- From a plethora of mismatches in Kansas-Purdue to a showdown between future top-10 NBA draft picks, these individual battles could decide who moves on to the Elite Eight.
The NCAA tournament is as much about matchups as it is about teams and players. The individual matchups within the context of one team against another frequently determine which team marches on, and which goes home. Below are the five most intriguing matchups in the Sweet 16.
Mismatches in Kansas-Purdue
The Jayhawks have been one of the best teams all year on the strength of their veteran backcourt, featuring Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham, and likely top-five pick Josh Jackson on the wing. Purdue’s competitive advantage, meanwhile, is up front, thanks to Big Ten Player of the Year Caleb Swanigan. The Boilermakers surround him with shooters and playmakers on the perimeter, most notably Vince Edwards, Dakota Mathias and P.J. Thompson, but Swanigan makes the offense tick.
What makes this so intriguing is that both teams will have significant advantages at their points of strength. Put simply, Purdue’s guards are overmatched by Mason and Graham, and whoever draws primary duty on Jackson, likely Edwards, will need a lot of help. On the other side, Landen Lucas was the only interior player to get more than 10 minutes in Kansas’s second-round win over Michigan State. The Boilermakers should be able to dominate in the paint with Swanigan and Isaac Haas. Kansas will likely need more out of Carlton Bragg, who hasn’t played 20 minutes in a game since a win over TCU on Feb. 22. The Jayhawks will require his presence on the floor, at the very least, with Swanigan and Haas presenting a unique challenge.
Don’t sleep on the trickle-down effect Purdue’s makeup could have on Kansas’s offense. More minutes for Bragg necessarily means fewer minutes for Lagerald Vick, Svi Mykhailiuk, or both of them. That could change what Kansas is able to do offensively as well.
Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ vs. Florida’s frontcourt
One month ago, Wisconsin-Florida would have been a much different matchup than it will be when the two meet on Friday in Madison Square Garden. That’s because Florida will be playing its 11th game without center John Egbunu. His absence makes the Gators' job of slowing down Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ that much tougher.
Hayes played arguably his best game of the season in Wisconsin’s win over Villanova in the second round. With both Happ and Bronson Koenig saddled with foul trouble, Hayes played 39 minutes, went 8 for 15 for 19 points, including the game-winner, and grabbed eight rebounds. When he plays like that, Wisconsin’s 1–2 punch in the frontcourt is one of the country’s most potent. Despite lacking any semblance of a jump shot, Happ is dangerous on the block with his combination of footwork, positioning and touch.
The duty of slowing down Hayes and Happ falls to Kevarrius Hayes (no relation) and Devin Robinson. Hayes has been a revelation for the Gators since Egbunu’s injury, taking over as the starting center. He’s not nearly as skilled an offensive player as Egbunu, but the Gators don’t need that from him as much as they need his rim protection. Robinson, meanwhile, might do his most important defensive work on the offensive end. The foul trouble Happ experienced against Villanova was nothing new for him, and Robinson has the ability to attack and put Happ in uncomfortable situations.
Nigel Williams-Goss, Josh Perkins, Jordan Mathews and Silas Melson vs. West Virginia’s press
The first matchup that must be considered in any game involving the Mountaineers is how the opponent backcourt will handle the press. It’s true that if the Mountaineers shoot the ball as well as they did in their second-round win over Notre Dame, connecting on 8 of their 14 three-point attempts and 21 of 26 free throws, they’re going to be nearly impossible to beat. Still, everything flows from the press, putting even more responsibility than usual on Gonzaga’s guards.
This should be one of the best unit-against-unit matchups of the Sweet 16. Gonzaga has the 26th-best turnover rate in the country. Of course, Notre Dame ranked third in turnover rate before last week’s game against West Virginia, then coughed it up 14 times, including nine in the first half. Once the Bulldogs break the press, they have the right weapons to make West Virginia pay. Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins have carried the Bulldogs to the fourth-best two-point percentage in the country. They also want to play at West Virginia’s pace. The Bulldogs, in fact, play at a slightly faster tempo than the Mountaineers. In other words, speed isn’t going to bother Gonzaga the same way it did Notre Dame last week. And when it does break the press, it won’t hesitate to attack.
Payton Pritchard and Dylan Ennis vs. Derrick Walton
Walton finally slowed down in Michigan’s win over Louisville, going 3 for 13 from the floor for 10 points. He still made a significant impact on the game, grabbing seven rebounds and dishing out six assists in 36 minutes while Mo Wagner and D.J. Wilson picked up the scoring slack. Don’t expect that to be the case when Michigan is back in action against Oregon on Thursday.
Walton’s metamorphosis into one of the most clutch point guards in the country over the last six weeks has driven Michigan’s run to the Big Ten tournament title and the Sweet 16. Louisville slowed him down, but still lost, showing the scoring depth of the Wolverines, as well as Walton’s ability to make things happen offensively even when he isn’t putting the ball in the basket. If Oregon is going to contain him, it will be Pritchard and Ennis who do the heavy lifting.
This is a unique challenge for Oregon’s guards because Walton is such a good shooter. He will break you down and get into the paint, but he’s a 42% three-point shooter this season on well over 200 attempts. Even though Pritchard and Ennis will spend most of the game on the ball, Oregon’s entire team will have to be aware of Walton at all times. Pick-and-roll defense from Dillon Brooks and Jordan Bell will be huge. If they can’t find a way to turn Walton back while also preventing him from getting enough space to get his shots off, they could be in for a long night.
Lonzo Ball vs. Malik Monk
This might not be a matchup in the traditional sense. Ball and Monk likely won’t guard one another, save for a handful of possessions evolving from game flow. Still, they’re the most prolific scorers on the teams ranked second and 13th, respectively, in kenpom.com’s adjusted offensive efficiency. Both are capable of carrying their teams to the Elite Eight with a singular offensive effort. Ball and Monk may not see each other directly on Friday, but their matchup could determine which team finishes the night just one win away from the Final Four.
No matter which mock draft service you prefer (we might be a little biased, but we’re big fans of Andrew Sharp’s work), you’re going to see Ball and Monk in the top 10. Ball is widely viewed as a consensus top-three pick, alongside Markelle Fultz and Josh Jackson, while Monk is projected to come off the board a handful of picks later. Matchups between teams featuring eventual top-10 picks in the NCAA tournament happen more often than you likely think. The last time it occurred was in 2015. Wisconsin, which was led by eventual No. 9 pick Frank Kaminsky, beat Kentucky, with top overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns and No. 6 pick Willie Cauley-Stein, in the Final Four. Kaminsky’s Badgers then lost to Duke, with No. 3 pick Jahlil Okafor and No. 10 pick Justise Winslow, in the national championship. Earlier in that same tournament, D’Angelo Russell’s Ohio State Buckeyes met Stanley Johnson’s Arizona Wildcats. Russell would end up as the second overall pick, while Johnson was selected eighth. We haven’t seen two top-five picks square off, however, since the 2012 national championship, when Kentucky, led by No. 1 pick Anthony Davis and No. 2 pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, took down Kansas and eventual No. 5 pick Thomas Robinson. Ball and Monk could be the next pair in that line.
Kentucky’s defense is far more equipped to slow down Ball than UCLA’s defense is to stop Monk. That has little to do with the players themselves, and more to do with the fact that UCLA’s defense isn’t engineered to stop anyone, least of all one of the country’s best scorers. Ball, however, has more help around him in the form of T.J. Leaf, Bryce Alford and Aaron Holiday. Still, chances are that whoever wins the Ball-Monk showdown will still be playing basketball on Sunday.