Sweet Sixteen Storylines: Midwest and West Regionals

Posted by Henry Bushnell on March 26th, 2015


As we move into the first half of the Sweet Sixteen tonight in Cleveland and Los Angeles, let’s take a look at the top five storylines in the Midwest and West Regions.

Midwest Storylines

1. Is West Virginia actually a difficult matchup for Kentucky? The NCAA Tournament is all about matchups. You’ve probably heard that refrain too many times already and you’ll hear it even more over the next 10 days. Some analysts have gone so far as to apply it to the Kentucky-West Virginia game that awaits us tonight. The thought is that the Mountaineers, which speed up opponents and force turnovers better than anybody else in the nation, will disrupt the Wildcats’ attack. But it’s almost as if that notion is more based on hope than supported by facts. The Wildcats take care of the ball – their opponents’ steal percentage ranks 19th nationally (that’s good), and the Wildcats have significantly cut down on silly turnovers as the season has progressed. Of course, they haven’t yet faced a team like West Virginia that is so relentless with its pressure either. But the Mountaineers also have their own flaws,particularly on the offensive end, and the idea that they present an especially difficult matchup for Kentucky because of its uniqueness is probably a fallacy.

Truth be told, Kentucky's contest against WVU might be a little easier than most expect. (AP Photo/David Stephenson)

Truth be told, Kentucky’s contest against WVU might be a little easier than most expect. (AP Photo/David Stephenson)

2. The history behind Calipari vs. Huggins. John Calipari and Bob Huggins first met as head coaches on January 7, 1993, when Huggins’ Cincinnati team beat Calipari’s UMass squad. They went on to do battle annually in Conference USA beginning in 2001, with Huggins still at Cincinnati and Calipari back from the NBA at Memphis. Huggins won the first five meetings between the two before Calipari broke through with is first win in 2003. To date, Huggins holds an 8-2 all-time record against the Kentucky coach, the best such record of any coach with a minimum three games against him. The most notable showdown between the two was exactly four years and 364 days ago, when Huggins’ Mountaineers upset Calipari’s group of John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe in the 2010 East Regional Finals. Is there a takeaway from that night that pertains to this year? No, probably not. But the relationship between the two is a fun storyline heading into tonight. The two are reportedly close friends, and if that’s not enough, Huggins might not even be alive today if it wasn’t for Calipari’s cousin.

3. Which team in the Midwest Regional is the biggest threat to Kentucky? Despite all the West Virginia talk, it’s clear that Huggins’ team is the fourth best of the quartet remaining in the Midwest. Although Notre Dame barely survived Butler and Northeastern, both the Fighting Irish and Wichita State are hot. The Shockers took Indiana’s best shot and then thoroughly beat Kansas in Omaha to get to Cleveland. Which of the two would give Kentucky more problems? Probably Notre Dame, solely based on the possibility that the Fighting Irish could catch fire from the perimeter, just as they did in the ACC Tournament championship game against North Carolina. Plus, among players who receive meaningful minutes, Kentucky has five forwards taller than any Wichita State contributor.

4. Comparing 2015 Wichita State to 2014 Wichita State. Based on NCAA Tournament seeding, last year’s Wichita State team that entered the Big Dance undefeated and this year’s version are miles apart. The rest of the numbers, however, show that the difference isn’t all that huge. Greg Marshall’s team enters tonight’s matchup with Notre Dame among KenPom’s top 10, and there really is only one major dissimilarity: the 2013-14 Shockers had a legitimate post presence. Cleanthony Early was the team’s best player a year ago, and his play-making abilities were on full display in last year’s Round of 32 loss to the Wildcats. But this year’s backcourt is even better than last year’s, and that represents the primary reason Wichita State looks every bit as dangerous this time around.

The Shockers might not have the inside presence they did last year, but with guys like Fred VanVleet (left) and Ron Baker manning the backcourt, Wichita State is still is great shape. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

The Shockers might not have the inside presence they did last year, but with guys like Fred VanVleet (left) and Ron Baker manning the backcourt, Wichita State is still is great shape. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

5. Notre Dame’s guards vs. Wichita State’s guards. Both teams typically opt for undersized, four-guard lineups, but they do so because their backcourts are so darn good. This is the matchup to watch tonight. Notre Dame has a jewel in Jerian Grant, one of the college basketball’s best and most efficient play-makers, but perhaps just as important is the personnel that surrounds him. The Irish have three other guards (and four players in total) who shoot 40 percent or better from beyond the arc, which is why they boast a top five offense. On the other end of the floor, Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton are as smart and experienced of a backcourt trio as there is. 

West Storylines

1. The potential Wisconsin-Arizona rematch. Last year in Anaheim, #1 seed Arizona and #2 seed Wisconsin gave us one of the best games of the entire NCAA Tournament. The Badgers emerged victorious, giving Bo Ryan his first trip to the Final Four. This year, the circumstances for each program could be remarkably similar. If the two avoid Sweet Sixteen upsets tonight, it’ll be #1 vs. #2 again, this time with the seeds reversed and an hour north in Los Angeles. Could it be Sean Miller who gets that elusive first Final Four appearance? More on that later.

Two old friends go at it in the Sweet 16. Will Chris Mack the Pupil get the upper hand? Or will Sean Miller the teacher still show who's boss? (Getty)

Two old friends go at it in the Sweet Sixteen. Will Chris Mack the Pupil get the upper hand? Or will Sean Miller the teacher still show who’s boss? (Getty)

2. Sean Miller faces former school, former assistant. Before he can consider that possibility, Miller has to get by some old friends. Miller spent five seasons as the head coach at Xavier (2004-09) and three more as an assistant (2001-04) before taking the Arizona job. When he departed for the desert Southwest, he made his recommendation to Xavier clear: Chris Mack should be his replacement. Mack was his trusted assistant and good friend, and the administration trusted his advice in giving him the job. The two will meet as head coaches for the first time tonight. It will be all business when their teams take the court, but for now it’s one of the best coaching tree storylines that this year’s Tournament has offered up.

3. Is this finally Miller’s year at Arizona? Arizona, one of the most storied programs in college basketball, hasn’t broken through to a Final Four in 14 years. Miller… well, he’s never been there. In fact, you can reasonably make the case that Miller is the most successful active coach who is still missing that one crucial line on his résumé. But right now, his Wildcats are playing as well as ever, and are behind only Kentucky in terms of Vegas odds to win the national title. They’re also KenPom’s second-ranked team and are closer to Kentucky (#1) in his metrics than they are to Wisconsin (#3). For Miller, with four NBA Draft picks in his starting lineup, the time is now.

Talk about a major coaching matchup - Roy Williams and Bo Ryan are two of the best. (AP)

Talk about a major coaching matchup – Roy Williams and Bo Ryan are two of the best. (AP)

4. Wisconsin hasn’t been at its best. Since demolishing Ohio State in the Badgers’ regular season finale, Wisconsin hasn’t been its dominant self. Outside of a strong second half in its Big Ten Tournament semifinal against Purdue, Bo Ryan’s team has looked rather ordinary against lesser teams. To be clear, the Badgers have still been good enough to win the Big Ten Tourney and advance to the Sweet Sixteen, but Wisconsin hasn’t look like the group that many had tabbed “most likely to beat Kentucky.” There’s a very real chance that Frank Kaminsky and company prove all of this to be crazy talk in the long run, but if they don’t locate their dominant form, North Carolina or Arizona are likely to make them pay for it.

5. Injury questions for North Carolina, Wisconsin. The biggest question mark for Wisconsin is the status of Traevon Jackson, who has been sidelined by a broken foot since early January. Jackson was the team’s starting point guard and a senior leader, so his loss figured to be a grave one, but his replacement Bronson Koenig has stepped in admirably. Jackson, though, looks like he’ll play Thursday. Can he be effective immediately? And how will Ryan use him? Carolina’s injury concern is a far bigger one, though. Big man Kennedy Meeks sprained his left knee against Arkansas Saturday and is listed as doubtful. Roy Williams says he will be a game-time decision, but even if Meeks plays, he won’t be at 100 percent.

Henry Bushnell (39 Posts)

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