If this week is anything like last week, then we are one lucky group of Hoopheads. The first three rounds were chock-full of great performances, exciting finishes and all kinds of crazy plays. Last week I predicted we'd see the kind of surprising results we've come to expect from this season. This week, however, I peered into my crystal ball and envisioned a return to form. Here's how it will all play out.
If you're one of the many viewers who watched San Diego State play for the first time last weekend, you probably came away underwhelmed. But that's just how the Aztecs roll. They don't play exciting basketball, they just score more points than the other team. The problem here is that they're playing a team that can really score a lot of points. UConn is slower than you might think (the Huskies are ranked 205th in America in tempo), but UConn is ranked 14th nationally in offensive efficiency and the Huskies average more than 73 points per game. San Diego State is used to having a considerable advantage on the front line, but with the way Alex Oriakhi has been pounding the glass (23 total boards in wins over Bucknell and Cincinnati), that battle will probably be a wash. And for all the talk about Kemba Walker's scoring numbers, the area where he really excels is leadership. That has enabled his freshmen running mates to gain confidence with each passing victory. The Aztecs will no doubt have a huge fan contingent in Anaheim, but that won't be enough to keep Kemba from leading his team to one more big win.
Quick: Who is the best player remaining in the NCAA tournament? Jimmer? Nolan? Jared? Kemba? Many would argue it's Derrick Williams, Arizona's sensational 6-foot-8 sophomore. During Arizona's win over Texas, Williams demonstrated my adage that a great player knows how to play well when he's not playing well. Williams was rusty offensively (4-for-14 shooting, including 0-for-6 in the first half), yet he still attempted 15 free throws and grabbed nine rebounds. Oh yeah, he also converted the game-winning three-point play. Nobody can stop Williams, but Duke has several defenders, most notably Kyle Singler, who have the potential to keep him from going crazy. On the flip side, I think the Wildcats' guards will have a hard time dealing with Duke's defensive pressure, especially after Kyrie Irving has a few practices under his belt. If Duke falls in love with the three-pointer again that would be bad news for the Blue Devils, but I'm guessing they learned the perils of doing that from their shaky finish against Michigan, when they hoisted 20 three-pointers and made only five.
If Irving weren't playing in this game, I would probably go with UConn, even though I picked Duke to make the Final Four in
If this game is as entertaining as last year's first-round, double-overtime clash that BYU won 99-92, then it will truly be can't-miss TV. I revisited the box score from that game, and aside from The Jimmer's 37 points, two things jumped out at me. First, BYU got 26 points off the bench from 6-1 guard Michael Loyd Jr. Second, Florida point guard Erving Walker attempted 13 three-pointers (making three) and just one free throw. This time around, Loyd is no longer on BYU's roster (he was dismissed last spring for multiple rules violations), and Walker is a totally different player. To wit, during Florida's wins last week over UC Santa Barbara and UCLA, Walker attempted a combined 11 threes and 15 free throws. Florida owned the boards in last year's game against BYU (17 offensive rebounds), and that advantage should be even more pronounced since the Gators are stronger up front and the Cougars are playing without their best rebounder from this season, Brandon Davies. Florida doesn't have the defensive wherewithal to shut down The Jimmer, but the Gators are a complete, mature and experienced team. Their whole is greater than the sum of BYU's parts.
There are some things you just can't explain. Like Butler guard Shelvin Mack, who at one point this season was barely making 30 percent from three-point range, drilling seven of his 12 attempts from behind the arc in the third round against Pitt. Nor can you explain Nasir Robinson's foul on Matt Howard, which set up Howard's game-winning free throw. (I'll forever believe Robinson mistakenly believed Butler held the lead at that point.) And it's really hard to explain how Butler can play in four consecutive NCAA tournament games, including last year's Final Four, that were decided by a total of seven points. Wisconsin is a good team, a really good team, and the Badgers got an unexpected lift with the return of 6-6 sophomore forward Mike Bruesewitz (a.k.a. Carrot Top) from injury. This is a game of great matchups: Mack vs. Jordan Taylor, Howard vs. Jon Leuer, Brad Stevens vs. Bo Ryan. Still, this feels like déjà vu all over again, and in the end the Badgers are no match for the Butler magic.
This is a rematch of another classic first-round overtime game. In 2000, Florida beat Butler on a buzzer-beater by Mike Miller and went on to lose to Michigan State in the championship game. I see this contest taking on much the same narrative. Butler is a solid defensive team that is capable of limiting possessions and forcing Florida to make a big shot down the stretch. Once again, the Gators will have the best player on the floor in 6-10 senior forward Chandler Parsons, and we all know his history of buzzer-beating heroics.
Marquette is such a scary and unconventional team that if North Carolina had just two days to prepare instead of five, I would pick the Golden Eagles to pull off the upset. This team is not particularly big, but it's loaded with a bunch of junkyard dogs. Jimmy Butler was brilliant in forcing Xavier guard Tu Holloway into shooting 1-for-8 (though he had a lot of help), and the Eagles harassed Syracuse into committing 18 turnovers in a low-possession game. I think the extra days of practice and preparation will allow North Carolina's edge in personnel to be decisive. The Heels' big men have been playing big in this tournament, and Kendall Marshall has been magnificent at the point. Despite being a freshman, Marshall had 24 assists to just six turnovers in North Carolina's two wins in Charlotte. The Tar Heels will leave the court with more points on the scoreboard, but they'll know they've been in a fight.
Between Jared Sullinger's power, Jon Diebler's shooting and Aaron Craft's, well, craftiness, nobody seems to spend much time praising Ohio State's defense. So let me do that. The Buckeyes are ranked eighth in the country in defensive efficiency, and they're first in both steals per possession and defensive free-throw rate. In other words, they shut you down, turn you over and keep you off the foul line. They're also playing their best basketball of the season, as evidenced by their bone-rattling routs of UTSA and George Mason. In that first game the Buckeyes had 26 assists on 29 made field goals, and against the Patriots it was David Lighty, not Diebler, who drilled all seven of his three-point attempts. This is the worst kind of team for a young Kentucky squad to face in the Sweet 16. The Wildcats have gotten by for most of the season on pure talent, and while they have played much smarter basketball the last three weeks, they still can't match the poise and efficiency -- not to mention the pure talent -- that Ohio State will put on the floor.
The East might be the toughest region, but Ohio State will be fortunate to have faced two of the youngest teams in the country in Newark. Like Kentucky, North Carolina has gotten past a lot of teams because of its superior talent, but in the Buckeyes it will play a team that can match its talent but exceed its experience. As long as Ohio State stays focused enough to prevent North Carolina from getting lots of runouts after made baskets, the Buckeyes can win this game by out-executing the Heels in the half court. I also think Sullinger and Dallas Lauderdale will be able to get John Henson and Tyler Zeller into foul trouble.
The reason Richmond is so hard to defend is that every player can dribble, pass and shoot. Six players made three-pointers in Richmond's two wins last week. That includes Justin Harper, a 6-10 senior forward whose 46.5 percentage from three-point range ranks 19th in the country. Most teams the Spiders play have two or three (and maybe even four) defenders who can extend to the three-point line and switch off ball screens, but somewhere down the line there is always a mismatch. Well, there won't be here. All of Kansas' big men, most notably the Morris twins, are quick and agile and will be able to bother Harper as he cuts and curls his way to open looks. Meanwhile, the Kansas offense is also a sight to behold. The Jayhawks lead the nation in field-goal percentage, and they're ranked 34th in assists per field goals made. The biggest question I had about this team was the stability of Tyshawn Taylor at the point, but Taylor was terrific in Tulsa, where he had a combined 11 assists and six turnovers and made eight of his 14 field-goal attempts.
These two teams registered the most surprising results of the tournament with the way they thumped Purdue and Notre Dame, respectively. Purdue's bailiwick is supposed to be its defense, yet VCU shot 57 percent and out-rebounded the Boilermakers by two. Notre Dame is a crisp offensive team, yet the Seminoles grinded the Fighting Irish into shooting 31 percent from the field and 23 percent from three. That makes this a hard game to pick, but I'm going with the Rams because I think they have a bevy of options to turn to on offense. Their leading scorer, Jamie Skeen, scored a pedestrian 13 points and had zero three-pointers against Purdue, but five other Rams scored in double figures. I also like VCU's advantage at the point guard spot manned by Joey Rodriguez, who had 18 assists and just two turnovers in the Rams' last two games. Most of all, I like the Rams because they're on a mission stemming from the controversy generated by the committee's decision to extend them an at-large bid even though they lost seven games in a mid-major conference. I'm banking that will be enough to maintain their focus despite all the attention they're going to get the next few days.
Kansas strikes me as one of those teams that is harder to beat the deeper it advances in the tournament. The Jayhawks might have been susceptible to an early-round upset (as they showed last year), but now that they've reached the regional I think they're going to continue to play well. Bill Self has too many options that he can mix and match depending on where the best matchups are and who has the hot hand. VCU is a great story, but in the end Kansas is just the better team.