1. UNC vs. Indiana: This Friday showdown between blue-chip programs should be the game of the tournament. Both the Heels and the Hoosiers boast rosters loaded with NBA prospects, which has fostered similar philosophies: We have more talent than you, so we’re going to employ an up-tempo style, ram the ball down your throat, and outscore you. To date, the chief difference has been that UNC has gotten more of its points from Brice Johnson and its other big men, while Indiana has relied on Yogi Ferrell and its other 3-point shooters. But freshman forward OG Anunoby, a relatively unheralded three-star recruit, has been one of the breakout stars of the tourney and could help Indiana close the interior gap.
2. Buddy Hield vs. NBA Length: Oklahoma’s senior leader pretty much wrapped up player of the year honors by dropping 36 points (including 29 in the second half) in the Sooners’ narrow second-round victory over VCU, reaffirming that OU will go only as far as Hield can carry it. Now, the nation’s most explosive scorer faces an intriguing Thursday matchup against a Texas A&M squad that features two 6-foot-7 wings who can run and jump with him. Aggies Danuel House and Jalen Jones have the size and ability to hang with Hield physically, and Hield’s offense won’t be the only thing they’ll influence: Since he’s OU’s only wing player with real size, the defensive onus will be on Hield as well.
3. Brandon Ingram vs. Oregon’s Wings: After skating through the relatively easy draw of UNC-Wilmington and Yale in the first two rounds, Duke is about to see a serious uptick in competition, and freshman phenom Ingram will feel that escalation the most. Oregon, the top seed in the West, does a great job of spreading the floor and attacking mismatches on offense. What’s more, the Ducks can throw four similarly sized players with NBA-caliber athleticism (Elgin Cook, Dillon Brooks, Dwayne Benjamin, and Jordan Bell) at Ingram, who will be challenged to make an impact on defense while also putting up enough points to help Duke keep pace.
4. Low-Post Scorers vs. Precedent: Having a good big man hasn’t guaranteed success in this year’s tournament, as three of the best low-post scorers in the country (Utah’s Jakob Poeltl, Purdue’s A.J. Hammons, and Cal’s Ivan Rabb) failed to save their squads from early exits. The key for March’s remaining big men will be playing with guards who can get them the ball. Texas A&M’s Tyler Davis and Maryland’s Diamond Stone and Robert Carter Jr. have the size and skill to beat up on the smaller front lines for OU and Kansas, respectively, but their success — and, in turn, their teams’ success — will be determined by whether their guards can control the tempo, space the floor, and get the ball inside.
5. Parity vs. Chalk: For all the focus on parity, the lack of great teams this season, and the number of upsets in the first round, the second round largely saw a return to form for the top teams: All of the 1-seeds are still alive, 10 of the 16 remaining squads are on the top four seed lines, and only one double-digit seed (the winner of 11-seed Gonzaga vs. 10-seed Syracuse) will reach the Elite Eight. Ultimately, the top four seed lines in the tournament were able to separate from the rest of the field. Now, the question shifts to whether the top two seed lines can separate again.
This piece originally appeared in the March 23, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.