(1) Virginia vs. (4) Iowa State
Initial Thoughts: Watching the Virginia v. Hampton first round contest was one of my most edge-of-the-seat, ballsack-grabbing affair in Vegas. Not necessarily because it was a good game (it wasn’t), but because I bet on the first half under which was ingeniously set by the Evil Overlords of Vegas at 60.5 points. I was feeling pretty great about my wager (only 24 points scored in the first 10 minutes) until the Cavs went on an offensive onslaught the second part of the first and beat my under play by a hook (Anthony Gill somehow cashed two free throws after his coach fainted on the sidelines – ridiculous). I did hit the full game spread and second-half under, but alas. I digress.
Iowa State was the source of everyone’s misery in their first round bout with Iona as it seemed like everyone and their escort had bet on the Gaels to cover. The Clones though played fantastic, scorching the overwhelmed Gaels for 94 points on their way to a second round showdown with Little Rock, a team they also defeated rather effortlessly.
Virginia on Offense: As stated in my first preview, Virginia’s offense is a well-oiled machine and among the most efficient in the country. Despite playing at the nation’s slowest pace, the Hoos can put up buckets due to their superior shooting percentages and smart shot selection. UVA gets buckets off moving the basketball to open shooters, basket cutters, and strong post-ups. And of course there’s All-American Malcolm Brogdon, who can do just about anything on the floor and is always a threat to take his man off the bounce, where he scores 1 ppp on isolations per Synergy. Against Hampton and Butler, Virginia won by dominating the glass (especially on their defensive end) and converting inside the arc. The Hoos shot 60.6% from two against the Pirates and 64.3% versus the Bulldogs, and against Butler, UVA grabbed 86.7% of Bulldog misses on their D end – that’s dominance.
The Iowa State D isn’t going to do much to stop the Hoo offense as Prohm and Co.’s goal is to outscore its opponent at all costs. The Clones defend the three fairly well, as they can sometimes bother shooters with their guards out front, but past that the Clone D is just average. Iowa State particularly struggles in Iso and P&R situations, which is trouble against a Virginia team that takes advantage of those two play sets constantly. Brogdon should have no trouble getting past the likes of Georges Niang and Matt Thomas on the perimeter. A major weakness of the Clones is their transition D which thankfully for ISU nation will not be exploited by Virginia, a squad that spends only about 8% of its possessions in transition. The area to watch is the offensive glass as the Hoo bigs (specifically Gill) are always a threat to put back an errant shot and the Clones (outside of Jameel McKay) are very suspect on the D glass.
Iowa State on Offense: This game is a fun juxtaposition, because where Virginia wants to wear the other team down when they have the ball, painstakingly using every second of the shot clock until they find that perfect look, Iowa State wants to get out and go, go, go. The Clones offense this season was even more efficient than Virginia’s, making up for their oft-lackluster defensive performances. Where Virginia likes to work the ball inside, Iowa State wants to launch threes and get out in transition. Against Iona, the Clones went 10/22 from deep and against UALR, they shot 11/21 (Monte Morris, Thomas, Deonte Burton, and Niang all hang around 40% from beyond the arc). The Clones spend 21% of their time in transition (a top 20 rate in the country), meaning they are looking to run off every make, miss, and turnover.
Unfortunately for Iowa State, Virginia is the BEST team in the nation at limiting their opponents’ time in transition. The Hoos’ opponents spend only 10% of their time in transition due to Virginia’s shot making ability, ability to protect the basketball (13th best TO rate nationally), and not having an all-out crash the boards philosophy. Of course where teams can hurt Virginia is from beyond the three-point line. Bennett’s Cavs play a pack-line style D meaning they are focused on not letting anything inside the arc or at the bucket. Fortunately for Iowa State, they couldn’t care less about shooting from inside the magical arc as they are dead last in free-throw attempts in the country and shoot a high volume of threes. Hampton shot 3/19 from three against Virginia – but Hampton couldn’t hit water of they fell out of a boat. Butler on the other hand stroked it to the tune of 46.7% with 7 threes made in the second round contest. So if there is one weakness to this UVA defense that Iowa State can exploit, it’s from distance.
Key Factors: Ultimately it’s about whom can control the pace in this one. Virginia wants to play slow, Iowa State fast. Iowa State’s shooting and defense will be the make-or-break factor for the Clones. If the threes are falling over Bennett’s sagging D, the Clones could stay right in this one until the very end. Defensively, ISU must succeed even a little against the machine that is Virginia’s offense – stopping Brogdon drives, London Perrantes kicks, and Gill put-backs is a must.
Final Predictions: Man I love Virginia in this one. Bennett is a smart coach; he knows Iowa State can light it up from three and my wager is he will extend his D a little more than he normally does to compensate. UVA will not let Iowa State’s transition O beat them and I think they bother the Clone shooters enough to keep the game lower scoring than the Clones would like. Virginia has a better shot at controlling the tempo in this one as they are naturals at slowing the game down and using possessions for the full 30 seconds. I also think on O, Virginia will not have a problem scoring. Gill vs. McKay, Brogdon vs. Niang, and Morris v. Perrantes are going to be star-studded fun matchups to watch.
Straight-up Pick: Virginia
ATS Pick: Virginia -5
Over/Under Pick: Under 141
(6) Notre Dame vs. (7) Wisconsin
Initial Thoughts: So, uh – I did not expect this matchup here whatsoever. I was extremely high on both West Virginia and Xavier this year, thought they were both well-coached and talented enough to get this far, but alas. WV couldn’t handle the mighty Lumberjacks (does Thomas Walkup look the most like his team’s mascot in the country? If only Duke were the Rats so Coach K could be a perfect embodiment), and Xavier ran into the Badger March Buzzsaw (10-0 in their last 10 March NCAA Tournament games). And so here we are.
This all isn’t to say I’m not thrilled with this matchup – I took Notre Dame in my pre-season futures piece as a nice longshot (75/1), and I grew up a Wisconsin fan (and they’re still my favorite college team, at least until Mizzou finally fields a half-way competent roster). Both teams put a ton of skill on the floor at various positions, there’s a bunch of fun individual matchups within the game, and this game features the most open coach forehead space you’ll find in a matchup (just look at these guys).
Notre Dame on Offense: With Wisconsin’s defense, I’m always most concerned about penetrators who can break them down one-on-one on the perimeter and get into the lane. Demetrius Jackson, a pro prospect (Draft Express has him going to the Bucks!), is definitely a PG capable of that, but Notre Dame doesn’t go isolation very often, instead having a vast preference for pick-and-roll with roll man extraordinaire Zach Auguste thundering down the lane for lobs, lay-ups, and put-back dunks. Vasturia is a nice secondary ball-handler and shooter at 6’5, Beachem is a gunner, and Colson is a mismatch for most due to his burliness and ability to put the ball on the floor.
Wisconsin’s strict man-to-man likes to sag back on PnR, attempting to take away the roll man (something they struggle to defend once he gets it due to their lack of an eraser in the paint), instead letting the handler probe the lane and hoping he takes a pull-up jumper or floater. Jackson will be looking for shooters when he gets in the lane, but a Badger defense always excels at running you off the line when recovering from helping on a driver. If Notre Dame gets forced into taking a lot of pull-up 2’s, the Badgers will be thrilled with their defense.
Neither of these teams want to push the tempo (Notre Dame is at 321st in tempo, Wisconsin even slower at 345th), and that’s great for Wisconsin’s porous transition defense – they give up a ghastly 1.16ppp in transition, 341st in the country, but Notre Dame gets in transition at a rate that’s 330th in the country, so the Badger defense is unlikely to exposed.
Notre Dame attacks the glass hard with Auguste and Colson, but Wisconsin is good enough on the defensive glass with Happ, Brown, and Hayes to not get killed there.
Wisconsin on Offense: Wisconsin wants to work inside-out offensively, using the crafty post game of Happ and the more power-based game of Hayes (when he’s not settling for crappy jumpers) to get early points and then kick out to open shooters and drivers when teams start to double. Happ in particular has a lovely array of moves that allow him to score even on bigger, stronger defenders – and Auguste will be that on Friday night. Happ uses the rim well as a protector and often gets away with hooks in the post to gain an advantage (it’s not a foul if they don’t call it!). I think he’ll be able to score and/or get Auguste in foul trouble if ND single-covers him.
Hayes should also have a mismatch, whether it’s the 6’5 Colson or the skinnier Beachem that guards him – if I were the Irish, I’d put the burly Colson on him and dare him to take the jumpers he’s been bricking in his last 3 games (he’s a galling 7/42 from the field, 0/17 from 3 in his last 3 games). Nigel’s nightmare shooting seems unlikely to continue, at least to that degree, but I think he’d be smart enough to bull through Beachem and get to the line, something he does at an elite rate.
Notre Dame played zone on almost 1/5 of its possessions this year, but Wisconsin’s passing and shooting is a good antidote to any zones they face – see the way they murdered Xavier’s 1-3-1 whenever Mack went to it last Sunday. I think Brey may use it as a curveball every once in a while, but he’d be insane to expect it to consistently slow down the Badge.
Transition will once again be mostly moot, as Wisconsin treats transition offense like I’m going to treat Batman vs. Superman (which is to say, avoid at all costs), but they might find an edge on the offensive glass. Auguste and Colson are once again very good, but with no threat to get burned in transition, Wisconsin will send Hayes and even Showalter to join Happ and Brown, forcing Beachem and Vasturia to help – something they don’t relish.
Key Factor(s): Can Notre Dame guard Happ or Hayes one-on-one inside? I think both will be able to get their points, and Wisconsin’s ball movement is surgical when facing post doubles (just ask Xavier). If one or both guys can really get going, Wisconsin is going to put up a fantastically efficient game against Notre Dame’s 172nd-ranked defense, per Kenpom.
Do I Trust the Coaches?: See East preview, but for the most part, yeah. There’s still a sense of the unknown with Gard, but damn, what else does the guy have to do to prove himself? As for Brey, he took care of Michigan an extremely talented SFA squad for his second straight Sweet 16 team, and he’s put his players in a great system for their talents.
Predictions: Interestingly, despite the presence of Gonzaga and the Cuse as double-digit seeds, these are the lowest-rated kenpom teams remaining in the field – and yet I think either one will challenge the winner of IU/UNC because of their slow-down, control-the-pace style. I actually like the matchup for the Badgers (famous last words from a homer), but I’m riding with them to keep this surprising follow-up run to the Frank teams going.
SU Pick: Wisconsin
ATS Pick: Wisconsin +1.5
O/U Pick: Under 131.5
(10) Syracuse vs. (11) Gonzaga
Initial Thoughts: This game features the only two double-digit seeds left in the field, giving the rather chalky tournament the “mad” sensation everyone looks forward to each year. Granted, I think it’s safe to say nobody looks at Gonzaga as a true 11-seed; this is a team that’s made 18 straight NCAA Tournaments and has been the equivalent of a national power since about 2003. The Zags won their first two games of the Tourney rather easily, knocking off Big East Tourney champ Seton Hall and Pac-12 darling Utah. Gonzaga will be favored in this one as they seek to get one step closer to an elusive Final Four bid (which would be the first in school history and Mark Few’s tenure).
Syracuse’s road to the Sweet Sixteen has frankly been pretty light. In my Midwest region preview, I talked about how well the Orange matched up with Dayton given their shooting ability and the Flyers’ lack of. In the second round, Cuse didn’t have to face Sparty like the entire world thought they would, instead the Orange got Middle Tennessee, a 15-seed (granted a good 15-seed), that really never had a chance to upend Boeheim’s crew. Gonzaga will be by far Syracuse’s toughest challenge thus far in the Tourney as they finally face a team that has both great shooting ability and inside presence.
Syracuse on Offense: As said in my earlier preview, Cuse’s offense revolves around shooting the three and cleaning up on the offensive glass. Against Dayton, the Orange shot 8/22 from downtown and grabbed 16 offensive rebounds (47.1% of their misses – a very high number), and against the Blue Raiders, Cuse shot 8/20 from deep, grabbing 32% of their misses (slightly less impressive number, but still solid). The threes primarily come by way of wings Michael Gbinije, Malachi Richardson and guard Trevor Cooney, all of which have shot over 200 threes this seasonand hit at over 35% (Gbinije is over 40%). Stretch four Tyler Lydon also shoots a high volume of threes and hits a high percentage (40%). When the Orange miss, it’s all about Tyler Roberson cleaning the glass and putting back shots or kicking out to open shooters; Roberson grabbed 18 boards against Dayton, 8 of which came on the offensive end. Cuse spends a fair amount of time in transition, but relies on that aspect far less than their outside game.
Here’s the bad news for the Orange – Gonzaga is one of the best teams in the country in making opponents miss from outside. The Zags have held opponents to shooting 30% (8th nationally) from deep, and as stated in my previous preview, Josh Perkins and Eric McClellan are two of the premier guards at taking away shots on the perimeter. Inside defensively, the Zags are just okay, but Cuse really isn’t a post-up team and won’t be able to exploit the length of Domantas Sabonis in the paint. Gonzaga also rebounds the hell out of the ball on D, which means Roberson is going to have a tough time doing his dirty work on the glass. Utah grabbed four (4) offensive rebounds against Gonzaga on 30 misses, and ZERO were grabbed by future lottery pick Jakob Poeltl. Angel Delgado of Seton Hall actually had success boarding against the Zags, and Roberson’s O board numbers are better than Delgado’s, however Hall as a team is a better offensive rebounding unit, meaning a lot of Delgado’s opportunities came by way of committee help.
Gonzaga on Offense: You have to be able to shoot the three and rebound the basketball to beat Cuse’s zone, and luckily for the Zags, they can do both. Gonzaga as a squad shoots 37.3% from deep and Kyle Wiltjer shoots 43.4%. Wiltjer is going to have zero issue shooting over the outstretched arms of Cuse’s top zone men, so if he’s hitting, the Zags could take this one fairly comfortably. Gonzaga has only played against a zone 8.9% of the time this season, but when they’ve seen it, they’ve succeeded to the tune of 1.085 ppp. Wiltjer has absolutely eaten zones this year (1.283 ppp on spot-ups) and Perkins, Silas Melson, and McClellan hold their own as well. Sabonis has also had success rebounding against zones and splitting pockets for close shots in the paint.
One consequence of playing a zone is it often leaves the zoning team vulnerable to o-boards. Cuse ranks in the bottom 25 nationally in defensive rebounding which doesn’t bode well when going up against a rebounder like Sabonis. However, Cuse is a well-coached team and I’m sure “focus on blocking out Arvydas’s kid” has been drilled into every player’s skull this week. In addition, despite allowing teams to chuck a lot of threes, most of Cuse’s opponents’ shots are just that – chucks. Cuse allows opponents to shoot only 30.4% from deep (11th nationally), showing they do a great job at closing out on shooters and getting hand up in offenders’ faces. Cuse hasn’t had to close out on a lot of 6’10’’ All-Americans on the perimeter, but their D should be good enough to neutralize the Perkins/McClellan/Melson threat. The Orange are not a good transition D team, as they look to mostly get set up in their 2-3, but the Zags aren’t really looking to push either.
Key Factors: For Cuse, it’s all about bothering Wiltjer enough on the perimeter and boxing out Sabonis off long attempts. If the Orange can succeed in these two areas, they’ll be in it the whole way, as Perkins and McClellan cannot beat the zone without the two studs. For the Zags, it comes down to defending Cuse’s three-point shot. The Orange really don’t have a lot going on offense besides the three-ball and I have full confidence Sabonis will be able to take the excellent Roberson off the glass.
Final Predictions: This game is Gonzaga’s to lose, plain and simple. The Zags matchup terrifically with Syracuse in almost every facet, and have trump cards in Wiltjer and Sabonis. The spread does feel a tad high and I’m not necessarily comfortable laying 4, but I think free throws late (Gonzaga shoots the 15th best % from the line) will make for a late Bulldog cover.
Straight-up Pick: Gonzaga
ATS Pick: Gonzaga -4
Over/Under Pick: Under 135
(1) North Carolina vs. (5) Indiana
Initial Thoughts: It’s good to see two programs start to create a history, two schools with young programs really getting their names out onto the national stage. Led by Brice Johnson and Yogi Ferrell, the first All-American caliber players in school history, these two small conference upstarts are ready to do batt- wait, what’s that? You’re telling me these are two of the most storied programs of all time? That’s insane, I don’t buy it. The “Tar Heels” and the “Hoosiers” are both looking for their first ever Elite Eight berths, and I’m just excited to see these little engines that could try to keep rolling.
Ok fine, this is actually pretty great. Two legendary powers doing battle in Philadelphia makes for an excellent stage, and IU has already knocked off one true blue blood to get here.
North Carolina on Offense: Welcome to the big leagues, IU. UNC is going to hammer it inside with drives, post ups, and offensive rebounding. Thomas Bryant is in for one of the biggest battles of his season, as he’ll likely be tasked with guarding possibly the best inside scorer in the country in Brice Johnson. Bryant is a solid, long athlete (maybe not as long as Johnson), which means the real mismatch will be Kennedy Meeks bodying up on Max Bielfeldt/Collin Hartman/OG Anunoby. Those 3 will need to be at the top of their game, particularly on the glass, to prevent UNC from piling up the second chance points.
In the game against Providence, though, UNC really got a lot from its perimeter as well. Marcus Paige, Justin Jackson, and Joel Berry were all extremely efficient against the Friars’ traditionally tough perimeter defense. Even so, they were only 4/13 from deep, and Indiana would do well to go against their instincts and let the Heels camp at the line. Crean’s defenses always take away the three-point line, but that’s where you want to leave Carolina. If you run them off, you’re playing into their hands, allowing drives that will lead to dunks one way or another.
The Heels also love to get out in transition, which Indiana does not do a very good job of stopping at all – UNC should find some easy points this way, both off of IU turnovers (we’ll get to that) and missed shots. Expect Berry and Paige to push relentlessly.
Indiana on Offense: I ended the above section with transition, and I’m going to start with it here. Despite being such a proficient offensive rebounding team, UNC is one of the best in the country (25th) at limiting opponents’ transition opportunities. Indiana, on the other hand, will be looking to run at any moment, led by Ferrell’s patented pull-up 3 and Williams filling a lane, hunting a dunk. The battle here will be huge, as Indiana is positively lethal if they can get into the open floor.
In the half-court, I think Indiana will find success from the outside, too. Carolina is middling at taking away the 3, and if you aren’t elite at taking them away (see Wisconsin, Duke games), IU will find a way to get their share. UNC can get a little sleepy off the ball, and Zeisloft, Hartman, et al will light it up if given the chance.
Indiana also has a great chance to find success on the offensive glass (15th in the country in offensive rebound rate), as UNC is often too focused on getting out on the break to finish possessions, particularly on long rebounds (Justin Jackson – you’re 6’8 and lanky and get fewer defensive rebounds per possession than Yogi Ferrell. That’s not good.). There’s definitely an avenue for Indiana to score points in this one.
Key Factor(s): The perimeter battle. Yogi, Robert Johnson, Troy Williams, Zeisloft, and Anunoby need to be better than Paige, Berry, Jackson, and Britt, a feat that is very possible based on performance this year. I actually prefer the IU group in that matchup, provided Troy Williams comes with his head screwed on tight and not carrying it under his arm loosely like the Headless Horseman (never a given).
Do I Trust the Coaches?: In Roy’s case, less than I probably should; in Crean’s case, more than I probably should. UNC has frustrated me at times when watching them due to refusal to get the ball inside to Brice in the right spots and somewhat lackadaisical play, though admittedly they’ve been lights out so far this tourney. IU, on the other hand, has outplayed what I expected from them, fitting together their parts seamlessly in a very non-Crean fashion.
Predictions: I normally would shy away from a Crean pick here, but I just don’t think Roy’s been on his game this year with everything going on in the background. I don’t think either team can really stop the other (UNC inside, IU outside), and in the end, I’m going to ride with the perimeter I trust more – I envision Zeisloft getting free for some huge shots, Indiana getting a few more buckets in transition than the Heels normally give up, and IU battling to a near stalemate on the glass. LET’S GO YOGI!
SU Pick: Indiana
ATS Pick: Indiana +5.5
O/U Pick: Over 158.5