(9) Kansas State vs. (5) Kentucky
- Jim Root
Initial Thoughts: By now, I’m sure you’ve all heard the stink John Calipari made about his team’s draw (Oh no! You have to play in Boise! Better send you a care package, Johnny!). But great things come to coaches who whine, as the South Region imploded around the Wildcats, giving them a possible path to the Final Four of 12-13-9-7 (or 11), aka the easiest path ever by total seed. Of course, to Kentucky’s credit, they took care of business in both of their weekend games (don’t be deceived by the miracle Davidson cover in the first round) and ensured a trip to Lexington South, aka Atlanta, aka Catlanta. There they’ll meet Bruce Weber’s Wildcats, who dispatched Creighton and tournament darling UMBC in two destructive defensive performances. Kentucky offers a completely different challenge from the small guards and stretch fours of the Retrievers, meaning Weber will need to use his game-planning time wisely in the days leading up to Thursday night.
Kansas State on Offense: My colleague Matt stressed the health of Dean Wade and Barry Brown in his first round preview, and although they survived the opening weekend without Wade (Brown played 76 minutes in the two games), they will absolutely NEED him in this one. Kentucky’s defense is long and athletic at every position (except when Quade Green plays), meaning K State’s typical slashing offense is likely to struggle – unless Wade plays. He offers a unique offensive weapon for a team that isn’t flush with volume shooters, a 6’10 versatile big man who can hold his own in interior defense while also offering 44% shooting with which to stretch the floor. His presence helps open everything else up, particularly driving lanes for Brown and Kamau Stokes and post-ups for Makol Mawien.
Calipari has typically rolled out a super-stout man-to-man with his deep stable of athletes, but this year he’s also played more zone as his team struggled to stop opponents during a shaky “lost 6 of 9” stretch in the middle of the season. As a result, the team’s turnover-forcing and defensive rebounding suffered, but they completely clogged the lane and forced even more difficult jumpers. Again – K State will need to hit jumpers (paging Xavier Sneed and Cartier Diarra) and (uncharacteristically) get some second shots to take advantage of any zone possessions that Kentucky plays.
Kentucky on Offense: Kentucky has found massive success playing through one March’s breakout stars, point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. He’s been excellent as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, pumping up the team’s sometimes-stagnant halfcourt offense into an impressive force. He can score on his own off the screen, and his decision-making has come a long way against rotating defenses, allowing him to find rolling bigs for lob dunks and Kevin Knox and the “en fuego” Wenyen Gabriel for open shots:
As mentioned, SGA has improved Kentucky’s offense in the halfcourt, but where the Wildcats really thrive is in the open floor. Knox and Green are especially comfortable with room to operate, so K State’s transition defense will need to be stout. Luckily, they’ve been superb at this all year (24th-fewest transition possessions allowed, per Synergy), foregoing the offensive glass to get back and force teams to execute against 5 set defenders.
Bruce Weber will answer with his trademark pressure man-to-man in the halfcourt, looking to use his team’s length and quickness on the perimeter to force turnovers and take away easy shots. K State will make Kentucky play late into the shot clock, again emphasizing the importance SGA’s creation abilities, as he’ll need to find ways to get buckets in broken situations.
Key Factor(s): It has to be Wade’s (and to a lesser extent, Jarred Vanderbilt’s) availability. Wade gives Weber a unique weapon to his roster as a big man with shooting range, a great way to give Kentucky’s defense problems. He can also facilitate from the elbow, allowing for handoffs (and fake handoffs) and back cuts that can take advantage of Calipari’s aggressive athletes. On the other hand, Vanderbilt is one of the best rebounders in the country by rate (though not a skilled finisher), and his presence on the offensive glass would be an extra nemesis for K State’s weak defensive rebound (he sounds likely to give it a go).
I’ll also mention the tempo again – Kansas State needs to slow this game to a crawl, taking away transition opportunities from a team that thrives on them. If Kentucky is able to speed this one up, they could open up a double-digit lead pretty quickly.
Final Predictions: It looks like Wade is going to play, but even after talking about how important he is to this game, I’m riding with the Wildcats wearing blue. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will continue to emerge as a star with his PnR and creation abilities, and it would shock me if Mawien isn’t in foul trouble at some point in this game. If that happens, the floodgates open up at the rim for UK, and I don’t think K State has the volume shooters to keep up.
SU Pick: Kentucky
ATS Pick: Kentucky -5.5
O/U Pick: Over 137
(7) Nevada vs. (11) Loyola Chicago
- Matt Cox
Initial Thoughts: Attention mid-major maniacs everywhere - this is your time to rejoice!
Come Sunday, only 40 minutes will stand between either Missouri Valley champion Loyola Chicago or Mountain West champion Nevada from the Holy Grail of college basketball stages. The NCAA tournament's magic carpet has swept both the Wolf Pack and the Ramblers from the comfort of regional relevancy to the blinding brightness of the national spotlight - but as most Cinderellas of years past have experienced during a Sweet 16 run, that ride was far from smooth. Nevada strung together a pair of improbable comebacks to earn their trip to the Regional semis, while the fate of Loyola's season was all but sealed until two acts of heroism kept their pulse beating:
And if you think the off-the-court hoopla surrounding both of these programs has already reached its peak (I'm anxiously awaiting for Vegas to release the prop bet line for "Who will CBS cut away to more throughout the game, Sister Jean or Mariah Musselman?"), just wait until Sunday evening if the winner of this mid-major duel is able to take down either Kentucky or Kansas State in the Elite 8.
Nevada on Offense: It took every ounce of restraint in my body last weekend not to binge tweet about the beauty of Nevada's position-less basketball. The first and most basic characteristic of the Wolf Pack's offensive prowess is quite simple - they get a shot up almost every time down the floor. The Pack turned it over on just 13.5% of their offensive possessions this year, which was the lowest rate in the country per kenpom.com. In fact, Nevada posted the lowest team turnover rate since the 2015 Wisconsin Badgers, who are regarded as one of the most efficient offenses in the history of college basketball.
And while you might think the season ending injury to Nevada's starting point guard, Lindsey Drew, just over a month ago would've caused the Wolf Pack's ball security to suffer, just look at how tightly they've protected since then (see chart below). Much of this credit belongs to Cody Martin, who has seamlessly slid into a point forward role as the primary offensive orchestrator.
With that established, let's shift focus to the Ramblers on this side of the ball. Porter Moser's defense is by no means predicated on generating steals, but he does have an array of disruptive perimeter defenders who actually forced turnovers at the 80th highest rate in the nation this year.
And while Moser's extended perimeter man-to-man defense isn't intended to take away possessions, what it does emphasize is running shooters off of the 3-point line. Porter was an understudy of Rick Majerus from 2007-2011 at SLU, and one of Majerus' calling cards was defending 3-point line at all costs. In many ways, Majerus was ahead of his time in understanding the efficiency edge that can be gained by funnelling shooters inside the arc to take less efficient 2-point jumpers.
This is precisely what the Ramblers will have to do at all five positions to ensure the high-octane Pack offense doesn't burn them with a barrage of 3s. All five starters for Nevada are competent and confident 3-point shooters - Caleb Martin and Kendall Stephens are especially lethal - which means the Loyola wing defenders must stay connected to their man at all times and close out hard when off-ball help is required.
This will be a tall task, even for a stingy Ramblers defense. Musselman doesn't run a ton of pick-n-roll, nor does he instill any complex motion sets - instead, he removes all restrictions and lets his talented individual scorers and high-level shotmakers go make plays. This side of the ball will resemble a good ol' fashion YMCA pick-up game with the interchangeable wings of Nevada playing in free form with constant drive, kick and fill action.
Loyola Chicago on Offense: Against Miami FL and Tennessee in the first two round, Loyola squared off against two teams that were, in many ways, copycat versions of themselves. Both the Canes and the Vols love to play a grind-it-out style of game and lean heavily on a highly structured half-court approach on defense. And while the Wolf Pack are similar to the Ramblers in terms of individual personnel makeup - that is, both rosters are loaded with hybrid guards and forwards - they differ in their preferred style of play. Nevada excels when the games morphs into an open floor, up-and-down affair, which gives their dynamic playmakers the freedom and fluidity to make plays in space.
Given that Moser prefers to play a methodical tempo on offense, this presents an opportunity where the Ramblers can force the hand of the Wolf Pack in their favor - if Loyola can dictate the pace and slow the game down to more of a crawl and less of a sprint, it will expose some cracks in Nevada's half-court defense (which graded out in the 40th percentile nationally, per synergy). While the positionless nature of Musselman's defense enables the Wolf Pack to switch virtually every type of screen, they are by no means elite as 1-v-1 on ball defenders and are also prone to team-based defensive mishaps as times - see below for a couple of highlights from the Round of 32 matchup with Cincinatti where Jacob Evans just waltzed to the rim with little to no resistance:
While the Ramblers' lead guard Clayton Custer is capable of beating his man off-the-bounce in isolation settings, Loyola makes their pay on offense through exceptional teamwide passing and half-court execution (yet again, another trait of the late, great Rick Majerus seen in his disciple Moser). As much as I loved Milton Doyle (Loyola's leading scorer in two of the past three seasons), his graduation has sparked an unselfish culture of sharing the rock, which has manifested into of one of the best passing teams in the country (Loyola ranked in the top-25 nationally in team assist rate) and a much more balanced offensive attack.
Key Factor(s): In a matchup that showcases no true back to the basket post players, Cameron Krutwig will be an outlier when he enters the game. At 6'9 265 pounds, the freshman Krutwig is an absolute load on the low block and possesses a skill level and feel for the game that is far advanced from his rookie peers. Jordan Caroline typically draws the defensive assignment against opposing 5s for Nevada and he's as battle tested as any interior defender in the country, despite standing a smidge over 6'7 tall. Krutwig certainly has the edge in size to score over Caroline in the post, but Musselman welcomes the challenge of facing a disadvantage inside - after all, the Pack did just knock off two interior monsters in Mo Bamba and Gary Clark.
Final Predictions: The Ramblers should win the tempo battle in this one, but I just don't see that being enough to stymie the individual talent that's littered all over the floor for the Wolf Pack. Loyola's defense is absolutely for real, but I'd argue they're the third best defensive team Nevada has faced in this tournament (and the advanced metrics would back up that notion). It really comes down to how efficiently the Ramblers score when they have the ball, but I side with the Wolf Pack in a battle that features two teams separated by a razor thin margin.