Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Sweet 16 preview

By no means is this a complete preview; it's more of a collection of semi-connected thoughts about the Sweet 16 games, which get started Thursday night. Take a look after the jump.

East #1 Syracuse vs. #4 Wisconsin (Thursday, 7:15 p.m. Eastern)
Dr. Slam's bracket: Vanderbilt (over Syracuse)
The pick: Syracuse

In my East region preview, I wrote somewhat extensively on why my faith that Syracuse would make the Final Four had wavered. I still think that Ohio State will get them, but while I had the Orange losing to Vanderbilt, I've got them advancing to the Elite 8 now that their opponent is not the Commodores, but the Wisconsin Badgers.

The only way that the Badgers win this game is if they shoot extraordinarily well from deep, the way they did in their first-round blowout of Montana (10-for-19). The possessions of "zone offense" I saw them run against Vandy in the second round consisted solely of the passing the ball around the perimeter before launching a long three-pointer -- they didn't seem to have any interest in putting anyone in the high post, a weak spot of Syracuse's zone. Wisconsin is a decent three-point shooting team at just over 36 percent on the year, but not, in my opinion, good enough to rely on it so heavily. They also aren't a dominant rebounding team, which is another place you can hurt Syracuse.

On the other end of the court, Wisconsin is also excellent defensively, though in contrast to Syracuse, their brand is hard-nosed man-to-man. In fact, the Badgers lead the country in scoring defense, though it should be noted their habit of slowing the game way down on offense contributes to that mark. Still, Syracuse is going to have its own troubles scoring, especially because the Badgers take away transition opportunities so well.

Syracuse is a tough team to play man against, though, just because they have so many good players. The Orange tend to fall in love with the three, to their detriment, when faced with a zone, but there's too much offensive talent for a man defense to keep under wraps for a 40-minute game.

West #1 Michigan State vs. #4 Louisville (Thursday, 7:47 p.m. Eastern)
Dr. Slam's bracket: Michigan State (over Long Beach State)
The pick: Michigan State

The Cardinals are one of the hottest teams in the country; after dropping three of their last five regular season games, they won four straight to take the Big East crown, then beat Davidson and New Mexico last weekend to make the Sweet 16. I think the buck stops here, though.

I think what Louisville has done over the last six games is a little bit overrated. Their Big East quarterfinal triumph over Marquette was impressive, but after that they played Notre Dame and Cincinnati -- good teams, to be sure (Cincy's also in the Sweet 16), but also not teams that really scare you when you look at them.

Then, in the first round of the NCAAs, they beat Davidson, in large part because the Wildcats couldn't hit a jump shot. In the next round, they squeezed by New Mexico, another offensively challenged team. Some of their opponents' offensive struggles are attributable to Louisville's defense, of course, but in the Davidson game in particular the Cardinals gave up plenty of good looks that the Wildcats simply couldn't knock down. In Brandon Wood, Austin Thornton, and Travis Trice, MSU has plenty of guys who can convert open looks.

They'll probably get plenty of those looks, too, because Louisville is going to have their hands full up front with Draymond Green, Adreian Payne, and Derrick Nix. Gorgui Dieng, one of the nation's best shotblockers, isn't strong enough to handle that group, and has a tendency to get into foul trouble. The Cardinals are a very good defensive team -- third overall in terms of field goal percentage defense -- but there are some holes in it. And at 48.2 percent from the field on the year, the Spartans are in the top 20 nationally in that statistic.

Moreover, on the other end of the court, Michigan State is actually ranked second in field goal percentage defense. The big difference between the two teams is Louisville's offense -- they have a tough time putting the ball in the basket. Peyton Siva is really the only guy on the team who creates for others, and no one really knocks down any threes with any consistency.

East #2 Ohio State vs. #6 Cincinnati (Thursday, approx. 9:45 p.m. Eastern)
Dr. Slam's bracket: Ohio State (over Florida State)
The pick: Ohio State

Cincy surprised almost everyone by getting this far, even after their big run to the Big East title game. The Bearcats beat Texas in the first round and then took out ACC champion Florida State. You really have to admire Cincinnati's toughness; after the fight with Xavier, they've really turned their season around, and have won a lot of games without having a clear talent edge in most of them.

My initial reaction was that Ohio State will win easily, but Cincy has accomplished too much this season for that to be a fair assessment. And as you break the game down a bit more, you can see that there are some good, fairly even matchups. Jared Sullinger and Yancy Gates is the marquee one, but the point guard battle between Aaron Craft and Cashmere Wright will be fun to watch, and in Sean Kilpatrick and Dion Dixon, the Bearcats have an answer for William Buford and Lenzelle Smith Jr. Ultimately, I think that DeShaun Thomas, 6'7" and playing very well of late, might be a bit too much for them.

Moreover, while both teams won tough, close games in the second round, not all tough, close victories are created the same, and I think you can learn something by looking at how those games were won. Needing baskets against Gonzaga, the Buckeyes went down low to Sullinger, who converted on multiple occasions against several defenders. Sullinger in the post is a surer bet than Kilpatrick for three, which is how the Bearcats won the game against Florida State. And while both teams made big stops down the stretch of their second-round games, Cincy was aided by a couple of panicky possessions by Florida State. In the end, I think OSU is just better.

West #3 Marquette vs. #7 Florida (approx. 10:17 p.m. Eastern)
Dr. Slam's bracket: Missouri (over Murray State)
The pick: Marquette

I'm biased. I don't like Florida. Didn't like 'em when they were winning titles with Joakim Noah and Al Horford, don't like 'em now. And with the current group, it's not just about the name on the front of the jersey; it has always irked me how highly everyone thinks of the veteran Gator guards (Irving Walker and Kenny Boynton) despite their poor shot selection and decision-making. So it's harder for me to make an unbiased pick.

It's made even more difficult by the fact that Florida hasn't been tested yet in this tournament, and have had by far the easiest road to the Sweet 16 of any team remaining. They shot terribly from three-point range (their usual bread and butter) against Virginia, but still won handily against a team that probably didn't belong in the field, and then blew out a Norfolk State team that played several levels above its head in the opening round against Missouri and just as many levels below it in the second round. Marquette, meanwhile, beat a very good Murray State team in the second round. It was hardly a thing of beauty, but the Racers are a good team and were playing in front of a largely partisan crowd -- and the Golden Eagles still won.

Marquette's win over Murray State was a frantic, up-and-down affair, and from what I've seen of them this year, that's the style Buzz Williams' club likes to play. That makes them a tough matchup for Florida, who isn't very good defensively and whose guards are liable to get caught up in the one-upsmanship that comes in that style of game. Plus, I'm not sure how the Gators handle Jae Crowder; he's a little too versatile for Patric Young and too physical for anyone else.

South #3 Baylor vs. #10 Xavier (Friday, 7:15 p.m. Eastern)
Dr. Slam's bracket: UNLV (over Xavier)
The pick: Xavier

I don't love Xavier. I think Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons are a little overrated, again because I think they take bad shots and make bad decisions. They haven't been terribly impressive in the tournament, barely beating Notre Dame and then falling behind big to Lehigh in the first half. And this was a team that had to sweat out Selection Sunday after losing to St. Bonaventure in the Atlantic 10 championship game.

And yet I can't deny that Holloway is one of the best shotmakers left in the tournament, and that time and again throughout his career he has won games for his team by getting tough baskets in crunch time.

And then I look at Baylor, limping down the stretch before turning heads by beating Kansas in the Big 12 semis. A fairly comfortable win over South Dakota State in the first round of the NCAAs, followed by a game in which they pulled away from Colorado in the last five minutes, to win by 17 in a game that was much, much closer.

And the reason I'm picking Xavier is Perry Jones III.

The sophomore is uber-talented, but has been very inconsistent in his college career. And the Bears are a totally different team when he's playing well. Look at his game log; he plays well for a few games in a row, then disappears for the next few. And there's no real rhyme or reason as to which games he plays well in and which he doesn't; some of his most productive games have come against teams with good post plyers. So I've got no real reason to think he'll show up against Xavier, even though the Musketeers don't have anyone who comes close to being able to handle him.

Without Jones playing well, Baylor is very beatable -- Colorado hung with them for most of that second-round game despite the fact that Brady Heslip was hitting everything he put up. Pierre Jackson is prone to the same kind of poor decisions that plague Holloway, only he's not as proven in terms of making up for it with big shots. Baylor should win, but my gut says X.

Midwest #1 North Carolina vs. #13 Ohio (Friday, 7:47 p.m. Eastern)
Dr. Slam's bracket: North Carolina (over Michigan)
The pick: North Carolina

Kendall Marshall got his cast off Wednesday and is just wearing a removable splint on his surgically repaired right (non-shooting) wrist. Roy Williams keeps insisting that he has no idea whether Marshall will play, while at the same time noting that the Tar Heels are preparing under the assumption that Marshall will not be available. I continue to believe that he won't go, even if he is technically available; Carolina's front line should be enough for them to triumph.

The Bobcats are a major dog in this one, but things are lining up for them about as well as they could. The Tar Heels' focus wanders on occasion, especially defensively, and there's no telling what would happen if they found themselves down early without Marshall on the court to steady them. And D.J. Cooper, who would pose a matchup problem no matter what, becomes an even bigger problem with Marshall out. Marshall isn't the best defender, but his size would bother Cooper. Justin Watts is 6'5", but would be even less able to stay in front of Cooper than the 6'4" Marshall. And freshman Stilman White, at six feet even just an inch taller than Cooper, really has no chance to guard him.

This game is potentially a lot more interesting than it would be with Marshall in the lineup, but I still think Carolina wins.

South #1 Kentucky vs. #4 Indiana (Friday, approx. 9:45 p.m. Eastern)
Dr. Slam's bracket: Kentucky (over Wichita State)
The pick: Kentucky

I'll be rooting hard for Indiana. The Hoosiers are a great story, having hustled back into national relevance this season. I love Tom Crean and think he's done a great job rebuilding the program.

But let's be realistic. Yes, Indiana beat Kentucky earlier in the year, but that was at Assembly Hall, in the first true road game for the young Wildcats. Terrence Jones was a complete no-show in that one, not due to anything IU did -- he just wasnt playing well during that stretch and didn't show up. And Indiana still needed a buzzer-beating three-pointer from Christian Watford to pull out the victory.

The thing is, if you compare the improvement of those teams between that meeting and now, it's night and day. Indiana is more or less the same team. Kentucky, though, has improved considerably. Marquis Teague has settled down as the point guard. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has become the second-best NBA prospect in college right now, behind his classmate and teammate, Anthony Davis. That's the great thing about inexperienced teams -- they improve as the season goes along.

I suppose that the young Kentucky guys could get caught up in getting revenge over Indiana and blow it that way, but there are enough upper classmen on that team to keep that from happening, and the freshmen have showed pretty good poise lately. So I'll take Kentucky.

Midwest #2 Kansas vs. #11 North Carolina State (Friday, approx. 10:17 p.m. Eastern)
dr. Slam's bracket: Kansas (over Belmont)
The pick: Kansas

Kansas really is lucky to be here; they should have lost to Purdue in the second round. NC State, on the other hand, has been a pleasant surprise -- after barely getting into the tournament, they handled San Diego State and then hung on against Georgetown.

The bigs are going to decide this game. NC State's strength is up front, with C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell, but KU is bigger and stronger and better across the frontline, with Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey. Howell is foul prone; his ability to stay on the floor is going to be key. Kansas' ability to match up with NC State's bigs means that they can stay at home on Scott Wood, a three-point sniper who is the Wolfpack's X-factor.

These teams are similar -- I just think Kansas is a little bit better almost everywhere.

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