Colorado v Marquette
getty images

The 2024 NCAA Tournament began with 68 teams last week, and the bracket has now been reduced to the Sweet 16. With regional semifinal matchups set as the second round has concluded, scouting work has already begun for the teams that are just two wins away from reaching the Final Four in Phoenix.

UConn, North Carolina, Gonzaga and Duke are back in the Sweet 16 as familiar faces, while NC State, Marquette and Illinois are making their long-awaited return to the second weekend of the tournament. Illinois last reached the Sweet 16 in 2005 -- the same year the program appeared in the national title game.

The theme of Saturday in the second round was lower seeds taking care of business. Gonzaga was the only upset from a seeding perspective on Saturday; the Bulldogs were actually the betting favorite against a shorthanded Kansas team.

Sunday of second-round action saw similar results. Clemson defeated Baylor 72-64 in the lone upset of the day from a seeding standpoint. Purdue, Duke and UConn cruised to double-digit victories to set up intriguing showdowns for the second weekend.

Now that the matchups are set, let's take an early look at what's ahead for the Sweet 16, which is set to tip off on Thursday.

West Regional

Thursday -- Arena in Los Angeles 

(1) North Carolina vs. (4) Alabama

  • Scouting the Tar Heels -- North Carolina ranks No. 6 in Division l experience on the roster, according to Armando Bacot and RJ Davis were pillars on UNC's Final Four team less than two years ago, and they're back for another run. Cormac Ryan is one of the oldest players in the sport, while Harrison Ingram and former five-star Elliot Cadeau round out the starting lineup. Last season, UNC ranked No. 261 in team assists (11.7), and that number has improved to 14.4 this season, good enough for No. 81. Part of the massive jump is the emergence of Cadeau, who averages a team-leading 4.1 assists. 
  • Scouting the Crimson Tide -- Alabama's offense is potent. The Crimson Tide feature the highest-scoring offense (91.1 ppg) and hit the third-most 3-pointers in the country. Alabama's averages 14.5 seconds per possession, the third-fastest, according to KenPom. Most of the scoring comes from All-American guard Mark Sears, who saw his role increase drastically after Jahvon Quinerly departed the program last summer. Sears went from averaging 12.5 points to 21.4. The defense, however, is a different story. The Tide are allowing the second-most points (81.7 ppg) of any tournament team in the last 25 years. 

(2) Arizona vs. (6) Clemson

  • Scouting the Wildcats -- Arizona's lethal offense (87.9 ppg) ranked third out of all Division l teams in scoring and finished top 10 in adjusted efficiency on offense and defense, per KenPom. The team's offensive possessions average 15.2 seconds, the 8th-fastest in the country. The Wildcats average 13.3 offensive rebounds, and their rebounding margin (+347) ranks No. 3 of all Division l teams. Pac-12 Player of the Year Caleb Love is an offensive juggernaut, and the offense stops and starts with him. Oumar Ballo is an interior force inside capable of taking over a game. Add Pelle Larsson, Kylan Boswell, Jaden Bradley, KJ Lewis and Keshad Johnson to the mix, and you have one of the most complete rosters top-to-bottom.
  • Scouting the Tigers -- Clemson is having a historic season on offense by its standards. The Tigers are averaging 77.4 points, the most since the 2008-09 season. Clemson's offense revolves around big man PJ Hall, sharpshooter Joseph Girard III and veteran guard Chase Hunter. Despite ranking in the middle of the pack in scoring defense (No. 133, 70.8 ppg), Clemson is on track to allow at least 70 points per game for only the second time in the last 20 years.

East Regional

Thursday -- TD Garden in Boston

(1) UConn vs. (5) San Diego State

  • Scouting the Huskies -- UConn walks into the Sweet 16 as the biggest threat to repeat as national champions in nearly two decades. The Huskies cruised through the regular season, the Big East Tournament and the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. The Huskies led the Big East in scoring offense (81.5 ppg) and scoring defense (64.4 ppg), and they entered the week with the second-highest point differential (+17.1) behind McNeese. UConn All-American guard Tristen Newton was the only player in Division l men's basketball to average at least seven rebounds and six assists per game. Cam Spencer, Alex Karaban and Hassan Diarra provide valuable shooting. And you can't forget about big man Donovan Clingan, who is playing his best basketball at the right time after dealing with a foot injury earlier this season. If the Huskies are firing on all cylinders, they will be the toughest out.
  • Scouting the Aztecs -- After falling in last year's title game to UConn, San Diego State will have a chance at redemption in the Sweet 16. SDSU is led by Jaedon LeDee, who went from key reserve on its Final Four team last year to All-American this season after averaging 21.4 points and 8.4 rebounds. SDSU held opponents to 66.6 points and 40.5% shooting — both No. 1 in the Mountain West. San Diego State's magic number is 71. The Aztecs are 23-3 when they hit that mark.

(2) Iowa State vs. (3) Illinois

  • Scouting the Cyclones -- Iowa State's defense is tenacious. The Cyclones rank No. 4 in scoring defense (61.4 ppg) and second in turnovers forced (17.4), steals (10.4) and turnover percentage (25.2%). On offense, Tamin Lipsey leads this unit as one of the most underrated guards in the country. Big 12 Tournament MVP Keshon Gilbert and highly touted freshman Milan Momcilovic join him as key contributors. Iowa State's 28-point win over Houston in the Big 12 Tournament title game was the largest margin of defeat against an AP Top 25 No. 1-ranked team in 56 years.
  • Scouting the Fighting Illini -- The trio of Marcus Domask, Coleman Hawkins and Terrence Shannon Jr. headline one of the most experienced teams in college basketball. Hawkins and Shannon elected to bypass the 2023 NBA Draft to return to school to help get the Illinois program over the hump and out of the first weekend. Shannon has been on an offensive tear of late and has scored at least 25 points in his last six games. Illinois' high-scoring offense (84.4 ppg) should provide a test for Iowa State's stout defense. Illinois' 41.3 total rebounds per game ranks sixth among all Division l teams.
Purdue players are in a better mood than they were this time last season

Midwest Regional

Friday-- Little Caesars Arena in Detroit

(1) Purdue vs. (5) Gonzaga

  • Scouting the Boilermakers -- Purdue is back in the Sweet 16 after last season ended in disaster with a loss to No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson. While the attention starts and stops with reigning national player of the year Zach Edey, the nucleus of Purdue's offense is shooting from distance. The Boilermakers are connecting on 40.8% of their triples, which ranks only behind Kentucky. They rank second in rebounding margin (+10.7) and commit the 20th-fewest fouls (14.4). Edey's co-star, Braden Smith, is one of six Division l players since 1983 with at least 700 points, 375 assists and 325 rebounds through his sophomore campaign.
  • Scouting the Bulldogs -- Gonzaga's season has been a rollercoaster, yet the Bulldogs still find themselves in the Sweet 16 for the ninth consecutive NCAA Tournament. The lows of the season started when prized transfer Steele Venters tore his ACL days before the season-opener against Yale. The high point came in a statement 89-68 win over Kansas in the second round behind a balanced scoring attack from veterans Anton Watson, Graham Ike, Nolan Hickman, Ben Gregg and Ryan Nembhard. Gonzaga is an above-average 3-point shooting team that shoots the ball almost better than anyone from 2-point range. Gonzaga is shooting 58.3% from inside the arc, which ranks seventh among all Division l teams, per KenPom.

(2) Tennessee vs. (3) Creighton

  • Scouting the Volunteers -- The identity of this Tennessee team is defense. The Volunteers are limiting opponents to the sixth-lowest shooting percentage (38.9%) and are one of 10 teams that ranks in the top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency, according to KenPom. Dalton Knecht's emergence from a mid-major star to SEC Player of the Year is why Tennessee is back in the Sweet 16. The anchor of the defense is veteran guard Zakai Zeigler, who is averaging 1.8 steals. One of the other x-factors is Jonas Aidoo; Tennessee is 13-0 this season when he scores at least 14 points. If this team is going to reach its first Final Four in program history, it starts with sticking to what got it here in the first place.
  • Scouting the Bluejays -- The three-headed scoring monster of Trey Alexander, Ryan Kalkbrenner and Baylor Scheierman headlines one of the top-scoring offenses as each is averaging at least 17 points per game. As a team, Creighton is top 40 shooting the ball from 2-point range, 3-point range and the free-throw line. The Bluejays rank third in 2-pointers (60.5%), No. 36 in 3-pointers (36.5%) and No. 15 from the charity stripe (78%). Creighton also has the luxury of getting nightly production from point guard Steven Ashworth, who scored 21 points in the second-round win over Oregon. When the Bluejays are clicking offensively, they're hard to stop. It also helps that Creighton allows the fewest free throw attempts (10.7) and fouls the least (11.3) of any team.

South Regional

Friday -- American Airlines Center in Dallas

(1) Houston vs. (4) Duke

  • Scouting the Cougars -- Houston's defense is relentless. The Cougars feature the top-scoring defense (56.7 ppg) and allow the lowest field goal percentage (37.8%) to their opponents. The Cougars ranked seventh in steals (10), No. 12 in turnovers forced (15.9), and led the country in turnover margin (+7.1). Houston won 16 games over Quad 1 opponents — more than any team — and went 12-4 against NCAA Tournament teams. All-American guard Jamal Shead is the heart and soul of the roster. Houston will go as far as Shead will take them.
  • Scouting the Blue Devils -- Duke ranked at the top of the ACC in field goal percentage (48.2%), 3-point percentage (37.7%) and assists (15.4). The Blue Devils are one of nine teams ranked 26th or better in offensive and defensive adjusted efficiency by KenPom. Duke sharpshooter Jared McCain is shooting 41.5% from distance on 5.7 attempts. If he stays above both thresholds, he will become the third Duke freshman in the last 25 years to accomplish the feat. Gary Trent Jr. (40.2% on 6.5 attempts) and Brandon Ingram (41% on 5.4 attempts) did it during their first season at Duke.

(2) Marquette vs. (11) NC State

  • Scouting the Golden Eagles -- The head of the snake is Tyler Kolek. The Marquette star point guard missed the final two games of the regular season and the entire Big East Conference Tournament with an oblique injury before returning for the NCAA Tournament. Kolek became the first player since Cal's Jason Kidd (1993) with at least 10 points, 10 assists and five rebounds in consecutive NCAA Tournament games. Marquette ranks No. 14 in assist/turnover ratio (1.61). UConn, Gonzaga and Purdue are the only teams remaining in the tournament that are better in that department.
  • Scouting the Wolf Pack -- NC State is on a hot streak heading into the Sweet 16. The Wolfpack won five straight games in the ACC Tournament to receive an automatic bid and held off a late surge from March Madness Cinderella Oakland in overtime to advance past the first weekend. NC State turns the ball over only 13.8% of the time, per KenPom. That ranks 10th-best among all Division l teams. NC State star big man D.J. Burns Jr. has already become a March Madness legend, and he will be counted on if the Wolfpack want to continue their magical run.