(1) Villanova vs. (5) West Virginia
- Matt Cox
Initial Thoughts: The first matchup of the East Region's Friday night double header features a pair of squads who cruised to the Sweet-16 without ever really breaking a sweat. West Virginia simply overwhelmed both of their inferior opponents last weekend and had it not been for Terrell Miller's career night on Friday, the 'Neers may have 'raced' away to an even bigger blowout than the eventual 17-point victory over Murray State. Similarly, Villanova wasted no time dispatching play-in darling Radford by 26 in their opener and then blitzed Alabama with a flurry of 3s to break the Round of 32 curse which had plagued Jay Wright and the Wildcats in recent years.
What we witnessed over the full 40 minutes of Villanova's 2nd round matchup against Alabama was a microcosm of why the Wildcats are among a handful of teams capable of cutting down the nets in San Antonio. In the first half, the 'Supernova Snipers' were uncharacteristically off target, converting just 3 of 11 from behind the stripe - yet, Nova still entered the halfway mark with a 5-point lead over a talented and red-hot Crimson Tide team. Unsurprisingly, Villanova's army of shooters came out locked n' loaded in the 2nd half as they buried 14 threes in just 20 minutes and quickly demoralized a flustered Bama defense.
The theme of that Alabama game recap has been regurgitated time and time again this season for Villanova. With how well the Wildcats space the floor in the half-court and spread the wealth around to multiple shooters on the perimeter, it's unlikely Nova will hit an extended cold shooting spell - in other words, at least one of their long-range marksmen will be dialed in from distance on any given night.
The scary part is that now Nova's defense is beginning to round into form, which makes the Cats even more immune to defeat in the rare instance of an off shooting night from the outside - Nova's adjusted defensive efficiency metrics have been soaring up kenpom.com's national rankings and the Wildcats now rank among the top-20 defenses in the country, on a per possession basis.
The bottom-line is this: Villanova's A-game is going to beat anyone else left in the bracket's A-game not named Duke. So the question becomes can the swarming ball-hawks of 'Press Virginia' disrupt Nova's unrivaled rhythm on offense and put enough points on the board themselves to derail the top-seeded Wildcats?
Villanova on Offense: Let's start with this - Bob Huggins has a defensive trump card that no other coach in America has, Jevon Carter, who is capable of rendering even the nation's most prolific scoring guards useless on offense. Jon Elmore and Jon Stark were the most recent victims of Carter's smothering defense, and they were just two in a long line of guards this season who have experienced the terror of being shadowed by the 2-time Big-12 defensive player of the year.
But fear not Nova nation - if there's anyone in the country who can combat the ripping of effect of Carter's ability to shut down opposing lead guards, it's certainly Jalen Brunson (my pick for National Player of the Year). There was one player that proved to be somewhat resistant Carter's defensive kryptonite, Devonte Graham for Kansas, who from an experience, maturity and overall caliber of player perspective, is the closest comparable to Brunson that Carter has gone toe-to-tie with this season.
At 6'2 205 pounds, Carter often bullies smaller and weaker guards with his strength and physicality, which was exemplified in West Virginia's head-to-head matchups with Trae Young and Oklahoma. And while Young probably has an edge on Brunson from a quickness perspective, the 6'2 Brunson is a sturdy 195 pounds himself, which should combat the size and strength advantage Carter typically uses to disrupt opposing ball handlers.
West Virginia on Offense: The ‘Neers were able to score at will in the first two rounds, posting 1.29 and 1.25 points per possession against Murray State and Marshall, respectively. However, the way in which WVU racked up points so efficiently in those contests is the same way they've been lighting up the scoreboard all season long, which is by consistently sending a cavalry to the offensive glass - the question is will the imposing Mountaineer frontcourt find and exploit it.
Nova's season-long defensive rebounding rate is nothing to snuff at (95th nationally, per kenpom), and only on a few occasions were the Wildcats gashed on the boards by elite offensive rebounding frontlines - the most notable example was against Tennessee in the Bahamas, when the Vols hauled in 16 offensive rebounds and Nova essentially won the game at the charity stripe (33/37).
But the waves of bodies WVU will send to the rim on every shot is just a different beast all together and nothing like Villanova has seen this year - yes, that includes Seton Hall. The key here for the Wildcats is redshirt freshman Omari Spellman - Spellman has somehow flown under the radar during his first full collegiate season despite a hyper-efficient performance on both ends of the floor. While Eric Paschall and Mikal Bridges should provide enough length and support around Spellman to keep the likes of Esa Ahmad, Teddy Allen, Lamont West and Wesley Harris from gobbling up missed shots, Spellman will likely get the honor of trying to box out human forcefield Sagaba Konate. Spellman must not only mitigate Konate's damage on the boards, but keep himself out of foul trouble to ensure Jay Wright doesn't have to reach too deep into a relatively thin bench.
Key Factor(s): It's worth noting that two of WVU's starters - Konate and Harris - were banged up in the Round of 32 matchup with Marshall last Sunday (Harris: concussion; Konate: knee). Huggins believes both will be ready to roll for Friday, which is an enormous sigh of relief for the Mountaineer faithful. Their presence will be paramount to West Virginia being able to flex their muscles inside against a perimeter-oriented Nova lineup. As shown below, Huggins RARELY plays more than 2 guards on the floor at any one time and the Harris, Ahmad and Konate combination at the 3, 4 and 5 positions, respectively, should be a formidable defensive counter to Bridges, Paschall and Spellman for Villanova.
Final Predictions: 'The Brunson Burner' has posted an O-Rating of at least 100 in 33 of the Wildcats 36 games thus far, which is a remarkable run of consistency that more than validates his National Player of the Year candidacy...
So what about the three times he failed to surpass that threshold? Welp, Villanova went 1-2, which included losses at Creighton and at Providence, along with a 1-point overtime win over Seton Hall.
The suffocating defense of Jevon Carter could certainly produce another rare episode in which Brunson struggles, but I stubbornly trust what should be a unanimous All-America selection to take care of the rock and focus on finding the other Wildcat weapons on the floor with more favorable matchups offensively - I'm looking right at you Mr. Bridges.
SU Pick: Villanova
ATS Pick: Villanova -5
O/U Pick: Under 153
(2) Purdue vs. (3) Texas Tech
- Matt Cox
Initial Thoughts: With so many other marquee programs dropping like flies in the early rounds, the top-2 seeds in the bottom half of the East Region fought off some pesky challengers to advance to the Sweet-16. For the first 80 minutes of tournament, both Purdue and Texas Tech have looked 'as advertised', performing eerily close to the oddsmakers' expectations in Vegas. The smartest guys in the room weren't surprised to see Butler take the Boilermakers right down to the wire in the Round of 32, and most books favored Texas Tech by a narrow margin over Florida in what wound up being a three point game that came down to the final possession. To sum up this long winded point more succinctly, I'll poach one of the all-time great quotes from Dennis Green - Purdue and Texas Tech 'are what we thought they were'... and that's two really, really good basketball teams...
The main storyline that should dominate the national conversation up until tip-off on Friday will be the condition of Isaac Haas' elbow, which he fractured crashing to the floor against Cal State Fullerton in the opening round. The NCAA refused to let the 7'2 giant play against Butler after deeming a specialty brace too dangerous for live contact. Officials are currently trying to identify a protective device that would be allowable, but regardless of their verdict, Matt Painter has already noted just how big of an inhibitor the injury has been in brief practice sessions:
"He had the best brace you can have and he couldn't shoot right-handed free throws with it. He wants to play. But at the end of the day, you have to put people out there who can help you. He's going to need surgery and they're going to have to put a couple of pins in there. They say it can't get worse unless he falls, but people who cover us know he falls all the time."
For the purposes of this preview, we will assess Purdue's prognosis assuming they will be without their main 'Mega-Man' and continue to lean heavily on 7'3 freshman Matt Haarms in the middle.
Purdue on Offense: With Haas sidelined against Butler, Purdue fans got a rare glimpse of what life is like without one of their twin towers on the floor at all times. While Haarms still clocked in 29 minutes, a major uptick from his 13 MPG season average, Painter was forced to dig deep into his bench as names only familiar to those in West Lafayette were thrown right into the fire. Grady Eifert, Nojel Eastern and Jaquil Taylor collectively delivered 32 solid minutes for Painter, helping to patch up the void left by Haas' absence.
The impact of a Haarms dominated rotation was rather foreseeable to those who've watched Purdue closely this year. When Haarms replaces Haas, the offensive identity shifts away from a steady dose of low-block post-ups to a larger focus on perimeter playmaking, much of which runs through Vince and Carsen Edwards (unrelated).
Both Vince and Carsen showed out in a big way against Butler having to shoulder a larger share of the offensive burden and their effectiveness amplified what's becoming a more audible narrative amongst many college hoop junkies: Less Haas is actually beneficial to the Boilers' offense as it opens up floor spacing to allow Edwards, Edwards and Dakota Mathias to play off each other on the perimeter.
So while Purdue's offense did stagnate at times throughout the year when Haas was on the floor - a few Big Ten coaches opted to not double him in the post to stay home on 3-point shooters - the advanced on/off numbers over the course of the entire season still proves what a valuable asset Haas has been to the 2nd most efficient offense in the country:
What this chart says is Purdue has been equally as stout defensively regardless of whether Haas or Haarms is on the floor - but the Boilermakers are .07 points per possession better with Haas playing and Haarms on the bench (for the exception of an insignificant number of possession where both were on the bench).
As it relates to this specific matchup with the Red Raiders, Haas' presence may be especially missed. Outside of Norense Odiase - who has barely seen the floor this tournament - Texas Tech lacks a reliable low-post defensive presence who can bother a traditional back to the basket scorer.
What the Red Raiders do have is top-notch wing athletes in spades that can check Edwards and Edwards on the outside, which is why they rank among the nation's elite in just about every advanced metrics on defense - but according to Synergy, there's one area where Tech graded out much closer to 'average' than 'elite' this season: defending the post. Of the 1o-plus situational metrics that Synergy tracks to assess team defense, Texas Tech's points per possession allowed against post-ups ranked right around the 60th percentile nationally, far lower than any other play type.
Texas Tech on Offense: Keenan Evans has officially put to bed any concerns that any lingering pain from a sprained big toe would inhibit his production during the final stretch run of the season. The All-American candidate has posted 20 plus points and a 100 plus O-Rating in 4 of his last 5 contests, headlined by two back-to-back gutsy performances in the opening round games. Few teams left in the bracket are more highly leveraged on one player to initiate and create offense in the half-court, but Evans has routinely risen to this challenge all year for the defensive-minded Red Raiders.
While Evans is the undisputed alpha, Beard has not shied away from utilizing one of the deepest benches in the country this postseason - in the Red Raiders 1st round tilt with SFA, 10 players clocked in at least 10 minutes of action. With so many unique weapons at his disposal, Beard can alter his lineup combinations to exploit mismatch opportunities across all five positions, most of which are made possible by the bevy of hybrid wings and forwards. Beard will often toggle back and forth between the hyper-athletic Zach Smith and uber-versatile Justin Gray at the 5-spot, both of whom can guard positions 3-5 with no problem.
Beard's propensity to stay away from a traditional 2-big lineup may actually be a blessing in disguise for the Boilers sans Haas. Haarms is an overall better athlete and more mobile in general and should be able to hold his own if the Red Raiders try and draw him away from the paint - that said, look for Beard to try and test Haarms' lateral quickness out on the perimeter with a steady stream of ball-screen action.
Key Factor(s): There are two key variables to watch in this one:
- Carsen Edwards - If you’ve tuned in for a large enough sample size of Purdue basketball over the past three seasons, it’s glaringly obvious that the 2018 version of Edwards has vaulted Purdue's offense into a new stratosphere. While PJ Thompson and Dakota Mathias continue to execute their roles to perfection (although, labeling Mathias a “role player” is downright disrespectful), Carsen’s emergence as an efficient scorer and shotmaker is exactly what the doctor ordered. Last year, Purdue’s precise half-court execution (much of which ran through Biggie Swanigan) was more than sufficient to score against good defenses - but there were instances, specifically when lined up against top-flight athletes, when the Boilers badly needed a dynamic 1-v-1 scoring weapon that could simply 'go get a bucket'. And in this matchup against Keenan Evans and the burgeoning freshman sensation Zhaire Smith, Edwards could be a huge difference maker in late shot-clock and broken set play situations.
- The Referee Whistle - The drive-heavy Red Raiders generate a huge chunk of their points via the charity stripe, something a Matt Painter constructed defense rarely, if ever, surrenders. Unless the zebras call an ultra-tight game, this ‘matchup within the matchup’ should favor the Boilermakers, which could force Texas Tech to make a few more outside shots than they’re probably comfortable with.
Final Predictions: While I’m far more confident in both teams ability to take away what the other does offensively (*cough*, under, *cough*), I'm betting on Texas Tech to deny Matt Painter's quest for vengeance after the Boilers' inexplicably fumbled away a double digit lead late in the 2nd half to 12th seeded Arkansas Little Rock two years ago - and if you can't remember who coached that beloved UALR team, peep the video below to jog your memory...