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Sports reporter Zach Thompson

With the NCAA tournament in full swing, all eyes will be on this weekend’s slate of Sweet 16 action as the remaining teams all vie for a chance to punch their tickets to Minneapolis and the Final Four. 

Whether or not your bracket has been busted already or you are sitting pretty at the top of your pool, here are some key things to be watching for when the third-round tips off Thursday.   

East  

For fans of basketball chaos like myself, it’s a bit disappointing to see all top four seeds advanced to this point. UCF was a bad bounce off the rim away from pulling off what would have been a historic upset against top-ranked Duke, and now, the Blue Devils are set to face ACC foe Virginia Tech for a spot in the Elite 8. The Hokies won one of the two regular season matchups, albeit while Zion Williamson was out with injury, so Buzz Williams’ bunch certainly won’t back down from the challenge.  

On the other side of the bracket, Michigan State is gearing up to do battle with LSU in what is shaping up to be a straight up war. The Spartans withstood a scare from 15 seed Bradley in their first game and LSU survived 6 seeded Maryland in the round of 32 thanks to the late game heroics of guard Tremont Waters. While these two programs are nearly opposites in the way they are run, both teams are capable of not only making it to the next round but all the way to the title game. 

My prediction: LSU and Duke advance, Duke wins the region to punch its ticket to Minneapolis.   

West 

Once again, there are no Cinderellas to be found out west. Top-seeded Gonzaga, who features one of the most balanced rosters in the country, will see Florida State on Thursday in a contest that figures to be all about defense. The Seminoles play one of the most hectic styles of anyone left in the tournament, and they’ll be looking to make the Zags uncomfortable for all 40 minutes. The size and length on both sides will make for an interesting affair, to say the least.  

The winner of that one will take on the winner of Texas Tech and Michigan, yet another game pitting a three seed against a two. The Wolverines always seem to be in the mix at this time of year and will be looking to go to their second consecutive final four. Meanwhile, the Red Raiders are led by potential lottery pick Jarrett Culver and their stellar team defense, which together makes them a nightmare for whoever must deal with them.  

My prediction: Florida State pulls off the upset and Michigan keeps on marching, Wolverines win the region and advance to their second straight final four.  

South 

The Oregon Ducks, the only non-single-digit seed left standing, will be hoping to extend their magical run that began in the PAC 12 league tournament and continued with wins over Wisconsin and UC Irvine. They’ll run into a huge obstacle in the sweet 16 when they face the top seeded Virginia Cavaliers, who come into this meeting with a 31-3 record. The Hoos redeemed themselves this time around after last year’s first-round disaster, and they’re about as tough to beat as anyone when they’re playing confidently. Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome are both big-time playmakers and if their shot is falling, the Ducks will have a rough time extending their season any further.  

In the other half of the region, Purdue is primed to do battle with Tennessee. The Boilermakers surprised many with their downright route of reigning national champion Villanova in the last round and guard Carsen Edwards will lead their pursuit of the third final four appearance in program history. The Volunteers survived their first two games against Colgate and Iowa, but don’t let the narrow margins of victory fool you. Jordan Bone has looked like a star late in the season and Grant Williams quietly has put together a very strong case for national player of the year. Throw in the veteran swagger of Admiral Schofield and the steadying play from their support players and you have a roster that can compete with anyone. 

My prediction: Oregon busts a lot of brackets and beats both Virginia and Tennessee to keep on rolling.  

Midwest 

The Midwest features the most intriguing possibilities of any of the regions, and that is due largely in part to the potential for fireworks from each of the Sweet 16 matchups. North Carolina will take on Auburn in a game that just may be decided from the three-point line. The Tigers are playing their best basketball at the ideal time of the year and are a threat to explode from downtown every time they take the floor. The Tar Heels are led by a mixture of star freshmen, Nassir Little and Coby White, and experienced veterans, Luke Maye and Cam Johnson. Bruce Pearl’s team has already ridden their three-point prowess to an SEC championship, but Bryce Brown and company may have a bigger title in mind. 

Awaiting whoever wins that game will be the winner of Houston and Kentucky. The Wildcats may not have finished where they wanted to in the SEC, but they are always dangerous come tourney time and their toughness is second to none. Against the Cougars, John Calipari’s team will have to contain Corey Davis Jr, who was a first team all-AAC selection. Houston’s strength lies in the play of its backcourt, which features all of its top five points per game scorers.  

My prediction: North Carolina escapes Auburn and Kentucky narrowly beats Houston. UNC advances to the final four.  

Recap 

My final four: Duke, Michigan, Oregon and UNC 

My championship prediction: UNC over Duke .

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