NCAA Game Analysis: Sweet Sixteen Friday

Posted by Bennet Hayes & Tommy Lemoine on March 27th, 2015


The Sweet Sixteen continues with four more compelling games tonight in Houston and Syracuse. Here are this evening’s previews.

#2 Gonzaga vs. #11 UCLA – South Region Sweet Sixteen (at Houston, TX) – 7:15 PM ET on CBS

A new year brings new players like Kyle Wiltjer, who no doubt will play a huge role in Friday's matchup. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

A new year brings new players like Kyle Wiltjer, who no doubt will play a huge role in Friday’s matchup. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Nobody forgets the tears. Nine years and three days ago, UCLA induced a very public display of emotion from Adam Morrison. The circumstances that led to the devastation were far from ordinary – the Bruins erased a 17-point second half deficit and scored the final 11 points to down the Zags and advance to the Elite Eight – but it’s the singular image of Morrison, keeled over on the floor with blue Gonzaga jersey pulled over his face, that has persisted longest in the memory banks of March. Now, almost a decade later, the two teams renew March pleasantries for the first time since Morrison’s college career came to that tearful end. The differences between this matchup and the last are too numerous to list, but there is one key similarity: Gonzaga again has a team widely perceived to be capable of winning a national title.

Mark Few’s team has made just one Sweet Sixteen since 2006, and that team (in 2009) needed only to beat a #12 and a #13 to get there. Needless to say, Gonzaga Final Four prospects haven’t been this bright since Morrison was in uniform. This Bulldog team is nearly as explosive as the ’06 bunch (emphasis on nearly: that team was #1 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency), but points now originate from a wider variety of sources. Six Zags average at least eight points a game, and every Gonzaga regular owns an offensive rating in excess of 110. In the first two rounds, Gonzaga averaged 86.5 points per game and posted points per possession marks of 1.23 and 1.30 against North Dakota State and Iowa, respectively. Unlike in past years, the Zags we see this March look remarkably similar to the ones we watched all season. Good news for Mark Few; bad news for UCLA.

That ’06 UCLA team was pretty good. Ben Howland’s Bruins were national runners-up. They won 32 games and had a starting lineup that featured four future NBA starters. This UCLA team, on the other hand, is not that good. They are in the Sweet Sixteen after defeating #6 SMU and #14 UAB last weekend, but few expect the Bruin season to continue beyond Friday. They hosted Gonzaga earlier this season and were run out of Pauley Pavilion, giving up 87 points (and 1.26 PPP) and losing by 13. If the season is to continue for the Bruins, look for Bryce Alford to be a key reason why. The outside touch of the coach’s son has been a most accurate Bruin barometer this season. Alford is shooting 55% from three-point range in UCLA wins…and just 28% in Bruin losses. The wild success of last weekend was fueled by Alford’s 49 total points, which included 12-of-16 shooting from long range. UCLA has other nice pieces: Tony Parker was phenomenal against UAB (28 points); Norman Powell is their leading scorer at 16.4 PPG; and Kevon Looney is both double-double machine (he has 15 this season) and probable lottery pick. But for all that talent, it’s undeniably Alford who matters most: He must be great for UCLA to advance.

Who could ever forget this game? (CBS Sports)

Who could ever forget this game? (CBS Sports)

Bold prediction: There will be no tears at the conclusion of this game. Gonzaga’s offense, left unrestrained by the poor-defending Bruins, should carry the day as it did back in December. The Zags will avenge their predecessors’ bitter demise and march on into the South regional final, focused on making the program’s first Final Four. UCLA’s season will find its end, but given the unexpectedly late date of their final defeat and the superior opponent who dealt it, Steve Alford’s bunch should feel no shame. There will be no heartbreak in Houston.

The RTC Certified Pick: Gonzaga

#4 Louisville vs. #8 North Carolina State – East Region Sweet Sixteen (from Syracuse, NY) – at 7:37 PM EST on TBS

#4 Louisville looks to get revenge against #8 North Carolina State tonight in Syracuse. ELAINE THOMPSON — The Associated Press

#4 Louisville looks to get revenge against #8 North Carolina State tonight. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Perhaps no team remaining in the NCAA Tournament is as mysterious or unpredictable as North Carolina State. The Wolfpack lost to Clemson, Wake Forest and Boston College this season by 10.3 points per game, yet beat Duke, North Carolina and Louisville – tonight’s foe – by nearly that exact same margin. It looked awful for the first 30-plus minutes against #9-seed LSU last week, yet stormed back, won, and proceeded to knock off top-seeded Villanova two nights later. Who are these guys? And more importantly, what should we expect from them tonight?

One thing we can count on is that its talented backcourt – Trevor Lacey (15.7 PPG), Cat Barber (12.3 PPG) and Ralston Turner (12.8 PPG) – will carry the offensive load, much like it did against the Cardinals back in February; in that game, the trio combined for 45 of the team’s 74 points and suffered just four turnovers (North Carolina State won by nine). The guards’ ability to take care of the ball against manufacture offense Louisville’s pressure attack will be crucial once again. Yet, it’s the frontcourt – Mark Gottfried’s lesser-known commodity – that may ultimately decides tonight’s outcome. Guys like Abdul-Malik Abu (4.7 RPG) and BeeJay Anya (4.3 RPG) helped the Wolfpack rip down 13 offensive rebounds against Louisville the first time around, and were key down the stretch against LSU and Villanova – both offensively and defensively. In fact, virtually all of North Carolina State’s best performances this season have been the result of increased frontcourt production in addition to its steady stable of guards. Mark Gottfried needs another complete effort in Syracuse tonight.

For Louisville, the formula seems much simpler – if someone steps up offensively the way Terry Rozier did against Northern Iowa on Sunday, the Cardinals should be in excellent shape. The sophomore point guard scored 25 points on 8-for-13 shooting, doled out seven assists and only turned the ball over twice, helping his team score 1.2 point per possession against the usually-stingy Panthers. Since we already know what Rick Pitino’s club is capable of defensively – forcing turnovers, taking away the three-point line, generally dominating – its Elite Eight fate might rest on whether Rozier or the like can create consistent offense.

North Carolina State pressed up on Villanova’s three-point shooters, collapsed on the Wildcat big men and, frankly, played one if its best defensive games of the season last weekend. If it comes out with that kind of energy and fight against a far worse offense unit tonight, the Wolfpack can win. But I just don’t see it. Gottfried’s inconsistent group has suffered too many let-downs, hit too many rough-patches this year for the upward trend to continue, and Louisville happens to have one of the greatest coaches in the history of the sport pacing its sidelines. Expect the Cardinals to win the all-ACC showdown.

The RTC Certified Pick: Louisville

#1 Duke vs. #5 Utah – South Region Sweet Sixteen (at Houston, TX) – 9:45 PM ET on CBS

As intense as ever, Coach K has his squad on top of its game this tournament. ( (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

As intense as ever, Coach K has his squad on top of its game this tournament. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

The nightcap in Houston will feature one of the better matchups of the Sweet Sixteen. Duke looked utterly unstoppable in rolling Robert Morris and San Diego State last weekend. Their 29-point margin of victory against the Colonials was the third biggest of the opening round, and no team advanced to the Sweet Sixteen with a larger third round margin of victory than Duke’s 19-point edge over the Aztecs. Jahlil Okafor averaged 23.5 points in the two victories, the Blue Devils shot 47 percent from three-point range as a team, and Justise Winslow stuffed the stat sheet with averages of 9.5 points, 11.5 rebounds, six assists and even four total blocks and steals per contest. Duke looked like the top seed in the region.

Utah wasn’t quite as demonstrative in its advancement to Houston, but the Utes were nonetheless impressive in dispatching Stephen F. Austin and Georgetown to get here. Jakob Poeltl was the star of the first weekend for Larry Krystkowiak’s team, averaging 15 points, 4.5 rebounds and three blocks in the two wins, all while missing just one field goal attempt. Needless to say, the competition will grow slightly tougher for Utah’s seven-foot freshman on Friday when he tussles with Okafor. Poeltl doesn’t necessarily have to shine – Utah has solid frontcourt depth, particularly on the defensive end – but contributions similar to those he turned in last weekend would serve well to balance the Utes perimeter options. Delon Wright gets much of the attention there, and deservedly so, but Utah’s better-than-you-think offense (17th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency) has been aided significantly by a trio of scorers not named Delon. Dakari Tucker, Brandon Taylor and Jordan Loveridge have all converted at least 40 three-pointers this season, and each has made at least 37% of their long-range attempts. Of the three, Loveridge has the most well-rounded offensive game, but it was Taylor’s offensive efficiency (shooting splits of 46/43/85 from 2P/3P/FT) that led Bill Walton to proclaim him the Pac 12 Player of the Year at one point this season. Okay, okay – Walton was taking things a bit far, per usual, but the point remains: Taylor, like the Utah offense at large, has been quite overlooked this season.

As good as Utah’s defense has been (seventh nationally in defensive efficiency, fifth in effective field-goal percentage defense), one has to figure that Duke will find ways to score the basketball. Dealing with all the Blue Devil offensive talent isn’t easy: only two teams (UConn and Notre Dame) have held Duke under a point per possession this season. Can Utah’s offense find a way to keep pace with the Blue Devils? Taylor, Poeltl and the rest of the supporting cast must show up, sure — but so must their leader. Before a tough finish to the regular season, Delon Wright was very much in the national player of the year conversation. For Utah to make its way to Sunday’s regional final, he will need to remind everyone why he was ever in that discussion. There was little of that nostalgia last weekend, as Wright shot a combined 4-of-14 from the field in Portland with more turnovers (nine) than assists (seven). If he can muster a ‘vintage’ Delon Wright performance (think circa January 2015), Utah will be in wonderful position to spring the mild(er than people think) upset. I just struggle to see it after last weekend. Give me Okafor, Cook and Jones, as Duke’s offense should again be good enough to get them to Sunday’s regional final.

The RTC Certified Pick: Duke

#3 Oklahoma vs. #7 Michigan State – East Region Sweet Sixteen (from Syracuse, NY) – at 10:07 PM EST on TBS

#3 Oklahoma might have the slight edge tonight against #7 Michigan State. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

#3 Oklahoma might have the slight edge tonight against #7 Michigan State. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

If Tom Izzo possesses a coaching advantage in the second game of NCAA Tournament weekends – and his 19-4 career record suggests he might – then perhaps those first games simply come down to the players on the court. And if that’s the case, Oklahoma probably has the slight edge tonight in what should be among the Sweet Sixteen’s most competitive matchups.

Offensively, the Spartans and Sooners share plenty of similarities: Both like to push the tempo, each attempts more than one-third of its shots from behind the arc, and neither gets to the free throw line at a particularly high rate. The Spartans are more efficient – superior from inside the arc (51.3 percent), outside the arc (38.8 percent) and on the glass (top-100 offensive and defensive rebound rates) – but still not without glaring deficiencies. They struggle mightily from the free throw line, ranking 339th nationally at just 63 percent. They have a hard time closing out victories, botching a sure-win against Minnesota in February and nearly botching another at Indiana 10 days later. They also don’t have a pure offensive weapon quite like Buddy Hield (17.3 PPG), Oklahoma’s high-volume, high-production shooter. Still, if Travis Trice continues scorching the nets (18 points vs. #10 Georgia; 23 points vs. #2 Virginia) and Denzel Valentine (41.8% 3PT) and Bryn Forbes (43% 3PT) get hot from the perimeter, Michigan State’s offense can make life difficult for Oklahoma.

And that might be exactly what it takes, because the Sooners’ defense – especially on the interior – is about as good as it gets. Lon Kruger’s stingy club boasts the sixth-best defensive efficiency mark in college basketball and limits opponents to just 42.2 percent shooting from inside the arc, thanks in part to rim-protecting forwards TaShawn Thomas and Ryan Spangler. In the round of 32, Oklahoma held Dayton to 36.7 percent two-point shooting and allowed only 13 free throw attempts, at one point holding the Flyers scoreless for over nine-straight minutes of game time. They did not take away the free throw line, however, which enabled Archie Miller’s team to score 33 of its 66 points from long distance. If the Sooners minimize Branden Dawson’s impact (12.1 PPG) down low, Michigan State may end up relying on its perimeter shooting even more than it already does. The Spartans’ ability to crash the offensive glass against an opponent with a mediocre defensive rebounding rate may also factor into the final outcome.

Look – Michigan State’s defense is good, but not as good as Oklahoma’s, and Oklahoma’s offense is good, but not as good as Michigan State’s. Ultimately, this one probably comes down to players making plays in the game’s frantic, waning seconds, which is exactly why I like Kruger’s bunch to prevail. Whereas the Spartans are woeful in late-game situations, the Sooners tend to lock-down defensively – both in transition and in the half-court – knock down free-throws (73.8% FT) and can point to a true go-to-scorer in Hield. Expect the Big 12’s lone survivor to keep on surviving.

The RTC Certified Pick: Oklahoma

Share this story

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *