Sweet Sixteen Game Analysis: Thursday Night

Posted by rtmsf on March 25th, 2010

Over the next two days, RTC will break down the regional semifinal games using our best analytical efforts to understand these teams, the matchups and their individual strengths and weaknesses.  Our hope is that you’ll let us know in the comments where you agree, disagree or otherwise think we’ve lost our collective minds.  Here are Thursday night’s games from the East and West Regionals.

7:07 pm – #1 Syracuse vs. #5 Butler  (West Region)

We’re starting to worry about this Arinze Onuaku situation.  Sooner or later, Jim Boeheim’s team is going to need the 11 points, five rebounds and general defensive anchor support on the front line that the 6’9, 260-pound big man provides.  Rick Jackson is a serviceable replacement, but the fact that Onuaku reportedly hasn’t even suited up in practice since his injury against Georgetown on March 11 is cause for alarm.  Even if Syracuse survives to advance to next weekend’s Final Four, how productive could he possibly be?  So far, Syracuse hasn’t shown a need for him yet.  The Orange ran over Vermont and Gonzaga without breathing all that hard thanks to the superb play of Wesley Johnson and friends, but there will be a team in the very near future where they’ll need more than Jackson alone can provide.

That team will not be playing SU in the Sweet Sixteen, however.  Butler is an excellent team and Brad Stevens has gotten players other than Gordon Hayward and Matt Howard to step up this season, most notably Shelvin Mack who went 9-12 from long range in the San Jose pod against UTEP and Murray State.  Syracuse is not UTEP or Murray, though, and the wide-open looks that Mack was getting in those games will no longer be as readily available thanks to the length and quickness of the Orange’s perimeter defenders.  Furthermore, Butler center Matt Howard has enough trouble staying out of foul trouble against Horizon League teams; it’s not realistic to think that he’ll be able to play 30+ effective minutes against Jackson, Johnson and Kris Joseph inside.  The main problem we foresee is that Butler is not a very good offensive team in general — when Hayward and Mack aren’t firing on all cylinders, the Bulldogs have trouble scoring points.  Add that to the fact they’ll be facing one of the best offensive teams in America, and you have a situation where numerous things need to go exactly right for Butler to get this win tonight.  Even without Onuaku on the floor for another game, we just don’t see Butler finding enough offense to win this game.

The Skinny: The last time the Bulldogs made it this deep into the NCAAs, they ran into a long, athletic team by the name of Florida in 2007.  They played the defending and future national champions as closely as they were played in that tournament thanks to their control of the tempo, strong defense and  attention to detail, but it still wasn’t enough because the Florida offensive attack was simply too good.  We think the same thing will happen in this game.  Syracuse has too many weapons for the Butler defense to key in on all of them, and even if they catch SU on an off night, where will the Butler points come from?

7:27 pm – #2 West Virginia vs. #11 Washington  (East Region)

Most prognosticators felt that Washington had Sweet 16 talent coming into this season. Lorenzo Romar was returning reigning Pac-10 Freshman of the Year Isaiah Thomas, defensive stalwart Venoy Overton and a forward named Quincy Pondexter ripe for a breakout season. While Pondexter’s prediction panned out, guard play was shaky, road wins were hard to come by, and the Huskies found themselves on the NCAA bubble with seven losses in a weak Pac-10. A conference tournament win punched their ticket, though, and the Huskies have taken advantage of the opportunity, erasing a double-digit second half lead to beat Marquette and wiping the floor with Mountain West champion New Mexico. Their toughest test yet will come Thursday against Big East Tournament champion West Virginia. Washington needs to produce a near carbon copy of their performance against New Mexico. In other words, they need to play a near-perfect game. Thomas must keep his head on straight and continue to make outside jumpers. Overton must frustrate Da’Sean Butler, Elston Turner must continue to produce offensively and Pondexter must out-duel Devin Ebanks.

For West Virginia, Washington seems like a favorable matchup. They may have preferred Joe Mazzulla guarding Isaiah Thomas more than the sidelined Darryl Bryant anyway. Mazzulla is the superior defender and Bryant has been woeful shooting-wise the last three weeks. They also match up well with the length of Washington. Bob Huggins can throw a lineup out on the floor of players 6’6 or above with huge wingspans, meaning the long WVU defense could fluster Pondexter and force him into difficult shots. One possible negative to the Bryant injury is that it increases the likelihood that the Mountaineer offense will become too reliant on Butler to bail them out. He’s done it time and time again this season and in postseason tournament play. Does he have more magic up his sleeve?

The Skinny: West Virginia has a plethora of defenders that can frustrate Pondexter and they boast the best late-game scorer in the nation in Butler. That combination should prove enough to take care of Washington in fairly methodical fashion. Avoiding their typical slow start would be prudent.

9:37 pm – #2 Kansas State vs. #6 Xavier  (West Region)

So long as K-State doesn’t have to play Kansas (and they won’t, thanks to Ali Farokhmanesh and Northern Iowa), they have the profile of a #1 seed with only four other losses all season long.  Like their oft-enraged coach Frank Martin, the Wildcats and their star guards Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente are a little off in terms of their apparent mental stability, but they’re very good at channeling that energy into defensive intensity and aggressive play.  KSU will turn you over, relentlessly attack the rim to draw fouls, and generally strut around throughout the game like you stole something from them.  It works very well, and Xavier has probably not faced a team like this all year.  Well, except for one — these very Wildcats.

On December 8, XU visited Bramlage Coliseum and put forth one of their worst performances of the year in a 71-56 loss.  Stars Jordan Crawford, Jason Love and Terrell Holloway combined to shoot a miserable 8-27 FGs (1-8 from three), and the Musketeers were dominated on the boards (-9) in a game where K-State comfortably led by ten or more for most of the second half.  The K-State defense held XU to a season-low 29% as they committed a season-high 31 fouls trying to stall the drives of Pullen, Clemente and 6’7 forward Jamar Samuels.  For Xavier to have a chance to get revenge on K-State for the December beatdown, they’ll need to do a couple of key things.  First, they’ll quite obviously need to shoot better.  K-State’s defense is strong, but it’s mostly predicated on forcing turnovers and avoiding fouls rather than shutting down scoring options.  Jordan Crawford in particular needs to have a good game, something along the lines of his first two NCAA contests where he’s averaging 28/6.  If Xavier takes care of the ball and hits open shots, they can stay in the game.  The second thing they need to do is gang rebound the ball on the defensive end.  KSU corrals 41% of the available rebounds on the opponent’s backboard with Curtis Kelley and Dominique Sutton two of the very best in the nation at securing extra chances for their team.  Defensive possessions like that are backbreakers for a team, and Xavier needs to minimize those to pull off this upset.

The Skinny: This is a very tough call for us, but we feel that Xavier will have learned quite a bit from their December shellacking at the hands of the Wildcats.  The question is whether it will be enough, and as much as we’d like to go for the upset here, we’ve been enamored with the toughness and grit of this Kansas State team all year long.  We’re going with K-State in a late-game surge where their stellar guards make a couple more plays than XU’s Jordan Crawford.

9:57 pm – #1 Kentucky vs. #12 Cornell  (East Region)

The game plan for Kentucky will be simple: take advantage of every opportunity to run in transition and feed their two lottery picks in prime post position for easy baskets. The Wildcats employ an above-average tempo offense and rank sixth in the nation in two-point percentage. Cornell can throw their seven-foot center Jeff Foote at either Cousins or Patterson, but containing both will be nearly impossible for the Big Red frontline. Kentucky also ranks 144th in three-point percentage and has been woeful in that category in their two SEC defeats this season. Look for Cornell to try to bait John Wall, Eric Bledsoe and Darius Miller into outside jumpers. Even if the Wildcats guards have shot the ball efficiently from deep in the tournament, Cornell coach Steve Donahue will take his chances.

On the other side, Cornell will face their most daunting task yet. Not only is Kentucky superior athletically in every way imaginable, but they like to run and push. While Temple and Wisconsin are solid teams, their style of play didn’t necessarily take Cornell out of their game plan of halfcourt sets and freeing Ryan Wittman late in the shot clock for open jumpers. If Kentucky plays at their pace, this game will be a rout and the Cinderella dream will come to a crashing halt. If Cornell can slow the game, play in the 60s and keep the majority of possessions in the halfcourt, they can hang with the top seed remaining in the field. The key matchup should be Big Red senior point guard Louis Dale against Wildcats freshman point guard and future #1 pick John Wall. If Dale can frustrate Wall defensively into turnovers, that should result in forced Wall jumpers and less opportunities for Cousins and Patterson.

The Skinny: The key to this game will be pace and post play. If Jeff Foote gets into foul trouble or Wall speeds up the game, Cornell is in deep trouble. If Dale can keep his team at the same tempo as their first two tournament victories, the dream could very well remain alive. I see the former much more likely happening than the latter, meaning a fairly comfortable Kentucky victory.

rtmsf (3998 Posts)

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