-Jim Root and Ky McKeon
(1) Gonzaga vs. (4) Florida St.
- Ky McKeon
Initial Thoughts: Two of the biggest teams in the country meet in a Battle of the Titans for the right to play for a spot in the Elite Eight.
Gonzaga comes into this one after annihilating Fairleigh Dickinson in Round 1 and slapping the Baylor Bears around in Round 2. The Zags dominated essentially every part of their first two contests but face a whole different breed of team in the stupidly athletic Florida State Seminoles.
FSU found eliminating Anthony Lamb’s Vermont Catamounts a stiffer challenge than perhaps anticipated, but rolled Ja Morant and the Murray State Racers in Round 2. Very few teams can match up with the Noles from a size and athletic perspective, but Gonzaga can do just that. FSU had tremendous success against the lion’s share of the ACC during the regular season, a league chock full of size and athleticism, but Gonzaga’s talent level – particularly its starting five – is arguably unmatched across the country.
Gonzaga on Offense: I mentioned in the First Round preview how historically good Gonzaga’s offense has been this season. The Zags are so potent offensively because they can beat you pretty much any way on the floor. Whether it’s transition, spotting up, posting up, or working out of the pick-n-roll, Mark Few’s squad excels on the offensive end. Facing Baylor on Saturday, its first Power 6 game since December 15th, didn’t slow the Zags down one bit. Gonzaga put up a scorching 1.24 PPP against the Bears after mauling FDU to the tune of 1.28 PPP. Few appears to have figured out a role for Killian Tillie, the Zags’ spectacular big man that has missed most of the year with injury, as a potent, off-the-bench sparkplug that can score and rebound. Against Florida State’s cadre of big men, Tillie’s presence will be vital. Starters Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura are All-American level players, but FSU has a knack for getting to the free throw line and causing foul trouble for opposing bigs.
Clarke and Hachimura will be featured heavily in this game. FSU’s size on the perimeter with Terance Mann, Trent Forrest, and MJ Walker will make it difficult for the likes of Josh Perkins, Cory Kispert, and Zach Norvell to find open looks along the perimeter and penetrate at will. Clarke and Hachimura, however, should have advantages on the offensive end against the Noles’ more plodding big men. While RaiQuan Gray and Mfiondu Kabengele are excellent defenders in their own right, keeping up with Gonzaga’s floor-spacing frontcourt could cause issues, and this is especially true for 7’4” center Christ Koumadje. Few big men in the country have the shooting, ball handling, and passing combination that both Clarke and Hachimura possess – stretching FSU’s bigs out onto the perimeter will open up driving lanes and offensive rebounding opportunities. Per Hoop Lens, when Koumadje and Gray share the floor, opponent 3PFG% increases 3%, 3PA rate skyrockets, and eFG% increases. Really, the same trend is true when any two of Kabengele/Koumadje/Gray share the floor, which makes Phil Cofer’s absence in this game very large. Cofer’s ability to defend 4s on the perimeter drastically improves FSU’s three-point defense. Gonzaga’s offense doesn’t rely on the three, but if open looks are there, they will knock down shots.
Another interesting battle to watch in this game is the Zag guards versus the Florida State press. The Noles have picked up fullcourt on 30% of their possessions this season, allowing just 0.73 PPP (88th percentile, per Synergy). FSU uses this pressure to slow down the opposing offense and force turnovers to start their break. While Perkins has struggled with turnovers in the past, he’s been as sure-handed as any lead guard in the country this year and the Zags are scoring 1.078 PPP (97th percentile) against fullcourt pressure this season. Norvell is also a sure-handed ball handler, but backup PG Geno Crandall may have trouble against the bigger FSU backcourt.
Florida State on Offense: Florida State is looking to run in the open floor and get to the rim at all costs. With essentially everyone on the roster able to drive to the hoop and create contact, the Noles get a lot of shot attempts near the rim and earn trips to the foul line. Staying in front of penetrating guards, transition defense, and defensive rebounding are keys for Gonzaga in limiting FSU’s offense.
Perkins, Kispert, and Norvell have proven to be solid defenders this season and, per Synergy, stack up well defending in isolation and off ball screens. Like FSU, Gonzaga is big in the backcourt, starting 6’3”, 6’5”, 6’6”, so the Noles guards won’t enjoy quite the same size advantage they normally see on this end (like against Vermont and Murray State). Similar to Gonzaga’s frontcourt advantage on the other end, FSU, too, will be able to exploit a forward matchup. Hachimura, while superlative on offense, is vulnerable on the defensive end. Kabengele, an excellent 1-on-1 scorer in the post and even out to the perimeter, could have his way with Rui on this end. If Few goes with Clarke, possibly the best defender in the country, on Kabengele, look for Gray or one of FSU’s guards playing the “4” to try to take advantage of Hachimura. Leonard Hamilton would be wise to use a four-guard lineup against the Zags. Per Hoop Lens, a lineup featuring Koumadje and four perimeter players has performed better on both ends of the floor this season.
From a transition perspective, Florida State is going to find much more resistance going up against the Zags than other squads it’s faced this season. Gonzaga ranks 4th in the country in limiting FGA in transition and 22nd in eFG% defense in transition. The Zags’ speed and athleticism across all five positions allows them to effectively prevent scores on the run.
Rebounding is the primary area FSU could exploit Gonzaga on the offensive end. Clarke is a solid rebounder and ferocious shot blocker, but guys like Tillie and Hachimura aren’t extraordinary. Against Tennessee earlier this season, the Zags gave up 16 offensive rebounds (34.8%) and UNC grabbed 14 (46.7%) in a win over Gonzaga in December. Even against Saint Mary’s, a “mid-major” but still sizable squad, the Zags surrendered 11 offensive rebounds (31.4%). The Noles eviscerated Murray State on the boards last round and grabbed 12 (31.6%) against Vermont, the 4th best defensive rebounding team in the country. If Gonzaga loses this game, it’ll likely be due to the glass battle.
Key Factor(s): I briefly touched on Cofer’s absence above, but his presence would be enormous in this one. With him on the floor, FSU would have an answer for Rui on the defensive end and another potential mismatch on the offensive end. He’s a more mobile and lanky forward option, one that would provide some respite on both ends for the slower Koumadje, Kabengele, and Gray. Against an elite Gonzaga team, that is an astronomical concern.
For Gonzaga, protecting the defensive glass is a must. FSU’s only avenue to victory in this game is totally owning the offensive boards, because transition chances won’t be there and dribble drives will be hard to come by. The Zags have so much firepower on offense that scoring against the trees and spider-like length of the Noles shouldn’t be a major issue.
Final Predictions: I like Gonzaga in this one. Mark Few has arguably the best starting five in college basketball and maybe the best 6th man as well. Though his bench isn’t deep, Few’s combination of coaching and talent at his disposal makes Gonzaga an extremely difficult team to beat. FSU will try to make this a physical contest and get the Zags in foul trouble, but ultimately Gonzaga should move onto the Elite Eight.
SU Pick: Gonzaga
ATS Pick: Gonzaga -7.5
O/U Pick: Over 147
(3) Texas Tech vs. (2) Michigan
Initial Thoughts: Two of the most impressive teams from the tournament’s opening weekend meet in Louisville, as Texas Tech and Michigan both dispatched their first two opponents by 15+ points. Both teams’ elite defenses were on full display, with Michigan’s two foes managing just 104 points on 129 possessions (0.81 points per possession), while Texas Tech’s opponents weren’t much better, posting 115 points on 136 possessions (0.85). The two now reside at #1 (Texas Tech) and #2 (Michigan) in KenPom’s Adjusted Defensive Efficiency rankings, so let’s just say the scoreboard won’t resemble the 4th of July on Thursday night.
Both teams are led by phenomenal coaches, as Chris Beard and John Beilein have both won at every single stop in their coaching careers (granted, the 46-year-old Beard’s ledger is much shorter than the 65-year-old Beilein’s). This will be a chess match of the highest order, with each making moves and countermoves throughout the 40-minute brain battle, and a coaching stalemate seems inevitable. So it should all come down to the players…
Texas Tech on Offense: Everything starts with Jarrett Culver, the Red Raiders’ do-it-all wing whose sky-high usage, solid efficiency, and creation for others have rocketed him up to #2 in KenPom’s player of the year metric, kPOY. Few defenders can handle his mix of size and skill, but fortunately for the Wolverines, they have one straight out of the “wing stopper” lab: Charles Matthews. Matthews has been a non-factor offensively since returning from injury, but he still has a major impact on the game due to his ability to erase opponents’ best scorer from the floor. Per Hoop Lens, the Wolverines’ defense is only 3 points per 100 possessions better with Matthews on the floor, but he is critical in this one against a playmaker like Culver.
Ordinarily, Tech could simply turn to secondary creator Matt Mooney to generate offense in this case, but he’ll also be dogged by an elite on-ball defender in Zavier Simpson, compounding the Tech offensive conundrum. Jon Teske is also a premier defensive big man, both due to his sheer size and verticality at the rim as well as his nimble feet and ability to switch on the perimeter. It’s no wonder Michigan defense was so incredible all season.
The Red Raiders do run some terrific off-ball action for Mooney, freshman Kyler Edwards, and Davide Moretti (one of the country’s truly underappreciated best shooters), though, so they’ll still have offensive options. Jordan Poole isn’t a bad defender, but he sometimes loses focus off the ball, and if he draws the Moretti assignment, expect a few open threes when Poole gets caught on a screen or digs too far on a driver. Plus, as excellent as Matthews and Simpson are, Culver and Mooney are both tremendous offensive players who can knock down difficult shots or draw a second defender, opening up shots for others.
Michigan on Offense: Beard is known for his pack line defense, a tight-knit man-to-man scheme that sags off when away from the ball so as to take away driving lanes and prevent paint touches. The presence of one of the nation’s best shot-blockers in Tariq Owens has also allowed the Red Raider guards to extend heavy ball pressure, where Mooney and Culver have shined. Beard’s collection of guards and wings around Owens/Norense Odiase also allows him to switch nearly everything, which often derails opponent ball screens and off-ball action before it can really get going.
Coincidentally, Beilein’s offense is predicated on the pick-and-roll, with nearly 39% of Wolverine possessions involving some sort of ball screen, either to initiate other movement or directly to score. That number is third in the entire country, per Synergy, and the Wolverines score in the 97th percentile nationally on those possessions. This will be a strength-on-strength battle, then, because the numbers adore Texas Tech’s ball screen defense (92nd percentile against ball-handlers, 99th percentile against roll men). The Red Raider roster’s switchability is a different animal than many of the two-big lineups in the Big Ten.
The Michigan offense will need to hit some jump shots, which is always an adventure for this Wolverine roster. Every player in the rotation will willingly fire from deep, but only Poole, Iggy Brazdeikis, and Mr. Microwave himself Isaiah Livers are true consistent threats. If one or more of Simpson, Teske, or Matthews is hitting perimeter shots, the Michigan offense becomes infinitely harder to defend.
Key Factor(s): Can either team get quality shots in this one? Per hoop-math, both defenses force opponents into taking a ton of two-point jumpers, and Michigan (gives up 15th-highest share from this range) and Texas Tech (41st) will attempt to funnel each other into this no-man’s land. Texas Tech’s pack line is more susceptible to giving up threes, while the Wolverine philosophy gives the Red Raiders more of a chance to exploit the rim (despite Teske’s menacing presence). Texas Tech shoots 68.1% at the rim, so if they can beat that first line of defense, a testament to its athleticism and finishing ability, so the shot selection battle will be crucial.
Final Predictions: As I mentioned in the intro, I cannot wait to watch the coaching duel in this game. How frequently will Michigan play Livers at the five to open the court a little more on offense? Can Texas Tech abuse the Wolverines inside when they do opt for that lineup? How will Chris Beard apply pressure to the sure-handed Wolverines, and will Beilein rotate ball-handlers if Simpson has early miscues? Etc., etc. etc…
This game is as close to a coin flip as I can find, and that makes me gravitate to the underdog, even though I’m only getting 1.5 currently (it opened at -2, some books still actually have that number). In a low scoring bloodbath, every point matters, so I’ll take what I can get. Despite the strength of these defenses, I don’t feel great about the under, as I think both teams are capable of putting together strong offensive performances regardless of the opponent. The pick is Texas Tech, and I’ll roll with them outright by a hair as well thanks to having the best individual player on the court (Culver). 63-62, Red Raiders.