Sweet 16 takeaways: Rozier, Winslow have rare ability to decide NCAA tournament

I’ll admit it: The second weekend has been a bit of a letdown so far.

And if I’m being completely honest, after that epic first day, the entire thing has lacked drama in comparison.

Remember that first day? It feels like forever ago, doesn’t it? In the first few hours of the tournament, we had two 14-seeds upset 3-seeds, which hadn’t happened twice in the same tournament since 1995. Before it was afternoon on the West Coast, I already felt emotionally exhausted. But the crazy kept coming: A game decided by a goaltending call. Two overtime games. A record five games decided by one point in the first day.

Since then? For those of us without a dog in the hunt, it’s been a little … meh. The rest of the NCAA tournament has been filled with games that were sorta kinda close, but not really close: Xavier hanging in there with Arizona until late, UNC making Wisconsin look a little shaky, Michigan State with a gutsy win over Oklahoma. Where was the drama? Where was Ron Hunter and his torn Achilles? Compared to that wild, crazy first day, at least, it’s been a snooze.

That said: For the most part, the teams I had hoped on Selection Sunday would still be in the tournament come Elite Eight time are, in fact, still in the tournament. And despite the relative lack of drama in the Sweet 16, this feels like a pretty sweet Elite Eight. A Wisconsin-Arizona rematch, the first Elite Eight rematch in three decades. Duke-Gonzaga, pitting two fun, high-scoring offenses. Kentucky-Notre Dame, the nation’s top-ranked defense versus the nation’s second-ranked offense. And Michigan State-Louisville, which can be summed up as Izzo-Pitino, also known as the "How In The World Are These Two Flawed Teams Still Playing?" Bowl. (Hint: It’s the coaches.)

Here are my five takeaways from a so-so Sweet 16 that could usher in an epic Elite Eight.

5. The best title game for college basketball is still in play. And I don’t mean Gonzaga-Notre Dame. (Sorry, Mark Few and Mike Brey.) A Kentucky versus Duke finale to this college basketball season would be everything a fan could hope for. One team that’s shooting for 40-0 history versus another whose coach just made 1,000-win history. The team with the most future NBA players (Kentucky) versus the team with the best future NBA player (Duke). Jahlil Okafor, the best offensive big man in a generation, facing off against the frontcourt of Kentucky, the best defensive frontcourt ever. An absolute ratings bonanza for CBS. You might call it the Hater Bowl, since everyone loves to hate Duke, and everyone also loves to hate John Calipari. I’d call it the Perfect Bowl: The one game that, if you’d given me a choice on Nov. 14, the first day of the college basketball season, to pick a title game matchup for the last day, I would have picked. I’m not rooting against the teams that get in the way of this all-time matchup. I’m a Missouri fan, so my rooting interests were dead by roughly Nov. 15. I’m just rooting for the matchup that would be best for the game. Trust me. This is it.


4. The best Elite Eight game is happening, too. I guess Wisconsin fans can complain that it’s unfair for the Badgers to get put in the same regional as 2-seed Arizona, and having to play their Elite Eight game in Arizona’s backyard. But whatever. If Wisconsin was a 2-seed instead of a 1-seed, the Badgers likely would have been in Kentucky’s region. You gotta win tough games to win it all. This matchup is going to be so … much … fun. It was one of the best games of the tournament last year. It should be this year, too. The questions I’m wondering: Can Arizona find a way to stop Frank Kaminsky? (Last year: 28 points, 11 rebounds.) Can future lottery pick Stanley Johnson prove himself to be a bright-lights player? Can Sean Miller make his first Final Four? Can Bo Ryan force a Final Four showdown with Kentucky, the team that beat Wisconsin in a nail-biting game a year ago? Will it be the loose, fun Badgers, or the tough, disciplined Wildcats? I love this matchup, and I love we get to see Part II.

3. Justise Winslow might be the most vital player left in this tournament. He’s not even the most important player on Duke, but in a weird way, his play will determine Duke’s destiny. Okafor is obviously the man this team revolves around, Quinn Cook is the man who takes the big shots, and Tyus Jones is this team’s engine. But when Winslow plays the way he has so far this tournament — 21 points and 10 rebounds against Utah, which had been preceded by a 13-point, 12-rebound performance against San Diego State — this is the second-best team in the nation, and might be able to give Kentucky a run for its money. I know the storyline on Winslow has been his inconsistency, but after he had a January slump — which happened to coincide with Duke’s two-game losing streak — he’s been incredibly consistent. Since Coach K’s 1,000th victory in January, Winslow has had seven double-doubles, has scored fewer than 10 points in a game exactly once, and has been Duke’s most important player on defense. He plays his best and we’ll get that title-game matchup I’m hoping for.

2. Kentucky’s not going to be challenged until the Final Four. Arizona and Wisconsin, one of whom will face the winner of Kentucky-Notre Dame in the Final Four, are the two teams best positioned to end Kentucky’s undefeated season. Yet there’s been this odd narrative the past day that Notre Dame has a real shot at beating Kentucky. Really? I don’t buy it. I mean, if Kentucky plays D+ basketball and Notre Dame comes with its A game, sure, anything can happen. You still have to play the game. But I don’t see this as a game that’s ripe for an upset because Notre Dame is such a prolific offensive team. First of all, Kentucky has the biggest, baddest frontcourt on the block, while Notre Dame has Zach Auguste and … and … and … other people? I think? Auguste has been solid this year, but he’s been prone to foul trouble. And his backup center is a 6-foot-5 freshman in Bonzie Colson. Meanwhile, Kentucky is trotting out fresh 7-footer after fresh 7-footer. And then there’s the fallacy that a hot-shooting Notre Dame can hang with Kentucky. It’s true that Notre Dame is an excellent scoring team: 18th in the nation in 3-point shooting, according to KenPom.com, and tops in the nation from 2. But even though we focus so much on Kentucky’s bigs, guess which team is No. 1 in the nation in 3-point defense? Yep, Kentucky. Its guards are able to defend the 3 as aggressively as anyone in the nation because they know a legion of 7-footers is behind them. Maybe I’m wrong, but Kentucky won’t get tested until the Final Four.

1. There might be a Shabazz Napier in this tournament. And his name might be Terry Rozier. Louisville’s point guard (and future NBA player) has been the singular reason why Louisville is still alive in this tournament, which is something I don’t think anyone would have guessed a month ago, or even a week ago. Rozier had 17 points, four assists and 14 rebounds in Louisville’s win over NC State on Friday. (He’s 6-foot-1, by the way, making those 14 rebounds pretty ridiculous against a long, athletic NC State team.) Before that he dominated Northern Iowa to the tune of 25 points, seven assists and five rebounds. This kid has been unreal this tournament. A year ago, a team that wasn’t the nation’s "best" team won it all on the back of Napier; who is to say a Louisville team that isn’t the nation’s "best" team this year can’t win it on the back of Rozier? Rick Pitino said after Louisville’s near-loss to UC Irvine in the second round that this was not a great basketball team. And it’s not. But in March, anything can happen, and what’s happening here is that Rozier and Montrezl Harrell are putting this "offensively-challenged team" (Pitino’s words, not mine) on their shoulders. I don’t know if they can make the Final Four, but I sure didn’t think they were going to make it this far. And the only title game matchup that would make me as happy as Kentucky-Duke would be Kentucky-Louisville, although I do worry for the good folks in the Bluegrass State. Those 40 minutes of basketball actually might cause Kentucky to spontaneously burst into flames.

Email Reid Forgrave at reidforgrave@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @reidforgrave.