Sweet 16 Preview: Friday Games

Posted: 03/27/2015 by levcohen in NCAA

There were some exciting moments in last night’s games, but in general I was a bit disappointed by them. The Kentucky-West Virginia game was enjoyable at first because we got to see how utterly dominant Kentucky can be, but that got boring quickly. In the end, the Wildcats became the first team to double up their opponents in a Sweet 16 game (78-39). I thought there might be some tense moments in the first half, but the score at halftime was 44-18. Meanwhile, the other Wildcats were pushed a bit more than I thought they would be, but Arizona was never in grave danger of losing to Xavier. The Musketeers were just too offensively inconsistent, and T.J. McConnell was able to take over the game (again) in a 68-60 win. The biggest disappointment of the day was probably the Wichita State-Notre Dame game, which was supposed to go down to the wire but instead ended in a double-digit Notre Dame win. The Fighting Irish were extremely impressive, resulting in an 11 point win that felt more like 30. The best game of the night was Wisconsin-North Carolina, which went just as I thought it would. UNC held a slight lead for most of the game before the Badgers again shifted to another gear, one that seems to be just a little bit better than any other non-Kentucky team’s best. The silver lining? We are getting two potentially juicy matchups in Kentucky-Notre Dame and Wisconsin-Zona. The former could turn into a classic if ND can stay hot from deep, while we’ve all been looking forward to the latter, a rematch of last year’s elite eight matchup, since the bracket was unveiled. Hopefully we get more exciting games tonight as the East and South regions are decided.

Duke-Utah: To me, this is clearly the game of the night. Sure, the spread (5 points) is higher than it is in either of the East regional semis, but this game is a matchup between two of the three best teams (aside from Gonzaga) playing tonight. Kenpom rates Duke as the sixth best team in the country and Utah at #8. That’s how good these teams are. Utah is the type of balanced team that could easily defeat Duke. In order to beat Duke, you have to be able to defend Jahlil Okafor without double-teaming him too aggressively and leaving three point shooters open. Defending Okafor 1-on-1 is obviously no easy task, which is why he’s averaging 18 points per game and shooting 67% from the field. But if anyone can defend Jahlil, it might just be future first round pick Jakob Poeltl, who has the rare mix of athleticism and 7 footer-ism. In the tournament, Poeltl is averaging three blocks per game to go along with 12-13 shooting. He’s been a menace both offensively and defensively. Another thing you could do with Okafor is foul him when he seems likely to score. He’s shooting just 51% from the free throw line, which is absolutely atrocious for a go-to scorer. But Utah doesn’t want Poeltl getting in foul trouble, so it might make sense to use guys like Dallin Bachynski and Chris Reyes to rack up fouls. Delon Wright is a tremendous defender as well as ball handler, so he should be able to bottle up Tyus Jones. Meanwhile, I think Jordan Loveridge will be able to do a good enough job on Justice Winslow (at least in the half court defense) to limit Winslow’s opportunities to get hot. I think Utah has the personnel and pedigree (#7 in Kenpom defense) to keep Duke from hitting their offensive stride.

On the other side of the ball, Utah needs to stay hot from deep. They’re the best shooting team in the Pac-12, with Brandon Taylor, Loveridge, and Dakari Tucker all capable of lighting it up from beyond the arc. 38% of their shots come from deep and they shoot 41% from behind the line, so they will certainly rely on the trey against the #1 seed. But the offense really hinges on Wright’s ability to penetrate a defense that has had its troubles against great point guards. Duke has two losses to Jerian Grant’s Notre Dame, and Wright’s height and driving ability are very similar to Grant’s. Wright, a 52% shooter on the season (83% from the line), has hit just 4-14 in his first two games but has gone 15-18 from the line. Even if his shot isn’t working, he can get guys like Jones and Quinn Cook in foul trouble, a problem for a shallow team like Duke.

You know where this is going. I’m picking Utah. As much as I hate picking against the team with the second best offense in college basketball, the second best player in college basketball this season, AND a team coached by Mike Krzyzewski, I think the Utes can slow Duke’s high-flying offense down and win the game. If the Blue Devils get out in transition it could be a long night, but I like Utah in an exciting (please!) game. Utah wins 74-70.

NC State-Louisville: The 2014-15 Louisville team is another one I just can’t stand. It’s not just Montrezl Harrell, a good player who must be really annoying to play against, who irritates me; it’s the fact that a team who has scored more than 60 points just twice since February 14th not only makes it to the Sweet 16 but also gets to play an eight seed. I also can’t stand North Carolina State because they knocked Villanova out, although they certainly deserved the win. All of this means that I really don’t want to write much about this game. Based on what I’ve seen, the Wolfpack are the better team. They have many more scoring threats that Louisville, who relies on Terry Rozier (who had a tremendous game against UNI but probably won’t repeat that) and Harrell. NC State has gotten key buckets from Trevor Lacey, Ralston Turner, Anthony “please don’t call him Cat” Barber, Kyle Washington, Abdul-Malik Abu, and, in the first round win over LSU, Beejay Anya, who hit a buzzer beater over the Tigers. That’s a lot of depth and balance. NC State also beat then #9 Louisville 74-65 in Louisville earlier this season, which might not mean much but is another sign that Vegas is underrating the Wolfpack (Louisville is a 2.5 point favorite). Then again, NC State also has losses to Clemson, Wake Forest, and Boston College, two of which were by double digits, so I get where Vegas is coming from. Anyway, I like NC State in a low scoring game that sees both teams struggle to crack 40% from the field. It’s a risky pick because Louisville’s defense will likely be the best unit on the court, but NC State wins 64-59.

Michigan State-Oklahoma: Do I go with the team with experience, a proven elite coach, and the better recent performances, or should I pick the team that has been better throughout the year? I was faced with the same dilemma in picking the Notre Dame-Wichita State game and chose wrong. This time, I’m going with the team that has been better all year. Because Oklahoma plays fast and had a tough schedule, their defense is underrated by the traditional stats, as they rank just 74th in points allowed per game. But when you take into account schedule and pace, they are the sixth best defense in the country. They also have Big-12 POY Buddy Hield on their side. Hield is very inconsistent and shoots just 41% from the field (34% in the tournament), but he compensates by making 2.6 threes per game and shooting 82% from the line. If the Sooners want to unlock MSU’s suddenly-stingy defense, they’ll need Hield to shoot better than 20%, which is what he’s been shooting in the tournament, from deep. The rest of their starting lineup is pretty darn good too. Isaiah Cousins, another of OU’s three starting guards, has also been quiet in the tourney but shoots 45% from three on the season while hitting a couple threes per game. It’s also pretty impressive that the Sooners have advanced this far without good games from their top two scorers. Down low, TaShawn Thomas is Oklahoma’s best post scorer. Now a senior, Thomas averaged 17 points per game as a sophomore but now is more of a complimentary scorer. He’s still hitting 52% from the field, though, and is averaging 13.5 points per game in the tournament. Oklahoma’s biggest problem is depth. The starters played 83.5% of the minutes against Dayton and have played an average of 78% of the minutes this season. That means they’re going to need to get a lot of scoring from their starters.

Michigan State is on a high right now after returning to the Sweet 16 with an upset win over Virginia. Travis Trice led the Spartans in that game but Trice has a lot of help; Denzel Valentine and Branden Dawson can also carry the team at times. But it’s important to note that Michigan State was on the bubble for much of the season. They have 11 losses which is just one more than Oklahoma but in a much lesser conference. They’ve lost to Texas Southern, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Illinois. They also shoot just 63% from the line, which will be a factor in what looks likely to be a close game. I understand why Sparty is favored. Tom Izzo is a fantastic game, they have a lot of offensive talent, and they are coming off a huge win. But I’m not going to make the same mistake I made yesterday. I’ll take Oklahoma 68-61.

UCLA-Gonzaga: Nobody’s paying much attention to this game, and it’s not just West Coast bias. The Zags are 8.5 point favorites, but I think they should be favored by double digits. They defeated UCLA by 13 as the away team. They are coming off a 19 point win over Iowa, one of the hottest teams in the country heading into that game. Their offense, ranked #4 by Kenpom, has put up no fewer than 79 points in their five tournament (WCC and NCAA) games. They average 79 on the season and lead the nation in FG% at 52.4%. They are also a much better defense than  recent Mark Few teams have been, as they are 37th defensively. They have a guy (Kyle Wiltjer) with a NCAA championship with Kentucky. Wiltjer leads the team at 17 points per game and Gonzaga has five other big offensive threats (Kevin Pangos, Przemek Karnowski, Byron Wesley, Domanatas Sabonis, and Gary Bell Jr.). Most importantly, they’re playing against a 22-13 team that shouldn’t have made the tournament, won on a goaltending call against SMU before getting an easy win over #14 UAB (a rematch of the last place game in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, which is really sad). Sure, they beat up on Washington, Washington State, and USC at the end of the season, but this team just isn’t that good. Do they have a lot of talent? Yes, including a likely top-10 pick in Kevon Looney. Can they win? Yes. Will they? Not unless they play their best game of the year and Gonzaga plays its worst. Gonzaga win 81-66.

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