Sweet 16 Preview: Thursday Games

Posted: 03/25/2015 by levcohen in NCAA

I decided not to preview the first weekend of the NCAA tournament because there are just so many games and I knew I wouldn’t be able to preview them all in depth. I also thought there would be so many weird, stats and logic-defying upsets that my predictions would become moot almost right away. The first day justified my decision; two three seeds lost, a game was decided by a (probably wrong) goaltending call, and a record five games were decided by a single point. There were a few bad games on Thursday, but the majority of them went down to the wire. Teams like Notre Dame, UCLA,  North Carolina, and NC State, all of whom survived the first weekend, were legitimately close to bowing out on the first day. Two three seeds, Iowa State and Baylor, fell to upstarts UAB (who desperately needed something positive after the recent news that they were getting rid of their football team) and Georgia State. Compared to that first day, the rest of the weekend was a letdown. There weren’t any big Friday upsets, and three of the four regions still look rather favorite-heavy. The exception? The East region, which saw #1 Villanova and #2 Virginia fall in the second round. But while the restoration of normalcy over the weekend wasn’t exciting in the moment, it does mean that the games this weekend will likely be much better. We’ll (hopefully) see titans like Arizona and Wisconsin face off in the Elite Eight, depending on what happens tomorrow night and Friday night. What’s going to happen tomorrow night? Let’s go through each matchup one by one.

Wichita State-Notre Dame:
The first game of the night might be the best one. It’s not the most important one from a Final Four standpoint, because the winner of this game will likely fall to Kentucky in the regional final, but, given the talent on each side, it should be an exciting game that comes down to the wire. Wichita State, the #7 seed, will likely close as a favorite for the third straight game despite playing traditional powers Indiana (#10 seed), Kansas (#2), and now the Fighting Irish (#3). While their regular season wasn’t as good as it was last year, when they went undefeated and got a #1 seed, the Shockers have gotten hot at the right time, just as they did two years ago when they made the Final Four. Coach Gregg Marshall has again done a terrific job and has been rumored in connection with both the Alabama and Texas jobs. First, though, he has to worry about Notre Dame. Wichita State is led by guards Ron Baker, Fred Van Vleet, and Tekele Cotton, each of whom were key cogs in the undefeated (until they faced Kentucky) team last year. It’s shocking that players like Baker and Van Vleet were passed over by bigger-budget basketball schools, because those guys aren’t just stiffs; each likely has professional basketball in his future. Baker has unlimited range and shoots 38% on threes, but he also has a sneaky ability to drive and score off the dribble. When his shot wasn’t falling against Indiana (0-5 from three), he compensated by getting to the line and hitting 9-10 of his free throws. Meanwhile, VanVleet has gotten to the line 19 times in the tournament, hitting 16 of his freebies. He wasn’t Wichita State’s go-to scorer in the regular season, but he has been in the tourney, as he’s averaged 22 points thus far. The matchup between VanVleet and Notre Dame’s star point guard Jerian Grant, who has five inches on VanVleet, could be vital.

Notre Dame is the last true one-dimensional team in the tournament. They are middle of the pack defensively and worse on the glass, but they are 12th in points per game and third in KenPom’s Adjusted Offense (points per 100 possessions adjusted for opponent) behind just Wisconsin and Duke. They also shot 51% from the field during the season, which really illustrates their efficiency. In Grant, Pat Connaughton, Demetrius Jackon, and Steve Vasturia, Notre Dame starts four guys who can knock down threes and facilitate the offense. Grant averages 17 points, seven assists, and 1.6 steals per game, while the other three all hit more than 40% of their threes. The fifth starter? Zach Auguste, who shoots 60% from the field and is the second leading scorer. The scary thing for Wichita State is that Notre Dame has failed to hit 70 points in either of their two games, including one that went to overtime. And they’ve also only shot 8-26 from three over the course of the two games, which is bound to change. Notre Dame normally lives (ACC Tourney Champs) and dies (losses to Pitt and Syracuse, 2 and 3 point wins over Clemson and Georgia Tech) by the three, so the fact that they were able to live without it against a tough team like Butler speaks volumes about their ability to play with toughness.

But while both of these teams are undersized and rely on guard play, Wichita State is much better defensively. They’re the 13th ranked defense (according to KenPom) while Notre Dame ranks 103rd. Given that the Shockers rank ninth overall to Notre Dame’s 10th, a difference that sizable could be the difference in the game. If you tell me this is going to be a blowout, I’d pick Notre Dame, because I think the Fighting Irish can heat up and score in a hurry. But Wichita State rarely fails to slow games down and grind them out, and I think they can do the same here in a relatively low-scoring win. Wichita State win 68-63.

North Carolina-Wisconsin: Full disclosure: I picked Wisconsin to win it all in one of my brackets and UNC to knock them off in another. So I am very conflicted when it comes to this game. But while this was a game I circled as a possible upset last week, I haven’t been too impressed with North Carolina. After barely escaping a weak Harvard team, they beat Arkansas by nine in a frenetic, mistake-filled game. UNC always seems to play down to their opponents. Their team is extremely talented, with athletic freaks like J.P. Tokoto, big men like Kennedy Meeks (questionable for the Wisconsin game), and one of the best guards in the nation in Marcus Paige. But they lost five of eight games at one point and haven’t shown they can consistently defend without lapses against offensive powerhouses. They’ll need to do that against a Wisconsin team that is tops in the nation in offensive efficiency and has three likely first rounders in Frank Kaminsky, Nigel Hayes, and Sam Dekker. Can they do it? I’m optimistic that they’ve figured out how to beat great teams, as they had back-to-back wins over Louisville and Virginia in the ACC Tournament. But the fact that they gave up 176 points in two games against Duke is worrying.

To be fair to UNC, Wisconsin hasn’t been very good in the tournament either. After a 14 point win over Coastal Carolina, they were tied with Oregon late before pulling away and winning by seven. Unlike UNC, though, Wisconsin has lost just three games, so I think we can give them the benefit of the doubt (North Carolina has lost 11). The big three is really hard to stop. Kaminsky can to everything, Hayes has developed into a really scary wing player, and Dekker hits 51% of his shots. Wisconsin is the only team that can rival Kentucky’s size, with Dekker at 6’9 and Kaminsky at 7’0, and talent. In fact, the Badgers are about as good of a Kentucky-killer as you could build, with shooting, efficiency, size, and a star big man who can draw Kentucky’s seven footers away from the basket. But they aren’t playing Kentucky this round, and UNC could cause some matchup problems. the Badgers aren’t that deep guard-wise, and North Carolina happens to have Marcus Paige, who can take over a close game with his shooting (91 threes on the season, 87% from the line). North Carolina can win this game if they can stay focused for the whole game because they have comparable talent to Wisconsin. In a high-scoring game, though, I have to take the more efficient team and the one I trust more. Wisconsin wins 81-77.

Kentucky-West Virginia: Let’s save some words: West Virginia is a fascinating team to watch because they run a suffocating press. They beat a good team in Maryland last round and could cause Kentucky matchup problems because the Wildcats haven’t been amazing against pressing teams (in a small sample size). They also can crash the boards and score second-chance points. This could be a single digit game. But if Kentucky loses here, it’s because they’ll have laid a complete egg. West Virginia just doesn’t shoot well enough to push Kentucky when the Wildcats play even their “B” game. There could be some exciting moments early, but I expect Kentucky to win by double digits. Kentucky wins 73-58.

Xavier-Arizona: Yeah, this matchup seems like it’s just as lopsided as the Kentucky one. Start with the fact that this game will be played in LA, so Zona will have pseudo-home court advantage. Arizona also probably has the six best players in this game, and I expect Matt Stainbrook and Xavier to get pummeled down low. And if Stainbrook can’t get easy buckets down low, it’s tough to imagine the Musketeers getting anywhere near enough offense to topple Arizona, who rank as the seventh best offense and third best defense on KenPom. And on the other side of the ball, I expect Stanley Johnson to bounce back, T.J. McConnell to rack up assists, and the Wildcats to get to the line often. Another blowout here. Arizona wins 68-52.

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