SWEET 16 PREVIEW
A.J. Hoffman: Breaking down the NCAA Tournament games
After one of the wildest first weekends of NCAA tournament basketball in history, we are down to the Sweet 16. Normally this is where the madness stops and the cream rises, but with a lot of the “cream” watching from their couches this weekend, who knows what to expect? Here are some previews of the weekend 2 matchups.
#11 Loyola-Illinois (30-5, 15-3 Missouri Valley) vs. #7 Nevada (29-7, 15-3 Mountain West)
Nevada -1.5, O/U 143.5
The Ramblers have been the tournament darlings so far with their thrilling wins over Miami and Tennessee in the first two rounds. It isn’t a fluke. This is a good team. They don’t have high-major size, but they have a versatile roster that can switch on defense all over the court. The Wolfpack have been a strong pick and roll offense all season long, but Loyola has proven themselves against this type of offense twice now in this tournament against better teams. The pace of this game will say a lot about who will win. An under game would be ideal for Loyola, who will want to limit possessions and thrive on low post scoring from Cameron Krutwig. The Ramblers can shoot, but at the end of the day, they want the ball around the rim. Nevada has struggled defending at the rim all season long, and both Texas and Cincinnati have to be looking back regretfully at not feeding their bigs more, especially down the stretch. Obviously, the Martin twins are the focal point for the Pack offensively, but it will be key to get their big man Jordan Caroline involved early. In both the Texas and Cincinnati games, Nevada struggled in the first half and started to find success late in the game when Caroline started to get going. A full game of this strategy would do well for the Wolfpack. Loyola has now won 19 of its last 20, and you could argue they outplayed more talented teams in the first two rounds. Nevada does have the talent edge here, but it almost feels fluky that Nevada won either of their games, much less both. I am picking the Ramblers to roll into the Elite Eight.
Prediction: Loyola 68, Nevada 64
#7 Texas A&M (22-12, 9-9 SEC) vs. #3 Michigan (30-7, 13-5 BIG 10)
Michigan -2.5, O/U 136
Texas A&M is old school. They have a dominant front-court, and give smaller teams a hard time defending Robert Williams and Tyler Davis in the post. Those two should thrive against a poor (relatively) Michigan post-defense. The problem for Texas A&M comes on the other end of the floor. The Aggies, like Michigan, are a good defensive team that may be running into the type of players that can make their defense look mediocre. Moe Wagner is going to be a problem for the Ags. John Beilein will screen and roll and screen and roll and screen and roll until they get the iso-matchup they want, and having big men who can shoot from deep is a big part of what they do on offense. If Williams and Davis get pulled out of the paint, A&M will be playing an unfamiliar and uncomfortable type of basketball. That said, if Wagner starts slow (which he has in this tournament) or gets in early foul trouble (which he has in this tournament), the Wolverines will be forced to make major adjustments and play a more straight up style that favors the Aggies more. Rebounding will also be key in this game, as the Aggies are one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country, while Michigan is one of the best on the defensive glass. The Ags are coming off a blowout win over North Carolina, where they dominated bell to bell. If the Aggies play that well again, they are moving on, period. They have been mind-numbingly inconsistent this season though, and Michigan is flying high after rolling through the Big 10 tournament and beating Houston at the buzzer last round. I think Wagner finds his groove, and Michigan squeaks by and gets a shot to take advantage of a region where the top 2 seeds have fallen and move on to the Final Four.
Prediction: Michigan 73, Texas A&M 70
#9 Kansas State (24-11, 10-8 BIG XII) vs. #5 Kentucky (26-10, 10-8 SEC)
Kentucky -5.5, O/U139.5
John Calipari has a knack for getting the most out of his teams when it counts, and here we are again with Kentucky suddenly looking like one of the best teams in the country. Freshman point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander deserves a lot of the credit, as he has been playing on a different level since the SEC tournament started up. That, combined with the consistent scoring of Kevin Knox and the suddenly blossoming offense of Hamidou Diallo, the Cats are a load to deal with right now. The good news for Kansas State is they get leading scorer and leading rebounder Dean Wade back after playing without him for the first two tournament games. He will matchup with Knox, who is Kentucky’s leading scorer. Knox struggled with foul trouble against Buffalo, and it led to him scoring only 8 points. Kentucky is also hopeful that they are getting back their leading rebounder, Jarred Vanderbilt, though his status is a little murkier than Wade’s at this point. Kentucky on defense is everything that Bruce Weber doesn’t want to see. They are long and defend the pick and roll as well as anyone in the country, and if Calipari chooses to go to his zone, they could be even more effective against Kansas State. On the other end, Kansas State will have to force turnovers, something that Gilgeous-Alexander just hasn’t done lately. Kentucky is 6-0 in this round under Calipari, with their average margin of victory in those games sitting at 14.5. Given the matchup advantages and the way the Kentucky offense has looked of late, there is no reason to think that trend changes.
Prediction: Kentucky 75, Kansas State 59
#9 Florida State (22-11, 9-9 ACC) vs. #4 Gonzaga (32-4, 17-1 West Coast)
Gonzaga -5.5, O/U 152.5
Florida State is going to try and make the Zags play a high-paced game and tire them out. The Noles have 10 players who average over 10 minutes per game (Gonzaga has seven) and they average 71.5 possessions per game, the 31st most in the country. They also feel confident in throwing fresh bodies out on the defensive end. The offensive pace shouldn’t bother Gonzaga too much, as that is what Ohio State tried to do and the Bulldogs handled that fine. The defensive pressure could give them problems. The Seminoles are one of the best shot blocking teams in the nation, and hold teams to 45% on two-point shots. However, they are a mediocre defensive rebounding team, and Gonzaga is an excellent offensive rebounding team. Killian Tillie has to be better offensively for Gonzaga. He dominated the conference tournament, and was quiet (albeit partly because of foul trouble) last weekend. Gonzaga will try to force the Noles into playing in the half-court, and if they do that this should go their way. They have the bodies to defend without fouling down low, and quite frankly Mark Few has turned into a reliable tournament coach when he has the better players. He has the better players here, and the Zags should roll on.
Prediction: Gonzaga 77, Florida State 70
#5 Clemson (25-9, 11-7 ACC) vs. #1 Kansas (29-7, 13-5 BIG XII)
Kansas -4.5, O/U 142.5
This should be one of the most interesting Sweet 16 matchups, as Kansas is looked at as a very beatable 1-seed and Clemson has dominated both of their tournament games so far. Kansas is a dominant offense (#5 adjusted offense in the country) that relies heavily on the 3-point shot. They are 12th nationally in 3-point percentage, and their top three scorers all shoot better than 40% from behind the line. Clemson is here because of their defense. They held Auburn, one of the top offenses in the country, to just 53 points last round. Clemson’s strength, though, is their post defense. As discussed, that doesn’t do you much good against the bombs-away Kansas offense. Obviously, the key for Kansas is Devonta’ Graham, their 1st team All-American and Naismith Finalist, but the return of their 7-footer Udoka Azubuike could be the difference for the Jayhawks. I expect this to be an ugly game, and as much as I don’t trust Kansas, I don’t think the Tigers have the recipe to pull the upset in this one.
Prediction: Kansas 68, Clemson 60
#5 West Virginia (26-10, 11-7 BIG XII) vs. # 1 Villanova (32-4, 14-4 Big East)
Villanova -5, O/U 152.5
This game features the best individual matchup of the tournament. Villanova has the best offensive point guard in the country in Jaylen Brunson. West Virginia has the best defensive point guard in the country in Jevon Carter. Carter has been magnificent against some pretty good point guards (Murray State’s Jonathan Stark and Marshall’s Jon Elmore), but Brunson is a different beast altogether. Brunson is the Big East player of the year and could be the National Player of the Year when it’s all said and done. Carter will limit him, but Villanova has other options. Mikal Bridges is one of the most underrated players in the country, only because he shares the court with Brunson. He shoots 44% from 3-point range, and if Brunson gets bogged down, he will need to make some big shots. The key for West Virginia will be creating turnovers and getting second chances on the offensive glass. If Villanova has more shots than West Virginia, it is hard to imagine the Mountaineers winning. Another key for WVU will be keeping their big man out of foul trouble. Sagaba Konate is an outstanding defender, but is really the only inside presence that they have. If Villanova shoots poorly they can lose this game, but bad shooting nights are rare for the Cats, and I expect them to move on pretty easily here.
Prediction: Villanova 84, West Virginia 72
#11 Syracuse (23-13, 8-10 ACC) vs. #2 Duke (28-7, 13-5 ACC)
Duke -11.5, O/U 133.5
These teams are obviously familiar with each other, coming from the same conference. Duke hammered them in their only meeting this season, 60-44, but that was at Cameron. Syracuse has looked really good defensively so far in the tournament, making good offenses like TCU and Michigan State look really, REALLY bad. I am not sure how long you can count on good offensive teams shooting poorly. Michigan State had about as bad of a game that a team could ever have, and they lost by two points. Duke is an elite offense, ranking third in adjusted offense. The Blue Devils will have more possessions because they are so great on the offensive glass. While these teams play a similar style of defense, the reality is that Duke just has better players than Syracuse. The Orange will have a chance if the game is heavy on whistles, as they score a whopping 24% of their points from the free throw line. This game could end up being miserable to watch, but Duke’s talent will be too much in the end, and Coach K wins the matchup of Hall of Fame coaches.
Prediction: Duke 67, Syracuse 55
#3 Texas Tech (26-9, 11-7 BIG XII) vs. #2 Purdue (30-6, 15-3 BIG 10)
Purdue -2, O/U 137.5
This is the only matchup where both the teams that were expected to be here (at least based on seeding) actually made it to the game. Purdue seemed like a team that could win the whole thing going into the tournament, but the loss of their center Isaac Haas to a broken elbow is extremely concerning to their long term projections. Matt Haarms filled in admirably, but there is a definite drop-off from Haas, particularly on the offensive end. Haarms also looked to be running out of gas late in the Butler game. Without Haas’ scoring prowess, it is more difficult to get Purdue’s shooters the open looks that they want on the outside. Tech is driven by their defense, but they will have to score above their average to win this game. Keenan Evans is fantastic, but they will need a secondary option to have a big day as well. Jarrett Culver and Zhaire Smith are the most likely candidates for that. Purdue has struggled to hold late leads, and Tech has done a good job of erasing early deficits. This should be one of the more intriguing matchups of the first round.
Prediction: Purdue 70, Texas Tech 66