NCAA Tournament Analysis: Saturday GamesPosted by Bennet Hayes, Brian Otskey, Andrew Murawa & Walker Carey on March 22nd, 2014
Half of the field is already gone, and as fun as Thursday and Friday were, it’s time to get down to the business of crowning a national champion. Here’s our analysis of all of Saturday’s games.
#1 Florida vs. #9 Pittsburgh — South Region Third Round (at Orlando, FL) — 12:15 PM ET on CBS.
Albany made things interesting for a while against Florida, but the South region’s top seed took control down the stretch to advance to the round of 32. The Gator’s third round opponent, Pittsburgh, made sure that their Tournament advancement was never in doubt, running out to a 13-0 lead on Colorado en route to a 77-48 rout of the Buffs. Impressive performance from the Panthers, but a second round blowout has never entitled anyone to a bye into the Sweet 16; Jamie Dixon’s team will have their work cut out for them on Saturday. Still though, this is a winnable game for Pitt. The Panthers are a #9 seed in the bracket, but Ken Pom’s rankings have them as the 15th best team in the country, and they actually share a lot of the same traits that have made Florida successful this season. Neither squad plays fast (Florida is 314th in adjusted tempo, Pitt 296th), but both teams are in the top-25 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and each collects caroms at a clip that puts them in the top-60 in the country in rebounding percentage on both ends. Neither team boasts an especially glaring weakness, although three-point shooting is not a big part of the game-plan for either side. Looking at the Pittsburgh stats page can be intoxicating; the Panthers really do look like a top-15 team on paper. An inability to close out games has been the largest roadblock for the on-court version of the Panthers to emit the same appearance, but there’s no reason why they can’t finally win one of those close ones on Saturday. Pitt’s Lamar Patterson and Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin will not spend much time directly matching up today, but expect the bulk of the offense to flow through these two players. Patterson hasn’t been fully commended for what’s been a breakout senior season, but he’ll have his shot at some national recognition against the Gators. Outplaying Wilbekin would give Pittsburgh a great chance at moving on, but Wilbekin – and his gritty supporting cast – is where I’ll place my faith. I think Scottie does enough to keep Florida playing basketball next weekend, and in a game that may feel more like a Sweet 16 matchup than a third round game, Florida moves on.
The RTC Certified Pick: Florida
#4 Louisville vs. #5 Saint Louis – Midwest Region Third Round (in Orlando, FL) – at 2:45 PM EST on CBS
Louisville and Saint Louis both find themselves in the round of 32 after surviving significant scares Thursday. The heavily favored Cardinals were given everything they could handle from 13-seed Manhattan before using late sparks from seniors Luke Hancock and Russ Smith to put the game away. Saint Louis needed a monumental collapse from 12-seed NC State to earn its first victory, but the Billikens should be commended for the fire and poise that was necessary for them to snatch the overtime victory. Louisville rightfully enters Saturday afternoon’s action as the favorite. In the Billikens’ win over NC State on Thursday, their defense struggled with keeping the Wolfpack guards in check. If those struggles continue Saturday, they will likely be in for a long afternoon. Hancock, Smith, Chris Jones, Terry Rozier, and Wayne Blackshear give the Cardinals very good perimeter production and they also possessing the luxury of having Montrezl Harrell in the post. Harrell continued his recent tear Thursday by putting up 12 points, 13 rebounds, and four block in the victory over Manhattan. Saint Louis has been an up-and-down offensive team all season, but guard Jordair Jett and forward Dwayne Evans have proven throughout their careers that they have the ability to answer the call and produce. The Billikens also received a significant contribution Friday from forward Rob Loe, who totaled 22 points and 15 rebounds in the victory. Saint Louis has had a nice season and its comeback Thursday night was impressive, but it is going to have to play nearly a flawless game to get by Louisville. The Cardinals possess just too many weapons and after Thursday’s close call, they should be expected to exert their dominance early and often as they will cruise to the Sweet Sixteen.
The RTC Certified Pick: Louisville.
#2 Michigan vs. #7 Texas – Midwest Region Third Round (from Milwaukee, WI) – at 5:15 PM EST on CBS
Michigan grinded its way to a 17-point victory over Wofford on Friday. The outcome was never in doubt, but the Wolverines did struggle with the slow pace which the Terriers operated their offense in all evening. John Beilein’s squad were able to draw some positives from the victory though, as sophomores Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas were productive and senior big man Jordan Morgan dominated the paint all night and finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds. Michigan’s defense has been considered a weakness all season, but there were no signs of that against Wofford, as the Terriers were held to just 40 total points and shot just 34% from the field. Texas continued its impressive season Friday with an epic buzzer-beating victory over 10-seed Arizona State. Longhorns big man Cameron Ridley, who finished the game with 17 points and 12 rebounds, collected an errant Jonathan Holmes miss and converted the putback before the buzzer sounded to give his team the win. Other than the finish, the most impressive part of Texas’ performance Thursday was its offensive balance. Six different Longhorns finished in double figures and the cohesiveness of the team’s offense was an important factor in the outcome. Saturday’s match-up with Michigan will be interesting for Texas, as the Longhorns have a definite advantage in the post, but are at a disadvantage in every other category. Look for the Longhorns to try to get Ridley and Holmes going early inside against Michigan’s undermanned interior. If they are successful in doing so, Texas will be in the game all afternoon and have a chance to win. If Ridley and Holmes cannot get going early, look for Michigan’s talented perimeter group to take control of the game and carry the Wolverines to a comfortable victory. Put more stock in the latter than the former, as Michigan looks to be bound for the Sweet Sixteen.
The RTC Certified Pick: Michigan
#4 San Diego State vs. #12 North Dakota State – West Regional Third Round (at Milwaukee, WI) – 6:10 PM ET on TNT
So, Aztec fans: you got by the round-of-64 upset scare and, what’s more, the #5 seed you were expected to face succumbed to that upset. So, you’re golden now, right? Not so fast. North Dakota State earned their win over Oklahoma by playing well, not simply because their opponent didn’t show up. And, this will be the classic strength-on-strength matchup: NDSU is #22 in the nation in offensive efficiency while SDSU is #7 in defensive efficiency. But the game may very well be decided on the other end of the court where neither team is particularly noteworthy. When we look at the matchups when the Bison have the ball, it is going to be fun: the Bison shoot the ball well and rarely turn it over, but the Aztecs prevent their opponents from shooting the ball well and force a lot of turnovers. Against Oklahoma, junior point guard Lawrence Alexander came out of nowhere to have his best game of the season, dropping in 28, grabbing eight boards and dishing out four assists, but Aztec senior point guard and defensive stud Xavier Thames (who had three steals and a couple blocks in their round-of-64 win) will have plenty to say about that. Meanwhile, the Bison two biggest stars during the regular season – Taylor Braun and Marshall Bjorklund – were limited to just seven-of-18 from the floor by the Sooners, and on Saturday they’ll find even stauncher defenders across the way, as long and athletic Aztecs will challenge the Bison’s two leading scorers. On the other end of the court, Thames did not have a good night from the field in their win over New Mexico State, but still found ways to contribute offensively, getting to the line 12 times and knocking in 10. Meanwhile, junior wing Dwayne Polee continued his hot play, and he may be the X-factor on the wing for the Aztecs. San Diego State will need to find somebody to provide a scoring complement to Thames, and with Polee having knocked in ten or more in seven of the last 12 games, he may be the best bet. And, frankly, when it comes down to it, there’s this: North Dakota State hasn’t seen anything like the length and athleticism of the pressure defense that the Aztecs are going to show them. The Bison will have their runs, yes, but San Diego State is so adept at taking their opponents out of what they want to do for long stretches at a time, that a team without any experience in going against this type of athlete is apt to struggle to get into their offense, leading to long droughts. And as often as not, those dry spells come at precisely the wrong time for Aztec opponents.
The RTC Certified Pick: San Diego State
#3 Syracuse vs. #11 Dayton — South Region Third Round (at Buffalo, NY) — 7:10 pm ET on TBS
You’d think Syracuse would be happy to see the Flyers – the higher-seeded option of possible third-round opponents – but Dayton may pose a stiffer challenge to the Orange than Ohio State would have. Unlike the Buckeyes, Dayton actually shoots the ball well from the outside (38% on the season) and is a solid offensive rebounding team – the two areas where you must exploit the Syracuse 2-3 zone. This game almost happened back in November in the Maui Classic final, but Dayton coughed up a late lead to Baylor in the semifinals to fall into the third place game and avoid the Orange. Syracuse submitted what was may have been their best performance of the season on Thursday. Western Michigan may not be Duke or Carolina, but the victory included the Orange’s second largest margin-of-victory of the year (24 points), and helped restore some faith in the ’Cuse’s long-term potential in this Tournament. Jerami Grant looked healthy and active in a 16 point, 5 rebound performance, Tyler Ennis offered his usual steadying presence (as well as 16 points and 6 assists) , and there was even a Tyler Cooney sighting! The crucially-important Cooney made four threes and led the Orange with 18 points. With Kansas still lurking at the bottom of this region, it may be premature to grow too bullish on Syracuse hopes beyond this game, but the Orange did look like their old selves on Thursday. Dayton is a dangerous team (ignore the double-digit seed), but the Flyers went just 10-6 in an A-10 that is an NC State made free throw or two away from going 0-5 (outside of the Dayton win) in this NCAA Tournament. The Flyers don’t match up poorly with Syracuse, but with the Orange feeling confident again, there’s just too much talent – both on the floor and behind the bench — to pick against them in this spot. In Orange-friendly Buffalo, the ’Cuse will advance to yet another Sweet Sixteen.
The RTC Certified Pick: Syracuse
#2 Wisconsin vs #7 Oregon – West Regional Third Round (at Milwaukee, WI) – 7:45 PM ET on CBS
It took some time early on Thursday for Wisconsin to get comfortable in the NCAA Tournament, but man, when they did, good night American. At the under-16 timeout in the first half, the Badgers and the Eagles were tied at 20; Wisconsin finished the game on a 55-15 run. So, lest you think that Oregon is the only team in this game capable of big offensive explosions, get that out of your mind right quick. Five of the seven Badger players earning the most minutes have KenPom offensive ratings of 113 or higher, while the other two – Nigel Hayes and Traevon Jackson (who both check in above 100, generally considered the “average” ranking) combined for 24 points, eight board and four assists while shooting a combined 81.8 eFG% against American on Thursday. Don’t like all the numbers? The point is, every player in the Wisconsin rotation is very good offensively. As for Oregon, that kind of thing goes without saying. They’ve got bombers – Joseph Young and Jason Calliste – that drop in threes on a regular basis at a 40- or 50-percent clip. They’ve got a pair of point guard in Jonathan Loyd and Dominic Artis who have finally learned to coexist. And they’ve got X-factors like Mike Moser and Elgin Cook (who had a career-high 23 in their tourney-opening win over BYU on Thursday) who can dominate along the frontline at times. But, somewhat famously, the Ducks play defense, it seems, only when they absolutely feel like it. But, they’ve shown they’re capable of it. They held a potent BYU team to less than a point per possession on Thursday and back at the end of the regular season, they held Arizona to a similar number. So, with a national television audience watching them compete for a chance to advance to their second-straight Sweet 16? Expect them to dial up the defense, right? And, athletically speaking, they’ve got the tools to be the better defensive team than a Wisconsin squad that has regularly struggled to contain dribble penetration this season. If Artis and Loyd (and to a lesser extent, wing Damyean Dotson) are able to slice and dice the Badger defense en route to getting into the lane, shots could magically open up for deadeyes Young and Calliste on the perimeter. Provided the Ducks are sufficiently motivated (and if they’re not, shame on them), this seems like a recipe for an upset.
The RTC Certified Pick: Oregon
#4 Michigan State vs. #12 Harvard – East Region Third Round (at Spokane, WA) – 8:40 PM ET on TNT
Two days after upsetting Cincinnati for its second NCAA tournament win in as many years, Harvard will look to pull off an even bigger stunner against many people’s favorite to win it all. The Crimson played outstanding defense against the Bearcats on Thursday despite being minus-7 on the offensive boards. Against the Spartans, rebounding has to be a major concern for Tommy Amaker. The Spartans are relentless on the glass, led by senior Adreian Payne (41 points, 8 rebounds against Delaware). Harvard looks to have no answer for Payne, who has the look of a man determined to win a national title. The Crimson should be able to score in this game given their quality three point shooters going up against a suspect Michigan State perimeter defense, but in order to win the game Harvard must offset the likely rebounding disadvantage by getting to the free throw line. Harvard’s top four scorers are all 72 percent or better free throw shooters and the team as a whole ranks No. 32 nationally in free throw rate. Michigan State fouls a lot, ranking No. 11 out of 12 Big Ten teams in defensive free throw rate. Since the Spartans are likely to get a bunch of second chance opportunities on the offensive glass, Harvard would be smart to be aggressive offensively and try to get to the free throw line while getting some Michigan State players into foul trouble at the same time. Wesley Saunders has the potential to get to the charity stripe with regularity while a better game from Siyani Chambers will be necessary for Amaker’s team to pull the upset. Amaker is 3-9 in his coaching career against Tom Izzo, with most of that (10 games) coming from his time at Michigan. Harvard will need to play a nearly perfect game in order for that mark to move to 4-9. It seems like a long shot though as Michigan State is just too talented and Payne is playing like a man possessed.
The RTC Certified Pick: Michigan State
#2 Villanova vs. #7 Connecticut – East Region Third Round (at Buffalo, NY) – 9:40 PM ET on TBS
Two old Big East rivals clash in Buffalo with a trip to the Sweet 16 at Madison Square Garden on the line. Although Villanova won its opening game against Milwaukee by 20 points, it was a struggle for some time. The Wildcats’ shooting slump continued as they connected on only four of 23 three point attempts. In its last two games, Villanova is shooting an anemic 8-of-42 from beyond the arc (19 percent). That is likely going to have to improve for Jay Wright’s team to advance to the regional semifinals, especially when you consider how reliant the Wildcats are on the three point shot. The personnel matchup with Connecticut is a favorable one however. Expect Darrun Hilliard or James Bell to draw the assignment on Shabazz Napier, certainly a length advantage for Villanova. Napier will have to use his quickness to get into the lane against the Villanova defense or it could be a long night. Villanova would love nothing more than for Napier to settle for jump shots against its more balanced and longer defensive unit. However, perimeter defense has been a major problem for the Wildcats all year long and the Huskies are the type of team that can take advantage of it (39 percent from beyond the arc). In order to win, Villanova must establish itself inside first with JayVaughn Pinkston and drives by Hilliard and Bell. If that is successful, three point shots will open up. Kevin Ollie may want to mix in a zone defense of some sort to cut off guard penetration and force Villanova into jump shots early in the game. The Wildcats can fall into that trap easily given their love for the three point shot. If they don’t fall, Connecticut stands a great chance. However, the coaching edge goes to Wright and his team is more balanced on both ends of the floor. Neither result would surprise us in this one, but Villanova is the better team and should be the favorite.
The RTC Certified Pick: Villanova