2017 Sweet 16 Preview
Unfortunately timing didn’t work this week for the podcast, so in lieu of that below is a preview article. Good luck!
Michigan -1 vs Oregon
It’s inarguable that Michigan has been playing some of the best basketball of anyone in the country over the last several weeks, but I think this game sets up pretty well for Oregon. The Ducks were fortunate to get past a really pesky Rhode Island team in the round of 32, which was a difficult matchup for them. Michigan’s defense is still a liability for them, and I think Oregon should be able to find what they want against a Wolverines defense that ranks 228th in effective FG % and 301st 3 point FG % defense. The slight statistical advantage Michigan’s offense has over Oregon isn’t enough to sway me out of taking the better defensive team. Michigan is certainly capable of shooting their way to another win, but I think the wrong team is getting a point here and I like the Ducks.
Purdue vs Kansas -5
Pretty terrible draw for Purdue getting KU in Kansas City, but I think they have to be feeling pretty decent about the matchup here where they have a definitive advantage in the post against the thin Kansas frontcourt. For me, Kansas is similar to UCLA in that it is not enough to give a great effort on defense against their hyper effective offense, but your offense also has to be a weapon and you have to knock down shots as a rebound is simply an outlet. If you look back at the Michigan State game for KU, the Spartans were having a lot of success getting points in the interior early on, which opened up looks for 3’s. Purdue has to follow a similar game plan and they absolutely have to slow this game down as much as they can, which is going to be really difficult. I think this game hinges entirely on Purdue’s guard play. Swanigan should have a huge day, and I’m not confident that Purdue is capable of slowing down Jackson, Mason, and Graham. I think this line is a tad inflated on a true neutral court, but with KU essentially having a home game that is null and void. This game has a high level of variance in my opinion. I can definitely see Purdue winning this game if they shoot well from the perimeter (6th in 3pt shooting) and limit KU transition opportunities. Purdue absolutely cannot allow the token KU 10-0 run, or else I don’t think they have the firepower to catch back up.
Gonzaga -3.5 vs West Virginia
The cop out topic of conversation whenever anyone talks about West Virginia is their press, which is the medias favorite thing to talk about. West Virginia does a good job with turning teams over obviously, but with 4 days prep and strong guard play, I think it’s negligible here for Gonzaga in this matchup. When you handicap West Virginia, you have to look at how their offense stacks up first, because if they can’t make shots then that pressure becomes infinitely more difficult to implement effectively. When watching Gonzaga, I am mostly impressed by how well they play defense. They don’t allow easy shots and do a good job at shutting down driving lanes. The Zags actually have the #1 defense in adjusted efficiency. Also to boot, they are #1 in effective FG defense, 6th in 3 PT defense, and 2nd in 2 PT defense. You can take those numbers with a small pinch of salt with their WCC schedule, but the fundamental point remains for me here, and that is I don’t trust the WVU offense to get enough good looks to cover this number. I think Zaga flirts with a double digit win here.
Xavier +7.5 vs Arizona
When you look at how long the college basketball season is, it’s important to realize teams will peak at different times of the year and right now Xavier is undoubtedly peaking right now. Personnel wise, it has taken Xavier some time to recover after the Sumner injury, but this team is hitting its stride offensively right now and Trevon Blueitt has taken his game to another level after healing from a lingering ankle injury. The key for Xavier in this game is what they do defensively. Against Florida State, Xavier did an excellent job into goading FSU into jumpshots with their zone looks. I would anticipate more of the same, and I think against Arizona that is a strong idea as Sean Miller loves to run isolation plays as a major source of offense, where Arizona ranks 194th in the country in assist rate. For reference, against St. Mary’s, Arizona only had assists on 4 of their field goals. In theory, it should be really difficult to run isolation against a zone defense, and if that theory holds true, Xavier absolutely has the offensive firepower to beat Arizona. Right now, mojo wise, I can’t back off the Muskies from an ATS perspective taking the points, but I think Arizona probably edges out a tight one.
South Carolina +3.5 vs Baylor
The name of the game for South Carolina is relying on their defense to buoy them and create offensive opportunities, and they had great matchups in their first two games versus Marquette and Duke, in which they were able to drown out the perimeter scoring options. I think they have a similar chance to take advantage of a Baylor team that ranks 305th in turnover percentage, which is obviously not good against an SC team that ranks 4th nationally in turning teams over. Manu Lecomte is Baylor’s primary ball handler, and at 5’11, he could have some issues against an athletic SC perimeter. The key for South Carolina is obviously generating some offense with turnovers, and trying to limit Johnathan Motley’s clean looks in the interior. Another important factor in handicapping this game is the coaching matchup, as Scott Drew hasn’t messed things up for Baylor yet, he’s gotta be due, right? I think Frank Martin will have a good gameplan ready for this SC team and I would take the points in this one.
Wisconsin +2 vs Florida
This is the game that I’m struggling with the most on the card this week. Florida just dismantled a Virginia team that likes to play a similar plodding pace that Wisconsin likes to play, but I am not going to worry about that too much here. I trust Bronson Koenig a ton, and if Wisconsin gets the Nigel Hayes they got against Villanova, this is a team that should advance to Phoenix. Ethan Happ should be able to have a big game against Florida, who’s rim protection just hasn’t been the same since Egbunu went down. I wouldn’t anticipate many transition opportunities in this game, so for me it boils down to who I trust more to execute in the half court, which is Wisconsin. The Badgers can filter their offense through the post with Happ and Hayes, and Koenig has proven time and again he is capable of knocking down big shots. It’s hard for me to look away from this experienced Badgers squad.
Butler +7.5 vs North Carolina
It’s really, really hard to have confidence in North Carolina right now after what we saw against Arkansas. It’s incredibly important to not overreact to one game to the next, but I think what played out in the Arkansas game is undoubtedly UNC’s Achilles heel, no pun intended. If Joel Berry is having an off night, and Justin Jackson isn’t going right, how do they manufacture consistent offense that isn’t reliant on offensive rebounding? Against teams with interior talent or poor coaching, it doesn’t matter. But with 5 days of rest and prep for Butler and Chris Holtman, I would anticipate a solid game plan to be dialed up for the Bulldogs. Butler is going to try and slow this game down and make UNC try and execute to beat them in the half court. Obviously, it remains to be seen if they are capable of doing that. UVA had success with a similar strategy. For Butler to win this game, they have to make UNC earn all their points, meaning limited transition baskets and not sending UNC to the free throw line. I definitely give Butler better than a puncher’s chance in this one.
UCLA vs Kentucky PK
The vibe nationally around this Kentucky team is just weird right now, I don’t know how to articulately explain it. They have the nation’s longest win streak and have only lost 5 games all season, and somehow just don’t feel dangerous right now. I don’t know if it’s because the wins haven’t been “sexy” enough or what over the last month or so, but this team has made enormous strides defensively, which has been the reason they are where they are right now. I could do a whole article on this game, which I basically do below.
I watched the first matchup in real time and went back and watched it again, and let’s break it down by the matchups.
Lonzo Ball vs De’Aaron Fox
Fox had the edge in this one statistically, although I would call it a draw. Ball was cold from 3, going 2-8, but did a good job facilitating the rest of the offense nonetheless, which he always does. I think for Fox, if he can make Ball guard and drain a bit of energy, that’s a major win. If Kentucky gets this matchup to a draw, they have a very good chance at winning. If Fox outplays Ball, they will win. If Ball has a vintage performance, UK could be in big trouble.
Malik Monk vs Isaac Hamilton and Aaron Holiday
Monk went for 24 in this game, which is a pretty ho hum performance as we’ve come to see. But the reason UCLA won this game was from the mileage they got from Hamilton and Holiday. They combined for 32 points on efficient shooting, as UK sagged off of them and were paying way too much attention to Ball and Alford on the perimeter. I would expect Dominique Hawkins to get a good amount of run in this game for UK, as he is their best perimeter defender and can give them a spark.
Isaiah Briscoe vs Bryce Alford
This is the matchup UK absolutely has to exploit if they want to win this game. Alford isn’t athletic enough defensively to run with Fox or Briscoe, so he was wisely put on Briscoe and gave him open jumpers, which resulted in Briscoe going 0-5 from three and 4-9 from inside the arc. If Briscoe is shooting jumpers, you have done your job against UK. When Briscoe did decide to attack, he had some success taking Alford to the rim and if he can do that again, UK can buy some easy points in this one.
TJ Leaf vs Wenyen Gabriel and Derek Willis
Outside of Hamilton and Holiday, Leaf was the other major player in their victory over UK in December. Gabriel just was lost defensively in this game. He was overly aggressive in his help side defense, which resulted in easy dump off dunks and layups for Leaf, which Ball and Alford are not going to miss. Gabriel’s minutes have dramatically decreased in the last month, and it’s no coincidence that with Willis getting more minutes and contributing with rebounding and shot blocking that UK’s defensive play has been the best it has been all season. I would be shocked if Willis doesn’t gets the majority of the minutes at the 4 in this game.
Bam Adebayo vs Thomas Welsh
Bam was doing Bam things in the first matchup and was a bright spot for UK. He is just too strong and too physically gifted for Welsh, and Bam spent a lot of time at the free throw line, shooting 13 free throws and had 13 rebounds as well. Welsh fouled out of this game the last time, and I think Bam’s ability to step out and guard is also a big plus for Kentucky here. What burned them in the first game is that Welsh wants to operate in the high post, and if Bam steps out, you have to have backside protection with your 4 man, which was Gabriel, and he got abused. That’s where Willis has to step up, because this is absolutely a matchup Kentucky should win.
In summary, I think the three players UK has to get going in Monk, Fox, and Adebayo, all have great chances to have big games. The key for Kentucky will be winning the rebounding battle, and getting contributions from Briscoe and Willis. If those two have above average games, Kentucky should advance. If they don’t, and there is an off night from Fox or Monk, UK loses by double digits.