Friday’s games feature teams much closer in seeding than Thursday’s matchups, limiting the potential for eye-popping upsets like when a double-digit seed topples a title contender.
Since 1985, a top-four seed has a 200-116 record in the Sweet 16, giving an opponent outside the top four a 37 percent chance at moving on. That increases to a record of 57-15 (79 percent win rate) when that opponent is a No. 7 seed or worse. If both teams are top-four seeds, the higher seed has won 60 percent of the time.
South Carolina and Wisconsin each have higher-than-normal chances at pulling off an upset, but its unlikely both advance. Only three times in the past 32 years have two teams seeded No. 7 or worse defeated top-four seeds in the Sweet 16 in the same tournament: 1986, 2000 and 2014.
Here’s how likely we are to see an upset in each of Friday’s games.
No. 3 UCLA over No. 2 Kentucky
Chance of an upset: 41 percent (per Pomeroy college basketball ratings)
It’s hard to call the winner of this matchup an upset, particularly when the Bruins have already beaten the Wildcats once this season. Not only is there a slight difference in seed, the oddsmakers in Vegas have this one close, too, installing Kentucky as a one-point favorite.
All eyes will be on UCLA freshman Lonzo Ball, but the Bruins feature a balanced scoring attack with five other players averaging in double figures, with another freshman, T.J. Leaf, leading the team in scoring (16.2 points per game). Senior Bryce Alford is also a threat, with an ability to score off screens, in isolation and off the dribble.
The key for UCLA will be how well they create turnovers. During the regular season their defense managed just 16 turnovers per 100 possessions, 315th out of 351 teams, but against the No. 6 Cincinnati Bearcats they forced 10 turnovers while only turning the ball over three times themselves, giving them one of the best turnover differentials of the tournament.
No. 8 Wisconsin over No. 4 Florida
Chance of an upset: 38 percent
This seed matchup has occurred eight times in the Sweet 16 since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, with the No. 8 seed winning five of these games. If Wisconsin is going to continue the trend, senior Nigel Hayes will have to continue to be one of the best players in the country.
Since the Big Ten tournament, Hayes is averaging 15.4 points and 9.6 rebounds per game with three double-doubles, all improvements on his regular-season production, and he is at his best in the post (1.02 points per possession, top 10 percent in the country) or going at a defender one on one (when he scores 46 percent of the time).
Florida’s defense struggles against this type of player, especially in the post, where they allow a below average 0.81 points per possession. The Gators also struggle at stopping opponents from getting second-chance points off the glass, another strength of Wisconsin, which grabs 35.8 percent of offensive rebounds, 18th most in the country.
No. 7 South Carolina over No. 3 Baylor
Chance of an upset: 35 percent
South Carolina crashed the boards in its upset over No. 2 Duke, with almost half of them (15 of 37) off the offensive glass, but they lose that edge to Baylor, one of the best offensive rebounding schools in the country (40.0 percent, third-highest in the nation).
Instead, the Gamecocks will have to rely on their suffocating defense to limit Baylor’s offensive opportunities. South Carolina had the fourth-highest turnover rate on defense this season (24.5 percent) and forced 18 turnovers in Sunday’s upset against Duke.
Stripping the Bears shouldn’t be too difficult: Baylor coughed the ball up 20.5 percent of the time on offense, ranking them 305th out of 351 teams during the regular season.
No. 4 Butler over No. 1 North Carolina
Chance of an upset: 35 percent
Butler’s resume is impressive. Including the regular season, it has wins over Villanova (twice), Arizona, Xavier and Cincinnati. A majority of its wins (16 out of 25) have come against NCAA tournament-caliber opponents. But the Bulldogs will need to play their best defensive game of the season if they are to topple No. 1 North Carolina in the Sweet 16.
The Tar Heels can score (121.4 adjusted points per 100 possessions, sixth-most in the country), rebound (42.2 offensive rebounding percentage, best in the nation) and feature four players who use at least 20 percent of the team’s possessions while ranking in the top 200 of the nation for offensive rating: Justin Jackson (120.7 points per 100 possessions), Joel Berry (121), Kennedy Meeks (118.2) and Isaiah Hicks (122.3). As a team, North Carolina shoots 56.3 percent near the rim, which could be a problem for Butler, a program that ranks in the bottom 20 percent defensively for the same (56.5 percent allowed).
The Bulldogs best hope is for 6-foot-7 senior Andrew Chrabascz to be a brick wall in the post (22.6 field goal percentage allowed) with the rest of the team shutting North Carolina off from easy two-point baskets.
2017 NCAA tournament: Friday’s most likely upsets in the Sweet 16 – Washington Post