2017-18 Elite 8 Preview: Saturday Games

Sunday Preview to come

(9) Kansas State vs. (11) Loyola Chicago

- Jim Root

Initial Thoughts: Two classic titans of the college basketball world clash in Atlanta for a berth in the Final Four…that’s right, the Wildcats from the Little Apple of Manhattan, Kansas, and Chicago’s Missouri Valley team, the Ramblers of Loyola, will be the center of the college basketball world on Saturday evening. It’s the lowest combined seeding for a regional final ever, but both teams have an air of confidence about them after pulling an upset in the Sweet 16.

K State took down Big Blue Nation, sending an army of Kentucky fans home early (and likely lowering ticket prices for this game!). Their stout halfcourt defense survived Kentucky’s nonstop onslaught on the rim and the glass thanks to Xavier Sneed’s silky shooting and Barry Brown’s clutch drives. It looks unlikely that Dean Wade will be able to contribute, although Loyola’s relative lack of brute size compared to UK could allow him to play a bit more.

Chicago is ABLAZE over the Fighting ‘Blers, and rightfully so – the offensive clinic they put on in the second half against Nevada was basketball nirvana for some (they started 13/13 from the field!!). Despite being an 11-seed in the Elite Eight, they’re actually favored by KenPom’s algorithms, and Porter Moser’s bunch has a golden shot at the program’s second Final Four ever, and first since 1963 (when they won the title).

Kansas State on Offense: While Kansas State will likely breathe a sigh of relief in warmups looking across at an opponent that doesn’t feature a cadre of NBA-sized athletes, some would argue they’re about to face an even more stalwart unit thanks to Loyola’s disciplined man-to-man rotations and superb transition defense.

That puts further pressure on Brown, Sneed, Kamau Stokes, and Cartier Diarra to create off the bounce and hit shots against a defense that won’t give up many easy shots through mistakes or laziness. In the absence of Wade, K State has embraced a four-out system with those four (or Mike McGuirl, at times) attacking out of Bruce Weber’s motion sets, using constant off-ball movement to bend the defense. Watch sneed as he sets a back screen, immediately turns and sets a down screen, then pops for an open three:

Again, Loyola is typically going to be very disciplined against this type of action, not getting lost like PJ Washington does in that set. Of course, Moser & Co. only have 2 days to prepare for all of the different actions, so the Wildcats will still probably find some openings here and there.

Inside, Makol Mawien is a solid screener and offensive rebounder, and he, perhaps above every other Wildcat, will be thankful to not be playing against UK’s bigs (0/4 from the field, fouled out in 22 minutes). Loyola’s Cameron Krutwig is a skilled widebody, but he doesn’t offer the same kind of defensive presence.  

Loyola Chicago on Offense: I mentioned Loyola’s ridiculous offensive outburst through the first 12ish minutes of the second half against Nevada, and it truly was something to behold. Time and again, Clayton Custer, Ben Richardson, and Marques Townes kept beating the taller Wolf Pack defenders off the dribble, and they expertly used the rim as a shield against the Nevada shot-blockers:

That’s not likely to happen in this game, though. Kansas State’s perimeter defenders are stout, particularly Stokes and Sneed, so Loyola may need to use more of its pick-and-roll attack. The Wildcat guards can switch 1-4, similar to the way Nevada did (but stopped doing because of foul trouble), but Loyola’s plethora of weapons are still dangerous in that action.

The difference-maker in this game is probably going to be Krutwig. He was largely marginalized against Nevada due to the opponent’s five-out offense and Loyola’s desire to keep the lane open for drives, but he should be a force in this one. Mawien and his backup, Levi Stockard, both struggled mightily against post-ups this year, ranking in the 27th and 9th percentile, respectively, and Krutwig’s footwork is tremendous. Plus, both defenders are very foul-prone, and the Ramblers’ freshman big man hit 74% from the line.

Key Factor(s): The turnover battle. For such a well-coached team with a skilled backcourt, the Ramblers have been somewhat turnover prone this year, and that’s how Nevada got back into the game late (Loyola had 16 miscues in that game). The Wildcats’ perimeter defense is no joke, forcing TOs at the 24th-highest rate in the country, and they’ll make Loyola pay with easy buckets if Custer, Richardson, and Townes get loose with the ball.

Final Predictions: You could talk me into either side on this one, and hey, how about that – it started as a pick’em! I definitely think it’s a slow game played in the halfcourt on both ends, so the under is appealing, despite the low number. Offensive execution will be at a premium, and while I think both coaches are solid and will have their teams ready, I’m riding with Sister Jean and the divine destiny (oxymoron?) of RAMBLER NATION.

SU Pick: Loyola Chicago
ATS Pick: Loyola Chicago +1.5
O/U Pick: Under 126.5

(9) Florida State vs. (3) Michigan

- Jim Root

Initial Thoughts: In another unexpected Elite 8 Matchup (although not as wild as the one that will precede it), Florida State takes on Michigan at the Staples Center. The ‘Noles suffocated Gonzaga into a miserable offensive performance (helped by Killian Tillie’s last-second scratch), using their elite height inside and oodles of length on the perimeter to separate late.

Of course, that 15-point margin was nothing compared to the demolition that precluded it, as Michigan knocked down 14 threes en route to a ridiculous 1.38 points per possession against a Texas A&M squad that had just railroaded UNC. Oh, and that same UNC team beat this Michigan team by 15 earlier this year. The transitive property! It’s broken! Help!

Anyways, this game brings an intriguing matchup of a coach I would entrust with all of my banking passwords (John Beilein) against one who has almost completely emerged from my doghouse of “fade in March” coaches (Leonard Hamilton). I actually won money on Hamilton’s Seminoles beating Mark Few and the Zags, an occurrence that had me checking the sky for falling puppies and kittens, but at this point, I’m not picking this one solely based on the coaches (ordinarily, I would have). And that’s the greatest compliment I can give to Mr. Hamilton!

Florida State on Offense: I’ve discussed it quite a bit in my first two FSU previews from this tournament, but the Seminoles thrive when in transition, attacking the rim and knocking down threes from the wing. Terrance Mann looked fully healthy against Gonzaga, playing 33 minutes and slashing his way to 8/11 from 2-point range against the Zags’ normally-solid interior defense. He, Trent Forrest, MJ Walker, and Braian Angola will test Michigan’s guards quite a bit, as only Charles Matthews really matches up well size-wise against that group. In the halfcourt, they’ll look to attack via ball screen and drive-and-kick action, constantly looking to dump off to their mammoth three-headed center rotation for dunks and attacking the offensive glass.

Of course, the Wolverines have perhaps the best transition defense in the entire country (8th-fewest opportunities allowed, 2nd-lowest ppp allowed), so I don’t anticipate FSU beating them in that part of the game. They’ll need to execute against Michigan’s increasingly tough halfcourt defense (boy, this preview sounds a lot like the one for FSU/Gonzaga!), which means attacking closeouts like this and finding cutters:

I don’t expect Michigan to have the same lazy feet like Rui Hachimura in that clip, but with so many different creators on the floor at once, FSU will find a way to attack Michigan’s weaker defenders (Duncan Robinson especially). The ‘Noles will also look to attack the offensive glass and get to the free throw line, but those are two further strengths of the Wolverine defense that will be difficult to exploit.

Michigan on Offense: Hamilton heavily favors playing man-to-man on defense, which would give Michigan the freedom to run Beilein’s beautiful two-guard motion. Of course, FSU is a different animal defensively than Texas A&M because they can often switch 1-4 (rather than playing two slower big men), but the Wolverines mercilessly attacked poor Tyler Davis all night on Thursday. They’ll likely try to get whichever FSU center is on the floor involved in the on-ball action and either drive on him or kick to an open Robinson/Moe Wagner for a pick-and-pop three against a slow recovery.

The other option is to go zone, one that I think is worth exploring for FSU. Michigan scored in the 82nd percentile against man this year but only the 50th against zone, which I think can be attributed to two things: 1) zone gets them out of their comfort zone, which is the aforementioned two-guard attack, and 2) they don’t really have a playmaking big man to stick at the free throw line that can hit shots and/or make the right pass. Wagner is highly skilled, but his passing is still rudimentary (just a 6.5% assist rate, not very good), and Robinson and Isaiah Livers are far more comfortable hunting shots on the perimeter. Placing Charles Matthews at the high post is likely the best option, but he can be turnover-prone. If Michigan starts cooking against the man-to-man, if I were Hamilton, I’d switch to the zone, tell my team to FIND SHOOTERS!, and gamble that my tall perimeter players will force the Wolverine shooters into tough shots.

Key Factor(s): It’s kind of a key factor that becomes twofold – is Michigan hitting shots, and can FSU turn long rebounds off missed shots into transition opportunities? The Wolverines were volcanic on Thursday night, hitting several threes right in the face of solid defense, and if those aren’t going down on Saturday, Mann and Co. will look to push right away. I’ve already mentioned Michigan’s elite transition defense, but if one of FSU’s guards can grab and go from the free throw line extended area, they’ll be difficult to stop going downhill no matter who’s back on D. Michigan absolutely does not turn the ball over (2nd-lowest TO rate in the country), so if FSU is going to get fast-break chances, it will have to come off missed shots.

Final Predictions: As mentioned, I see this one as very similar to the Florida State/Gonzaga game, except Michigan will actually have its ultra-skilled, floor-stretching center to combat the Seminole defense. It’s hard to say what would have happened in that one if Tillie had played, but we could get a decent idea based on how Wagner fares in this one.

SU Pick: Michigan
ATS Pick: Michigan -4.5
O/U Pick: Over 143.5