allowed a tournament opponent to reach 67 points or shoot 40 percent from the field. And with Red Raiders All-Big 12 guard Keenan Evans heating up—22.5 points on 58.3 percent shooting through two rounds—coach Chris Beard’s team will find enough offense to advance.
Predicted Winner: Texas Tech