Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Two rounds of NCAA Tournament play have come and gone. Favorites have flopped, upsets have left bracket-wielding fans frustrated everywhere and Florida Gulf Coast is in the Sweet Sixteen. That last one still doesn’t register; how does a team that gained full Division I postseason eligibility just this season, with an entrepreneurial and supermodel-boasting wife in tow pushing them along the whole way, knock off, in sequence, National Player of the Year and projected lottery pick Otto Porter, then follow it up by utterly demoralizing Jamaal Franklin and San Diego State?
Everyone will have their eyes on FGCU to see what happens next, naturally, but the next round of bracket proceedings, the Sweet Sixteen, offers more than one team, one storyline, one Brett Comer lob, to watch. Here are 16 items, one specific to each team, to keep an eye on — with the common denominator of shining a new analytical light on each match-up. If Florida Gulf Coast has already revolutionized everything we’ve come to know about today’s scoring-averse, slowdown, micro-managed game, where does that leave us – the humble writers who serve to clarify, in long form, what you see on the court – in attempting to understand the remaining rounds of this Tournament? Onward:
1. Is Louisville The Best Thing On The Block? It sure looks that way, and that’s without even seeing Louisville come up against a team capable of challenging Russ Smith and Peyton Siva on the perimeter, of pulling Gorgui Dieng away from the basket, and decoding Louisville’s No. 1 efficiency defense. Colorado State was the closest thing, and the Rams were hopelessly overmatched on both ends of the floor. The Cardinals got the good side of Russ Smith in that match-up, scoring 27 points and committing just one turnover, and when that happens and Louisville maintains its trademark stingy point-prevention, Rick Pitino’s team is tough to beat. The question is whether Oregon, criminally underseeded as a #12, can use its bruising defensive style to counter the Cardinals’ championship formula. Louisville has done nothing thus far to refute its national frontrunner status, and unless Ducks coach Dana Altman can poke holes in U of L’s defensive fortress with Damyeon Dotson and E.J. Singler on the perimeter, and Arsalan Kazemi keeps up his insane rebounding pace (he’s averaging 16.5 boards per game in Tournament play), the Cardinals will maintain that status and waltz into the Elite Eight undeterred.
2. The End Of Ohio State’s One-Dimensional Scoring Problem.
For most of the season, behind Ohio State’s plainly suffocating perimeter defense, headed by one rosy-cheeked point guard roundly regarded as the nation’s best on-ball defender, lay an offense with one glaring problem: DeShaun Thomas was doing everything. For as devastating as Thomas can be, and as versatile as his scoring arsenal has become – Thomas is just as quick to camp out on the perimeter as he is to back down an opponent in the post – the Buckeyes needed a reliable ancillary scoring option. And during Tournament play (and increasingly at the end of the regular season), they’ve gotten exactly that. In a second-round bout against Iona, Sam Thompson (20 points) and Lenzelle Smith (12) were in double figures; Craft (18) stole the show in the next match-up with Iowa State, and there was no greater symbolic statement to his newfound offensive chutzpah than when he looked off Thomas on a critical final possession, lulled Cyclones’ forward Georges Niang to sleep with a deft walk-up dribble, and iced a game-winning three while holding up his wrist on the follow through as his teammates celebrated a squeaky escape. LeBron James took notice. You should, too.