Sweet 16 Thursday Predictions

Posted: 03/27/2014 by levcohen in Basketball, NCAA

After three long days, the NCAA tournament is back with four games tonight and four tomorrow. By Monday morning, there will be just four teams left, and just two tough games separate these 16 teams from the Final Four. While there have been a few big upsets, and while there are three double-digit teams in the Sweet 16 with an assurance of at least one in the Elite Eight and a good shot at another, most of the favorites are still in the tournament. The “smart” money had Florida, Arizona, Louisville, and Michigan State all participating in the Final Four, and all four teams are still alive. But there have been some shifts in the hierarchy. Most notably is the terrific win by Kentucky over Wichita State. I had Wichita State, saying that, for Kentucky to win, they would need to show us something they hadn’t yet this season. Well, they did, and they edged out a Wichita State team, who, by the way, played pretty darn well themselves. Please do not take anything away from Wichita State’s season. They are a great team who played great basketball all season. They just ran into a Kentucky team who will surely make the Final Four if they play like that. Kansas, Duke, and Wichita State are all out, but those teams were never favored to come out of their regions anyway. Most of the big shots remain, and, while there might not be as many upsets as there were in the first couple of rounds, this is when the basketball becomes really fun to watch.

Record: 29-23

— South Region —

10 Stanford (23-12) vs 11 Dayton (25-10) in Memphis
Spread: Stanford favored by 3
It’ll probably come back to bite me, but I’m going to start off by saying that I think it’s highly unlikely that the winner of this game will upset UCLA or more likely Florida. Those two teams are just so much more talented and have been so much better all season. Then again, I could have said the same thing about Ohio State, New Mexico, Kansas, and Syracuse, and these two teams had to knock off all four of those teams to advance to this point. It’s clear that Archie Miller’s Dayton (fifth placed finishers in the A-10 and on the bubble throughout the season) and Johnny Dawkins’s Stanford (fourth placed finishers in the Pac-12 and on the bubble throughout the season) aren’t the same teams they were in the regular season.
Dayton’s transformation has come on the defensive end. They have given up just 59 and 53 points against Ohio State and Syracuse, respectively, and those two teams have shot just 43% against the Flyers. They also have a great coach. The problem I have with Dayton is that they were very mediocre throughout the season, and even more importantly have been fairly mediocre in the tournament. Their two wins were impressive, but were by a combined three points and could easily have been losses. I thought it was fair to say that Ohio State lost the game rather than Dayton winning, and I would say the same about Syracuse. Dayton ran into two teams who weren’t playing well, and capitalized… Barely.
When Stanford came into the tournament, they were a team that sorely needed the two wins they got in the Pac-12 tournament. Had they lost in the first round, they probably would be in the NIT right now, but by the time they were crushed by eventual tournament champion UCLA (an Elite Eight rematch could be in store), they were safely in the tournament. What we couldn’t have expected, though, is that this team would still be playing on the second weekend. A key is Chasson Randle, the offensive sparkplug who needs to score a lot of points for Stanford to feel safe about this game. Another key is the frontcourt duo of Dwight Powell and Stefan Nastic. Both can score, but both can also get into a lot of foul trouble.
I see a low scoring game here, and I think it will be a tossup. A lot of people are pointing out that Dayton is 11-0 when holding opponents under 60 points, but Stanford is also 10-1 in those situations. I know it’s hard to believe, but most teams do well when they don’t allow their opponents to score a lot of points. It’s going to be close, but I think Stanford is slightly better. 59-56.

1 Florida (34-2) vs 4 UCLA (28-8) in Memphis
Spread: Florida favored by 4.5
Florida is the best team in college basketball right now, and I’m not going to pick against them here. I learned from my mistake in picking Pittsburgh over the Gators, as for the first time I watched an entire Florida Gators game. It was close in the first half, but Florida was always going to win that game. I also underestimated both the fierce, tremendous defense that DEFENDS WITHOUT FOULING (very important in a five foul game), and Scottie Wilbekin. Wilbekin made an unlikely Panthers comeback impossible. Every time the Gators had the ball, Wilbekin dribbled the ball around outside the three point line, and then with about five seconds left on the shot clock drove to the basket. He made the shot every single time. It’s hard to come back against a team that defends so well and has such a calm, composed, and all around good point guard. Florida is the real deal.
UCLA cruised in their first two games. They looked unstoppable offensively, as they have so often this season, in their wins over Tulsa and Stephen F Austin. But both of those teams were thoroughly outclassed against the Bruins, and Florida is a different story. UCLA causes matchup problems with Kyle Anderson, a Magic Johnson-esque guard/forward/center. Florida can negate that with 6’8″ Will Yeguete, a defensive stopper who plays just 23 minutes per game (the Gators have depth) but could play a lot more against Anderson. UCLA should and will keep it close, because they aren’t the best match-up for Florida. They deal well with a press, and don’t turn the ball over much. But in a clash of offense against defense, I think it will be Florida who ends up prevailing. 71-65.

— West Region —

2 Wisconsin (28-7) vs 6 Baylor (26-11) in Anaheim
Spread: Wisconsin favored by 3.5
Wisconsin had to rally to beat Oregon, but they are still playing great basketball right now, at least offensively. They have scored at least 75 points in four straight games, and all five starters scored in double figures against Oregon and at least seven points against American. Offensively, this is a well rounded team that can hit threes in droves, get to the line, and make their free throws. Defensively, though, there have been some holes, which is puzzling given that Bo Ryan is normally a defensive-oriented coach. The Ducks shot 49% against the Badgers, hit eight threes, and even got to the free throw line 23 times, making 21. Remember, Wisconsin fouls less than almost any other team, so that stat is perhaps the most worrying. The Badgers have given up at least 70 points 11 times in their last 21 games after giving up that many points just twice in their first 14. That’s also worrying. Taking a glass half full approach, take a look at Wisconsin’s starting lineup; Ben Brust, Sam Dekker, Josh Gasser, Traevon Jackson, Frank Kaminsky. All five can hit long distance shots. That’s great against most teams, but absolutely vital against the Baylor zone. I don’t think Wisconsin will have trouble scoring the basketball, but can the defend well enough?
Baylor could well have even more talent than Wisconsin. They are 12-2 in their last 14 games, including an 8-2 mark against NCAA tournament teams. Their 85-55 win over Doug McDermott and Creighton might have been the most impressive I’ve seen in the tournament. They held the best shooting team in the country to 40% from the field and a dismal 5-24 from three point range, while sending them to the free throw time just nine times. McDermott got in foul trouble in the first time in a long time, and scored an unthinkably low 15 points. The Creighton bench went 4-13 for 11 points. Baylor, on the other hand, shot 64% from the field (!), 11-18 (61%) from three (!), and hit 14 free throws. They are a big, physical team, and I think they’ll kill the Badgers on the board. They average 38.7 rebounds per game, 24th in the NCAA, while Wisconsin is at 33.2, 261st. I think that they’ll score easily from the paint against an un-Bo Ryan like Wisconsin team. I think they’ll hit their threes close to their 39% season average, top-25 in the nation, with Brady Heslip, fourth in three pointers made in the NCAA, leading the way. Just as Oregon destroyed the Badgers, I think the Bears can too. In a similar game, I just think Baylor will close the door on the Badgers in a way that the Ducks could not. 81-77

1 Arizona (32-4) vs 4 San Diego State (31-4) in Anaheim
Spread: Arizona favored by 7.5
I like Arizona in this game, but not by the point spread. I think this game will come down to the wire, as two defensive-minded teams duke it out in one of the two Sweet 16 rematch games (Kentucky-Louisville is the other). Xavier Thames, who was so good against North Dakota State, is the X factor. When Thames is anything less than his very best, San Diego State struggles to score points, and will struggle even more against a physical Arizona team. Right now, I think Arizona is one of the two best teams in college basketball, and I think they are just about on level terms with the #1, Florida. The result of this game will be the same as it was in November 14th, but I think it will come down to the wire in a close, physical game between the second ranked defense (San Diego State: 56.6 points allowed per game) and the fifth ranked defense (Arizona: 58.3 points allowed). Arizona wins 63-58.

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