Breakdown: Eight Intriguing Second Round GamesPosted by zhayes9 on March 14th, 2012
Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.
If Tuesday night’s First Four games were any indication, the first round of the NCAA Tournament will be wild. Due to a contrast of style, individual matchups or captivating storylines, these are the eight games that have the most potential to be memorable:
1. New Mexico vs. Long Beach State
After losing the last two seasons to rival UCSB in the Big West final, the 49ers’ four key seniors – led by electric point guard Casper Ware – will be extra motivated to capitalize on a long-awaited opportunity. The committee didn’t do Long Beach any favors pairing them with New Mexico, an extremely deep and talented team who tied for first in a competitive Mountain West and then ran roughshod over UNLV and San Diego State in the league tournament. The Lobos rank 13th in the nation in defensive efficiency and surround walking double-double Drew Gordon with exceptional shooters Tony Snell and Kendall Williams on the perimeter. They should prove a fascinating matchup for an experienced Long Beach squad who doesn’t fit the profile of your typical mid-major. Dan Monson’s team has athleticism across the board – including the last two Big West defensive player of the year winners in Ware and wing Larry Anderson, who is questionable with a knee injury – and shoot an effective 52 percent as a team from inside the arc.
2. Wichita State vs. VCU
The Shockers are flying a bit under-the-radar due to their surprising semifinal loss to Illinois State in the MVC tournament, a rare slip-up which shouldn’t overshadow a 27-5 season in which Wichita did not lose a single game by double figures. Gregg Marshall’s team is extremely balanced and efficient on both sides of the ball, buoyed by the outside shooting prowess of point guard Joe Ragland (50 percent from deep in 114 attempts) and lock down wing defenders Toure Murry and Ben Smith. The key to handle Shaka Smart’s patented “havoc” full-court pressing defense is to limit turnovers and force the Rams to defend Ragland and versatile seven-footer Garrett Stutz in the halfcourt. Wichita only turns it over on 18 percent of their possessions which ranks in the top 50 in the country, an intriguing contrast to a VCU pressure that leads the nation in both turnovers forced and steal percentage.
3. Creighton vs. Alabama
I can’t remember a first round game offering a more dramatic contrast of styles than this one. The calling card for Alabama is a suffocating halfcourt defense allowing just over 58 points per game and limiting the opposition to 28 percent from three; Creighton finished 28-5 this season posting over 80 points per game and making 43 percent of their shots from deep. Whichever team imposes their style of play should emerge victorious. An obvious key for Creighton will be force-feeding their star forward Doug McDermott early and often. The coaches’ son is equally adept at operating in the post or facing up and raining perimeter jumpers, so it’s imperative that Alabama’s athletic wings push him off his preferred spots and make his life difficult for 40 minutes. The dismissal of Tony Mitchell in the middle of SEC play heaped a greater responsibility on leading scorer JaMychal Green’s shoulders. He’s responded with consistent production down the stretch.
4. Iowa State vs. Connecticut
Banking on a stagnant and disjointed Connecticut team to finally click after 33 games is senseless, but Iowa State isn’t exactly a clone of the 1986 Celtics themselves. Cyclones coach Fred Hoiberg runs plenty of isolation sets borrowed from his NBA days to free up matchup nightmare Royce White, a point-forward at 6’8” who leads the team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. Pro scouts will flock to see White battle projected lottery pick Andre Drummond, a talented defender who might be the only player as incompetent as White at the free throw line (30 percent to White’s 49 percent). Iowa State guards Chris Allen, Tyrus McGee, Scott Christopherson and Chris Babb have all attempted more than 120 threes on the season, providing a potential matchup advantage against a UConn perimeter defense that finished in the bottom half of the Big East in opponents’ three-point field goal percentage. Jeremy Lamb will try to wrestle free from Babb, an ace perimeter defender and recurring character in many Big 12 guards’ nightmares.
5. Georgetown vs. Belmont
Belmont is a darling of the efficiency gurus because of their well-oiled operation offensively. The Bruins don’t play at quite the breakneck pace of season’s past, eschewing a full-court press and hockey line substitutions for a more balanced attack. Kerron Johnson, Ian Clark and Mick Hedgepeth are all high-major caliber players with tournament experience, providing plenty of ammo for upset-minded bracket fillers looking for a Cinderella to embrace. The Atlantic Sun (or even Duke who the Bruins nearly knocked off in November) doesn’t offer the bruising physicality of a Georgetown defense that can employ a man-to-man or zone with equal aplomb. Belmont played a similar style last March against Wisconsin and the result wasn’t pretty. We’ll see if they’ve learned any lessons.
6. Memphis vs. Saint Louis
I’ve always maintained that it’s easier to slow a game than speed it up and Rick Majerus’ tournament teams have historically made you play at their pace. Majerus’ unit this season is no exception, ranking #303 in the nation in adjusted tempo and thriving off an aggressive man-to-man halfcourt defense, the post play of Brian Conklin and the point guard wizardry of Kwamain Mitchell. Memphis doesn’t quite fit the perception of a streetball, run-and-gun outfit, but head coach Josh Pastner wouldn’t mind getting out into the open floor and utilizing their superior athleticism. Memphis enters the tournament as one of the hottest teams in the nation, only losing three games by a grand total of six points in C-USA play.
7. Notre Dame vs. Xavier
Xavier might be the most unpredictable team in the entire field. Ever since their brawl with Cincinnati, the Musketeers have battled their own demons (see: article on Tu Holloway where he says basketball isn’t fun anymore) and a series of confounding losses that dropped Xavier from the top ten to the tournament bubble. Notre Dame could frustrate the enigmatic Holloway and backcourt mate Mark Lyons because of their pack-the-lane defense and clock-killing offense. Xavier will have to not only exercise patience and defend for 30 seconds, but their guards will need to make their fair share of jump shots. Ironically, if Xavier can survive the Irish and re-claim their preseason confidence and swagger, a second-round matchup with Duke’s flimsy perimeter defense screams potential upset. Xavier center Kenny Frease will also play a major role not only containing productive Irish big man Jack Cooley (61 percent from two, sixth in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage) but also alleviating some pressure off his guard duo on the scoring front.
8. Gonzaga vs. West Virginia
If you believe that location matters in the NCAA Tournament, West Virginia is the call here. This game will be played in Pittsburgh, not only a short bus/car ride for WVU’s team and fans, but also a long cross-country flight for the higher-seeded Zags. Many are posing this matchup as a battle between Gonzaga’s high-powered offense and West Virginia’s stalwart defense, but the Mountaineers actually boast a higher offensive efficiency due to their exceptional work on the boards, a hallmark for Bob Huggins-coached teams. Luckily for Mark Few and Gonzaga, their frontcourt largely held their own on the defensive glass this season. Kevin Jones is a lock for 20 points and 15 rebounds, but if the Zags are also able to frustrate the inconsistent Truck Bryant and his young backcourt mates, they should emerge victorious.