From Here On, Everybody’s Good: Our Sweet 16 Preview

What a difference a week makes. Analyzing March Madness is literally down to a science– see, Silver, Nate and Lunardi, Joe– and heading into the tournament’s first week(end) we’re inundated with data and a healthy dose of logic. We hear the tales of “who enters the tournament with momentum” and “who shouldn’t be in” and “which low seed can make the deepest run and why” and most of it makes sense. We fill our brackets out accordingly. Then, gloriously, the ball is tipped. And it isn’t that the data is always, or even mostly, wrong– but March Madness delivers because sometimes, without much explanation, it is.

The first week(end) of this NCAA tournament was arguably the best it has been in a decade. It began over a week ago with the First Four, as good a place to start as any given the (ridiculous) myth that the play-in games don’t matter. Tennessee playing this year’s version of Lasalle who played the role of VCU in suggesting that being one of the “last four in” is still, in fact, in and you have every opportunity to keep playing if you play well enough.

Huge upsets? Check. Mercer beating Duke stole the headlines but let’s not forget every 12 seed won its opening game save one, and that team, NC State, should have won. Hot seat to contract extension? Check. Stanford’s Johnny Dawkins and Cuonzo Martin of Tennessee entered the tournament clinging to their jobs. They left the first weekend bathed in fan base admiration. (More on both later). Seniors who refused to lose? Check. Shabazz Napier didn’t exactly do a Kemba Walker in weekend one but he was essential to the Huskies grinding, comeback win over St. Joseph’s in round one and delivered haymaker after haymaker in their victory over Big East regular season champion Villanova, who was, it turned out, who we thought they were- an overseeded two. Scottie Wilbekin falls into this category too after his magisterial performance against Pittsburgh, who scared any rational Gator fan by dismantling Colorado Thursday in a game that was over by the second media timeout. Cleanthony Early and the Wichita State seniors, well…

They get their own paragraph. Raise your hand if you thought Wichita State didn’t deserve a one seed. Now put it down, because you were wrong. Yes, they lost to Kentucky Sunday afternoon and their unbeaten season ended before the Sweet 16. But Kentucky had to play a nearly flawless basketball game to win. Early and the Shockers seniors played great- Kentucky was just one shot better. It was one of the top five NCAA tournament games ever, in your writer’s opinion, and, with all due respect to Syracuse-Duke, Round I, the best basketball game of the season so far. Credit John Calipari for class in victory as well– he was absolutely right to suggest that was an “Elite 8” quality game and he’s even more right to suggest Wichita State is(was) every bit as good as advertised.

What about seniors who went out the hard way on opening weekend? Tears are part of every NCAA tournament story. The scene in Creighton’s locker room after they were ousted by a Baylor squad that couldn’t miss should be required viewing for anyone who mocks the magic of March. Aaron Craft of Ohio State and CJ Fair of Syracuse both lay prostrate on the floor after their losses, in the Round of 64 and 32 respectively. Both deserved better endings to magnificent careers. March is a fickled mistress.

Buzzer beaters and overtime? Check Dayton-Ohio State; Texas-Arizona State; Iowa State-UNC; Wichita State-Kentucky; Providence-UNC; North Dakota State-Oklahoma. That’s not even a conclusive list of the games that delivered on that front, but it’s a formidable one nonetheless.

What an opening weekend.

And now, sixteen remain.

And now, everybody’s good. For all you hear from analysts prior to opening weekend about “who’s hot” and “who’s not” and matchups and metrics and moxie, everyone in the Sweet 16 has momentum. They’ve all won two games (well, one has won three) on the largest stage and not one of them (especially in this year’s group) is ready to go home. And while it’s probably accurate to suggest only six of the sixteen can legitimately win four more games, you play them one at a time. And there isn’t a single team remaining in the field that can’t win Thursday or Friday and advance to the Elite Eight.

Everybody’s good. Everybody’s hot. Eight will go home. Let’s preview it, regional by regional, with a prediction for each game, shall we?

MIDWEST REGIONAL

(4) Louisville vs. (8) Kentucky, Friday, 9:45 PM

It’s the biggest game of the Sweet 16 because of the programs and personalities. It’s a “something has to give” game because Rick Pitino has never lost a Sweet 16 game and John Calipari has abused Rick Pitino’s teams since he took over in Lexington. It’s the “40-0 Freshmen and their waxed by Florida in Gainesville tweak” against the defending national champions. Randle vs. Russ-diculous. Luke Hancock vs. the Harrison twins. Kentucky and Louisville.

You’d have to live in a cave located outside of the state of Kentucky to not be aware of this game, given the amount of media attention it is getting. All the attention is warranted because of the programs and the stakes: this is essentially the basketball version of what an Alabama-Auburn national football semifinal might look like, and the vitriol is no different. But so much has been written about this game and said on television and radio about this game that I’m already a bit fatigued. I’ll just suggest this: enjoy it. And let’s see if Kentucky is really as good as they played Sunday.

Prediction: Louisville 74, Kentucky 70

(11) Tennessee vs. Michigan, Friday, 7:15 PM

The Vols were one of the teams who, very quietly, entered the tournament with “momentum.” They’d won five of six and done so in decisive fashion, and their only loss was a hard-fought one to Florida, who hasn’t lost since December 2nd and who didn’t lead that game until very late. It shouldn’t have surprised people to see Cuonzo Martin in the Sweet 16, but somehow it did. Tennessee is a matchup nightmare for most teams in America, but they were so wildly inconsistent in the regular season that many felt they just weren’t good enough to win multiple games in March. That’s fair, except the tournament is about matchups. Outside of the First Four game vs. Iowa, the Vols opening weekend matchups (UMass, Mercer) were wildly favorable. And that, coupled with wholesale improvements defensively the last month, is why they’re still dancing.

They’ll meet last year’s national finalist, sans Mitch McGary and Wooden Award winner Trey Burke, Friday evening. Michigan is still lethal offensively– Glenn Robinson III, Nik Stauskas and  Caris Lavert make up the finest wing trio in the country– but they have been challenged this year when they face a team with a formidable frontcourt that can keep the Wolverines off the glass. In the Round of 32, John Belein’s team managed to contain Texas big Cameron Ridley enough in the first half to establish a large lead they never relinquished. Part of this had to do with dictating tempo, which is something Tennessee makes extraordinarily difficult. They’ll need to do that in this game, because the Vols have a decisive edge inside.

Jarnell Stokes, who is averaging 20 points and 15 rebounds in the NCAA tournament (not a misprint), isn’t even the biggest problem. Michigan has a forward named Jordan Morgan who is just as tall and about as wide and won’t be pushed around by Stokes inside. The real issue for the Wolverines is Jeronne Maymon, the mountain of a five man who the Wolverines have no definitive answer for personnel-wise. Look for Michigan to mix defenses and collapse help on Stokes, which means one of two players- the aforementioned Robinson and Jon Horford (yes, Al’s brother)– will be tasked with containing Maymon on the glass and the block. That’s a problem and if Michigan can’t wear the Vols out, it could be a fatal one.

On the wings, the Vols are long and athletic and utilize various run and jump ball pressures to make sure you have to move the ball well to get good looks. I’d expect the Wolverines to neutralize that fairly well, as ball movement is a huge team strength, but they’ll need to do it without running too much offense through Nik Stauskas, who is a fine passer but will be needed to score the basketball Friday.

Prediction: Tennessee 71, Michigan 68

WEST REGIONAL

(1) Arizona vs. (4) San Diego State, Thursday 10:17 PM

If you’re a guy who goes to bed early or a guy who doesn’t watch basketball much until March or a girl who watches SEC Basketball instead of the good games that are on television, you probably don’t know too much about this basketball game. That’s a shame, because it will be one of the gems of the Sweet 16.

The two teams played earlier in the year in San Diego and the Wildcats won 69-60, but take that game as a grain of salt for two large reasons. First, since that game the Aztecs have radically altered their starting five, getting extensive bench minutes from two players, Dwayne Polee II and guard Aqeel Quinn, who did not play at all in that contest. Additionally, the Wildcats had the services of Brandon Ashley in that ball game and are, despite their great effort, not as talented a unit without him (he’s been out since January with an injury).

The style of the game won’t change much. These are two of the nation’s elite defensive units (1st and 7th in defensive efficiency, respectively, per Ken Pom) and both know how to dictate the game by controlling the glass and tempo. The Wildcats aren’t quite as good a rebounding team without Ashley’s services, but they are still a daunting challenge. Where they really miss Ashley is on offense– they can struggle to score for stretches because Sean Miller has had to reconfigure how he runs his offense without Ashley as an inside-outside distribution point. The good news for Arizona fans is that the Aztecs struggle even more to score the ball at times, and when their only two shooters, All-American guard Xavier Thames and all-conference Winston Shephard, fail to hit shots, they can be absolutely dire on the offensive end. Arizona also doesn’t turn the ball over enough for Thames and company to exploit them for easy buckets in transition. In the end, Zona’s superior balance will be the difference.

Prediction: Arizona 64, San Diego State 58

(2) Wisconsin vs. (7) Baylor, 7:47 PM Thursday

One thing to remember about this game so you immediately divorce yourself from the idea of Wisconsin packing the line defensively and praying it can make enough jump shots to beat you: this isn’t a typical Bo Ryan Wisconsin team. The Badgers can score, and the metrics bear that out- they are the second best offensive team left in the field at # 4 in the Ken Pom (Michigan is # 3, and thus the best remaining with Creighton and Duke eliminated). The Badgers also aren’t quite as good defensively as they tend to be under Ryan- only #54 remaining in the field- a figure that is good for 9th out 16 teams remaining in the tournament. The Badgers beat you with balance– they have four players in the starting five who average in double figures and two others, guard Josh Gasser and forward Nigel Hayes, who nearly average ten a game. Their best player is Frank Kaminsky– think a homeless man’s Dirk Nowitzki- who can punish you on the glass and beat you with the three, which he’ll take off secondary ball screens. Wisconsin is difficult to defend because they shoot the ball really well and they ball screen you to death. This may be a problem because…

Baylor isn’t a tremendous defensive team, no matter how well they made out against Creighton in the previous round. The Bears take risks on the defensive end in order to push tempo, and while they managed to contest Creighton jumpers throughout the Round of 32 game, it is hard to imagine the formula working against Wisconsin, who has equitable talent. Baylor is, however, one of the best offensive teams in the country (# 6 in offensive efficiency) and they are good at dictating tempo, which normally would be a problem for a Bo Ryan team. Except this particular brand of Badgers are different. Cory Jefferson, Baylor’s 6’9 do-it-all forward, will be the best athlete and player on the court, and Isaiah Austin vs. Kaminsky will be one of the Sweet 16’s more intriguing battles underneath, but I’d expect Wisconsin to be comfortable with whatever style the game turns out to be and think Wisconsin has enough offensive firepower to earn a narrow victory.

Prediction: Wisconsin 77, Baylor 71

EAST REGIONAL

(1) Virginia vs. (4) Michigan State, Friday 9:57 PM

One of the interesting things that has happened due to the Kentucky-Louisville matchup Friday night is that most the national media has kind of forgotten about teams like Virginia (and yes, to some extent Florida- more on that soon), instead reserving most its praise for the young Wildcats and their conquest of Wichita State. The shortage of love has also applied to Michigan State, although perhaps some of that is warranted given how the Spartans really had to battle through both Delaware and Harvard, two double-digit seeds, to reach Madison Square Garden. In order for pre-tournament darling Sparty to advance to the Elite 8, they’ll have to beat a Virginia team that still doesn’t seem to have the respect it should despite winning the regular season ACC title by multiple games and following that up with an ACC tournament victory. The Cavs struggled for a half against Coastal Carolina in the opening round, but have played three tremendous halves of basketball since and looked every bit the part of Final 4 bound one seed in dispatching of a veteran Memphis team with great guards.

If you like point guards, this is a great game for you. Tony Bennett’s freshmen London Perrantes is peaking at the right time- sporting an assists to turnover ratio of 8:0 (yes, ZERO) in two tournament games thus far. Michigan State’s Keith Appling opposes him on the other side, and was a consensus 1st, 2nd or 3rd team All-America in the preseason. Appling still appears limited somewhat as a scorer due to a hand injury he suffered midseason and aggravated in February, and his offense has suffered, but he’s made plays when State has needed him to in March.

This game has been hyped as a battle of physical, grinding defenses and to some extent that is correct– no one questions that UVA is tremendous on defense– but the thing to keep in mind is that the Spartans are actually not a great defensive team, at least by Tom Izzo standards. They rank # 41 in defensive efficiency, and both Harvard and Delaware kind of answered the “That’s because of all the injuries” arguments in the first two rounds, scoring over 70 points each, respectively. The Spartans are, however, tremendous in terms of offensive efficiency and this mostly is about balance: Denzel Valentine and Gary Harris combine with Appling to space you on the perimeter, and all three can beat you from distance or on the bounce, while forward Adreian Payne, the team’s leading scorer, can absolutely set the terms for a game inside.

How the Cavs frontcourt holds up will tell a great deal about the tale. If they can slow Payne, and make Sparty beat them on the wings, then they’ll have a chance to win. But even then they’ll need Joe Harris to make jump shots and London Perrantes to continue taking care of the basketball.This will  be a tremendous basketball game.

Prediction: Michigan State 57, Virginia 53

(3) Iowa State vs. (7) Connecticut, Friday, 7:27 PM

This game is about senior superstars and bright young coaches leading their alma maters, so watch if you’re into that sort of thing.

It’s virtually a home game for the Huskies at Madison Square Garden, about a 1,200 mile trip from Ames, Iowa. That may matter, especially with the Cyclones playing without frontcourt stud Georges Niang, who broke his foot the opening weekend and is, obviously, finished for the season. That’s a tough blow for Fred Hoiberg’s club, who absolutely become easier to play without their most effective defensive big. Niang can score too, but it’s his ability to help at the rim that makes the Cyclones much more complete. The good news for Hoiberg’s club is that the Huskies don’t have any real explosive talents underneath to exploit the Cyclones at the basket: their best interior player is DeAndre Daniels, and he’s really just a very long slasher who prefers to play on the perimeter.

Required Viewing Break: Watch Fred Hoiberg, nicknamed “The Mayor”, light it up in college in this ridiculously awesome All-American promotional video Iowa State did in 1995.

Connecticut, meanwhile, has the best backcourt (all due respect to UCLA) remaining in the field with everybody’s All-American Shabazz Napier and two-guard Ryan Boatright. Both of these guys know how to pass, defend and score the basketball. While the Huskies weren’t splendid from beyond the arc during the regular season (around 31 percent), they shot it at about a 40 percent clip on the opening weekend. If they hit jump shots, they can be extremely difficult to guard because both Nappier and Boatright are great at exploiting space and attacking the basket to get good looks for their teammates. Defensively, the Huskies rank # 10 in the Ken Pom efficiency metrics, and they’ll need to be every bit as good as that ranking against the senior Iowa State scoring tandem of DeAndre Kane and Melvin Ejim. Kane simply refused to lose the North Carolina game in the Round of 32; Ejim was the Big XII player of the year- heady stuff in a league that included seven tournament teams and two top-five draft picks.

Myron Medcalf at ESPN boldly predicted that Niang’s backup, Naz Long, would step up like he did against the Tar Heels in the Sweet 16 and guide the Cyclones to the Elite 8. I’d rather stick with the team with the best player, playing mostly at home. That’s Shabazz Napier and UCONN.

Prediction: Connecticut 73, Iowa State 70

SOUTH REGIONAL

(11) Dayton vs. (10) Stanford, 7:15 PM, Thursday

The seeding says both teams are Cinderella and one of them has a date in the Elite 8. The reality is that neither of these teams are traditional “Cinderella’s” and both are good enough to win two games in Memphis and go to the Final Four. Here’s why, starting with THE University of Dayton.

As I wrote in my South Regional Preview, Dayton came from a strong conference and is a balanced offensive team that features multiple scorers in double figures, good perimeter jump shooters, a very capable post player and understands how to dictate tempo. I liked them to beat Ohio State because of their balance, and figured they’d make the Buckeyes run just enough to win. It was the most right I was all weekend.

Archie Miller does an excellent job of running offense that allows his most creative players, Devin Oliver and sixth man Jordan Sibert, to get the ball in space and that’s precisely what they’ll need to do against the hard-nosed Stanford man-to-man. Sibert is lethal from beyond the arc (44 percent) and had a torrid opening weekend.

As for Johnny Dawkins’ club, the former Coach K assistant has gone from the “hot seat” to the catbird’s seat in one weekend after taking the Cardinal to the Sweet 16. The Cardinal frustrated and harassed Kansas into contested jump shots throughout their upset Round of 32 win, and most critically, they were able to get good looks at the basket, which offsets their inability to consistently hit perimeter jump shots. The Cardinal have the best big in this matchup in center Dwight Powell, who led the team in assists and was a monster against the Jayhawks, scoring 15 points and grabbing seven rebounds. He could ultimately prove to be the difference tomorrow night in a game where the guard play is mostly a wash thanks to talented Stanford guard Chasson Randle, who is easily the most creative player Dawkins’ club has and who does the bulk of the scoring.

One thing to look out for: Stanford beat Kansas without making a single three point jump shot- they were 0 for 9. They did make eight, and needed every one of them, to hold off New Mexico after blowing a sixteen point lead in the Round of 64. It is likely that they’ll need to make three pointers to defeat the Flyers, and if their shots don’t fall early, Archie Miller’s team will be a game away from the Final Four.

Prediction: Dayton 67, Stanford 61

(1) Florida vs. (4) UCLA, Thursday, 9:47 PM

Here’s the good news.

Billy Donovan has lost only one Sweet 16 game- his first one- to Gonzaga- and that occurred on a rather fluky play known in Gonzaga-lore as “the runner”, where Florida made the first stop on the last second shot but collapsed so deep on the rebound that the Zags got a put back to fall. If it sounds eerily similar to Shabazz Napier’s game-winner in December, it was, except Gonzaga had a contested second shot, Nappier did not. Since that night in 1999, Donovan has won every Sweet 16 game he’s coached in, beating (1) Duke in 2000 (Brett Nelson goes off game), (7) Georgetown in 2006 (Corey Brewer prayer game), (5) Butler in 2007 (Horford and Noah too much inside), (3) BYU and Jimmer Fredette in overtime in 2011; (3) Marquette in the 2012 Sweet 16, and Cinderella (15) Florida Gulf Coast in the 2013 Sweet 16. That’s six wins to one defeat if you’re scoring at home, and a wealth of experience to lean on heading into tomorrow night’s tilt with storied UCLA in Memphis.

Steve Alford, whose ridiculous contract and 10.4 MILLION dollar buyout was the story around Pauley Pavillion until the Bruins started playing great basketball a month ago, has coached one Sweet 16 game, a loss with Missouri State fifteen years ago. Coaches don’t win Sweet 16 games, but they can lose them, and it is difficult to see coaching being a problem for the Gators tomorrow night.

Here’s the bad  “reality” news: UCLA is really, really good.

It all starts with the guards. Jordan Adams is the most underrated player still playing, if one can still be the most underrated player still playing when everyone who understands anything already acknowledges that Adams is the most underrated player still playing. Adams averages 17.5 a night, will touch the ball on nearly every possession, and is the most consistent 3 point shooter the Bruins have (36 percent during regular season). Adams can score on the drive, on a fadeaway, off the bounce, and on a catch and shoot, and he is both the self-proclaimed and coach-proclaimed guy that the Bruins will want with the ball in his hands at crunch time. And he’s probably not the Bruins best guard.

That would be 6’9- yep- point guard Kyle Anderson, who is one reason UCLA finished with the fifth most assists in America this season (6.5 a game) and rarely turns the ball over (3.1 a game on a team that ranks in the top 20 in America in that metric.) Anderson can see over defenses, post you up, drive, shoot the three when you back off (2-3 on wide open looks in the tourney), and get to the foul line, where he shoots a fair 73 percent. He’s also devastating on the glass (ask Arizona about his 15 rebounds in the Pac 12 title game), leading the Bruins in boards at 8.7 a contest. His height makes him a natural press buster, and his ability to rebound is why UCLA can get out so fast in transition: when your PG rebounds the ball you don’t have to wait to run. It’s underselling it that he’s a matchup nightmare, and knowing you have to try to stop Adams compounds that problem.

For Florida to win, they’ll have to pick their poison a bit, and that makes this UCLA team very dangerous. Does Donovan flood the wings to contain Adams and force Anderson to drive at Florida’s bigs? Does Florida hedge and apply ball pressure to eliminate Anderson handling the ball for long stretches? If Wilbekin guards Anderson, does Michael Frazier II get assigned Adams (welp)? Stephen F. Austin tried to press. It produced three turnovers. IN THE WHOLE GAME. Does Florida risk pressing, which might allow UCLA to dictate tempo? You get the idea.

Beyond the guards, the Bruins have twins in David and Travis Wear who aren’t great scorers but are good passers, an eight-man rotation that includes one sharp shooter in Zach Levine (.384 from three in regular season, but 0-5 in tournament play), and space-eating big Tony Parker, who to some extent is the “X” Factor in the game tomorrow night (more on that soon).

The Bruins like to run and are devastatingly efficient despite not shooting the ball particularly well as a unit–they’d probably be higher than #12 in the Ken Pom offensive efficiency ratings if they were a better three point shooting group, but that figure is still good for 6th best out of teams still playing, and this is a field with some staggeringly good offenses.

So how does Florida win? Well, controlling tempo is the first place to start. And before you panic, take a deep breath. Take another. Remember that like Seth Davis wrote for SI, this Florida team might be the first team in a long while to not lose in (almost) four months and still be “underrated.” Also remember the Gators are 314th in the NCAA in adjusted “tempo”, meaning they play the game methodically whenever they damn well want to play the game methodically. Remember they are coached by Billy Donovan, who is probably the best coach now he’s ever been, and arguably the finest coach in college basketball. And remember Florida has four seniors who are determined to go to the Final Four after all that heartbreak. And remember one of those seniors is the best post defender in the country in Patric Young. And remember one of those seniors is the best point guard in the country in Scottie Wilbekin. Feel better? You should. But there’s more.

Florida’s defense is operating at “peak level” (.825 points allowed per possession in the tournament, even lower than the SEC Tournament total!!!) and has vaulted up to # 2 in Ken Pom’s defensive efficiency ratings, outpaced only by Louisville. The Gators are also rebounding at a nearly 1 rebound better per game clip in the last month, and despite suffering from extended stretches where they still struggle to score, they continue to possess an offense in the top 20 by most efficiency metrics. People talk about how the Bruins are the most dynamic offensive team UF has faced, and that’s true– but the Gators are, outside of Oregon, the best offense UCLA has faced all year- and the Bruins dropped one of their two meetings with the Ducks. If Florida brings its “A” game, it can score on a UCLA team that isn’t terrific at halfcourt defense, and has struggled this year when it hasn’t dictated tempo (see, getting thrashed by Duke, losing handily at Missouri, by 18 to a terrible Washington State team, among others).

Finally, the Gators should have a big edge on the glass, with Young, Yeguette, Finney-Smith and Chris Walker rotating to form a pretty tenacious test for the Bruins, who aren’t a great rebounding team. If the Gators win the glass, they’ll win the game.

Here is a chart of games where UCLA lost the rebounding battle, and the results of each contest:

Opponent                                                        Rebounding Margin                                  Result

Drexel                                                                 Drexel 39-38                                       UCLA 72-67

Duke (Madison Square Garden)                      Duke 41-27                                         Duke 80-63

@ Missouri                                                        Missouri 47-30                                    Missouri 80-71

Arizona                                                              Arizona 37-36                                       Arizona 79-75

Stanford                                                             Stanford 42-24                                      UCLA 91-74 

@ Oregon State                                                Oregon State 39-32                              Oregon State 71-67

@ Stanford                                                         Stanford 28-26                                     Stanford 83-74

Oregon                                                                Oregon 50-38                                       Oregon 87-83

@ Oregon State                                                 Oregon State 36-31                           UCLA 74-69

@ Washington State                                          Washington State 46-37                    Washington St 73-55

Stephen F. Austin (Round of 32)                      SFA 36-30                                             UCLA 77-60

UCLA is 4-7 when it is outrebounded on the season, and in two of those wins (Stanford at home, Stephen F. Austin), the Bruins had to shoot hair-on-fire numbers at 54 percent to win despite losing the battle of the boards. The other two wins- Drexel and Oregon State- are against far inferior opposition.

To me, that’s the key to the basketball game. How about the following figure? Plus Seven. If the Gators win the rebounding edge by seven, they’ll dictate tempo for the most part, and advance to the Elite 8.

Prediction: Florida 73, UCLA 68

The comments are yours.

One thought on “From Here On, Everybody’s Good: Our Sweet 16 Preview

  1. Good read. But I believe Florida can really shut UCLA down. Give me Florida 70, UCLA 62. At the end of the day, Scottie Wilbekin is going to make UCLA’s guards miserable.

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