After three days of quiet, it’s time to get serious about figuring out this national championship thing. Sixteen to twelve… let’s check out tonight’s games.
#2 San Diego State vs. #3 Connecticut – West Regional Semifinal (at Anaheim, CA) – 7:15 pm ET on CBS.
One of these teams has won two national championships. The other just got done winning their first two NCAA Tournament games ever. While the Aztecs have had a great breakout season and now stand at 34-2 on the season, UConn has won 44 Tournament games in the Jim Calhoun era alone. Luckily for SDSU, past performances in the Big Dance need have no impact on this year’s games. If you throw out the bloodlines for the two programs, you’ll find that we have the makings for what should be an excellent game. We’ve got star power on both ends of the court, with UConn’s point guard Kemba Walker a candidate for the National Player of the Year and SDSU’s Kawhi Leonard an All-American candidate. We’ve got big name coaches with national championships and Final Four experience, as Calhoun will be matched up with Steve Fisher, who won one title at Michigan in ’89, then got back to the title game in both ’92 and ’93. We’ve got an impressive freshman class including Shabazz Napier, Roscoe Smith, and Jeremy Lamb on the UConn side matched up with three starting seniors on the Aztec squad. In short, we’ve got all the trappings of a serious battle. For the Aztecs, the big goal is going to be slowing Kemba Walker. While SDSU has had plenty of experience at trying to slow another high-scoring point guard (one Jimmer Fredette – you may have heard of him), Walker is a different challenge for SDSU, as he is a quicker, shiftier guard than Fredette, and a guy who you’d rather have shooting the three than challenging his defenders off the dribble. As a result, it is likely that D.J. Gay and/or Chase Tapley will get the majority of minutes tasked with defending Walker, while frontcourt players like Leonard, Billy White and Malcolm Thomas will be left to keep one eye on Walker while trying to body-up the Huskies’ athletic offensive rebounders up front. The SDSU frontcourt will also have to provide the majority of the scoring, and given that they haven’t seen a team as big, long and bouncy as the Huskies, they’ll need to prove that their opponents’ size does not bother them. The Aztecs figure to have plenty of support from their fans, who only need to drive about an hour north to attend the game, but they’ll need to prove that their shaky performance down the stretch in Saturday’s game against Temple was an aberration rather than the norm. Until they can close out a game in the NCAA Tournament with confidence, we’re not sure they’re trustworthy against a big-time foe.
The RTC Certified Pick: Connecticut
#2 Florida vs. #3 BYU – Southeast Region Semifinals (at New Orleans, LA) – 7:27 pm ET on TBS.
Looking at this game on paper, it’s pretty hard to find any discernible differences between these two teams. The main determinant of this game will likely be tempo. BYU would love nothing more than to get the Gators caught up in a fast-paced game, forcing them to recklessly throw up ill-advised three pointers leading to long rebounds and many Cougar runouts. Dave Rose’s team excels in transition with Jimmer Fredette and Jackson Emery leading the charge. While Emery is certainly a terrific point guard, his biggest impact on this game could come defensively. He’ll guard Florida’s Erving Walker in all likelihood and that could be a major problem for the 5’8 Walker. Emery’s length and quickness has the potential to disrupt the Florida floor general, plus the BYU senior ranks #15 individually in steal percentage. If Walker can’t get the offense flowing, Florida may result to lots of isolations and quick shots, certainly not ideal for a team that does its best work at a slower pace in the half court. The Gators have a big advantage inside and have to use it to win. Billy Donovan needs to keep Kenny Boynton, expected to play after spraining his ankle against UCLA, in check and make sure his guards work the ball inside to Vernon Macklin, Chandler Parsons and Alex Tyus. This could very well be the game where the loss of Brandon Davies dooms BYU for good. The Cougars rank a paltry #222 in offensive rebounding percentage so Florida should hold a significant edge on the glass. BYU has been out-rebounded in four of their seven games without Davies and we expect that trend to continue tonight. Defensively, Florida has to keep Fredette off the free throw line and force him to make outside shots. It’s alright for the Gators if Jimmer drains more than a few bombs but he’s most dangerous when he can get into the lane and to the stripe, or create for others when defenders are drawn to him inside. Florida ranks #15 in defensive free throw rate and will have to keep that up against Fredette specifically. We have to wonder if Donovan will assign Parsons the task of defending Fredette. Parsons is a big man (6’9) but he’s fairly quick for his size and can bother Jimmer with his superior length. Quickness will be the issue because Fredette possess a terrific first step to blow by opponents. The Cougars will have an edge at the line if this is a close game since Florida struggles as a team (67%). It should be a terrific matchup but a slight edge has to go to the Gators in New Orleans this evening.
The RTC Certified Pick: Florida.