No. 2 Arizona (32-4) is a heavy favorite against No. 11 Xavier (23-13) in the Sweet 16 on Thursday. The Wildcats, who are 26-2 over their last 28 games, are 7.5-point favorites against the Muskies.
Unfortunately for Arizona, none of that matters at 10:09 p.m. ET.
“At this stage, the numbers are meaningless,” Westwood One basketball analyst P.J. Carlesimo said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “If Xavier played Arizona in the regular season, people would call it a good game. Now you start calling it a 2 versus an 11. It’s two really good teams. Anybody that’s alive can win in the Round of 16. I don’t think anybody can win four. That’s the challenge of the tournament. You got to win six times. But at this stage, these teams are all good enough to beat each other.”
That includes Xavier beating Arizona.
“Arizona is playing very, very well,” Carlesimo said. “What concerns me a little bit about Arizona is the youth. They’re very young. It’s hard to win with young guys in the tournament. Cal (John Calipari) is a different animal. What Kentucky has done is incredible. But generally speaking, I go to the veteran teams.”
Looking ahead to Friday’s slate, No. 2 Kentucky (31-5) versus No. 3 UCLA (31-4) could be the game of the tournament. Everyone raves about Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf – and rightfully so – but the Bruins, with six players averaging double figures, are more than a two-man team.
“What they have, which is really good, is they have some experience to go with (Ball and Leaf),” Carlesimo said. “Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton have been playing forever. Thomas Welsh has been around. They’re good. But those teams, it’s going to be a shoot-out.”
UCLA beat Kentucky, 97-92, in December.
“You got a ton of offense in that game,” Carlesimo said. “This is the young-gun shoot-out, so the experience is not a major factor right there. If it is, slight edge to UCLA. They’ve beaten them twice the last two times they played – once in Pauley, once in Rupp.”
Kentucky hopes to end that trend Friday in Memphis, and it has the coach to do it. Calipari has led Kentucky to four Final Fours since 2011.
How does he do it? Especially with so many freshmen?
“It’s a challenge, but he does it better than anybody,” Carlesimo said. “Their program and the way they run it is just different. It really is. You have so many one-and-dones coming in there, so many guys that that’s their expectation. They’re only going to be there a year. And yet, when they’re there, John holds them to it in terms of class, in terms getting as many credits as they can when they’re there, and obviously they’re always welcome to go back and finish if they choose to do it. But it’s not like he just runs a pro camp and looks the other way at all that stuff. He’s very demanding. He tells them this is what it takes. He’s got great credibility because he coached in the NBA, because he’s had a lot of players do exactly what these guys are doing. So he’s the exception. Everybody says, ‘Well, I’d win if I had their players.’ That’s not true. John has done not a good job; he’s done an incredible job – and he’s done it at three places.”
No. 1 North Carolina (29-7), meanwhile, is a 7.5-point favorite against No. 4 Butler (25-8), but don’t be surprised if the Bulldogs hang around.
“They’re 25-8; 21 of those games were against the field, somebody in the NCAA Tournament, and they’re 16-5,” Carlesimo said. “Carolina has played 17 teams in the field. They’re 12-5. So Butler has been tested, they beat Villanova twice. It’s one of those cliches: (the team) is better than (the individuals). They’re good. If they can control tempo and hang on the boards – and I don’t know that anybody can hang on the boards with Carolina – yes, I do think they can win.”