Sweet 16 2016-17 Preview: East Region

-Jim Root

(8) Wisconsin vs. (4) Florida

Initial Thoughts:  I had my dancing shoes on watching the Villanova/Wisconsin battle (okay actually, I was shoeless in the cabana) – incredible victory for the Badgers. The fact that Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes have now been key players/starters on four consecutive Sweet 16 teams is a monumental accomplishment, one most recently matched by Michigan State’s Travis Trice and Branden Dawson from 2012-2015 (Louisville did it too, but they didn’t have any true four-year seniors leading the way). Whether they can continue their run against Florida, though, will be a major challenge. The Gators just used their suffocating, massively-athletic defense to eviscerate a similarly-snail-paced Virginia Cavaliers offense to the tune of 39 points (0.65 points per possession). Mike White has them playing as well as any team left in the tournament, and their #3-ranking in KenPom indicates just how elite this team truly is.

Wisconsin on Offense:  The Badgers did a superb job taking advantage of mismatches in the Round of 32, particularly in the frontcourt, as Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes played some bully-ball to the tune of 13/22 combined shooting for 31 points and 16 rebounds, topped off by Hayes’s masterful hesitation pirouette on the baseline. They’ll likely continue to attack similar matchups on the interior in this one, as none of Florida’s primary bigs pack much muscle. The sneaky semi-emergence of 6’11, 235-lb. Gorjok Gak could be crucial to defend Happ especially – Kevarrius Hayes is a great athlete, but he’s thin, and Happ’s combination of size, touch, and footwork will likely put Hayes at risk of foul trouble and/or getting bullied.

Due to the nature of their offense, Bronson Koenig ends up taking a ton of late shot clock jumpers, something he does with remarkable efficiency considering how poor the shots are at times. Kasey Hill and Chris Chiozza appear to be great matchups to thwart this with their quickness, although due to his quick and high release, he’s often more bothered by length than quickness – something neither guy has. Koenig also likely won’t succumb to Florida’s pressure, and Hayes (the UW version) can also bring the ball up the floor against one of the forwards. D’Mitrik Trice is an x-factor – he gives them another ball-handler against pressure and a shooter, but he’s been inconsistent in the tournament thus far.

Finally, the Badgers have a major edge on the offensive glass as well. They’ve really locked in on the glass this year, sending Happ (a monster in this regard), Hayes, and a guard to the rim nearly every shot. Florida’s eagerness to get out in transition offensively and the loss of Egbunu has rendered them an extremely average defensive rebounding team, and Wisconsin will likely find some points on put-backs and kick-out threes (I’d bet on at least two Koenig bombs) via this route.

Florida on Offense:  The Gators run a spread pick-and-roll attack featuring multiple ball-handlers and several smooth-smoothing bigs to space the floor. Hill and Chiozza are the creators, initiating the slashing approach off the dribble, usually with the aid of screener-and-diver Hayes (or Gak!). Getting KeVaughn Allen and Canyon Barry catches while on the move against defenders who are mid close-out is a major weapon, as both can bury treys and get to the basket. Forwards Devin Robinson and Justin Leon both shot 40% from deep this year, and sticking either guy (or both) in the corners becomes a dangerous game for their defenders on whether to help on the PnR action or stay home.

Wisconsin has a decent lineup to match Florida’s starters (and they’ll play exclusively man-to-man); it’s when they move to the three-guard or two guards + Barry lineups that it becomes problematic for Vitto Brown or Hayes.  I expect to see another healthy dose of Khalil Iverson, who got some major run against Villanova and helped greatly with his defense and athleticism. He would be a great match for Allen (and Zak Showalter will get some run on him too), and he’s also by far the best matchup for Barry. Even with that, Florida's guards can get into the lane here, though like I mentioned in my Wisconsin vs. VT preview, it would best be done via isolation and taking advantage of individual athletcisim, rather than the PnR (UW usually locks down the PnR). 

The aforementioned Wisconsin desire to raid the offensive glass has left them more exposed than normal to transition attack. The Badgers’ disciplined rotations and their total lack of fouling mean easy points will be extremely hard to come by, placing transition points at a premium. Hill may not be terribly efficient on offense, but he and Chiozza are blurs with the ball, and they’re always happy to push the ball all the way to the rim if the defense doesn’t stop them initially. If this balance starts in the Gators’ favor early, Gard may have to pull one of his rebounders back when the shot goes up, a major win for Florida.

Key Factor(s): The tempo of this game is absolutely crucial – Florida wants to run and score in transition, while Wisconsin wants to play in the half-court and beat the Gators up inside. Florida just decimated Virginia in a similar crawling game, but the difference here is that Wisconsin can score one-on-one inside (whereas UVA needs movement off the ball, cuts, etc.).

Both coaches have been sneaky awesome thus far in their respective current tenures, implementing (or continuing) a defined style with which to wear down opponents. There’s not much of a reason to think one will have a major advantage over the other here.

Final Predictions: I’m riding with my Badge. Wisconsin’s ability to attack mismatches and their strength advantage inside while dictating a slower tempo and keeping UF out of transition, along with EXPERIENCE!!!!, should allow the Badgers to make Florida uncomfortable. I think both offenses will actually score efficiently in the half-court, but in the end, the clutch difference between Hill and Koenig (Adv: Action Bronson) will be decisive.

SU Pick: Wisconsin
ATS Pick: Wisconsin +2
O/U Pick: Over 131.5

- Matt Cox

(3) Baylor vs. (7) South Carolina

Initial Thoughts:  The party crashin' Gamecocks enter their Sweet-16 bout with Baylor on an offensive tear after posting stellar 1.29 and 1.19 points per possession against Marquette and Duke, respectively.  This was an outrageous leap from their season-long raw offensive efficiency average of 1.03, which ranked in the bottom-half of all Division 1 teams.  In other words, South Carolina has relied upon their elite defense all year long, but now that they're finally starting to score at a high clip themselves, it's a scary proposition for anyone who stands in their away.  

This brings us to their next potential victim, the Baylor Bears, who may in fact be the kryptonite needed to take down this red-hot 'Cocks team.  While Marquette and Duke are by no means cupcake opponents, most college basketball analysts would agree neither is a stout defensive unit.  In fact, the Golden Eagles and Blue Devils ranked 165th and 48th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency this year, which has many believing the Gamecocks recent offensive surge may come to a screeching halt against a much more formidable Baylor defense.  In addition, the Bears pose an interesting matchup wrinkle that neither of their first two opponents in the tournament did - a confusing half-court, amoeba-like zone.  It's how the Gamecocks adjust and exploit the Bears' zone that will determine whether or not Frank Martin gets one step closer to marching on to his first Final 4.

Baylor on Offense:  There is a glaring mismatch on paper that needs to be addressed right away - Baylor's inability to take care of the ball vs. South Carolina's innate ability to take the ball away whenever they want. The Bears coughed up the ball more than anyone else in the Big 12 this year and have shown a propensity to turn it over at an alarming rate against top-tier pressure – please refer to their @ West Virginia game when they gave it away a whopping 29 times.  While South Carolina’s pressure isn’t as “in-your-face” as ‘Press Virginia’, they still forced the 4th-most turnovers in the entire country, much of which is due to the terrorizing perimeter pressure of Sindarius Thornwell and PJ Dozier (both rank in the top-100 nationally in steal rate).  Thornwell has made his fair share of headlines with his scoring outbursts in the opening weekend of the tournament, but his versatility on the other end of the floor is just as critical to his team's success.  Per kenpom.com, Thornwell led the Cocks in both defensive rebounding and blocks on a per minute basis, proving that the senior can stuff just about every column of the stat sheet.

Under Frank 'The General' Martin, South Carolina will apply relentless ball pressure all over the floor, making even basic point to wing passes seem impossible at times.  Their athletic perimeter unit, along with a pair of mobile forwards in Chris Silva and Malik Kotsar, allow the 'Cocks to deny any and all passes in the half-court without leaving themselves vulnerable to backcourt cuts.  However, where they can be beat is on the offensive glass.  Because Martin will oftentimes have Silva and Kotsar shadow their man well outside the lane, it leaves them susceptible to being out of good rebounding position, allowing opponents to chase down their misses more easily.  This is precisely why Baylor’s length and athleticism up front must take advantage and get to the offensive boards on almost every possession, especially because the 1v1 matchups on the perimeter are less than favorable for the Bears.  The 'Cocks aforementioned size in the backcourt matches up well with some of the big perimeter bodies Baylor throws out – see King McClure, Ish Wainwright, Jake Lindsey and Al Freeman.  

South Carolina on Offense:  On the other end of the floor, the Bears may have the perfect disruptive ingredient to derail South Carolina’s recent offensive juggernaut.  Per my 1st round East regional preview, Scott Drew loves to play an ever-evolving zone that shifts back and forth between a traditional 2-3 zone and a 1-1-3 zone.  An interesting side note is that Chris Mack recently adapted his zone at Xavier to more of a 1-1-3 look, which seemed to work to perfection in their blowout destruction of Florida State last weekend.  This comparison is valid because both Florida State and South Carolina feature guard dominant offenses that feed off constant slashing from athletic guards in order to get into the lane and create shots for others.

By placing the long Baylor wings closer to the baseline in the 1-1-3, it takes penetration-heavy guards out of their comfort zone and forces them to think and assess where the gaps are at any given moment.  And just like most half-court zone schemes, it typically dares the opposition to knock down shots from the outside, something that South Carolina just isn’t built to rely on.  Even in their two opening wins in the tournament, they shot a pedestrian 8/24 (33%) and 7/22 (32%) from downtown, which is actually right around their season long average of 33.3%.  The point is that the Gamecocks have simply had more success driving and scoring inside the arc, which will be a tall task against Baylor.

Key Factor(s):  Though it sounds a bit odd, how loose or tight the whistle is in this game could have a major impact on both ends of the floor, particularly when South Carolina has the ball. The Gamecocks scored 23% of their points this year from the foul-line, the 28th most in the entire country, per kenpom.com.  So while the Baylor zone should inherently limit the Gamecocks ability to get to the charity stripe, the zebras should also play a major role in how many trips to the line South Carolina gets.  The same is true when the Bears have the ball on offense, specifically in the backcourt handling the Gamecocks' relentless pressure.  Much like West Virginia's hack-a-thon style of defense, applying non-stop pressure typically makes a team much more foul prone far away from the basket.  If the refs let a lot of the 'handsy' reaching go unnoticed and uncalled, this will help the 'Cocks force turnovers with ease, which could generate easy scoring opportunities off steals.

Final Predictions: Baylor and the Under.  I just don’t see South Carolina getting into any offensive rhythm against the zone, especially if they struggle to hit shots from the outside. However, as I alluded to in my preview of Michigan/Oregon, it doesn’t sit well in my stomach going against a team playing their best ball at the right time of year (I took Oregon) and showing no signs of slowing down.

SU Pick: Baylor
ATS Pick: Baylor -3.5
O/U Pick: Under 135