2017-18 Sweet 16 Preview: West Region

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(9) Florida St. vs. (4) Gonzaga

- Jim Root

Initial Thoughts: Xavier’s much-rumored vulnerability as a 1-seed came to fruition in the Round of 32 (even before many predicted), as a late collapse and loss of a nine-point lead allowed Florida St. to surge ahead late and into the Sweet 16. Leonard Hamilton’s squad used their incredible wing depth and versatility plus a monstrous front line to excel on both ends of the floor in the first two rounds, forcing 34 turnovers in two games and introducing themselves as a legit contender in this year’s tournament. Leonard Hamilton talked about his team’s cohesion after the Xavier game (a little subtweet of Jonathan Isaac, Dwayne Bacon, and Xavier Rathan-Mayes as they raced off to the NBA last year), praising the offensive balance and selfless defense that they played in Nashville.

The Zags, on the other hand, survived a major scare against UNC Greensboro thanks to a horrendous shooting day by the Spartans (3/22 from deep) and Zach Norvell’s late three, and then used a late 11-2 run to take down Ohio State in a wild game that had 29 points scored in the final two minutes (the redshirt freshman Norvell was once again the hero, dropping 28 points, and Rui Hachimura added 25). FSU’s upset of Xavier allowed Gonzaga to avoid facing a revenge bid from the Musketeers after 2017’s Elite 8 bludgeoning, and now Gonzaga has another excellent shot at the Final Four.

Florida St. on Offense: The Seminoles thrive in transition, using a plethora of athletic guards and wings to attack the rim and float to open spots on the perimeter for jumpers. After facing one of the worst transition defenses in the country (Xavier), FSU now faces one of the best in Gonzaga, both in frequency (20th-fewest per Synergy) and on a points-per-possession basis (19th-lowest). Mark Few-coached teams emphasize taking away these easy buckets, meaning outside of a few chances here and there, FSU will likely have to make its hay in the halfcourt.

In this scenario, FSU still tries to emphasize its same strengths through pick-and-roll and dribble weaves to get the opposing perimeter defenders moving and hopefully create spot up and driving opportunities:

The ‘Noles get very few points from their bigs (save for the stretchy Phil Cofer) unless it’s via offensive rebounding or drive-and-dish dunks, further emphasizing the importance for Josh Perkins, Silas Melson, and Norvell to keep Terrance Mann, Trent Forrest, and MJ Walker out of the lane.

The back line defense also becomes crucial against such a barrage of drives. The Zags don’t have the nationally elite rim protection they had last year with Mount Poland Karnowski and Zach Collins, but Tillie and Johnathan Williams III do a very good job of challenging shots. They’ll need to find a delicate balance between stepping up on FSU’s guards and maintaining awareness of where Mfiondu Kabengele, Christ Koumadje, and Ike Obiagu are behind them, as all three will bring the hammer on an alley-oop if given the space.  

Gonzaga on Offense: Like Florida State, Gonzaga attacks through a multitude of weapons all over the floor, especially via matchup nightmares like Killian Tillie and Hachimura. Tillie cooled off from three with an 0/4 performance in two games in Boise, but he’s still a dangerous weapon against the giant FSU centers who are not comfortable wandering out to the perimeter. Hachimura, too, will be a weapon, because he’s very good putting the ball on the floor against more plodding bigs.

The Zags took excellent care of the ball against UNC Greensboro’s press in the first round, and Josh Perkins and Silas Melson will be tested once again as FSU often guards 94 feet in man-to-man with its lanky perimeter players. As I mentioned in my first round West preview, FSU doesn’t always press to force turnovers, but if Forrest or Braian Angola smell blood in the water, they’ll make Perkins’s evening miserable.

Hamilton has played some zone this year, and his team’s excellent length all along the perimeter has made shooting over it very difficult. Their lack of awareness within the zone, though, has left them exposed to cuts and offensive rebounds (the zone negates their massive size a bit here), and Gonzaga shreds zones (99th percentile in the country).

Key Factor(s): Will Gonzaga dominate the glass against an FSU team that has been middling-to-bad on the defensive boards this year? Despite the aforementioned Zags’ transition D, they almost always send both bigs to the offensive glass, and if the Seminoles are at all disorganized when the shot goes up (or try to play zone), Williams III, Tillie, and Hachimura may find some easy buckets. The Zags are also elite on the defensive glass, so despite FSU’s athletes, this could be a 42-30 or so rebound margin if the ‘Noles aren’t careful.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the coaching mismatch that I think is clear here, particularly with four days to prepare. Few is a brilliant game-planner and prepares his players extremely well, while Hamilton is far more of a “recruit superb athletes and roll out the balls.” Of course Hamilton did an excellent job the first weekend – I can see and admit that – but I have much more trust in Few in this scenario.

Final Predictions: I went back and forth repeatedly on the spread on this game, because I think there’s some value in FSU plus the points, but I also don’t want to hate myself for taking Hamilton ATS against Few with four days to prepare. I ultimately think it’s a tight game akin to Gonzaga’s first two matchups this tournament, coming down to free throws for the cover. That said, my favorite bet is the under here, as I think Gonzaga’s elite transition defense will slow down the ‘Noles and force them to make difficult shots in the halfcourt.

SU Pick: Gonzaga
ATS Pick: Florida St. +5.5
O/U Pick: Under 152.5

(3) Michigan vs. (7) Texas A&M

- Jim Root

Initial Thoughts: In a surprising twist, Texas A&M arrives in Los Angeles after whipping through Charlotte with two strong performances, including a demolition of the second-seeded Tar Heels in their home state. Robert Williams windmilled his way into every opening weekend highlight reel (twice!), and the Aggie guards held up against two solid backcourts. They’ll face another stiff test in the Wolverines, who squeaked through the round of 32 on the strength of a Jordan Poole bomb at the buzzer. Michigan’s defense carried the torch, allowing a total of 110 points on 131 possessions in the first two rounds, allowing them to survive a ghastly 8/30 (27%) shooting night from deep against Houston’s similarly stout D.

Michigan on Offense: Michigan’s two-guard ball screen offense will challenge the Aggie guards quite a bit, as Zavier Simpson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman will attack off screens and off the dribble, forcing defenses to collapse and opening up shots for each other + Duncan Robinson, Poole, Moe Wagner, and the rest of John Beilein’s deep stable of shooters.

Texas A&M is coming off a defensive performance in which none of UNC’s starters put up an offensive rating over 93, mustering a mere 0.83ppp, mostly keyed by elite defensive rebounding and horrific Tar Heel shooting (6/31 from deep, 19%). The first item is mostly a non-issue in this game, as Michigan prefers to get back and take away all transition opportunities, but the second item is crucial. A lot of UNC’s shooting issues stemmed from taking average-to-crappy threes to get back in the game, but they were also clearly bothered by the Aggies significant length and athleticism. Michigan loves the triple, and TAMU’s D will allow chances from deep, so I expect the Wolverines to hit 8-12 threes in this one.

Billy Kennedy will throw out some zone with his tremendously long back line of DJ Hogg, Robert Williams, and Tyler Davis, and despite Michigan’s plethora of long range shooters, that has actually been an effective strategy against them this year. Michigan has only scored in the 49th percentile against zones this year, per Synergy, largely due to their lack of a facilitating big man to stick in the middle of the zone. Beilein’s offense excels against man-to-man because of the mayhem it creates, but its focus on guard penetration and inverting bigs into perimeter shooters is largely negated by zones.  

Texas A&M on Offense: The Aggies accomplished one of the most impressive feats of the first two rounds (shouts to UMBC’s second-half offensive explosion against UVA as the most impressive) – they absolutely punished a Roy Williams team on the glass and in the paint. A&M outrebounded the Heels 50-36 (and it didn’t even feel that close), blocked 8 UNC shots, and shot 21/36 (58%) on two-pointers. The 6’10 combo of Davis and Williams overwhelmed the much-ballyhooed undersized Heel lineup, something they’ll need to do again in this matchup against the perimeter-focused combo of Wagner and Duncan Robinson/Isaiah Livers. Michigan is sneaky-awesome on the defensive glass – they box out and rebound as a 5-man unit (the guards don't leak out), eschewing transition opportunities:

Texas A&M will need to win individual matchups in this realm to garner second-chance points, tapping the ball out or simply outmuscling the disciplined Wolverines' defense. 

The part that truly ripped open the UNC game for the Aggies, though, was the three-point shooting. They knocked down 10 threes (with makes by six different players), providing the necessary floor spacing to allow Davis and Williams to go to work down low and to open driving gaps for TJ Starks and Admon Gilder.

Where this matchup will truly be decided, then, is in the Aggies’ shot distribution. Michigan allows the 11th-fewest shots at the rim and 6th-fewest shots from deep in the country, per hoop-math – you basically have to hit midrange jumpers to beat them, ordinarily. Texas A&M ranked only 185th in the country in FG% on midrange J’s, which could spell trouble if the Wolverines are able to dictate things on this end. Starks and Gilder will need to get into gaps and draw extra defenders – either from shooters or drawing up big men help – to find better “value” shots around the rim or from deep. Hogg & Co. will also need to knock down a few shots early to loosen up that stout Wolverine defense, or Beilein’s squad will tighten up into an impenetrable shell (which in turn keeps them in excellent position to battle with the Aggies’ physical offensive rebounders).

Key Factor(s): I’ll pick a key on each end. For Michigan on offense, it has to be their perimeter shooting. Whether against man or zone, they’ll need Robinson, Abdur-Rahkman, and Wagner to stretch the floor, helping to negate the Aggies’ elite interior defense and giving room for Simpson/MAAR/Charles Matthews drives. On the other end, the Livers/Robinson vs. Williams matchup is crucial – they obviously can’t hold up just based on raw size, but if they can positionally keep him off the glass, it takes away a large source of Aggie offense.  

Final Predictions: I expect this to be a slow, physical game, which based on Texas A&M’s tremendous frontline, would appear to favor the Aggies. However, Michigan has been surprisingly resolute on the interior, with the emergence of 7’1 Jon Teske into a nice presence off the bench allowing them to rotate two capable bigs at the center spot. I expect Michigan’s shooting to right itself from the 13/46 start to the tournament and for the Wolverines to compete on the glass, resulting in a narrow Wolverine win and continuing their 11-game winning streak into the Elite 8.

SU Pick: Michigan
ATS Pick: Michigan -3 
O/U Pick: Under 136