Archive for the ‘NCAA’ Category

About this time every year (give or take a few weeks), the dominant questions in college basketball become: who can we pencil in to the Final Four? Who’s this year’s dominant team? Can anyone go undefeated? You may remember the 2014-15 Kentucky team that was absolutely stacked, good enough to allow coach John Calipari to play two completely different lineups, both of which were dominant. That team had Devin Booker, Aaron Harrison, Tyler Ulis, Andrew Harrison, Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Trey Lyles, Dakari Johnson, and Marcus Lee, among others. They were the main focus of attention in college basketball all season long, and for good reason: they rolled through the season, going 38-0 before losing a shocker to Wisconsin in the Final Four. That Kentucky team was an outlier, but it wasn’t the only one to be deemed *dominant* early in a season. Almost every year, some team (generally Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, or Kansas) is supposed to be by far the best team, and that becomes a central storyline of that season. Duke was touted as the dominant team early this year, and probably will be against next season after they became the first school ever to nab the top three players (R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, and Cameron Reddish) in a recruiting class. And that need to seek out dominance — whether it’s really there or not — makes sense, because for the most part people want to see exceptional performances. For all the talk about whether the Golden State Warriors are hurting the NBA, ratings have never been higher, because people are fascinated by the Warriors and by the intrigue of whether they can keep winning. People want to find a team to hate, which is why the NFL probably doesn’t mind that the Patriots keep winning. But I think men’s college basketball is best when it’s wide open, as it seems to be this year. There’s a reason March Madness is called March Madness. It’s the reason that it’s one of the most anticipated sporting events every year and that people are sorely disappointed when things go as expected. The people that want complete dominance should simply watch the women’s NCAA Tournament. This year, there’s already been a lot of madness, and there’s a lot more to come.

It became clear that this was going to be a good year when Duke lost games at Boston College (ranked 73rd in Kenpom) and NC State (67th) in a span of four games. Whatever you think of court-stormings, it’s really fun when unranked teams knock off powerhouses at home. There wasn’t a single undefeated team heading into the new year, the first time that’s happened since the 1948-49 season. North Carolina lost a home game to Wofford. Arizona lost on three consecutive days in the same tournament that now-#3 Purdue lost to Tennessee and Western Kentucky. The last-place game in that tournament was Arizona-Purdue. Kansas has lost three times at home, which is unheard of. Wichita State, the #7 team in the country, lost at home to unranked SMU this week before losing at Houston (they won’t be #7 after this week). Florida went from being a top-five team to losing back-to-back home games to Florida State and Loyola-Chicago. Across all of the top conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, Pac-12, Big East), just three teams are undefeated in conference play: Purdue, Ohio State, and Virginia. For a while, it even looked likely that the craziest possible thing in college basketball — Kansas failing to win at least a share of its conference title — might happen this year. But that may be asking too much. They’ve won five straight games, including a big comeback win at West Virginia, and now lead the conference at 6-1.

I really like the way things are shaping up. So far, both the rankings and advanced stats websites like Kenpom agree that Villanova, Purdue, and Virginia have been the three best teams in college basketball in some order. I’ve already mentioned that Purdue’s only two losses came on back-to-back days in an early season tournament. They’ve rattled off 15 straight wins since, against largely mediocre competition. Advanced metrics are in love with the Boilermakers, but I must say that I’m a bit skeptical about their Final Four potential, largely because I’m not sure their guard play is good enough (so far, it definitely has been). Virginia and Villanova have both managed to do what has in this crazy season been improbable: avoid bad losses (the fact that they only have one loss apiece certainly helps). Virginia’s lone loss came by seven points at West Virginia, while Villanova lost at Butler by eight points in a game during which the Bulldogs could not miss from three (15-23). If anyone can be penciled into the Final Four this year, it’s one of those two teams. But nobody’s saying that Villanova or Virginia is dominant and likely to run away from the pack, largely because neither school has the individual talent that other programs have. Indeed, the most talented teams in the nation (actually, Villanova is probably one of the most talented, but other than Villanova) are lurking behind the three frontrunners. Nobody will be sleeping on Michigan State, Duke, or Arizona (the top three teams in the preseason) come tournament time. Then there are bluebloods like North Carolina, Kansas, and Kentucky, all of whom seem to be in the midst of off years but have enough talent to be extremely dangerous if they put it all (or even most of it) together. Of course, I haven’t yet mentioned Trae Young, the top story in college basketball this season, or his fourth-ranked (but set to tumble after consecutive losses) Oklahoma team. I haven’t mentioned a ton of other teams that could also conceivably make a run deep into the NCAA Tournament. There may not be a single dominant team this year, but that makes this college basketball season that much more interesting and exciting.

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There are a lot of reasons the SEC has been the strongest conference in college football for years. The biggest one is location and recruitment; SEC schools are Southern and recruit from the South, where many of the best football players are. That natural advantage attracts better coaches, which thus attracts even more good players, and a cycle of dominance in born. Last year, for example six of the top-11 recruiting classes (taking an average of four rankings) belonged to SEC teams. The National Championship teams, Alabama and Georgia, ranked first and third. There are and have always been other great programs — Clemson, Florida State, Oklahoma, Texas, etc. — but never (in recent memory, at least) another conference as good. Recently, the SEC’s hegemony has been challenged, particularly by the Big Ten. Marquee coaches Urban Meyer (from the SEC) and Jim Harbaugh (from the NFL) have arrived and have been joined by a resurgent Penn State and a consistent Wisconsin. Last year, Ohio State made the College Football Playoff while Penn State finished fifth, Michigan sixth, and Wisconsin eighth. This year, Ohio State finished fifth (controversially), Wisconsin sixth, and Penn State ninth. Michigan had an off-year, but Michigan State and Northwestern joined the other three in the final pre-bowl rankings. That’s as many teams as the SEC (Georgia, Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State) had in the final rankings. This was unquestionably a down year for the SEC. Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas, three good programs who are usually in or around the top-25, went a combined 14-22. Florida went 4-7. It’s nice that South Carolina, Kentucky, and Missouri all had solid seasons, but I think that says more about the conference than it does about those three schools. Including the wins by Alabama and Georgia, the SEC went 4-5 in bowl games this year. The Big Ten, on the other hand, went 7-1, and was a big blown lead by Michigan away from an unblemished bowl season. For the first time I can remember, if you were to ask me now what the strongest conference in college football is, I’d have to think about it.

And yet, Georgia and Alabama, two SEC teams, will compete for the National Championship. I don’t think it’s unfair — I thought Alabama deserved to make the field over Ohio State — as much as it is unfortunate. Every year since 2006 bar 2014 (when Ohio State knocked off Oregon), at least one SEC team has made the championship game. This is the second time both participants have been from the SEC, with the first ending in a 21-0 Alabama win over LSU in 2012 in a game in which the Tigers were out-gained 384-92 and picked up only five first downs. That game was a rematch. LSU had beaten Alabama 9-6 earlier that season. This time, at least the two participants did not play earlier in the season. I have no problem with Georgia or Alabama making the National Championship. They may well be the two best teams in college football, although I think Oklahoma would have beaten Georgia with some better fourth down decision-making (you have the best offense in college football. Go for it on fourth and short! Don’t let your kicker decide the game!). I’m just tired of seeing the same conference in these games over and over again.

The good news for SEC haters is that the conference is still in some trouble. Nick Saban and Kirby Smart (who, by the way, is a Nick Saban clone) are fine, as they both have a ton of talent coming back in addition to top-5 recruiting classes. But Florida, Tennessee, and Arkansas are programs in turmoil, and Mississippi has been pegged back by recruitment violations. Once a conference lauded for its quantity of good teams as well as the quality of its best ones, the SEC now lacks depth. I expect the Big Ten to continue to challenge for supremacy, as it has done over the past few seasons. Ohio State is an elite program, and Penn State, Wisconsin, and Michigan aren’t too far behind. In the end, the SEC will always have the intrinsic advantages I mentioned above, but it is nonetheless slowly losing its ironclad grip on college football. You just wouldn’t know it from watching the National Championship.

College Football Playoff Semifinal Picks

Posted: 12/30/2017 by levcohen in NCAA

The fourth annual College Football Playoff begins on New Year’s Day. Alabama’s in it for the fourth time (that’s 100% of all CFP’s, for those keeping track at home). Clemson’s making a third consecutive appearance. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that those two are in it. One positive for those who like change: we’re guaranteed a January 8th final with one school not named Clemson or Alabama, because those two teams are playing in the semifinal. I like the way this lines up: the dynasties on one side, Oklahoma (made one previous CFP appearance, lost its only game) and Georgia (first CFP appearance) on the other side. The implementation of the Playoff hasn’t solved the apparent randomness of the rankings — this year, the big question was whether a one-loss Alabama team without a conference championship or many impressive wins would make it over a two-loss conference champion Ohio State squad — and it still seems kind of silly that a few people have the power to decide which four teams have a chance to win a national championship. But I must admit that the two semifinal matchups are juicy. In a year without a clear #1 team, it seems likely that we’ll get some close games. Here are my picks for the Jan. 1 semifinals:

Rose Bowl — #3 Georgia vs. #2 Oklahoma:
Spread: Georgia favored by 2.5
Over/under: 60.5
My prediction: On the surface, it’s the classic SEC vs. Big 12, strength against strength matchup. The Sooners have an explosive offense that’s led by Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield. Mayfield has thrown for 4,340 yards and 41 touchdowns (with just five picks). Oklahoma averages 8.3 yards per play, miles ahead of #2 UCF (7.5). Mayfield has risen to the occasion consistently this season; he played a near perfect game to beat Ohio State on the road, threw for 598 yards and five touchdowns at then-#11 Oklahoma State, and threw seven touchdowns and zero picks in two wins over a very good TCU team. Simply put, he’s the best quarterback on the best offense in the country. He’s apparently come down with some illness over the past few days, but it doesn’t sound serious. I think we should go into this game assuming that Mayfield will bring his A-game. He’ll need to, because he hasn’t faced a defense like Georgia’s. The Bulldogs allow 4.3 yards per play, which is seventh-best in the nation (although worse than both Alabama and Clemson). That’s miles better than any Big 12 team. And while Georgia probably doesn’t have the all-around defensive talent that either Alabama or Clemson has, they have plenty. Linebacker Roquan Smith is a likely top-15 pick, and the defense has other future NFL players. They’re not a sack-happy team (6.44% sack rate, 55th in the nation), but they still limit opposing quarterbacks to the fifth-lowest passer rating in college football. Aside from a blowout loss at Auburn, which they avenged in the SEC Championship Game, Georgia’s defense gave up more than 19 points just once. But the Bulldogs didn’t face many good quarterbacks (there aren’t many in the SEC), and Missouri’s Drew Lock did have a good game against this defense. I don’t think Georgia is going to be able to bother Oklahoma’s offense much. The Bulldogs have looked sound defensively, but OU is a different animal. I haven’t even mentioned the run game, which averages 5.6 yards per carry (13th in the nation) and has three players who ran for more than 500 yards this season.

Oklahoma is going to put up points. Georgia needs to keep up. Luckily for the Bulldogs, they’re not clueless offensively. They rely heavily upon a three-headed monster at running back. Nick Chubb is the primary back, a good all-around runner who’s a future late-first or early-second round pick. Once Todd Gurley’s backup, the senior has quietly racked up 1,175 yards and 13 touchdowns. He’s now up to 4,599 yards and 42 touchdowns in his career. Not bad! Chubb is under-appreciated, though, because Georgia’s other two running backs are flashier. Sony Michel might be the fastest player I’ve seen this year. He’s run for 948 yards and 13 touchdowns on just 131 attempts, which means that roughly 10% of his attempts turn into TDs. For someone who’s far from a goal-line back, that’s insane. And freshman D’Andre Swift is also very fast and also very good. He’s averaging 8.2 yards per carry and iced the SEC Championship Game with a 62-yard touchdown run. As a team, Georgia ranks ninth in the country in yards per carry, 10th in rushing yards per game, and 10th in percentage of yards that come on the ground (60.7%, and a lot of the schools in front run triple-option offenses, aka run-always offenses). They clearly don’t want to ask true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm (2,173 yards, 21 TDs, five picks) to do too much. Fromm never threw the ball 30 times in a game. If he gets over 30 in this one, it won’t be a good sign for Georgia. Can the Sooners force the game into Fromm’s hands? Well, their run defense isn’t particularly good. They’re allowing 4.0 yards per carry, 44th in college football. But the defense did step up down the stretch, giving up just 17 points (and 3.5 yards per carry) against TCU in the Big 12 Championship Game. They also gave up just 16 points against Ohio State in that September win. So far, the Sooners’ defense has stepped up when it has had to. In a close game, the defense will have to do it once or twice on Monday, and I think it will. Oklahoma’s biggest flaw is its pass defense, and I don’t think Fromm will be good enough to exploit it. I like Mayfield and the Sooners to beat Georgia in a close one. Oklahoma wins 35-31.

Sugar Bowl: #1 Clemson vs. #4 Alabama:
Spread: Alabama favored by 3
Over/under: 47
My prediction: For the third straight year, the Tigers and Crimson Tide will meet in the College Football Playoff. It’s obviously no coincidence that these two teams keep playing each other in high-stakes games. They’ve been two of the best programs for years, and that remains the case this season. I think it’s pretty clear that the winner of this game will be favored to beat Georgia or Oklahoma. These are the two most talented teams in college football. Alabama has three-to-five probable first round picks — including likely top-10 selections Minkah Fitzpatrick and Calvin Ridley — and Clemson has at least two. Both teams are very strong defensively. Clemson has the most talented and deepest pass-rush in the country, and I don’t think it’s particularly close. Their two best players may well be Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell, both of whom may leave for the NFL after this season. Clemson ranks second in college football in sack rate (10.57%) and third in overall yards per play against (4.1). The defense got 11 sacks in a 14-6 win over Auburn and held Miami to three points in the ACC Championship Game. They’ll be licking their lips heading into a game against a quarterback who hasn’t proven that he can perform against elite defenses. Hurts plays well in cupcake games, but here’s a look at his performances against elite defenses since he became the starter last year: 10-19 for 107 yards and a pick at LSU last year; 7-14 for 57 yards against Washington in the semifinal last year; 13-31 for 131 yards against Clemson in the final last year; 10-18 for 96 yards against Florida State this year; 11-24 for 183 yards against LSU; 12-22 for 112 yards against Auburn. To be fair, Alabama did manage to win four of those games anyway, but they also lost two, so Hurts really has cost the Crimson Tide in big games. I’m not sure any of those defenses were playing as well as this Clemson one is. The Clemson defense I saw against Miami was airtight, particularly against the pass. I think Alabama has to run early and often. And Alabama does have a good running game, one that’s very similar to the one that gashed Clemson for 221 yards and three scores last year. If Alabama wins, it’ll be largely thanks to Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough, each of whom can wear down the defense and break a big run. Hurts, by the way, is also a major threat on the ground. I’m sure Clemson will scheme to keep him in the pocket and force him to pass the ball, but he’s a very talented player who can capitalize on the smallest lapse in concentration.

Nobody was quite sure what Clemson’s offense would look like post-Deshaun Watson. The answer: definitely different, and definitely worse, but not as bad as I expected. Quarterback Kelly Bryant doesn’t have the same talent as a passer that Watson does. His numbers are fairly pedestrian: 2,678 yards, 13 TDs, six interceptions, 7.4 yards per attempt. But he’s enough of a threat to open up the running game for star freshman running back Travis Etienne, who’s turned 103 carries into 744 yards and 13 TDs (12.6% TD rate) and sophomore Tavien Feaster (103 carries, 659 yards, seven touchdowns). Unfortunately for Clemson, the Tigers don’t have as much talent as the Crimson Tide do in the run game. And Alabama is giving up just 2.8 yards per carry, best in the nation. Even in Alabama’s lone loss, they didn’t give up much on the ground — Auburn ran for just 3.4 yards per carry and had a long of 16 yards. This is a defense that didn’t give up big plays on the ground even with three starting linebackers out due to injury. Those three linebackers? They’re all healthy now. I’ve been impressed by Kelly Bryant this year, but I don’t think he’ll get much going against a healthy Alabama defense. Alabama rarely turns the ball over and usually wins the special teams battle, so I’m going to pick them to win 24-17.

National Championship Game Pick

Posted: 04/03/2017 by levcohen in NCAA

After two close, weird games that were eventually won by the better teams, we have the National Championship Game we were hoping for. Upsets are nice, but at the end of the day you want the two best teams in the country playing for the title. I can’t say for certain that Gonzaga and North Carolina are the two best teams (and they certainly haven’t been playing great basketball in the tournament), but they’re definitely two of the four or five best (I’d throw Kansas in the mix for sure). It’s also a fascinating matchup.

Usually, college basketball is dominated by guards who take advantage of lackluster perimeter defending and draw lots of fouls. But while Gonzaga has a heck of a point guard in Nigel Williams-Goss, both of these teams are oriented around big men. The Zags start Polish menace Przemek Karnowski down low and often pair him with fellow seven footer and likely lottery pick Zach Collins, who had the best game of his short college career on Saturday. They also start Johnathan Williams, a 6’9″ forward who is a matchup nightmare. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels are the best offensive rebounding team in the country (as we all know after they grabbed two crucial rebounds after missed free throws down the stretch against Oregon) because they start Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks and bring Tony Bradley and Luke Maye off the bench. North Carolina generally wins games by wearing down opponents inside. It’s one thing to put a body on Meeks and Hicks in the opening minutes of the game. It’s another to then have to guard Bradley and Maye in the post before being greeted by an onslaught of Meeks and Hicks down the stretch. But if anyone can slow the red-hot Meeks down, it’s Gonzaga. Karnowski and Collins make for a heck of a rim protecting and rebounding duo when they’re on the floor together, and Williams-Goss is one of the best rebounding guards in the country (5.9 per contest). They won’t be able to shut down the offensive rebounding and interior scoring, but they should put a dent in UNC’s efficiency.

The matchup that could swing this game in Gonzaga’s favor is Joel Berry vs. Williams-Goss. I don’t think Berry will be tasked with guarding Williams-Goss (it’ll likely be Theo Pinson or Justin Jackson), but I do think that Williams-Goss is going to eat Berry alive on the defensive end. And as we’ve seen over the course of this tournament, North Carolina’s offense is nowhere near the same when Berry is off, because the Tar Heels just don’t have much in the way of perimeter scoring outside of Jackson. Gonzaga, on the other hand, has Jordan Mathews, Josh Perkins, and Silas Melson, all of whom shoot 39%+ from three point range. If the interior game is played to a draw, as I think it may be, and the Zags find a way to guard Justin Jackson, which I think they’ll do relatively well, then the difference could be three point shooting, and I just trust the Zags’ gunners more than I do the Heels’. Give me Gonzaga 82-77.

Final Four Predictions

Posted: 04/01/2017 by levcohen in NCAA

It’s a quirky Final Four. There’s North Carolina, but then there’s Gonzaga and South Carolina, neither of whom had ever made the Final Four, and Oregon, who hasn’t made it since 1939, when they won the first ever NCAA championship. Oregon’s a really fun team, with two go-to scorers in Tyler Dorsey and Dillon Brooks along with a shot-blocking menace in Jordan Bell. South Carolina has a swarming defense and Sindarius Thornwell, and they’re a Cinderella seventh seed. Gonzaga has a lovable 300+ pound Pole (Przemek Karnowski), a bunch of fun transfers (Nigel Williams-Goss, Jordan Mathews, Johnathan Williams) who are also their best players, and the chip of playing in the WCC on their shoulder. For a neutral fan, the only bad result is a North Carolina championship. Unfortunately, the Tar Heels are probably the favorites to win it all after they fell juuust short last year against Villanova. We should get a nice contrast of games tonight. Gonzaga-South Carolina will be gritty and low-scoring, with both teams struggling to score. I envision it being similar to Gonzaga-West Virginia, which the Zags won 61-58 after trailing late. By Kenpom’s numbers, Gonzaga and South Carolina are THE two best defensive teams in the country. North Carolina-Oregon will have more easy scores, although Oregon probably doesn’t want it to become a total track meet. Both Gonzaga and North Carolina are meaningful (6.5 and 4.5 points) favorites, but neither a USC nor an Oregon upset would shock me. It should be fun.

Gonzaga 68, South Carolina 64: I don’t think this’ll be like the Gonzaga-Xavier game, which the Zags won easily after the Musketeers stayed close for most of the first half. South Carolina is just too tough and too talented on the defensive end. They thrive at forcing turnovers and have been doing it all tournament long. Their defense sort of reminds of West Virginia’s half court defense (the Gamecocks don’t press). They scramble around a lot, but that’s by design. There are a lot of hands in passing lanes, quick double teams, and run outs on the fastbreak. The Zags should be used to it; they turned the ball over 16 times against West Virginia. But Gonzaga should also have some matchup advantages. Chief among them will come low, where Karnowski and Zach Collins could feast against undersized Chris Silva and Maik Kotsar. Karnoswki is a terrific passer, so it’s tough to double-team him. He hasn’t had a huge impact of late, but I see that changing tonight. And their guard play should also be good enough to keep Gonzaga from falling apart against the South Carolina defense. A lot of USC’s offense comes on easy transition points, so I’d expect Gonzaga to value handling the ball over everything else. Some missed shots won’t kill them, because South Carolina’s going to have all kinds of trouble scoring the ball. Thornwell has been unbelievable in the tournament, but he’s going to be swarmed by defenders in this one. You can expect the other Gamecocks to get some open looks, but can they hit those looks? Neither P.J. Dozier nor Duane Notice, the team’s main secondary scoring options, shoots the ball particularly well. I think it’s going to take a big performance from one of those two to send South Carolina to the National Championship Game. I like this South Carolina team a lot. I think they’re tough, and they have a little of that upstart Connecticut team (with Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier) in them. Thornwell is a future NBA player, a go-to scorer who can make up for a lot of other deficiencies. That’s been enough to get them to the Final Four. I don’t think it’ll carry them past one of the best teams in the country.

North Carolina 78, Oregon 75: I really wanted to pick Oregon to win this game, because I’ve been so impressed by their tournament run. But I think their eventual downfall will be similar to Kentucky’s: North Carolina can guard their best players better than they can guard North Carolina’s best players. I thought Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox would go off on UNC like they did the first time the teams played. I was wrong. Putting Justin Jackson on Monk sacrificed some of Jackson’s offense, but it also rendered Monk basically useless. Jackson will have a similar height advantage over Tyler Dorsey, who he’s likely to guard tonight. Dorsey’s one of the hottest players in the country, but I have a hard time imagining that he’ll have as much success when shooting over Jackson, a lengthy wing who’s also a future first round pick. And while Jordan Bell nearly single-handedly shut down Kansas’s vaunted offense by swatting eight shots and influencing many more, the Jayhawks were a good matchup for him. They were more eager to drive to the hoop and put up floaters than they were to pound the ball inside with Landen Lucas. North Carolina is a different beast. Kennedy Meeks had a huge game against Kentucky, with 17 rebounds and four blocks. Isaiah Hicks had three rejections of his own. Bell’s not going to have the same impact in this game. Assuming Jackson’s primarily guarding Dorsey and Meeks is on Bell, I’m interested in seeing who Hicks will guard when he’s on the floor. He’s a good athlete, but can he really guard Dillon Brooks? Of course, the same is true on the other end of the court. Brooks is big and athletic, but he can really bang in the paint with Isaish Hicks? North Carolina had 13 offensive rebounds against Kentucky. They could have another great day on the boards against Oregon. If UNC hits its threes, it could be a very long night for Oregon. But they haven’t been hitting their threes, so if recent history is any indication, this game is going to go down to the wire.

Who Wins Tonight’s Battle of Bluebloods?

Posted: 03/26/2017 by levcohen in NCAA

On December 17th, then-sixth ranked Kentucky played #7 North Carolina in Las Vegas. Kentucky was a one point favorite, so the game was expected to be close. It didn’t disappoint. Kentucky held a slim lead for most of the game, stretching it out to double digits for a short period in the first half. Then, the Heels took a lead on a Justin Jackson three with 1:35 left, Malik Monk instantly responded with a three of his own, and Jackson and Monk then traded a two for a three. Isaiah Hicks missed a jumper with six seconds left, and Kentucky won 103-100. Monk scored 47, De’Aaron Fox added 24 and 10 assists, and Jackson scored 34. Of course, a repeat of that classic is far from guaranteed. Friday’s UCLA-Kentucky game showed that, as it was nowhere near as exciting or close as the first matchup between the two. But the ingredients are in place for another nail-biter.

Given these two teams’ respective strengths, it’s hard to imagine either team stringing together enough consecutive stops to build a big lead. The Wildcats have two future top-10 picks in their backcourt, and they’re both playing great basketball. Fox is coming off of a 39 point performance against UCLA, and his role on the team has clearly changed since December. Fox’s 10 assists against North Carolina served as his fourth double-digit assist total of the season; he hasn’t had more than seven assists in a game since and has been under five in nine straight games. Instead of looking first to get his teammates involved, Fox is using his incredible athleticism to finish improbably at the rim and get to the line. He’s averaging 7.8 free throw attempts over the last 10 games and is putting up 19.9 points per game in that time. Add that to his defensive ability (he held Lonzo Ball to 10 points on 4-10 shooting), and Fox is probably playing better than any other college point guard.

Then there’s Monk, who is a terror when he’s hot but almost non-existent when he’s not. Case in point: against UCLA, Monk was 1-4 from the field for two points with three minutes to go in the first half. Seven minutes of game time later, he was 7-11 from the field for 17 points. When he’s on, his three point stroke is the best in college basketball, which is why he’ll be a successful NBA player. Of course, Monk can’t be much better than he was the first time the Wildcats played the Tar Heels. But how is UNC going to match up against Fox and Monk? It’ll be tough. One concern heading into the weekend was Joel Berry’s ankle, but that seems like much less of an issue after UNC’s star guard scored 26 points on 13 shots and looked very healthy against Butler. Still, guard defense is not North Carolina’s biggest strength. They lost to Kentucky and twice to Duke largely because they couldn’t slow down talented guards. The same thing happened against Miami, when the Hurricanes’ three best players (all guards) combined for 62 points in a 77-62 game. Georgia Tech’s freshman guard Josh Okogie scored 26 points in a win over UNC. The answer to “who can slow down Monk and Fox?” is probably “Monk and Fox.” Monk, particularly, seems to be almost as good when nobody’s guarding him as he is when there’s tight defense. Theo Pinson was out for the first game between these two teams and is probably UNC’s best athlete, so he’s the guy to look out for on the defensive side. But if North Carolina expects to win this game by shutting down Fox and Monk, they’ll be disappointed.

Luckily for UNC, they’ll have plenty of success on the offensive side of the ball, because their strength — interior scoring — also happens to be a weakness for Kentucky. I would argue that it’s actually pretty impressive that North Carolina managed to lose by only three in a game in which Monk hit eight threes and scored 47 points. Just as impressive? The fact that they stayed close despite serious foul trouble for Kennedy Meeks (20 minutes) and Isaiah Hicks (15). Meeks and (especially) Hicks are dominant interior threats when they’re on the court, and they combined for 22 points and 10 rebounds in their 35 minutes against Kentucky. But Carolina kept things close because they were able to turn to Tony Bradley and Luke Maye off the bench. Bradley’s the best NBA draft prospect on the team, and he averages 7.3 points and 5.2 rebounds per game in 14.8 minutes. Maye’s a sophomore who always gives UNC a solid 14 minutes per game and is coming off a 16 point and 12 rebound performance against Butler. The Tar Heels are going to cycle their big men a lot, and they’re going to try to get Bam Adebayo frustrated, tired, and in foul trouble. Outside of Adebayo, Kentucky’s big men are better outside than they are inside, both on offense and defense. Derek Willis and Wenyen Gabriel are the two other big men in the rotation, and 55% of their shots come from beyond the arc. They’re both average rebounders and have their moments defensively, but they’ll be outmuscled and outclassed defensively against Hicks, Meeks, and Bradley.

Then there’s Jackson, the guy who went off for 34 against Kentucky and is the ACC Player of the Year. Jackson has a great floater, never seems to miss an open jumper, and often looks downright unstoppable. And Kentucky has absolutely nobody who can guard him. Isaiah Briscoe is probably the team’s best wing defender, but he’s 6’3″. Jackson is 6’8″. Monk and Fox are also 6’3″, and there’s no rotation player shorter than Willis and taller than Mychal Mulder (6’4″). This is a huge, easily exploitable flaw in the construction of Kentucky’s roster. Jackson went off against Kentucky in December, but he only took 17 shots. If he’s scoring easily again, you can bet that he’ll be more aggressive in the Elite Eight than he was early in the season.

Kentucky has two guards who may well be the best players on the court today. Usually, that’s an impossible disadvantage to overcome. But North Carolina is in a perfect position to overcome it, because they should dominate the interior and get big plays out of guards like Berry (quiet 15 points per game) and Pinson, and because they have a go-to scorer of their own. Kentucky’s defense has been vastly improved of late, to the point that they held UCLA to 75 points. But UCLA was a much better matchup for their defense than North Carolina is, and Fox, Monk, and Adebayo are going to need to make shot after shot and play after play to keep up with the well-rounded Carolina. They’re perfectly capable of doing just that, but I think North Carolina will eventually wear them down and win a close game. North Carolina wins 88-86.

Sweet 16 Picks — Friday’s Games

Posted: 03/23/2017 by levcohen in NCAA

Tonight’s games haven’t disappointed — what they may be lacking in style they’ve made up for in closeness and excitement. We should be in for more of the same tomorrow night, although there’s certain to be a lot more flair in one game in particular. Tomorrow’s also MSG regional night, also known as “this year’s crazy region” night. Villanova and Duke are out, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get excited for the two East regional games. South Carolina’s in its first Sweet 16, Wisconsin’s seniors are fighting to make their third Final Four, Baylor coach Scott Drew is fighting to finally gain respect, and Florida coach Mike White is trying to make a Final Four in his first trip to the NCAA tournament. We’re guaranteed a coaching newcomer to the Final Four from the East (and one from the West, now that West Virginia is out). So while there isn’t going to be a Nova-Duke MSG game (which would have been pretty cool), there’s still plenty to be excited about in the region. That pales, of course, in comparison to the South region, which features a rematch of one of the best games of the season (UCLA beat Kentucky 97-92 at Rupp Arena early in the season) and another potential incredible rematch (Kentucky beat North Carolina 103-100, with Malik Monk scoring 47 points). Oh, and there’s also Butler, one of the most under-appreciated teams all season long. How great would it be for Butler to win a region with UNC, Kentucky, and UCLA? Anyway, we have all of this to look forward tomorrow and this weekend and more.

North Carolina 78, Butler 74: The Tar Heels are very, very lucky to have gotten past Arkansas on Sunday. They trailed by five points with three minutes left and then benefitted from a few very questionable calls down the stretch. But they played really poorly, and if they play like that again they’re going to lose to Butler. I think they’ll play a much better and cleaner game tomorrow, assuming Joel Berry is close to full strength after struggling with an ankle injury. UNC has a size advantage against every team they play, but that’ll be especially true against a Butler team that doesn’t have anyone who averages even six rebounds per game. Of the seven players who play 20+ minutes per game for the Bulldogs, Tyler Wideman is the tallest at 6’8″. That’ll be a problem tomorrow. Kennedy Meeks is 6’10” and 260 pounds. Isaiah Hicks is 6’9″ but plays like he’s 7’0″. Tony Bradley, UNC’s best pro prospect, is 6’10” and 240 pounds. Leading scorer Justin Jackson, a wing, is 6’8″. There’s a reason the Tar Heels are the top rebounding team in the country. I expect them to get a lot of easy buckets inside. Butler isn’t going to go away easily, of course. They’re a really tough team to defend. Kelan Martin’s a good scorer, Andrew Chrabascz has an unorthodox game and often seems impossible to guard, and they’re surrounded by good slashers and shooters. I expect Butler to play a heck of a game, but Carolina’s size and talent will be too much for the Bulldogs, just as it was eventually for the Razorbacks.

Baylor 65, South Carolina 60: Boy, Duke’s defense made South Carolina look good on Sunday. The Gamecocks, who rank 121st in adjusted offensive efficiency, put up 65 points in the second half. A lot of those came on free throws down the stretch, but still. Unfortunately for South Carolina, Baylor’s defense is a lot stingier than Duke’s. They play a 1-3-1 zone and are long, quick, and tough to play against. Sindarius Thornwell is a tough guy to stop, but Baylor has wing defenders (like Ish Wainright) and a big time rim protector in Jo Lual-Acuil (2.5 blocks per game). I think we’ll likely seen a return to normal South Carolina basketball, which is to say low scoring and gritty. The Gamecocks will definitely cause Baylor some issues. They force a lot of turnovers with their press, and Baylor turns it over a ton. But the Bears should have the edge on the boards, giving them enough second chance points to outscore South Carolina in what could be an ugly game. If I were a South Carolina fan, I’d also be nervous about big men Chris Silva and Maik Kotsar getting into early trouble. They’ll have their hands full with Johnathan Motley.

Kentucky 84, UCLA 82: The Bruins are just a small favorite in this game, but it seems like everyone is taking them to beat the Wildcats. That’s because they’re the flashier team and the one that looks downright unstoppable more often. When Lonzo Ball starts rolling, UCLA is impossible to stop. They have a ridiculous number of scoring threats. There’s Ball, who’s shooting 56% from the field and 42% from three. There’s leading scorer T.J. Leaf, who’s shooting 62% from the field and 46% from three. Senior Bryce Alford is a high volume and efficiency three point shooter (113 makes, 43%). It seems like Thomas Welsh makes every single midrange shot he takes. Guards Isaac Hamilton and Aaron Hamilton don’t get talked about much, but they’re shooting a combined 38% from three and averaging 26.5 points per game. Put it all together and you get a team that’s shooting 52% from the field, 74% from the line, and 41% from three. It’s a very aesthetically pleasing team because they love sharing the ball (21.5 assists per game, easily the best in the country) and also have a lot of individual talent. If UCLA is at its best, they’ll likely win the game, just like the one the won at Kentucky early this season. The thing is that defense means a lot more now than it did then, and Kentucky’s a much better defensive team than the Bruins are. It isn’t even close to being close. The Wildcats rank seventh in defensive efficiency, while UCLA ranks 78th. When they’re locked in, Kentucky might be the best defensive team in the country. They showed that against Wichita State, when they made a few pivotal stops down the stretch. And they usually seem to find a way to win games, even if they look out of sorts at times and play from behind more than they would like. The first time these two teams played, Kentucky lost by just five despite being drastically out-shot from the field (53% vs. 41%) and from three (44% vs. 33%). The Bruins might still out-shoot the Wildcats, but Bam Adebayo and Co. will make up for it with offensive rebounds and by forcing turnovers against the glitzy LA school. Buckle up, because these are the two fastest paced teams left in the tournament.

Florida 62, Wisconsin 60: Why are so few people talking about the Florida Gators?? This team just beat Virginia 65-39. Now, I know the Cavaliers struggled a lot this season, but that was still an incredibly impressive performance. And if you can get out in transition against Virginia and speed Virginia up, you can do the same to any team in the country, right? Well, if there’s any other team that will try to slow you down as much as Virginia does, it’s the Wisconsin Badgers, who are coming off a win over Villanova. Wisconsin’s the slowest paced team left in the tournament, while Florida excels in fastbreak situations and otherwise often struggles to score points. I think it’ll be a struggle for both teams to score. Florida’s defense is suffocating, albeit maybe not quite as terrifying as it was before big man John Egbunu was injured. Wisconsin’s starting five is experienced and talented, but I’m not sure how much success Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ will have against this defense. This game is another true tossup, but picking the team that’s been better all year over the hot one (barely) worked for me in the Michigan-Oregon game, so I’m going to take the Gators.