Thursday, March 22, 2012

NCAA Tournament: Sweet 16 & Elite 8

It's time to put your dancing shoes back on, because the tournament kicks off again tonight, after most of the pretenders (and some of the contenders) have been weeded out.  There are four games tonight and four tomorrow night, with two each on Saturday and Sunday.  Today I'll be going over the more exciting matchups and potential matchups of the weekend, and an intriguing story or two. 

The Three Sweet 16 Games I Am Most Excited For
11 North Carolina State vs. 2 Kansas - The Pack are back!  In one of the few good calls I made, I did predict that the Wolf Pack would advance to the Sweet 16, and they have the look of a team that might not be done.  State has had talent for a few years, but their weakness was on the bench the past few seasons with Sidney Lowe.  But it looks like State has finally made the right hire, after ten seasons of pretty-good-but-not-great performances by Herb Sendek's teams and five seasons of "Sidney Lowe The Mediocre," as he is styled on Wikipedia.  Mark Gottfried can coach.  He won over 200 games in eleven seasons at Alabama, which is only somewhat aware that it has a basketball team.  Their "fans" probably spend games wondering why these tall athletes aren't catching passes instead of running around bouncing a strange spherical ball.  In any case, Gottfried has found a way to motivate his inherited talent, in particular the troika of C. J. Leslie, Richard Howell, and Lorenzo Brown.  Leslie will play in the NBA, and even if he is susceptible to a bonehead moment or two every game, he will also make three plays that no one else on the floor can make, whether it's appearing out of nowhere to steal the first pass initiating the offense, or blocking a shot that doesn't look particularly blockable, or slipping around bigger players (he's all of 6'8", 209) to grab a key offensive rebound.  Howell has gotten off the Adam Richman diet and turned into a much more consistent scoring threat, both on the block and out to fifteen feet, although he still needs to avoid foul trouble.  And Brown, given the keys to the offense, has turned into a cool and confident point guard who makes the most of his varied options (all five starters average double figures).  This team is eminently capable of beating Kansas if the three big men (Leslie, Howell, and DeShawn Painter) can contain Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey without getting mired in foul difficulties.  I expect Kansas to win, but do not sleep on a State team that has really grown in the last month.  It will be great for the ACC if State (and Florida State) can build on this success and revitalize the ACC, which has turned into a two-horse race for the past several years.  Between those two and the additions of Syracuse and Pitt (although I am against both of them leaving the Big East), the ACC may once again become the best conference in the country.

4 Louisville vs. 1 Michigan State - This will be a battle between two Hall of Fame coaches, each of whom has a national championship and multiple Final Fours on his resume.  The Cardinals, very unlike some of Rick Pitino's earlier teams, have often struggled to score this season, and make their living off of strong defense and transition offense produced by steals and center Gorgui Dieng's blocked shots.  They don't have a single player averaging even thirteen points a game, and their best player, point guard Peyton Siva, can't shoot (20% from behind the arc). Yet they find a way to win.  As for the Spartans, they're not just Draymond Green and the Seven Dwarves.  Several of their other players have been impressive as well.  Point guard Keith Appling has shown off his explosiveness in running the Spartans' attack, and guard Brandon Wood, although a role player on this team, has been able to create his own shot with the ease he did at Valparaiso as an undergrad, where he averaged almost 18 points a game.  Additionally, the two-headed center tandem of Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix creates lots of problems for opponents.  Payne is the more athletic of the two, with a diverse face-up game, but can only play short stretches due to having undersized lungs for a big boy (6'10", 240).  Nix is an automatic double-team when he catches the ball on the block, because he's huge (6'9", 270) and can back his way right to the basket when he so chooses.  Nix is also an excellent passer out of those double teams, and Spartan guards have gotten several easy looks because they can cut baseline on the opposite side when Nix is doubled.  This game could score in the 50s or in the 70s, but either way it's likely to be a great, close contest.

13 Ohio vs. 1 North Carolina - Will Kendall Marshall play or won't he? Ol' Roy is preparing for the worst, even if that means that senior reserve Justin Watts or the immortal Stilman White are starting at the point for the Heels.  They obviously caught a bit of a break by getting their first chance post-Marshall against the lowest-seeded team remaining in the tournament, a team without any rotation player taller than 6'8", meaning that they will likely have trouble down low with Tyler Zeller, John Henson, and James Michael McAdoo.  Ohio's two NCAA wins came against a smallish Michigan team and an overachieving South Florida team, and they may not have the horses to hang with even an injury-decimated Carolina outfit.  But the Ohio backcourt is strong, and this is not point guard D. J. Cooper's first rodeo.  He was a key part of the Bobcats' upset of Georgetown in the first round two years ago, and he will be unafraid to take big shots.  Clark Kellogg's son Nick is a very capable long-range shooter, and Walter Offutt can score as well.  Carolina should still win, but there's always the chance that Watts and/or White stink in their expanded roles, or that Ohio catches the Heels on a night when they don't feel like playing 100% on defense (which happens at least once a month). Either way, it should be intriguing.  And if Carolina emerges victorious, I would not expect them to defeat either Kansas or their in-state rivals from Raleigh.

Note: I did not pick the Indiana-Kentucky rematch as one of my favorites because a) it is not taking place at Assembly Hall, b) the Hoosiers are out a key player in Verdell Jones III, and c) the Wildcats are supremely motivated and playing at such a high level right now that I think they will cruise.

Most Awesome Potential Elite 8 Matchup
3 Marquette vs. 1 Michigan State - I absolutely believe that this would be a fantastic game between two teams that would bring out the best in each other on both ends of the floor.  We know that Tom Izzo is a tremendous coach, but Buzz Williams is on his way to joining the nation's elite as well.  Both teams would be exceptionally well-prepared (even on short rest), which means we could settle down to seeing some fantastic individual matchups, with the most riveting of those obviously being the Big Ten MVP (Green) squaring off against the Big East MVP (Jae Crowder).  Both teams can and like to run out in transition, but can also grind away in the half-court.  Michigan State has a bit of a size advantage with Payne and Nix, which should help them on the glass, but Marquette has the upper hand with its guards.  Both teams are incredibly strong and physical, and should they meet, the winner will be well-deserving of a Final Four berth.  May the basketball gods smile on us and reward us with this matchup.