NCAA Game Analysis: Sweet Sixteen Thursday

Posted by Walker Carey & Andrew Murawa on March 26th, 2015


While the early round upsets and Cinderella stories are what make the NCAA Tournament unique to any other sporting event in the country, there is always something to be said about the best competing against the best. No more might that be true than this season’s Sweet 16, which feature arguably a legitimate “Top 16” team pool … and it all gets started today. Here are four previews of Thursday’s games:

#3 Notre Dame vs. #7 Wichita State – Midwest Region Sweet 16 (from Cleveland) – at 7:15 PM EST on CBS

Compared to the Pantheon of coaches, Gregg Marshall and Mike Brey aren't often thrown in the discussion. But, both have their teams playing at the highest of levels at the moment. (AP & Getty)

Compared to the Pantheon of coaches, Gregg Marshall and Mike Brey aren’t often thrown in the discussion. But, both have their teams playing at the highest of levels at the moment. (AP & Getty)

The Irish and Shockers will meet Thursday night in what should be a very entertaining battle between two of the country’s best perimeter teams. Notre Dame and its four-guard lineup boasts one of the best scoring offenses in the country. USBWA first-team All-American Jerian Grant is one of the best offensive guards in the country. His scoring ability and ball distribution skills definitely makes him a player to watch each time he takes the court. For Notre Dame, sophomore point guard Demetrius Jackson and sophomore guard Steve Vasturia have each made a name for themselves this season. Jackson has greatly matured as Notre Dame’s floor leader on offense and his ball pressure on defense has been a greatly under appreciated facet of his game. Vasturia is the only Irish starter that does not have a scoring average in double figures, but his knack for hitting big shots coupled with some tenacious defense against some very good players (see his performance from last Saturday against Butler’s Kellen Dunham) has contributed to Notre Dame reaching its first Sweet 16 since 2003. When you think of the great glue guys in the country, Irish swingman Pat Connaughton has to be one of the first players who comes to mind. The captain has been an essential asset all season from his three-point shooting to his defensive rebounding to his overall leadership, Connaughton has been the heart of the Irish attack.

Wichita State is equally as talented on the perimeter. Junior point guard Fred VanVleet has had as good of an NCAA Tournament as anyone thus far, as he thoroughly outplayed Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell in the round of 64 before having his way with Kansas guards’ Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham in the round of 32. The other two Shockers perimeter players — Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton — each bring a unique skill set that have lifted the team all season. Baker has a knack for leading the scoring effort and hitting big shots. Cotton is an elite defender and his athleticism results in him constantly being a slashing threat on the offensive end. This is going to be a very fun game and you have to figure that both team’s perimeter groups will get theirs.

The x-factor match-up in this game will be between each team’s frontlines. While Notre Dame junior forward Zach Auguste has battled some consistency issues on both ends of the court, he has shown that he can be a very productive post scorer, as he scored 25 points in the team’s round of 64 victory over Northeastern. Wichita State is a bit undersized in the post, but forwards Darius Carter and Evan Wessell have had their own shining moments throughout the season. For instance, Wessell scored 12 points and collected nine rebounds in the win over Kansas. Whichever frontline can control the game will have a lot of say in who grabs the victory and heads to the regional final. Expect Wichita State to grab control in the second half with Carter and Wessell each putting in big-time efforts against Auguste and Irish reserve forward Bonzie Colson. Gregg Marshall and the Shockers will be moving onto the Elite Eight for the second time in three years.

The RTC Certified Pick: Wichita State

#1 Wisconsin vs. #4 North Carolina – West Region Semifinal (at Los Angeles) –at  7:47 PM ET on TBS

North Carolina's Marcus Paige is getting healthier and more productive with each passing game. (AP/Bob Leverone)

North Carolina’s Marcus Paige is getting healthier and more productive with each passing game. (AP/Bob Leverone)

There aren’t a lot of road maps to beating the Badgers. They’ve lost three times this season and one of those – a head-scratching loss at Rutgers – came without the services of Frank Kaminsky. But, oddly enough, it may be North Carolina’s sworn enemy – Duke – that can provide the Tar Heels with the best game plan for knocking off Wisconsin. Way back on December 3, the Blue Devils went into Madison and used their size and athleticism up front to hold Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes to a combined 26 points on 8-of-22 shooting. And on the other end of the court, Tyus Jones was able to probe the interior of the Badger defense at will, scoring 22 points. The Tar Heels can check both of those boxes. First, Marcus Paige, if anything, is a more dangerous version of Jones. He can hit from deep (39.1 3P%), he can penetrate and score and he does a fine job of setting up his teammates with good looks. He’ll need to do the same tonight, scoring 20-or-more in an efficient manner while also getting his teammates involved.

Up front, Roy Williams usually has four beefy big men that he can mix and match, but tonight the status of 6’9” sophomore Kennedy Meeks is somewhat in doubt. He sprained his knee in the Tar Heels win over Arkansas and is a game-time decision, despite putting in a little work at the open practice yesterday. Brice Johnson, Isaiah Hicks and Joel James would all need to step up big if Meeks is not able to go especially since another big component of the Tar Heels plan to advance to the Elite Eight must rely on offensive rebounding. They’re fifth in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage (40.3 OR%), but unfortunately face a Wisconsin team that is fourth in defensive rebounding (23.9 DR%). If the Heels can grab 30% of their own missed shots and, importantly, convert those second chance opportunities into points, they’ve got a shot. They’ll also need somebody, likely freshman wing Justin Jackson, to knock in a couple threes on clean looks off Paige’s penetration. And they’ll need to hope their size along the frontline can limit Kaminsky, Dekker and Hayes to a night nearly as rough as what the Blue Devils put them through almost four months ago. That’s a lot of requirements for a North Carolina team that has been inconsistent at times this year. There’s no doubt the Tar Heels can do it, but we’ve got to see it first.

The RTC Certified Pick: Wisconsin

#1 Kentucky vs. #5 West Virginia – Midwest Region Sweet 16 (at Cleveland) – at 9:45 PM EST on CBS

When guys like Dakari Johnson #44, Trey Lyles #41 and Aaron Harrison #2 are sitting on your bench, you know your team is filthy deep. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

When guys like Dakari Johnson #44, Trey Lyles #41 and Aaron Harrison #2 are sitting on your bench, you know your team is filthy deep. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The 36-0 Wildcats will try to improve to 37-0 in its match-up with a hard-nosed and tenacious West Virginia squad. It is always a good time to mention how deep Kentucky is. The Wildcats may start guards Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison along with forwards Trey Lyles, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Willie Cauley-Stein, but John Calipari has the rare luxury of bringing very talented players such as Tyler Ulis, Devin Booker, Dakari Johnson, and Marcus Lee off the Wildcats bench. This team is stacked and when considering its elite level of talent, it really is no surprise that it is unbeaten at this point.

West Virginia survived close games with Buffalo and Maryland in the rounds of 64 and 32, respectively, but in the process, it proved that it cannot be considered an easy match-up for any team. The Mountaineers will press you all game and use its physicality to its advantage on both ends of the court. Senior guard Juwan Staten is the straw that stirs the drink for Bob Huggins’ group. The floor general leads the team in both points per game (14.2) and assists per game (4.8), and his ability to make plays in the lane have been a critical part of the Mountaineers’ success all season. Sophomore forward Devin Williams has been very good for West Virginia all season, but he has stepped up his play in the NCAA Tournament. In the wins over Buffalo and Maryland, Williams averaged 16.5 points and 9.5 rebounds.

While West Virginia may be one of the only teams in the country that plays as many guys as Kentucky, the talent disparity will be too vast for the Mountaineers to overcome. Expect this one to stay close early, as the Wildcats will have to get used to West Virginia’s physicality, but once they are able to do that, expect this one to comfortably swing to Kentucky. Its length, depth, and athleticism will be too much for West Virginia, as Kentucky will advance to the Elite Eight with its perfect record in-tact.

The RTC Certified Pick: Kentucky

#2 Arizona vs. #6 Xavier – West Region Semifinal (at Los Angeles, CA) – at 10:17 ET PM on TBS

Miller spurned Maryland to remain in Tucson

Sean Miller has been close, but hasn’t been able to smoke his cigar yet. Will this finally be the year? (AP)

The basketball gods aren’t going to make anything easy on Sean Miller. You want a Final Four? We’re going to put you through the ringer to get there. First, it was the Wildcats winning the Pac-12 championship – their first conference tournament title since 2002 – in Las Vegas, a clear monkey off Miller’s back. Then it was Miller vs. friend and former boss Thad Matta last week in Portland, where Miller beat Matta for the first time after two rough NCAA Tournament losses: another monkey by the wayside. But now it appears, to shake that dreaded label of “Best Head Coach Without A Final Four”, Miller will tonight have to go through Xavier, where he started his head coaching career. And then over the weekend, may have to get revenge on Wisconsin for last season’s excruciatingly close Regional Final loss, just down the road in Anaheim. Nothing comes easy, does it.

Aside from all the soap opera storylines, there’s also this little pesky fact: Xavier’s good. And big. Between senior center Matt Stainbrook, sophomore Jalen Reynolds and junior James Farr, the Musketeers have three guys checking in at 6’10” who will see plenty of run, giving them a strong chance to clean the defensive boards and limit clean looks for the Wildcats in the paint. Even on the wing, where the Wildcats usually beat up on opponents, Xavier features 6’6” freshman Trevon Blueitt, who at least has the frame and athleticism to stand a fighting chance against guys like Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. And in the backcourt, Chris Mack has supreme confidence in senior point guard Dee Davis and sophomore playmaker Myles Davis. But the Musketeers will ride a razor’s edge in this game; they have slim margins for error. And the Wildcats, with intense defensive pressure and an attacking offense designed to earn trips to the free throw line, will test those margins. If Jefferson can take Blueitt out of the Xavier offense and if senior guard T.J. McConnell can help fluster the Davises into sub-optimal games, it becomes very hard to find a path to victory for the Musketeers.

The RTC Certified Pick: Arizona

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