No. 4 Louisville (26-8)
Coach: Rick Pitino (52-17 in NCAA tournament)
How they got here: Their defense. The Cardinals rank 17th in the country in points allowed (59.2) and fifth in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings.
Forward Montrezl Harrell (15.4 points per game) and guard Terry Rozier (17.2) have done all of the heavy lifting for a team that tends to struggle with the ball.
But neither UC-Irvine (57-55, Round of 64) nor Northern Iowa (66-53, Round of 32) could exploit Louisville’s problems on offense.
Must stop: Rozier, a sophomore combo guard, had a hand in 15 of Louisville’s 22 field goals in the win over Northern Iowa, which coach Rick Pitino called his team’s best performance of the season. Rozier finished with 25 points and seven assists against the Panthers.
In the first meeting with N.C. State, Rozier was just 3 of 11 from the floor (for seven points) and routinely had trouble staying in front of Wolfpack point guard Cat Barber.
Advance if: Pitino loves the ponies, and he’s gone full jockey mode with this team. He has gone to the crop several times, calling marathon practice sessions and really riding this team as hard as he can.
In Harrell, from Tarboro, and Rozier he has two tough players and they will have to be at their best to get revenge on the Wolfpack. If senior shooter Wayne Blackshear can be a third option, the Cards’ chances at Pitino’s eighth Final Four go up exponentially.
No. 3 Oklahoma (24-10)
Coach: Lon Kruger (16-15 in NCAA tournament)
How they got here: The Sooners are a tough defensive team (sixth in Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings) that can rebound (top 25 in the country), and they have a volume scorer (junior guard Buddy Hield).
The Sooners handled Albany, 69-60 in the opener, and the punched out a difficult Dayton team, 72-66 in the Round of 32 in what was basically a road game (in Columbus, Ohio).
Must stop: Hield can fill it up. The 6-4, 200-pound junior has had 12 games with 20 points or more and had 31 against Kansas State on Jan. 10. Considering the rest of the team scored 32 against the Wildcats, that was impressive.
Advance if: The Sooners, one of only two Big 12 teams left in the field, aren’t being given much of a chance. That’s because of how poorly the Big 12 has done so far (four teams lost in the Round of 64) and also because of the coaching star power on the other side of this matchup.
But Hield has the ability to carry them to a win, he has “only” scored 15 points in the first two games, and Lon Kruger is a smart tournament coach. Kruger and Eddie Sutton are the only two coaches to take four different teams to the Sweet 16.
No. 7 Michigan State (25-11)
Coach: Tom Izzo (44-16 in NCAA tournament)
How they got here: The Spartans out-Virginia’d Virginia in the Round of 32. It’s not easy to beat Virginia at its own defensive, grinding game but that's what Tom Izzo’s group did. The Spartans, with 23 points from senior guard Travis Trice, knocked off the Cavaliers, 60-54 in Charlotte on Sunday. It’s the second straight year Izzo’s group has ended Virginia’s season.
Must stop: Trice (15 ppg) and junior Denzel Valentine (14.2) are two strong, veteran guards while senior forward Branden Dawson (12.1 ppg, 9.0 rpg) is a wrecking ball inside.
Advance if: It’s almost impossible to out-tough Izzo’s teams. You have to make it a basketball game, get up and down the floor and have the talent to out-pretty them (hence, Roy Williams’ ownership of Izzo).
After losing three seniors from last year’s Final Eight team, this was not a vintage Izzo team in December (lost to Texas Southern) or really January (lost to Nebraska), but it’s March and the Spartans are playing their best. As always, they will be a tough out.