The NCAA Tournament Takes a Deep Breath After a Wild Opening Weekend
By Jim Hurley
Okay, you can 'fess up now ... Just how many of these NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 teams did you have still standing in your office pool bracket?
As we pointed out in Monday's edition of Jim Sez, the fact of the matter is nearly two-thirds of the "top seeds" are still here as 10 of the top 16 seeds in this "Big Dance" still have a shot to win it all while there's three double-digit seed teams with hope but, please ESPN, can we not call the likes of #10 seed Stanford and #11 seed Tennessee a couple of "Cinderellas"!
After all, both the Cardinal and Volunteers are power conference teams with great hoop histories and since when do mid-to-upper rung teams in the Pac-12 and SEC get the glass slipper treatment? Silly!
Still, before we delve into the first portion of Sweet 16 game previews come Thursday, let's review what the odds to win it all were prior to the start of this tourney for the still-alive hoop squads:
NCAA TOURNAMENT ODDS TO WIN ALL (as of March 18th)
(Note: All figures below are based on $100 per-play wagers)
|San Diego State
Heck, if you happen to own a ticket for any of the above Sweet 16 teams, good luck and gotta say that "long-shot" squads such as Kentucky at 40-to-1 and Baylor at 80-to-1 sure seem very much alive as we zip into this second week of NCAA Tournament play ... don't you agree?
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On Thursday, it's ...NCAA TOURNAMENT - Sweet 16 Round
SOUTH REGIONAL Fedex Forum - Memphis, TN
#11 DAYTON (25-10) vs. #10 STANFORD (23-12) - 7:15 p.m. ET, CBS
Here's the bracket-buster game in this year's Sweet 16 (heck, just about every single year we get one of these lower seed vs. lower seed showdowns in this round of play) but the $64,000 question here is which of these teams "answers the bell" when things get tough?
Stanford reached down deep and fended off both New Mexico and Kansas in second/third-round games last week in St. Louis and don't sleep on the fact the Cardinal sank 9-of-12 late-game free throws to ice the 7-point favored Jayhawks 60-57 while Dayton staved off Syracuse 55-53 while eliminating the Orange's outside shooting game.
If Stanford - a 2 ½-point fav for this tilt - is gonna survive-and-advance to Saturday's Elite 8 then the following must happen here: Johnny Dawkins' big-hearted team must defend and that means jumping-jack F Josh Huestis must make some more key blocks and that sticky perimeter defense mist rise up as note Kansas shot a miserable 19-of-58 from the floor and that included just 5-of-16 makes from beyond the three-point arc.
Secondly, Stanford has to drill some of its own triple tries after going a very dry 0-for-9 from treyland last Sunday - can Dawkins count on G Chasson Randle (13 points on 6-of-12 FGs shooting against KU) to step out and get free for some 3-balls after he attempted just two long balls last weekend?
Finally, the high-stress nature of this game dictates that Stanford must get something from its bench but note the Cardinal registered just 6 bench points against Kansas - that has to double (at least) if the Palo Alto guys are gonna fly high.
For Dayton, it's all about getting the speed of this game in its favor and so - even if it means some hasty shots by Archie Miller's squad - get this game into a hectic pace when possible and look for G Jordan Sibert to get off more than nine field-goal tries (see Syracuse game). If Dayton can score 15-to-20 points (minimum) on fast-break points, then the arrow should be pointing up on a Dayton win in this round.
One X factor here: Dayton shot just 10-of-18 from the foul line in the upset win against the 'Cuse ... no way does this Atlantic-10 team survive shooting 56 percent from the FT line here.
#4 UCLA (28-8) vs. #1 FLORIDA (34-2) - approximately 9:45 p.m. ET, CBS
Okay, so Florida Gators' head coach Billy Donovan didn't like what he was seeing from his team in that SEC Championship Game hang-on-for-dear-life win against Kentucky and then that opening-round NCAA Tourney 67-55 win against 22-point dog Albany - but things got back to "normal" in last Saturday's 61-45 win against 5 ½-point dog Pittsburgh and the best things about that showing were (of course) that thorny defense that held the Panthers to just 4-of-17 shooting from beyond the three-point line and that major commitment to hit the offensive boards as the Gators gobbled up a whopping 13 offensive caroms.
Oh, it didn't hurt that SEC Player of the Year G Scottie Wilbekin was the far-and-away best player on the floor in the win against Pittsburgh as he poured in 21 points, committed just one turnover (in 32 minutes of action) and for good measure drilled a three-point, buzzer-beating shot at the end of the first half.
No doubt Wilbekin's experience and large heart will be major keys here against a UCLA squad that's just now coming of age what with a Pac-12 Tournament championship game win against Arizona followed up last week with dominant 17-point wins against both Tulsa and Stephen F. Austin.
The Bruins - who must do everything in its power to keep muscle-flexing C Patric Young off the glass here (he had six of the Gators' offensive rebs against Pitt) - must show that "spurtability" that can separate themselves quickly from an opponent as was the case in last Sunday's 77-60 triumph over 9 ½-point put S.F. Austin when a 12-2 run that took less than three minutes late in the opening half really broke that game wide open.
If "Magic Johnson-like" G Kyle Anderson (15 points, 8 rebound and 5 assists last Sunday) plays free-and-easy here, then Steve Alford's frisky bunch could be a real "live dog" at the current 4 ½-point price but be sure that UCLA must not make this a physical game where Florida's Wilbekin, Young and others simply thrive.
If you're looking for an X-factor in this bash in Memphis, then consider UCLA must be adept at points in the paint against the Florida front line - if the Bruins also can draw some quick fouls on Young here then that's a bonus too.
WEST REGIONAL Honda Center - Anaheim, CA
#6 BAYLOR (26-11) vs. #2 WISCONSIN (28-7) - 7:47 p.m. ET, TBS
Who knew that the 2013-14 Baylor Bears were gonna be Sweet 16-bound way back in early February when Scott Drew's squad was busy losing seven-of-eight games and appearing hell-bent on doing a major crash-and-burn job on their season?
Now, fast forward to late March and the Bears - fresh off NCAA Tournament lopsided wins against a pair of high-quality clubs in Nebraska and Creighton - have won 12 of their last 14 games overall and they are playing as well or better than any team in this tourney.
In fact, Baylor's resounding 85-55 win against 4-point favored Creighton not only featured air-tight defense on Bluejays' megastar Doug McDermott (see 15 points on 14 FG attempts) but the offensive balance displayed by the Waco kids was amazing with all five starters scoring between 10-to-17 points and take note that the Bears launched 18 three-point shots and hit on 11 of 'em.
Guard Brady Heslip - who registered 17 points and bagged five trifectas against Creighton - is the main figure here for Baylor as he must shake loose behind perimeter screens and force the likes of Wisconsin guards Ben Brust, Traevon Jackson and Josh Gasser to chase him for much of this 40-minute affair.
Conversely, the Badgers - who dug themselves out of a 12-point halftime deficit to down 6-point dog Oregon 85-77 last Saturday in fan-friendly Milwaukee - need to show they can score some in-the-paint points here against Baylor's intimidating front line that stars Cory Jefferson and Isaiah Austin because it's not likely Bo Ryan's crew will shoot it from a high rate beyond the three-point stripe. If Brust can nail a few deep balls here, than things may loosen up inside.
But picture this: Wisky may sink or swim depending on how penetrating/slashing Sam Dekker does here and the normally fearless star forward had better face up to the fact some of his shots will be blocked or challenged and that can't deter 'em here!
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#4 SAN DIEGO STATE (31-4) vs. #1 ARIZONA (32-4) - approximately 10:17 p.m. ET, TBS
Let's toss something out there and you decide whether it's a factor or not: The San Diego State Aztecs - a 7-point dog at press time for this Sweet 16 clash in nearby Orange County - not only didn't have to travel very far for this game but had an extra 30-hours-or-so more time to get ready for this affair as Steve Fisher's club bopped 3 ½-point dog North Dakota State 63-44 last Saturday in Spokane while Arizona romped over 7 ½-point pup Gonzaga 84-61 last Sunday (late night) in San Diego.
Maybe the extra prep time/short travel is no big deal but it's worth pointing out that both "intangibles" are in SDSU's favor, okay?
As far as this round-of-16 game itself, no doubt the Aztecs need a whopper-sized game from do-it-all G Xavier Thames (30 points and 5 assists against the Bison) but San Diego State must cut off those fast-break alleys that Arizona makes famous as we simply lost track of just how many fast-break points the Pac-12 Wildcats scored against the Zags last weekend!
When push comes proverbial shove here, the upset formula goes something like this: Thames must get his 25-plus points and San Diego State must limit Arizona's overall possessions and shots - yes, we duly noted that Sean Miller's guys drained 32-of-65 FG tries against Gonzaga and here SDSU must try to keep the 'Zona shot count down to 55 or less ... okay?
The X-factors here might hardly rate as big-time secrets but the Aztecs need a stat-sheet stuffing game from Dwayne Polee II while Arizona must get that assists-to-turnover ratio to read as if did last weekend when guard T.J. McConnell (12 points, 6 assists and 0 turnovers against Gonzaga) and G Nick Johnson (17 points, 5 assists and just 1 turnover) were outstanding and highly efficient.
Hey, the top-seeded Wildcats have great balance, great defensive intensity and solid sideline coaching - if they turn the ball only a handful of times here it won't matter what "intangibles" are in San Diego State's favor!
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On Friday, it’s …
EAST REGIONAL Madison Square Garden — New York City, NY
#7 CONNECTICUT (28-8) vs. #3 IOWA STATE (28-7) — 7:27 p.m. ET, TBS
Okay, so much is being made of the fact the UConn Huskies are more-or-less playing a “home game” here in the “World’s Most Famous Arena” but our question is if that’s such an advantage then why is Iowa State — a 2-point betting right now — the side that’s been taking the early-week money?
No doubt Connecticut has major mojo on its side following last Saturday’s 77-65 win over 4 ½-point fav Villanova as G Shabazz Napier wowed the good folks in Buffalo with his 25-point performance that included 4-of-8 trifecta hits and how about the fact the Huskies just clamped down on “D” just like the good old days of Jim Calhoun as ‘Nova shot just 18-of-51 from the field (that’s 35.3 percent)?
Now, Kevin Ollie’s club knows it must gum up the works for a high-octane Iowa State squad that — let’s face it — didn’t really seem to miss injured star F Georges Diang (broken right foot) in last Sunday’s wild 85-83 win/cover versus 1 ½-point pup North Carolina.
The Cyclones drained 12-of-26 triples and do-it-all G DeAndre Kane was a stat-sheet stuffer deluxe with 24 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists and his driving hoop that won it with 1.6 seconds left might go down in I-State hoops lore if this Big 12 team can win it all.
Might this simply be a match of who scores more … Napier or Kane? Stay tuned.
#4 MICHIGAN STATE (30-8) vs. #1 VIRGINIA (32-6) — approximately 9:57 p.m. ET, TBS
It’s not often that a #4 seed will be the betting favorite — the Michigan State Spartans are a 2-point choice right now (and rising)— against a #1 seed in NCAA Tournament play but, let’s face it, Sparty is the people’s choice as seemingly everyone including President Obama tabbed this Big 10 team to snag the national championship this year but we have a different slant to things here … and that’s Michigan State will be ones playing with a bit more pressure on ‘em and top-seeded Virginia could be/should be the more loosey-goosey squad for this game at MSG.
The Spartans felt some heavy-duty pressure in that 80-73 great-escape non-cover win against 9-point underdog Harvard last Saturday in Spokane but a clutch triple by underrated G Travis Trice saved M-State’s bacon and Tom Izzo’s club survived despite an ultra-quiet game by big man Adreian Payne who followed up his epic 41-point game against Delaware in second-round play with just 14 points against the Ivy Leaguers.
No question Payne must pile up whatever numbers he can here against the nation’s top defensive team but gut feeling is the Cavaliers will go right at Payne in the paint and try to draw some early fouls — if Tony Bennett’s club can get to open up the floor more with Payne on the bench, then it’s major advantage to the Wahoos.
Virginia is a better-than-you-think offensive team as proven in last Sunday’s rollicking 78-60 triumph over 6½-point pup Memphis. The Cavs had five players go for double-digit scoring in that tilt with G Joe Harris topping the charts with 16 points but we believe bench guys F Anthony Gill (13 points and 8 rebs against Memphis) and G Justin Anderson (10 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists) will really decide matters here:
If both guys can provide a jolt to a Virginia team that still prefers to play games in the 60s, then the region’s top seed will have slayed the big green dragon.
P.S., we know Izzo has mucho tourney experience but not about to rate him more than a single point better than Bennett here as this Virginia team has great chemistry — maybe the best in the land — and does a lot of little things (like shoot free throws) as well as anyone in the country.
Why does it feel like this one’s comin’ down to a final shot?
Lucas Oil Stadium — Indianapolis, IN
#11 TENNESSEE (24-12) vs. #2 MICHIGAN (27-8) — 7:15 p.m. ET, CBS
If you’ve wagered on both Tennessee and Michigan thus far in this man’s tourney then you’re a spiffy 5-and-oh versus the vig … good stuff!
It’s the Volunteers who’ve come from that “First Four” group that’s won three games already in this year’s “Big Dance” and guess the good folks in/around Knoxville won’t be shoving head coach Cuonzo Martin out the door anytime soon, eh?
Martin’s team has ratcheted things up this post-season with NCAA Tournament victories against Iowa (in OT), Massachusetts and Mercer and maybe you’re saying that’s not exactly a who’s who of college b-ball teams and you’re correct.
However, consider the domination in those last two wins as Tennessee thumped UMass 86-67 and bashed Mercer 83-63 as board-banger Jarnell Stokes pulled down 18 rebounds last Sunday after snagging 14 caroms in the UMass game.
The question here is will there be many rebounds for Stokes and sidekick Jeronne Maymon (8 boards versus Mercer and 26 totals boards in this tourney so far) against a Michigan team that’s shooting lights out these days?
The Wolverines — yes, a very different team personnel-wise then the one that made it all the way to the NCAA Tournament Championship Game last year — nailed 14 treys in last Saturday’s 79-65 win/cover against 5-point dog Texas as G Nik Stauskas bagged four triples and Tennessee better play some in-your-grill defense against both Stauskas (17 points versus the Longhorns) and his perimeter-minded mates including G Caris LeVert, who nailed three big trifectas against Texas.
In all, the maize-and-blue registered 14 of its 24 FG makes against Texas from beyond the arc and so Tennessee has to play some bump-and-run with Michigan’s deep shooters and then hope Stokes and Maymon can be backboard behemoths once again.
#8 KENTUCKY (26-10) vs. #4 LOUISVILLE (31-5) — approximately 9:45 p.m. ET, CBS
Hey, what’s all the fuss about an 8 seed playing a 4 seed … oh, now we get it!
The Bluegrass State showdown for the right to move onto the Elite 8 has — surprise, surprise — captivated the hoops nation at large but let’s start out this game preview by digging into what’s at the root of all things here:
The Kentucky Wildcats — fresh off their spine-tingling 78-76 win against 4½-point favorite Wichita State last Sunday afternoon — have been one of the most inconsistent major-college teams in recent memory but now you wonder what everyone’s wondering and that is John Calipari’s team ready to reach its peak here and in the next couple of weeks?
Certainly, Kentucky answered the bell against a very good Wichita State team that shot 55.1 percent from the floor (that’s 27-of-49 made FGs) and still could not get “mission accomplished” and what will make the Wildcats so tough for defending national champ Louisville here is the fact so many UK players can handle the ball and get their own shots as evidenced by four guys with 13-or-more points against the Shockers.
Maybe Kentucky super-frosh Julius Randle will wind up the far-and-away best pro of ‘em all on this Calipari team but it’s twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison who are the real keys here as both guards must handle the Cardinals ball-hawking pressure/traps and both must be offensive sparks too after they combined for a nifty 12-of-22 FG game for 39 points against previously unbeaten Wichita State.
On the flip side, that aforementioned Louisville pressure must get the ‘Cats to turn the ball over and immediately create points off said turnovers — note that Saint Louis coughed the ball up 18 times in last Saturday’s 66-51 win by 10-point fav Louisville (yes, many of the Billikens’ turnovers were self-inflicted botch-ups but they all count!) and we’ll see if G Russ Smith can get his offensive game straightened away plus we’ll calling the “magic number” 20 points because that’s what we believe sharpshooter Luke Hancock must get for the ‘Ville is it’s gonna survive and advance to an Elite 8 date on Sunday.