NCAA Tournament Game Analysis: Sweet Sixteen, Thursday NightPosted by Andrew Murawa (@amurawa) & Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) on March 27th, 2014
Andrew Murawa (@amurawa) is the NCAA Tournament’s West Region correspondent, and Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) is the NCAA Tournament’s South Region correspondent. Make sure to also follow @RTCSouthRegion and @RTCWestRegion for news and analysis from Memphis and Anaheim throughout the weekend.
Tonight we tip off the Sweet Sixteen with games from the South Region in Memphis, TN, and the West Region in Anaheim, CA. Here are the breakdowns for tonight’s games.
#10 Stanford vs. #11 Dayton — South Region Sweet Sixteen (at Memphis, TN) — 7:15 PM ET on CBS
Nobody expected the Flyers or Cardinal to be in this spot, but one of the two teams will be a game away from the Final Four after Thursday night. This battle between party crashers doesn’t figure to be the most entertaining Sweet Sixteen matchup when it comes to talent and overall quality of basketball, but after Stanford knocked off New Mexico and Kansas by a combined eight points, and Dayton defeated Ohio State and Syracuse by a mere three total points, we should at least be able to count on this game being a tight one. KenPom doesn’t disagree, as his predictor foresees a one-point final margin. Stanford is the team on the right side of that predicted final score, and despite displaying maddening amounts of game-to-game inconsistency all season long, I can’t find a way to disagree that it will be the Cardinal advancing to the regional final.
Both these teams are double-digit seeds that the FedEx Forum could have never seen coming, but the narrative surrounding the two teams this week has pegged Dayton as the truer “Cinderella.” Vegas oddsmakers have also pegged the Flyers as a three-point underdog, and there’s also that three-decade Sweet Sixteen drought that lends itself to the role of plucky little David. But before recognizing that Stanford is hardly akin to Goliath, let’s also take a second to note that this Dayton team is more accomplished than many surprise second-weekend visitors of NCAA Tournaments past. They were the best team in the Atlantic 10 from February on (a league that sent six teams to this Tournament), have gone 12-2 in their last 14 games, and were one point and a late collapse away from beating Baylor in the Maui Invitational (they wound up beating Cal by 18 in the third place game). Their inclusion in this NCAA Tournament hung in the balance all season, but they’ve proven they belonged – both before and after admission was granted.
Now that I said all those nice things about Dayton, it’s time to pick a Stanford team that I’ve disparaged all season long, to beat them. Truth is, I’m not sure which way to go with this game. Everything points to a close game (that’s what Stanford and Dayton do!), so expect the team that finds the big shot or two down the stretch to emerge a winner. With that in mind, I’ll take the side with the best player on the floor. Chasson Randle has been spectacular in this Tournament, and there’s no reason to expect his production to slow down against a Flyers team that struggles to defend (only Baylor and Michigan have worse defensive efficiency ratings among the remaining teams). Dayton’s last loss came to St. Joseph’s in the A-10 Tournament, largely due to a 31-point performance from Hawks guard Langston Galloway. Randle and Galloway are very similar players – could the Flyers be in for a bit of déjà vu? Randle is fully capable of making it happen, so I’ll take the Cardinal, their star, and a bigger, more athletic Stanford front line to survive and advance.
The RTC Certified Pick: Stanford
#2 Wisconsin vs. #6 Baylor – West Regional Semifinal (at Anaheim, CA) – 7:47 PM ET on TBS
Let’s quickly jump in the time machine and head back to the start of February. On Groundhog Day, Wisconsin woke up looking in the rear-view mirror at five losses in six games, a stretch over which they allowed 1.10 points per possession with four of their six opponents in those game non-NCAA Tournament participants. Baylor woke up that morning in a little bit better space, because they were at least coming off a win, having upped their record in conference play to just 2-6. However, for the Bears, things were about to get worse with a visit from Kansas and a trip to Oklahoma looming; both would turn into losses. But, get this: Since that Baylor loss to to the Sooners, these teams have combined for a total of four losses, and all of those were to future NCAA Tournament teams. What’s more, these teams come into today’s game with average margins of victory in the NCAA Tournament of 23 points per game. In other words, both of these teams are absolutely rolling.
The similarities don’t stop there: Both of these teams are relatively down-tempo; they are among the six most efficient offensive teams in the nation; and they are both are sub-50 in defensive efficiency. So: great offensive teams playing average defensive teams. Let’s get it on. Another area both teams have in common is that they shoot a lot of three-pointers, with Wisconsin shooting 39.7 percent of their shots from deep (the national average is 32.3 percent), while Baylor launches 34.6 percent of theirs from three. The Bears shoot it a little bit better than the Badgers, but both shoot it well. One area where Bo Ryan’s team has a significant edge is in defending the three-point shot. While Baylor’s zone defense tends to allow their opponents to shoot plenty of threes, the Badgers are 11th in the nation in limiting their opponents’ three-point looks, only allowing them to shoot 25.9 percent of their field goals from behind the arc. Meanwhile, Baylor’s other biggest offensive strength – offensive rebounding (third in the nation with a 40.6 OR%) – is counteracted by the fact that the Badgers make it a priority to send every single person on the court to the defensive glass (seriously, seven of their eight rotation players have defensive rebounding percentages above 10 percent), making them the 11th-best defensive rebounding team in the country. If those two trends – Wisconsin keeping the Bears from getting good looks from three and neutralizing them on the offensive glass – hold up tonight, Wisconsin advances.
The RTC Certified Pick: Wisconsin
#1 Florida vs. #4 UCLA — South Region Sweet Sixteen (at Memphis, TN) — 9:45 PM ET on CBS.
With all due respect to the bracket-busting Dayton and Stanford have done, there’s no debating that UCLA and Florida is the show-stealing matchup here in Memphis. The plucky underdogs on the bottom of the region squeezed out their four first-weekend wins by a combined 11 points, but for the two titans at the top of the region, each of the four victories came by at least 11 points. While neither the Bruins nor the Gators had much trouble in making their way to Memphis, one team will see their season end on Thursday night. Florida, the NCAA Tournament’s #1 overall seed, enters this game as a solid favorite, but the up-tempo, uber-efficient UCLA offensive attack could pose a significant challenge to the Gators and the nation’s longest winning streak.
So, we think Florida has a pretty good defense, right? The answer is yes, and they do – with Scottie Wilbekin offering ferocious on-ball defense at the point and Patric Young and Will Yeguete anchoring things inside, the Gators are second in the nation in defensive efficiency. They have been tremendously stingy on that end. But have they really been tested? This season, the only thing worse than the SEC itself may have been offense in the SEC. No teams from the league finished in the nation’s top 50 in three-point percentage. The Gators themselves have narrowly prevented the same statement from being true about two-point percentage, currently ranking 50th in the metric. And Missouri is the only SEC squad among the top-75 in free throw shooting squads (by percentage) in the land (the Tigers are 38th). To be fair, fellow Sweet Sixteeners Kentucky and Tennessee manage top-20 rankings in adjusted offensive efficiency, but if there was a 68-team bracket for offensive efficiency, Missouri (32nd) would be the only other SEC team dancing. The Gators may be a great defensive team, but they have rarely been forced to put it to use against equally capable offenses.
Enter UCLA. The Bruins won’t get on the offensive glass much and rarely get to the free throw line, but their offense is elite by almost any other measure. UCLA is in the top 30 teams in the nation in three-point percentage, two-point percentage and free throw percentage, but they’d only need one of those sterling percentages to make themselves unlike ANY team in the SEC. What’s more, Steve Alford’s club turns the ball over on just 14.6 percent of possessions (11th in the country) while assisting on nearly 60 percent of field goals made (27th nationally). Do-everything point guard Kyle Anderson is an offensive genius, which, while scary on its own, becomes downright terrifying when considering the auxiliary talent that surrounds him. Every member of the Bruins rotation has an offensive rating of at least 108, headlined by the criminally underrated Jordan Adams and his rating of 121.7. This is a lethal offensive team.
With all those numbers in my mind, I believe UCLA – at least to a degree — will be able to score the ball on Florida. The question then becomes whether Florida can punch back. Their offense is also among the nation’s 20 best in offensive efficiency, but the Gators are used to slowing opponents down – among 351 D-I teams, only Syracuse opponents averaged longer offensive possessions than Gator foes this season. So what happens if UCLA actually finds success scoring the ball quickly, as they have all season (the Bruins are 15th in the country when it comes to shortest average time of offensive possession)? My sense is that the Florida supporting cast around Wilbekin – Prather, Finney-Smith, Frazier, and Young, namely – won’t prove efficient enough in scoring the ball to keep pace with UCLA. This game may well be for the region, and with Kyle Anderson leading the way, I think it’s offense that seizes the South for UCLA.
The RTC Certified Pick: UCLA
#1 Arizona vs. #4 San Diego State – West Regional Semifinal (at Anaheim, CA) – 10:17 PM ET on TBS
Not only is this a rematch of a game from back in November that put both of these teams on the map as forces to be reckoned with this season, but this is also a battle for bragging rights between two of the elite programs on the West Coast. In the last four years (including this season), nine times has a school from west of the Rockies made it to Sweet Sixteen; five of those appearances have been from one of these two schools (BYU, 2011; Oregon, 2013 and UCLA and Stanford, 2014 are the others). Both of these schools recruit California – and particularly Southern California – very heavily; between the two schools, seven rotation players come from SoCal, plus four more from elsewhere in the state. So this game in Orange County amounts to a turf war, and you can bet both sides will be bringing as many fans as the Honda Center can fit to view this game. So, that speaks to the importance of this game outside of simply advancing in the NCAA Tournament. But to look at how this game will shake out, let’s take a peek back at that game in November.
Back then, as the Wildcats won by nine at Viejas Arena, Arizona counted Brandon Ashley among its rotation players while Dwayne Polee was not a factor for the Aztecs; flip those entries in this equation and we could very well have a different ball game. Back then, the Wildcats killed the Aztecs on the glass, in no small part due to Ashley’s six defensive rebounds. Meanwhile, SDSU struggled to score, notching less than a point per possession and shooting a meager 40% eFG for the game. Now, the Aztecs aren’t exactly a great offensive team these days, but Polee’s emergence (since hitting a game-winner against Boise State in early February, his confidence and production have soared as he’s posted a 57.2% eFG since that game) has helped take some of the heat off of do-everything guard Xavier Thames and give the squad a bit more consistent offensive punch. Still, the fact is for the Aztecs to stick around in this game, they’re likely not going to be able to do it on the back of their half-court offense. Scoring points against Arizona’s nation-best defense is no easy task, so SDSU is going to have to manufacture some easy points: things like free throws, transition hoops, putbacks.
Unfortunately, while the Aztecs certainly have the athletes to ratchet up the defensive pressure, Arizona has a great set of ball-handling guards in Nick Johnson and T.J. McConnell. And, freshman power forward Aaron Gordon is ready and willing to pitch in on the ballhandling as well. When it comes right down to it, the Wildcats and the Aztecs have a similar make-up: long athletes, play-making guards, suffocating defense. But in every one of those areas, Arizona is just a little bit better. Don’t expect Arizona to run away with this game, but look for Sean Miller’s team to slowly and surely impose their will on this one.
The RTC Certified Pick: Arizona