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2023 NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Preview | The Morning Dunk
Our own Nathan Grubel breaks down each region of the Sweet 16 bracket in a game-by-game preview highlighting the top NBA Draft prospects left in the field.
Welcome back for another week of March Madness action!
Through the first two rounds of the 2023 NCAA Tournament, we saw some real upsets mixed in with strong performances from some of the field’s best, including Alabama and Houston.
With the wins and losses come opportunities for underrated teams to climb through the bracket and bring attention to potential NBA prospects who haven’t gotten enough of it during the regular season.
So, as usual, we will highlight the matchups one by one, along with players to monitor in each, with my picks for each game! Another Morning Dunk, another Sweet 16 preview; let’s get after it starting in the South Region!
1 Alabama vs. 5 San Diego State
As impressive as this entire season has been for Alabama, winning its first two games without efficient (or consistent) production from its star prospect Brandon Miller means the tournament field should be scared about what could still come.
Miller has scored 19 total points across two games on 5-for-22 shooting from the floor. Even though he had a better outing in terms of rebounding and defensive impact against Maryland, Miller hasn’t found his shooting stroke or contributed much as a playmaker.
But the veteran leadership of Jahvon Quinerly, along with impacts from freshmen like Nick Pringle and Noah Clowney, have allowed the Crimson Tide to advance to the Sweet 16 with plenty of room for Miller and Jaden Bradley to show more than they have up to this point.
Since they are going against a San Diego State squad that is no joke, that may be easier said than done. Matt Bradley has held steady as a do-it-all guard for the Aztecs, and he has support from the likes of Lamont Butler, Aguek Arop, and Micah Parrish. This group is deep and ready to win an up-and-down contest.
I’ll take Alabama to win a close game behind a bounce-back night from Brandon Miller and the rest of his NBA-caliber supporting cast.
6 Creighton vs. 15 Princeton
Clearly, there is a gap in talent here, but that hasn’t stopped Princeton from making it to the Sweet 16.
Led by Tosan Evbuomwan, the Tigers are still dancing and dangerous. The 6’8” senior forward has seen little to no buzz before Princeton’s run in March Madness, but he’s getting recognition as an intelligent mismatch forward who can beat you in a variety of ways inside the arc.
While not a stretch forward, Evbuomwan is a high-level halfcourt scorer and decision-maker. Capable of taking bigs off the bounce, operating out of pick-and-roll, and posting up with great footwork and touch on the low block, Tosan can generate offense consistently, making him the type of hub that can win big games in college.
But it will take more than Evbuomwan’s halfcourt skill set and some hot three-point shooting from some of Princeton’s guards to knock off a team like Creighton.
The Blue Jays dismantled Baylor in the Round of 32 from start to finish, as this team has come together at the right time. The backcourt of Ryan Nembhard and Trey Alexander is as good as any in the country, Baylor Scheierman can hit as many shots as he can facilitate for others, and Ryan Kalkbrenner puts a lid on the basket while also finishing at a high level on the other end.
Oh, and Arthur Kaluma can break open any game he’s part of with a killer shot fake, rip, and drive or pull-up inside the arc. If he’s hitting open spot-up looks, this Creighton offense becomes near impossible to stop.
As long as this squad plays disciplined defense and keeps tabs on the kickouts and motion within the Princeton offensive scheme, then this should be a comfortable win for Creighton. The Blue Jays are primed for a Final Four run, but they need to take care of business here before worrying about Alabama in a potential Elite Eight matchup.
1 Houston vs. 5 Miami
I can’t wait for this game.
Houston has been as good of a team as Alabama the entire year, and the Cougars have a chance to continue to prove just that against one of the best units left in Miami.
The firepower of Isaiah Wong, Wooga Poplar, Jordan Miller, Nijel Pack, and Norchad Omier is tough for anyone to overcome. Multiple guards and wings who can create their own offense, shoot from the outside, draw fouls, and in the case of Omier, one of the best rebounding big men in the country standing only at 6’7” tall. This team is versatile, switchable, and competitive. Pace and space define the Hurricanes, making Miami a threat to win the title.
But the Cougars have Marcus Sasser and Jarace Walker, a two-man combination tailor-made to win now and compete in the future at a high level in the NBA. Walker’s rim protection, shooting touch, and quick decision-making help him make a case as one of the better two-way options available in his draft class, while Sasser is a killer on the court. Few guards can take and make the shots he can at high volume, while also operating as a steady pick-and-roll scorer and hellish point-of-attack defender.
Jamal Shead and Tramon Mark round out the perimeter options for Houston, and both love to get active playing passing lanes and hounding ball handlers, on top of hitting from deep and finding crafty pull-up opportunities inside the arc.
Houston’s balanced attack will be difficult to stop, but I’m going to take the upset pick here. Miami looks primed for a deep run, and right now, there are just too many weapons to contain. Hurricanes will advance to the Elite Eight.
2 Texas vs. 3 Xavier
The Texas Longhorns continue to rack up wins this season through timely frontcourt contributions and consistent veteran guard play.
Sir’Jabari Rice and Marcus Carr have been rocks for Texas all season long, and both shot 4-of-11 in the win over Penn State. But it was the scoring efforts of Dylan Disu that propelled the Longhorns, and he looks the part of a game-changer moving forward in the tournament.
Disu, a 6’9” senior forward, was a magician in the mid-range for Texas against the Nittany Lions, consistently knocking down tough baseline shots on his way to 28 points, and he also pulled in 10 rebounds to ensure the interior advantage. That level of production will be difficult for any team to overcome if he continues to have the hot hand.
Meanwhile, Xavier will look to neutralize Disu with its frontcourt of Jack Nunge and Jerome Hunter, along with matching the backcourt firepower of Carr, Rice, and Tyrese Hunter with his own combo of Souley Boum and potential Top 20 pick Colby Jones.
Jones, in particular, found his stroke against Pitt scoring 10 points to go along with 14 rebounds and seven assists. There are fewer players in the country who can match Jones as a jack-of-all-trades wing, meaning he can provide whatever his team needs on any given night offensively while playing scalable defense on the other end.
In the end, Texas has too much talent to lose here to the Musketeers. It would take an unbelievable night from both Jones and Boum to pull the upset, so I’ll ride with the depth and athleticism of the Longhorns.
4 UConn vs. Arkansas
On paper, this is the best game of the Sweet 16.
After beating Illinois and Kansas, Arkansas finds itself against another top-tier test in the UConn Huskies, who have survived the Big East gauntlet and made it to this point in the tournament.
There is no guard hotter than Davonte Davis, who has put up 41 points in the dance so far with plenty more opportunity in front of him. The 6’4” junior guard can fill it up from deep, get downhill, and attack the basket, as well as make the necessary live-dribble reads to keep the ball moving. It’s not out of the question that the wired-to-score guard could find himself as an NBA Draft prospect next season.
But all eyes will continue to be on the main quartet of players to watch for the Razorbacks. Anthony Black looks the part of a lottery pick, Jordan Walsh has emerged as one of the biggest risers in the draft over the last month as a slashing wing who has the case as the best perimeter defender in the draft, and Ricky Council IV has found a way to help Davis deliver the offense this team has needed in crucial moments down the stretch. He may take the lion’s share of the shots for his team, but few wings are as determined to get to the line as Council; when he can get an easy 10+ points from the charity stripe, it helps greatly.
As for Nick Smith Jr., no player’s stock may have fallen as far in the last month. He may really have hurt his stock coming back to play after his most recent injury in January, as his lack of physical play and finishing ability around the basket, coupled with his inconsistent pick-and-roll play, low efficiency, and questionable defense have caused scouts to pause on praising him as a lottery talent. For all of the games he’s been able to score in the SEC, he’s done so on a heavy dose of shot attempts.
Even more concerning, Smith has had ZERO impact on the two tournament games so far for the Razorback. Smith, who played just 16 minutes against Kansas, hasn’t been able to leave his mark on either end of the floor leading to fans calling for him to be benched in favor of Davis. This narrative will have to change if Smith expects to have any chance at still holding Top 20 stock, let alone being selected in the lottery.
The Huskies have fewer questions on their roster in terms of who the players are, but they will have to step up in a big way to counteract the blazing Hogs’ offense.
Jordan Hawkins is the best shooter in the 2023 NBA Draft (yes, I said it), and he has come on strong in the second half for the Huskies in both of their first week games. He forms a gifted trio, along with Tristen Newton and Adama Sanogo, that can control the flow of the offense from all three levels. Throw in Andre Jackson Jr.’s elite athleticism and playmaking upside, plus the young tandem of Alex Karaban and Donovan Clingan, and UConn could walk away with a big win over the talented Razorbacks.
Overall, I’m going to take the Huskies in a close game. An upset wouldn’t shock me, but UConn has been one of the best teams I’ve watched all year from start to finish. If Hawkins can carry his team to the Final Four, he could end up a consensus lottery prospect when all is said and done.
2 UCLA vs. 3 Gonzaga
A West Coast battle is fitting to help determine who will come out of the West Region in the tournament.
Gonzaga hasn’t had much hype to win the whole thing this season, but they have a roster with the pieces capable of cutting down the nets. Veteran big man Drew Timme can act as the offense by himself, but perimeter firepower from Julian Strawther, Rasir Bolton, and Nolan Hickman helps to support the frontcourt also captained by Anton Watson.
The Bulldogs have depth, elite coaching, and a style of play that can speed up as much as it can grind to a halt to pick teams apart in the halfcourt.
Therefore, UCLA will have to play to its best ability to knock off its WCC competitor.
Jaime Jaquez Jr. has been one of the best wings in college basketball for years. He remains as viable as ever to not only make big shots, but also to help initiate the offense for his teammates. Tyger Campbell remains a steady backcourt partner, but he hasn’t quite been himself on either end in the Bruins’ first two matchups.
This brings us to the freshmen impact of Amari Bailey and Adem Bona. For the record, no one knew just how much Bona would be able to play after suffering an injury in the Pac-12 tourney just a week ago. But back and energized to go to work, Bona’s motor is unmatched by anyone else in the country. A nimble yet ferocious big man, Bona flies all over the floor as well as in transition to make defensive plays and throw down thunderous dunks at the rim.
Also, Bailey has really come alive over the last month for UCLA, showcasing his scoring chops as the team’s second-most reliable offensive player. When he’s hitting pull-up jumpers, it really helps to space the floor for everyone else. And Bailey is crafty in getting all the way to the rim and hitting his teammates in stride with pocket passes and dump-off dimes.
Even without Jaylen Clark to help man the defense, UCLA’s offense has continued to pile up points with the rest of the squad holding down the fort in their individual matchups. I’m going to lean on the side of diverse offense and take the veteran experience of the Bruins, even though this will be a close one, and I could absolutely see Gonzaga walking away with an upset win.
4 Tennessee vs. 9 FAU
Another Cinderella story in the making could very well be Florida Atlantic, which has found its way into the Sweet 16 after beating Fairleigh Dickinson, another team coming off an emotional high after knocking off Purdue in the Round of 64.
FAU advanced in large part to sophomore guard Johnell Davis, who put up a stat line of 29 points, 12 rebounds, and five assists. The 6’4” scoring guard has improved his efficiency each year in college, and he looks the part of a top option who could lead his team to multiple upsets in the tournament.
The magical run may be over though, as Tennessee’s defense is nothing to be messed with. This Volunteers squad has the experience to win big games, and Santiago Vescovi has been the big-time shot-maker needed to advance over the last month.
Not only Vescovi, but contributors like Josiah-Jordan James and freshman prospect Julian Phillips have found ways to contribute on both ends of the floor and help connect everyone together offensively, doing the little things and focusing on finishing plays when their team has needed it the most.
But no player broke out in a bigger way than Tennessee’s Olivier Nkamhoua, who put up 27 points in Saturday’s win after pouring in shot after shot from the perimeter. The 6’9” forward hasn’t found himself on any draft boards up to this point, but after that performance against Duke, he could very well have a shot at making the league this coming summer.
There’s too much talent and depth to go against Tennessee in this one. Upsets are always possible in March, but I trust the chemistry, toughness, and defensive intensity under Rick Barnes. Give me the Vols to advance.
3 Kansas State vs. 7 Michigan State
This game has physicality written all over it.
Kansas State has had a tremendous season in large part due to their balanced offensive attack from the guards all the way down to athletic rim runner Nae’Qwan Tomlin.
There is no other player in the country with quite the same back story as Tomlin, who is playing his best ball at the right time. Capable of spacing the floor, facing up other big men, and catching lobs with the best of them, Tomlin’s emerging scoring game has many scouts excited given his lack of extensive playing history. Throw in his defensive impact and physical tools, and I’d expect there to be a real emphasis on neutralizing his impact on the Michigan State side.
As for the rest of the perimeter unit, Markquis Nowell is coming off arguably his best game of the year against Kentucky with 27 points and nine assists on efficient splits. He’s as tough as any 5’8” guard out there, but he looks the part of an overseas pro as opposed to an NBA target. He’s a professional through and through, though, and the Wildcats have a major advantage with arguably the best playmaker left in the draft.
And few wings are as good of play finishers as Keyontae Johnson, who is a lethal spot-up threat on top of a vicious slasher and finisher at the rim. His physicality at the position gives him a two-way floor that may still have NBA teams interested in his services after the tournament.
What Kansas State doesn’t have is a coach like Tom Izzo. Death, taxes, and Michigan State going to the Sweet 16 under Tom Izzo.
Led by a backcourt of Tyson Walker, A.J. Hoggard, and Jaden Akins, this is as tough and capable of a group of shot-makers as any other unit left in the tournament. While none of them may be priority NBA prospects, they all can control the tempo, shoot from deep, and make plays for the others.
I’m looking forward to Tomlin against the Spartan big men led by Malik Hall and Mady Sissoko. Those two are the type of bruising forwards that could box out Tomlin and keep him off the glass, giving Michigan State an advantage on the boards.
The biggest x-factor in this one is Joey Hauser. He’s been one of the best scorers in the dance through its first two rounds, and he should look to keep his mismatch game going against the Wildcats. His 17 points and eight rebounds against USC was a great performance to kick off his run, and even though he only went 3-of-8 against Marquette, the combo forward made 7-of-7 from the free-throw line to help seal the upset against the Golden Eagles.
I’m going to take the balanced attack of Kansas State here, but maybe I’ll be wrong yet again for not betting on Izzo to lead his team back to the Elite Eight.