Sweet Sixteen Preview: Highlighting One Thing to Watch For Each TeamPosted by Chris Johnson on March 27th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Two rounds of NCAA Tournament play have come and gone. Favorites have flopped, upsets have left bracket-wielding fans frustrated everywhere and Florida Gulf Coast is in the Sweet Sixteen. That last one still doesn’t register; how does a team that gained full Division I postseason eligibility just this season, with an entrepreneurial and supermodel-boasting wife in tow pushing them along the whole way, knock off, in sequence, National Player of the Year and projected lottery pick Otto Porter, then follow it up by utterly demoralizing Jamaal Franklin and San Diego State?
Everyone will have their eyes on FGCU to see what happens next, naturally, but the next round of bracket proceedings, the Sweet Sixteen, offers more than one team, one storyline, one Brett Comer lob, to watch. Here are 16 items, one specific to each team, to keep an eye on — with the common denominator of shining a new analytical light on each match-up. If Florida Gulf Coast has already revolutionized everything we’ve come to know about today’s scoring-averse, slowdown, micro-managed game, where does that leave us – the humble writers who serve to clarify, in long form, what you see on the court – in attempting to understand the remaining rounds of this Tournament? Onward:
1. Is Louisville The Best Thing On The Block? It sure looks that way, and that’s without even seeing Louisville come up against a team capable of challenging Russ Smith and Peyton Siva on the perimeter, of pulling Gorgui Dieng away from the basket, and decoding Louisville’s No. 1 efficiency defense. Colorado State was the closest thing, and the Rams were hopelessly overmatched on both ends of the floor. The Cardinals got the good side of Russ Smith in that match-up, scoring 27 points and committing just one turnover, and when that happens and Louisville maintains its trademark stingy point-prevention, Rick Pitino’s team is tough to beat. The question is whether Oregon, criminally underseeded as a #12, can use its bruising defensive style to counter the Cardinals’ championship formula. Louisville has done nothing thus far to refute its national frontrunner status, and unless Ducks coach Dana Altman can poke holes in U of L’s defensive fortress with Damyeon Dotson and E.J. Singler on the perimeter, and Arsalan Kazemi keeps up his insane rebounding pace (he’s averaging 16.5 boards per game in Tournament play), the Cardinals will maintain that status and waltz into the Elite Eight undeterred.
2. The End Of Ohio State’s One-Dimensional Scoring Problem.
For most of the season, behind Ohio State’s plainly suffocating perimeter defense, headed by one rosy-cheeked point guard roundly regarded as the nation’s best on-ball defender, lay an offense with one glaring problem: DeShaun Thomas was doing everything. For as devastating as Thomas can be, and as versatile as his scoring arsenal has become – Thomas is just as quick to camp out on the perimeter as he is to back down an opponent in the post – the Buckeyes needed a reliable ancillary scoring option. And during Tournament play (and increasingly at the end of the regular season), they’ve gotten exactly that. In a second-round bout against Iona, Sam Thompson (20 points) and Lenzelle Smith (12) were in double figures; Craft (18) stole the show in the next match-up with Iowa State, and there was no greater symbolic statement to his newfound offensive chutzpah than when he looked off Thomas on a critical final possession, lulled Cyclones’ forward Georges Niang to sleep with a deft walk-up dribble, and iced a game-winning three while holding up his wrist on the follow through as his teammates celebrated a squeaky escape. LeBron James took notice. You should, too.
3. Has Miami Completely Brushed Off Its Late-season Slump? In between a then-bewildering loss to Florida Gulf Coast and Miami’s ACC regular season and tournament championships, the Hurricanes lost fives games. Two of them came all the way back in December at the Diamond Head Classic, and the remaining three – at Wake Forest (February 23), at Duke (March 2) and home to Georgia Tech – took place within a two-week window. It was enough for us to question whether the Hurricanes, dominant in conference play up to that point, had finally reached their breaking point and whether all that ACC dominance had run its course. Those questions seem a little silly now, because Miami righted the ship in no time, reeled off four consecutive wins to finish the regular season, and enters Thursday’s match-up with Marquette riding a wave of confidence (even after super-tight Third Round win over Illinois) and a coach whose youthful charisma and preparation techniques belie any assumptions you may have about a 63-year-old employed in America’s retirement heartland. Miami looks to have shaken off that three-loss slump, and a game against Buzz Williams’ selfless Marquette squad will serve as the perfect proving grounds for the ‘Canes Tournament mettle.
4. Experience Is Kansas’ Main Advantage.
As Kansas toiled to fend off UNC during the second half of its Round of 32 Roy Williams-headlined fixture, the Jayhawks were spurred on not by redshirt freshman and possible No. 1 overall draft pick Ben McLemore, but by seniors Jeff Withey, Kevin Young and Travis Releford, who combined for 48 points. Withey also added 16 rebounds and five blocks and the routinely overbearing rim protection that forces opponents to alter their offensive game plans completely – with Withey patrolling the paint, perimeter slashers and big men alike are wary of putting up anything within Withey’s overarching shot-swatting reach. It is these seniors that will drive Kansas’ Tournament journey, and these seniors that give the Jayhawks a considerable experience edge over a talented but young group of Wolverines. But then again, McLemore’s ability to take over a room might be more important than any of the game experience or Tournament wisdom Releford, Withey and Young can offer.
5. The “Without Dominic Artis” Caveat. When Oregon point guard Dominic Artis was sidelined with a hand injury in the middle of their Pac-12 season, the Ducks lost some games – six of their last 11 leading up to the conference tournament, to be exact. The panic meter remained tepid, if only because Artis was such a key piece of Oregon’s offensive attack and, once returned, the Ducks would take flight and continue their success against conference competition. Artis is back, but the full realization of his dynamic two-way game may not be. To wit: 5’8’’ point guard Jonathan Loyd has played more combined minutes (49 vs. 35), scored more points (14 vs. 13) and posted a higher average offensive rating (82.5 vs. 69) than Artis in tournament play, and his three steals against Saint Louis (along with his harassing help defense on Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart) have buttressed Oregon’s ninth-ranked per-possession defense through the first two rounds. The Ducks now have two serviceable point guards, and the casually-used excuse during Oregon’s sans-Artis slump – that Artis’ absence was an outcome-turning blow – is now moot, or something close to it.
6. A Rejuvenated Arizona. Through November and December, as Arizona stacked a handful of shiny non-conference wins (i.e., Florida, Miami, San Diego State), it was hard to debunk the notion that the Wildcats belonged in the national title discussion with the Dukes and Louisvilles and Kansases and Indianas of the world – teams with legitimate designs on reaching this point (and beyond). Arizona wasn’t much to look at in any advanced statistical valuation, but Sean Miller’s team was winning games, however narrowly, and that meant something. Then Arizona entered Pac-12 play and their questionable early-season undefeated mark fell victim to a deep if not top-heavy schedule; the Wildcats finished 12-6 in league play, got swept by UCLA, and lost to USC. Nothing suggested Arizona could rekindle its specious non-conference glory, and consecutive wins over #11 Belmont and #14 Harvard aren’t enough to convince anyone the Wildcats are a viable national title threat, but there is something to be said for catching a favorable draw, pounding clearly inferior opposition, and picking up a little confidence along the way. That’s what Arizona is doing, and it would be foolish to totally discount their chances of knocking off Ohio State in the Sweet Sixteen.
7. The End-Game Composure of Marquette.
Something intangible, something unquantifiable, something weird is at work with Marquette. How else do you explain the Golden Eagles not only pulling off a miraculous last-minute comeback against Davidson when all tournament hope was seemingly lost, then out-Butlering the Bulldogs with a savvy defensive tweak to flummox Brad Stevens’ routinely peerless inbounds-play execution? Maybe coach Buzz Williams is the answer, or maybe the Golden Eagles – absent a single star, powered by a collective toughness and unity – are built to stay cool, run their stuff and come up big when it matters most. You get the feeling Marquette, as long as the game remains in reach in the closing minutes, is going to find a way to win whatever it takes, and despite what appears to be a heavy Sweet Sixteen burden in #2 Miami, the Golden Eagles can take the floor knowing their crunch time performance is, at least until someone proves otherwise, second to none. Oh, and Williams dances. A lot.
8. Michigan’s New X-Factor. If I were to tell you Michigan’s most valuable player in this NCAA Tournament going forward is not Trey Burke, you’d probably pound your fists and curse the fates and say a handful of mean things about me. And the funny thing is, you wouldn’t be totally wrong. How could you be?! After all, Burke is the NPOY favorite, a Chris Paul prototype waiting to happen, a mind-numbing flash of agility, crossover-dribbling, ankle-breaking, euro-stepping goodness, the best player in the best conference in the country. But as far as this game goes, the player most dear to Michigan’s advancement fortunes is freshman center Mitch McGary. He gives the Wolverines the inside offensive presence it has sorely lacked throughout the season, and in two Tournament games his production has skyrocketed: 13 points, nine rebounds and a 105 offensive rating in 25 minutes against South Dakota State; 21 (season-high), 14 and a 164 OR in 34 minutes against VCU. If the Wolverines can divert Withey’s attention away from his typical all-purpose rim-protection some of the time, which is precisely what McGary’s recent offensive jolt purports to do, Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas can cut into the lane, spread the floor and find easier shots more frequently. McGary’s production helps not only his own bottom line, but the team’s core offensive components.
9. Tom Izzo Is Pretty Good at This Time of Year. This is not foreign territory for Tom Izzo. Far from it, actually: the Spartans have reached the Final Four six times under Izzo’s watch; owning seven Elite Eight appearances and 11 Sweet Sixteens doesn’t hurt, either. MSU is back in contention and ready to grab another, and with MSU already having won a national championship in Indianapolis in 2000, there has to be some kind of historical good-vibes thing going on there, right? If so, Michigan State is a deep and balanced trademark Izzo squad, hardened through the most grueling Big Ten conference grind of recent memory and powered by a pair of towering forwards of disparate build (Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix) along with a multi-purpose guard tandem (Keith Appling and Gary Harris) that matches up favorably with most every backcourt in the country. If not, the Spartans are pretty good anyway, and a very good bet to hand Duke another early – relative to seed – NCAA Tournament exit.
10. That Three-Point Barrage Was Crazy, and it Probably Won’t Happen Again. Go ahead, throw Gonzaga to the Wolves. Cast doubt over its 30-win season and weak conference competition. By all means, pile on the Zags – this was their best shot to transform the nation’s perception of the regular season juggernaut who can’t translate high win totals and WCC lordship into deep postseason runs, and their failure anew to move past the Sweet Sixteen (they’ve been four times, and no further, since Few took over in 2000) is turning into one of those inescapable statistics that Mark Few cannot and will not remove from his job description. But don’t gloss over how we got to this point with Gonzaga. Wichita State shot the lights out in the second half of their Third Round upset, totaling a ridiculous 23 points in nine possessions after making just 2-of-20 long-range attempts in its opening-round win over Pittsburgh. The Shockers aren’t in this spot without that surge of long-range precision, and they aren’t likely to catch fire in that fashion against La Salle – which is why the Shockers need to get back to doing what they do best. That means scoring inside the arc, where they made 50.3 percent on the season, rather than chancing their fate outside it.
11. Look For Indiana To Play Through Cody Zeller.
I am not offering earth-shattering basketball intellect by telling you that Indiana will maximize its chances of beating Syracuse in the Sweet Sixteen by playing through all-world center Cody Zeller. The Hoosiers’ offense is predicated on whizzing perimeter ball movement and effective inside-out actions that allow Zeller to go to work – to draw fouls and space the floor and disorient the Orange’s defense in every which way – in the low post, and Victor Oladipo and Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford (sometimes) to provide secondary options along the perimeter. As much as Oladipo has done to energize the Hoosiers’ offensive and defensive capabilities, the fact of the matter is Zeller remains the more valuable player. Against Syracuse, which allows its opponents to shoot just 28.9 percent from three-point land, Zeller’s offensive function takes on a whole new level of relevance. Indiana will find its three-point looks contested everywhere it turns, and Zeller is the low-block safety valve that could force the Orange’s 2-3 zone to collapse just enough to free up IU’s perimeter gunners. As long as Indiana gets Zeller going, gets him cracking open the back line of Syracuse’s zone, shots will open up, Hulls and Oladipo and Watford will find a rhythm, and the nation’s No. 1 efficiency offense will take over from there.
12. Florida Will Control The Tempo. Nothing better explains Florida Gulf Coast’s postseason run than tempo: The number of average possessions a team squeezes into a 40-minute game. The Eagles even out at just under 70, among the top 40 squads in the country, while Florida prefers to play at around 62.5 offensive trips per game. The only way FGCU can conceivably extend its postseason life is by forcing Florida to play at its speedy pace – the statistical aspect of all the dunking and lobbing and up-tempo antics, the breakneck style that threw Georgetown and San Diego State into utter disarray. Florida will attempt the exact opposite. The Gators will slow it down, get into their half-court offense and grind FCGU into the slow and tactically rigorous chess match the Eagles cannot hope to survive.
13. Can Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly Score Against Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne? The most intriguing interior battle of this NCAA Tournament will go down Friday night in Indianapolis, where Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly will attempt to fight through, around and in between Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne for consistent low-post offense. Kelly’s return from a six week-long foot injury coincided with one of the most memorable individual performances of the season, a 36-point night to down Miami at Cameron Indoor Stadium, but his production has declined since. After notching 18 points three nights later against Virginia Tech, Kelly hasn’t scored more than eight, and his most recent outing – Duke’s Third Round win over Creighton – produced a grand total of one point. Plumlee has been more consistent, with only one sub-100 offensive rating performance to his name since a February 16 loss at Maryland. The Blue Devils need both Plumlee and Kelly to find their footing early, and sustain it throughout, against Michigan State’s bruising interior charges. Without it, the burden on perimeter options such as Seth Curry and Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon may be too great to overcome.
14. La Salle is Really Fun.
There is no secret to what La Salle does on offense. It lines up a batch of lightning quick guards, all of them deft ball-handlers and capable passers, and lets 6’8’’ “center” Jerrell Wright monitor the paint. John Giannini’s team is explosive and quick and really tough to prepare for – that is the impression you get when you look at a team like Wichita State, who features a more potent mix of quality size (the Shockers rank in the top 50 in Pomeroy’s adjusted height) and offensive rebounding prowess (their 37.9 percent is 20th best in the country) than any team the Explorers faced in the Atlantic 10, but is ill-suited to deal with the flurry of lane drives and perimeter bursts that buoy La Salle’s offensive attack. The Explorers will try to isolate Wichita’s comparably slower defenders, fling the ball to open spaces and set up opportunities for trademark game-winning shots (Tyrone Garland’s “Southwest Philly Floater” is embedded above), and all of it will come with one guarantee: You will be entertained.
15. Could This Be Jim Boeheim’s Last Game? It is folly to predict these sorts of things. For all we know, Boeheim has another five or more years ahead of him, and his most recent comments on the topic do not suggest anything is imminent. Even so, there are reasons to believe Boeheim may hang it up after this season – his loyalty to the Big East (and Syrcuse’s football-inspired move out of it), the university’s official Twitter account sending, then quickly deleting, a tweet containing a link detailing Boeheim’s requested removal as a result of possible NCAA violations, his general grumpiness, frustration and clashes with high-profile reporters (e.g., Andy Katz, Jeff Goodman) in post-game media opportunities. If this is Boeheim’s swan song, it will be the end of an illustrious Hall of Fame career, and we should enjoy the last moments of one of college basketball’s great sideline patriarchs.
16. It’s been real, FGCU.
I never had high hopes for FCGU; my bracket, like most, had Georgetown beating the Eagles in the opening round. I had my doubts about the Eagles even after they beat the Hoyas, and their win over San Diego State – and all the streetball flair and dunk city madness that took place – was a sight to behold. Florida Gulf Coast captured the nation, and it has become the biggest story of this NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately, this is where Andy Enfield’s team meets its match. I could be horribly wrong, just as I was in predicting FGCU to lose its first two games, but I just don’t how the Eagles take out a Billy Donovan-coached Florida team, armed with the best efficiency profile in the nation, not to mention the unspoken claim of state bragging rights as prime motivation. Not when the Gators are primed for a third straight trip to the Elite Eight and with a week of game tape to unhinge, shut down and stamp out FGCU’s happy-go-lucky schadenfreude.