- Ky McKeon
(1) North Carolina vs. (4) Butler
First off, let me extend my apologies to the Butler Bulldogs, a team which I believed in all year only to pick them to lose to Winthrop in their first round contest. Shame on me. Next, let me say a quick thank you to the UNC Tar Heels for proving my theory that their first round tilt with Texas Southern was one of the most lopsided matchups of the season.
Butler enters the Sweet 16 after beating two mid-major opponents by eerily similar scores (76-64 & 74-65), and neither game was really ever in doubt for Chris Holtmann’s squad. UNC followed up their Texas Southern beat down by nearly losing to Arkansas after leading 30-13 in the first half. We can look at the Heels’ scare in one of two ways, 1) UNC is very beatable and is lucky to be alive, or 2) Arkansas gave the mighty Heels just the wake-up call they needed to unleash a flurry of dominance on the remaining South contenders. Butler fans hope for the former.
North Carolina on Offense:
I’m going to largely ignore UNC’s first round battle in which they were able to basically get anything they wanted near the basket and ate every offensive rebound in sight against an inferior Tiger interior, and instead focus on the Heels’ match against the Razorbacks. The game plan in this one didn’t change from the First Round, nor from any other Carolina contest this season. UNC emphasized attacking the basket via post-ups and offensive rebounds from Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks, and running off Razorback shot attempts. They were largely successful in the early going, particularly in transition as Joel Berry and Co. were able to beat the defense down the floor, setting up easy finishes at the cup.
The Heels dominated the offensive glass, grabbing 18 boards (.429 OR%), 12 of which were in the first half, and appeared to be headed for an easy Round of 32 win. But this was a game of two halves.
In the first half, UNC’s offense flowed behind Berry’s willingness to push the tempo, and both he and Justin Jackson were able to find open shots in rhythm at the start. The Heels complemented this guard attack by exploiting post mismatches whenever possible, especially when Meeks had Dustin Thomas on him on the block. Kingsley was a bit of a better challenger, but Meeks was still able to win the first half glass battle. The Heels were also able to take advantage of the Hogs’ early-game sloppiness on both sides of the ball. Arkansas had issues taking care of the rock in the first half, and its pressure was disorganized on the other end, leading to easy slips to the bucket in the half court. This played right into UNC’s hooves (Ram joke), as the wild Hog pressure created natural spacing on offense.
UNC’s offensive set consists of two post men on the block and three guards up top. Oftentimes one post will come set an elbow ball screen, leading to wing flairs or a pick-n-roll opportunity. Other times, the post will set a ball screen outside the arc, followed by a down screen for a shooter coming off the block. This offense leads to spacing issues occasionally, especially when both bigs are posting and the wings stay sedentary on the edges. Butler’s goal will be to slow UNC down and make them play in the half court, because it’s in transition where they are most dangerous. The Heels are adept at getting the ball up the floor, setting up a quick three opportunity. This often leads to an easy offensive board put-back thanks to the athleticism and mobility of the UNC bigs.
The second half of the Arkansas game holds the secret to beating the Heels. The Hogs ramped up the pressure (this time there was a method to the madness), which caused the UNC guards, particularly Nate Britt, difficulties on the perimeter. In addition, Arkansas began collapsing on the post hard whenever Meeks, Hicks, or Tony Bradley caught the entry pass. This led steals off the big man’s kick out and spacing issues for the Heels. UNC was also to blame for the Arkansas comeback; the Heels started to go away from the post late in the game, looking off open bigs on the block. When UNC big men aren’t getting touches, the offense gets jumbled and this leads to poor shot selection
ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson had a pretty bad game overall, but he really stepped up to save the Heels’ bacon late in the game, becoming the go-to-guy on nearly every sub-7:00 minute UNC possession.
Butler doesn’t possess near the pressure capabilities of the Razorbacks, so forcing UNC to play loose with the ball may be a challenge. However, the Dogs are a better defensive rebounding team than Arkansas (by a long shot), and have a post defender in Andrew Chrabascz that’s capable of competing with Meeks inside. Further, Butler does a good job limiting transition opportunities and preventing easy buckets on the run, a major key against this UNC team.
Butler on Offense:
My initial fear for Butler coming into the tournament was their heavy reliance on jump shooting to score buckets. Only 50 teams in the country shoot less shots at the rim than the Dogs, meaning games often come down to how well Butler’s shots are falling on a given night. I will caveat this “jump-shot reliant” statement with the fact that Butler usually does a good job at getting to the foul line, especially recently. When shots are falling, life’s good, and the Dogs are a very hard team to beat when this happens given the vast array of talented shooters they have on the roster. Through two games thus far in the Big Dance, Butler is shooting 51.6% from inside the arc (32/62), 47% from deep (16/34), and 71.6% from the line (38/53). Those shooting clips combined with a limitation on turnovers (only 11 TO per game in 2 contests), is a winning formula for success.
Butler is unlike UNC in that they do not crash the offensive glass whatsoever. Through two Tourney games, Butler has grabbed a grand total of seven offensive rebounds on 52 chances. This takes away an avenue for easy buckets, but it also ensures that the Dogs rarely get beat down the floor in transition (as alluded to above). The good news for Butler fans, is that the Dogs really don’t need this avenue of scoring to win ball games. Butler’s half-court offense is excellent and surgeon-like with its precision. The Dogs run multiple sets to initiate offense, including a “horns” set up where two big men offer the point guard a ball screen on either side, a dribble handoff action that gets the defense moving east-to-west, and a four-flat set that often unfolds into a pick-n-roll scenario with deadly shooters in the corners. Holtmann’s squad also has cute little quick hitters like this:
In the above GIF, we see the point (Kethan Savage) enter the ball to the wing then dive to block. The ball is then reversed to the top of the key to Kelan Martin, and then swung to the opposite wing. While Martin is initiating his pass to the opposite wing, Savage runs up from the block and lands a back screen on Martin’s defender. Martin then has an easy deuce opportunity thanks to the excellent floor spacing by his three other teammates.
Actions like this are possible due to Butler’s elite ability to space the floor. The spacing allows for the Dogs’ guards to penetrate freely into the middle of the lane to set up kick opportunities, and allows for plenty of room on pick-n-roll situations.
The two biggest keys for Butler on offense against UNC will be the play of Kelan Martin and Andrew Chrabascz. Martin picks his spots, but he is lethal from everywhere on the floor, and can score in a variety of ways; he’s also one of the best at drawing fouls on the roster. Justin Jackson or Theo Pinson will be a formidable matchup for Martin with their respective length and physicality, but Martin has shown his ability to score on elite defenders before – he put up 22 against Villanova on February 22nd. Chrabascz will especially be huge for Butler with his mobility. Butler’s offense often features Chrabascz setting high ball screens and then flaring out to the top of the key where he can knock down a jumper, or take his slower defender off the bounce. If UNC decides to go smaller on Chrabascz, he should be able to find ample opportunities on the low block where he scores at a high rate.
The Tar Heels defense could cause Butler some problems. UNC’s length across the board makes them a tough team to find open looks against. Teams scored only 0.875ppp on spot-ups against the Heels this season (per Synergy), one of the best defensive marks in the country. Butler likely also won’t find too much success in the post either with the triumvirate of Meeks, Hicks, and Bradley – all more than adequate post defenders. We’ve seen good half-court offenses pick apart the Heels this year, however, with the likes of Miami, Indiana, Virginia, and Duke, so the Dogs could certainly come away with a victory in this one if they can control the pace and limit turnovers (which should be a doable task against a defense that isn’t necessarily looking for pilfers).
This will be a tempo battle. UNC wants to push off opponent makes and misses and beat their defenders down the floor. Butler prefers to walk it up and execute in the half-court. In my opinion, Butler can adapt to a faster pace better than UNC can adapt to a slower one – but I don’t have any fancy facts to necessarily back that take up. Rebounding, of course, will also be a key. UNC has demolished their opponents on the offensive glass this season, so the Dogs will need to focus on blocking out and rebounding as a team. For the Heels, it’s all about extending out on Butler shooters. They have the size in the paint to negate most post-play, but they’ll need to get hands in the faces of perimeter players in order to come away with a victory.
This one will be close; Butler is intelligent and very well-coached, two factors that can offset a superior athletic team. In the end I think UNC’s size gets the best of the Dogs, but rest assured we’re in for a good fight.
SU Pick: North Carolina
ATS Pick: Butler +7
O/U Pick: Over 153
(2) Kentucky vs. (3) UCLA
This is one of those matchups you pray for as you look at the completed bracket on Selection Sunday. In addition to being two of the most storied programs in NCAA history and bona-fide “Blue Bloods”, Kentucky and UCLA feature a handful of the brightest young stars in all of college basketball and play a fast-paced, up-and-down style that is magnificent to behold.
We’ve already seen Round 1 of this matchup, with the exciting affair that took place back in early December when UCLA took down the then #1 Kentucky Wildcats at Rupp Arena, ending their 42-game home win streak. That game ended 97-92, with both squads able to score on the other at will, making it feel more like an NBA All-Star than a non-conference college match in December. If that performance was any indication, we are all in for one heck of a treat in UK/UCLA Round 2: Big Cats vs. Brown Bears.
Kentucky on Offense:
Wichita State did an excellent job at limiting the Wildcats’ transition attack in the Round of 32 game. As I stated in my initial South Region preview, UK is a heavy transition-reliant offense, looking to push the ball hard up the floor on opponent misses and makes. Against Wichita, UK was forced to play in the half-court far more than they’re used to. While UCLA will likely allow plenty more opportunities for transition than the Shockers as a result of both teams’ frenetic paces, I’ll focus in on what Kentucky does in the half-court.
The Cats are a screen-heavy, pick-n-roll focused offense in the half-court. Possessions often start with the trailing big man setting a ball screen either for De’Aaron Fox at the top of the key once Fox gets to the three-point line, or for the wing that Fox enters the ball to in order to set up the offense. The sequence that follows depends on the Wildcat handling the rock. Isaiah Briscoe and Fox prefer to drive hard to the basket, hoping for an easy lay-up, floater in the lane, or contact to draw a trip to the line. Malik Monk is more “finesse” with his ball screen approach – he’ll often pull up from mid-range or step back into a smooth three. The “roller” in the pick-n-roll and complementary pieces around the court also play important roles. Bam Adebayo is excellent at diving to the hoop after setting a screen, oftentimes catching a thundering alley-oop from the handling guard. Derek Willis has a particular off-ball action that I’m particularly inclined towards:
Don’t pay attention to the missed shot, instead check out the action. Willis starts on the block and waits for Isaac Humphries to set a ball screen for Dominique Hawkins. When Humphries rolls to the paint, Willis effectively “replaces” him at the top on the wing, setting up an open look from three. Willis’s size combined with his deadly stroke make him a matchup nightmare.
The Orchestrator of the offense is Fox. The outstanding freshman has the ball in his hands nearly the entire time he is on the floor. He has tremendous vision pushing the ball up in transition, and has a tendency to set up teammates nicely for open shots from the outside. Fox led the SEC in assists this year with 4.8 per game. Monk is the great “bail-out artist” of the offense. Coach Calipari alluded to this in his Wichita State halftime interview with the sideline reporter, but whenever UK’s offense is stagnant or unsuccessful on consecutive trips, Monk is there to make a big-time shot to jolt the Cats back to life. This was an absolute back breaker late in the game versus WSU:
As great as Fox and Monk are, Adebayo is the key to this game. Bam has increasingly become a beast on post-ups this season and should be able to once again manhandle UCLA’s defenders inside. In the first meeting between the two squads, Bam went for 18 and 13, and shot 10/13 from the foul line.
UCLA will struggle (again) to stop Kentucky from scoring. The Bruins are basically average or below average at defending everything the Cats try to do on offense. Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton routinely get torched guarding the pick-n-roll, however Lonzo Ball is a capable defender with his length. Opponents also score relatively easily on the Bruins in transition. While T.J. Leaf and Ike Anigbogu are actually good post defenders numbers-wise, they’re presence isn’t enough to limit second chance opportunities, which could be a big factor against a UK team that likes to eat the glass. Leak outs on offense tend to lead to easy second chance opportunities. Kentucky will score, but let’s be honest, UCLA isn’t winning games with their defense.
UCLA on Offense:
I seriously wish LaVar Ball would shut the (expletive) up, because he’s literally ruining UCLA basketball for me. Lonzo Ball is the most exciting player to watch in college basketball, and yet here I am feeling animosity towards him because his freaking Dad. I will continue to try so hard to keep the blinders on and ignore everything LaVar says, but damn it gets tough.
The Bruins are Kentucky’s high-flying, run-n-gun offense on steroids. Nobody in the country matches the artful display of transition greatness of Ball and the Bruins. Ball glides down the court like Iceman riding his ice beam, deftly maneuvering through the defense as if he’s playing against kindergarteners. This is where the Bruins score their points most often, and it’s where they are most dangerous
Cincinnati did a pretty good job at limiting the Bruins’ transition opportunities by slowing down the tempo and eating game clock. Kentucky wants to play as fast as UCLA does, so we’ll likely see about twice as many of those chances in this game. But since UCLA isn’t the Citadel, they will set up offense in the half-court as well, which is where we will focus the rest of the breakdown.
UCLA’s floor spacing and elite passing ability across all five positions makes them deadly in the half-court. The offense is a pretty simple motion-style, heavy in the pick-n-roll and pass-and-cut, with guards free to roam in and out of the lane, often popping up to the wing off dual big men down screens. Ball is the catalyst and ensures the rock goes to where it is most needed: if he sees T.J. Leaf in the post with a mismatch, boom it goes to Leaf; Alford in the corner? Boom, quick pass for an open three. It’s Ball’s next-level decision making that makes this type of offense really flow. He’s very effective off a pick-n-roll situation, dicing towards the basket or kicking out to one of the million capable Bruin shooters.
All five UCLA players on the floor move incredibly well without the ball. When a guard cuts to an open spot on the perimeter, another guard takes his place in his previous spot. It’s this “relocate and replace” tendency that makes the offense hum. Thomas Welsh and Leaf are particularly great at this, always moving in sync from the low post to the elbow, creating hi-lo opportunities and causing dilemmas for the defense with their respective shooting and posting abilities. Aaron Holiday adds a unique wrinkle to the already potent offense with his penetration ability – the threat of his jump shot (41.4% from three) allows him to force defenders off-balance with a pump fake and blow by on a drive.
A lot of teams are able to stick around with UCLA in the early going, but the constant onslaught of made three-pointers makes opposing units weary, eventually causing their backs to break. For Cincy, this happened at between the 13:30 and 12:30 minute marks in the second half where the Bruins jaunted down the floor three times and canned three straight jumpers in succession. Brutal.
Here’s one of the best examples of UCLA’s offensive beauty from that Cincy game:
(GIF 18:10 2h)
I mean, that’s fucking glorious. Three different players could have attempted a pretty good on that possession, but they made the unselfish, extra pass to end up with a terrific look.
Kentucky obviously didn’t do anything to stop UCLA in their first meeting, allowing the Bruins to shoot 58.1% from two, 43.5% from three, and 17/21 from the FT line, but they did force UCLA to cough up the rock an uncharacteristic 18 times. This could be the key to beating UCLA in the tournament. Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox clearly bothered UCLA’s guards in the first outing and forced Ball to try to make impossible plays (which, yes he still made occasionally). UK is normally good at defending the three; the Cats are 63rd in allowing three-point attempts, and 12th in 3P% defense. UCLA is going to make some tough shots, the key for Cal’s crew is to continue to get hands in shooters’ faces and not lose morale when some of those prayers are falling.
Throw defense out in this one (not really, but it’s a cool, dramatic thing to say), this game will be won on the offensive end. Both teams will score in bunches so it’ll come down to who has the hotter hand and who better executes in transition and in the half-court. Also – keep a look out for Bruin foul trouble. Adebayo was able to force both Welsh and Anigbogu to foul out at Rupp Arena; if he can do something similar in Memphis, Kentucky will have a real good shot at advancing.
I can’t wait to watch this one; it has “Game of the Year” potential written all over it. I think we’re going to see a ton of scoring, more than a few “HOLY SHIT!” plays, and some good all-around fun. This game’s a toss-up, so I’ll lean towards my anti-Calipari stance and take the Bruins by a field goal.
SU Pick: UCLA
ATS Pick: UCLA -1
O/U Pick: Over 165.5