NCAA Game Analysis: Elite Eight Sunday

Posted by Bennet Hayes & Tommy Lemoine on March 29th, 2015

RTC_NCAA15

The Elite Eight is here. Two more games that have a chance to become classics. Let’s break them down.

#4 Louisville vs. #7 Michigan State – East Region Elite Right (at Syracuse, NY) – at 2:20 PM ET on CBS

Denzel Valentine and the Spartans hope to wind up in Indy next weekend. (Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports)

Denzel Valentine and the Spartans hope to wind up in Indy next weekend. (Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports)

Rick Pitino and Tom Izzo are no strangers to this stage, or each other. The Hall of Fame Louisville coach ranks fourth all-time with seven Final Four appearances, including two since 2012. The 20th-year Michigan State head man trails just behind with six, along with four Elite Eight trips since 2009. And for the third time in seven years, their teams will meet in the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. This is familiar territory. What’s not familiar, though, is the route each team took to reach this point. Unlike in 2009 and 2012 – when both teams were either #1 or #2-seeds – the Cardinals and Spartans enter this afternoon’s contest having endured rocky seasons with somewhat limited expectations. Izzo’s club lost 11 games this year, including a baffling home loss to Texas Southern in mid-December. Pitino’s unit dismissed point guard and top three-point shooter Chris Jones in late February, further exacerbating its offensive woes. Yet here they both are, playing for the right to move on to Indianapolis.

So what should we expect from these resilient teams? For Louisville, this much we know: its defense – ranked fifth nationally in adjusted efficiency – will be stout. As per usual for Pitino-coached squads, it will apply heavy ball pressure and limit good looks from behind the arc (30% 3PT defense). What’s been surprising about its three-game run, however, is the offensive production. Against Northern Iowa and North Carolina State, the Cardinals scored 1.2 and 1.17 points per possession, respectively, and received high-efficiency, high-production performances from both Terry Rozier (25 points; 146 ORtg against the Panthers) and Montrezl Harrell (24 points; 150 ORtg against the Wolfpack). The newfound offensive consistency – especially in the half-court – has turned them into a substantially more well-rounded unit, one that looks much closer to the team that began the year 11-0.

The specific areas of Michigan State’s recent improvement are slightly harder to pin-point but no less impactful. Power forward Branden Dawson has been playing his best basketball of the season – on both ends of the court – since the start of the Big Ten tournament onward. The Spartans have done a better job taking care of the ball, suffering just five miscues against Oklahoma on Friday night. And Travis Trice (20.6 PPG in NCAA Tournament) has emerged as the teams’ consistent, go-to scorer – something it lacked earlier in the year. All of the little things seem to be coming together for Izzo’s group at the right time.

This afternoon’s matchup might ultimately come down to a few key factors: Louisville’s ability to score around the rim against Michigan State’s interior defense (43.6% 2PT), and whether the Spartans can keep their offensive cool against the Cardinals’ various matchup zone and man-to-man defensive looks. Oddly, North Carolina State kept itself alive on Friday by knocking down shots from behind the arc (9-for-20 3FG) against Louisville, but struggled to score in the paint. Izzo’s club will need a little bit of both today, and certainly needs to take care of the ball. Likewise, Dawson, Matt Costello, and the rest of Michigan State’s big men cannot allow Harrell and Louisville’s penetrating guards nearly as many good looks near the basket as they found on Friday. In the end, I like Michigan State’s ability to crash the offensive glass (33.9% OReb) against the Cardinals’ sub-par defensive rebounding (30.9% DReb) to be the difference – not to mention the fact that doubting Izzo on the back-end of an NCAA Tournament weekend seems foolish. Expect a thrilling, hotly-contested and well-coached contest either way.

The RTC Certified Pick: Michigan State

#1 Duke vs. #2 Gonzaga – South Regional Final (at Houston, TX) – at 5:05 PM ET on CBS.

Justise Winslow Starred In Duke's Sweet Sixteen Victory Friday Night (USA Today Images)

Justise Winslow Starred In Duke’s Sweet Sixteen Victory Friday Night (USA Today Images)

The South Region got its madness out of the way early. This NCAA Tournament had barely started by the time two top-six seeds in the region had been bounced, with Iowa State and SMU both falling in Louisville on Thursday afternoon. But since the departures of the Cyclones and Mustangs, higher seeds have gone 11-1 in the South, and the sole “upset” was hardly one: Utah was a solid Vegas favorite in their #4-#5 third-round matchup with Georgetown.

So it’s only fitting that we find the top two seeds waiting to face off in the South Regional Final. Neither Gonzaga nor Duke has faced much in the way of resistance on their way to this Elite Eight stage; the Blue Devils have defeated Tournament opponents by an average of 18 points per contest, while Mark Few’s team has coasted to three double-digit victories. There’s an expectation that the ride will get a lot bumpier for both teams on Sunday. KenPom’s algorithms like Duke by a mere point; the line in Vegas is currently somewhere between two and three points in favor of the Blue Devils; finally, opinion was split on the CBS set, with two of three “experts” (you can tell me if people who watched college basketball one month out of the year can count as such) selecting Gonzaga to advance to the Final Four. From November until now, Gonzaga and Duke have been regarded as two of the best teams in college basketball. Whichever team ends up in Indianapolis will have been forced to earn the journey.

Statistically, these two teams profile very similarly. Duke is third-nationally in offensive efficiency, 26th-best in defense efficiency. Gonzaga is fourth-best in the country in offensive efficiency, 30th most efficient on the other end. The offense steers the ship for both teams, but improved defenses – Duke’s from earlier in the year, Gonzaga from years’ past – have been equally crucial in getting them here. If you’re looking for a key matchup in this game, take a peek inside at the battle between Jahlil Okafor and Przemek Karnowski. Utah did a phenomenal job of shutting down Okafor on Thursday night, limiting him to six shots and forcing four turnovers (zero assists for the Duke big man, as well) with their constant double-teams. Will Mark Few follow suit and send a second defender at Okafor, or will he trust the 7’1” Karnowski to handle him one-on-one? The likely answer is that it will be a little of both, and likely with a dose of Domantas Sabonis mixed in. This is a two-way matchup, though – Okafor could have a lot of problems with Karnowski on the other end. The Polish big man overwhelmed Tony Parker and Kevon Looney with his size and skill on Friday night (18 points, nine rebounds) and Okafor has yet to establish a reputation as a great defender. If Okafor struggles defensively – either with foul trouble or in just stopping Karnowski – Marshall Plumlee could see increased minutes. Both teams need their big men to play well.

The full breakdown of the matchup between these two teams is, of course, much longer. Gonzaga stopper Gary Bell will have his hands full with Tyus Jones, while Quinn Cook’s improved defense faces a different, better-shooting challenge in Kevin Pangos. Can Justise Winslow, back in his hometown, replicate his dynamic, 21-point, 10-rebound Sweet 16 performance? Fun fact: Winslow has now made as many threes as his teammate Jones, and at a better clip (41% to 37% for Jones). Unlike Friday night, let’s not be surprised if he knocks down a few more Sunday. On the other end, how Winslow and his teammates matchup with Kyle Wiltjer is an additional point of intrigue.

Gonzaga making their first Final Four would make for an arguably better and definitively fresher story, but despite all the good vibes surrounding Mark Few’s first Elite Eight appearance, his team has yet to beat a great opponent. The defeat of a schizophrenic Iowa team was the best of the three Tournament wins, and also likely qualifies as the best Gonzaga victory of the season. Even if you wholeheartedly believe Gonzaga is going to win this game, that fact right there has to give you a little pause. It should be a close, fun South Regional final (these offenses are so good that even NRG Stadium can’t stop them!) but as it has so often over the last two weeks, expect the higher seed to win out for a final time in the South Region.

The RTC Certified Pick: Duke

Tommy Lemoine (249 Posts)


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