Sweet Sixteen preview
The first two rounds of March Madness have come and gone and (for the most part) the contenders have been separated from the pretenders. Let’s take a look at some of the key players and matchups in each of the Sweet Sixteen games.
#1 Kansas vs. #4 Southern Illinois (7:10 PM, San Jose, CA)
The Jayhawks are on a roll. They’ve won 13 straight, including two wins against Texas, two wins against Kansas State and Sunday’s impressive 88-76 win over Kentucky. Kansas is deep and balanced, with five players averaging 9.8 or more points per game. They’re led by three guards – Brandon Rush, Mario Chalmers and Sherron Collins – while sophomore Julian Wright has established himself as a future lottery pick. The Jayhawks are strong both offensively and defensively.
On the other hand, the Southern Illinois’ offensive numbers aren’t impressive. At times, they struggle scoring, and if either Jamaal Tatum (15.1 ppg) or Randal Falker (12.4 ppg, 7.7 rpg) get into foul trouble early, this game could be over before it begins. The Salukis play aggressive, hard-nosed defense, so a lot depends on how tightly the refs call the game.
Who will win? Kansas. There is no reason to think the Jayhawks won’t wear down the Salukis. Southern Illinois is going to have to play a great game if they hope to keep it close.
#2 Memphis vs. #3 Texas A&M (7:27 PM, San Antonio, TX)
The Memphis Tigers are riding a 24-game winning streak that includes just one win against a ranked opponent (vs. #13 Nevada on Sunday). They are a balanced squad with six players averaging 7.3 or more points per game, led by Chris Douglas-Roberts’ 15.4 and Jeremy Hunt’s 13.6. In that game against the Wolf Pack, Douglas-Roberts suffered a nasty ankle sprain and it’s not clear if he’ll be ready to go for the quick turnaround on Thursday.
The Tigers don’t really run a set offense. They utilize a drive-and-kick philosophy that takes advantage of the team’s excellent athleticism. But the Aggies have a lot of quickness on the perimeter and should be able to limit the effectiveness of this attack, especially if Douglas-Roberts isn’t 100%. Texas A&M is coming off a gritty win against Louisville in Lexington and, in Acie Law, Josh Carter and Dominique Kirk, they have unmatched guard play. The Aggies also have an inside presence, but it wouldn’t be surprising if Antanas Kavaliauskas struggled against the Tigers. He had a tough time dealing with the quickness of Louisville’s big men, which means that the Aggies’ other big man, Joseph Jones, needs to play well.
Who will win? Texas A&M. The game is in San Antonio, which means there should be a lot of A&M fans that will make the 200-mile trek. With Douglas-Roberts’ shaky ankle, the battle-tested Aggies have the advantage.
#2 UCLA vs. #3 Pittsburgh (9:40 PM, San Jose, CA)
There is an emotional undercurrent to this game, which pits UCLA coach Ben Howland against his old team. The Bruins survived a late surge by the Hoosiers in what was the ugliest game of the tournament (thus far). Sadly, this game could be just as brutal – the Bruins and Panthers are both strong defensively and struggle offensively.
There are two key matchups that could decide this game. First, there’s the point guard battle between UCLA’s Darren Collison and Pittsburgh’s Levance Fields. Which player can create more easy buckets for his team? On the inside, UCLA’s undersized front line is going to have to deal with the Panthers’ seven-foot center Aaron Gray. The Bruins would be wise to push the tempo in order to wear Gray out.
Who will win? UCLA. The Bruins have to like the fact that the game is in California. But these two teams are very evenly matched, so Pac-10 POY Arron Afflalo just might be the X-factor. If he shoots the ball well, the Bruins should come away with a win.
#1 Ohio State vs. #5 Tennessee (9:57 PM, San Antonio, TX)
Ohio State and Xavier should play each other every year! The Buckeyes were in a coma against the Musketeers on Saturday, and were lucky to force an extra period against their bitter in-state rivals. But Ohio State showed a lot of moxie, especially freshman point guard Mike Conley, who scored the first seven points in overtime after Greg Oden fouled out. Senior Ron Lewis was also instrumental. Considering how many freshmen are getting minutes for the Buckeyes, it’s crucial that he plays well.
Tennessee loves to push the tempo. This has been head coach Bruce Pearl’s philosophy since his days at Southern Indiana (where he won a DII championship) and Wisconsin-Milwaukee (where he led the Panthers to the Sweet Sixteen). The Volunteers use a three-guard attack, featuring Chris Lofton (20.7 ppg), a phenomenal shooter with “in the gym” range. Tennessee doesn’t have a lot of size, so it will be interesting to see how they intend to handle Oden and Othello Hunter inside.
Who will win? Ohio State. These two teams played in January and OSU won, 68-66. Tennessee could either take the Buckeyes down to the wire or lay a major egg. The Vols have the outside shooters to stick with the Bucks, but in the end Oden and company should wear them down. A word of warning, however: if Ohio State tries to run with Tennessee, they’re playing with fire.
#1 Florida vs. #5 Butler (7:10 PM, St. Louis, MO)
There were stretches during the season when the Gators looked disinterested. They lost three of four in February before getting things squared away and tearing through the SEC Tournament. They survived a bit of a scare against a tough-as-nails Purdue squad and they face another gritty team in Butler.
The Bulldogs are all about defense and valuing the ball. They are in the top 30 nationally in both points allowed (57.1, 6th) and opponents’ shooting percentage (40.3, 27th). They also lead the country in fewest turnovers (9.3), so the Bulldogs aren’t going to beat themselves. Offensively, Butler is led by two guards – A.J. Graves (17.1 ppg) and Mike Green (13.9) – but are otherwise suspect.
Who will win? Florida. While it’s true that no one has repeated as national champs since Duke did it in 1992, few teams have the luxury of returning basically everyone from a championship team like the Gators have. They are focused and battle-tested, and assuming the Gators take the Bulldogs seriously, there’s no reason to think Butler will be able to derail them.
#2 Georgetown vs. #6 Vanderbilt (7:27 PM, East Rutherford, NJ)
The Hoyas are balanced, patient and play tough defense. They have a star in junior Jeff Green (14.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg) who has the ability to create when the offense gets stagnant, along with several role players, including 7’2” Roy Hibbert and guards Jonathan Wallace and Jessie Sapp. The Hoyas don’t always win pretty, but they usually win.
Simply stated, Vanderbilt has to shoot the ball well to compete. They do have their own star, SEC POY Derrick Byars (17.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg), who will have to play well to keep the Commodores close. The team has been pretty schizophrenic this season with some really bad losses (Furman, Appalachian State) and a few great wins (Florida, Tennessee, Georgia Tech), so they definitely play to the level of their competition.
Who will win? Georgetown. The Hoyas won by 16 when these two teams met back in November and their defense should be able to limit the number of good shots for the Commodores.
#3 Oregon vs. #7 UNLV (9:40 PM, St. Louis, MO)
After losing five of six games in early February, the Ducks have gone on a roll, winning eight straight, including a Pac-10 Tournament title. Senior Aaron Brooks (17.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 4.2 apg) leads a guard-oriented attack. The Ducks are at their best when they force an up-tempo game and are able to shoot it well from deep.
UNLV is hot, having dispatched a dangerous Georgia Tech team in the first round and #2-seed Wisconsin in the second. They’re definitely capable of advancing to the Elite Eight, but they need to be careful not to get into an up-and-down game with the Ducks. The Rebs get most of their points from a trio of players – Wendell White (14.6 ppg), Wink Adams (14.1) and Kevin Kruger (13.4) – and if any of the three have an off night, UNLV is in trouble.
Who will win? Oregon. Barring a horrible shooting night, the Ducks should have enough to get past a hot UNLV squad. But if Oregon struggles early, the game could definitely go down to the wire.
#1 North Carolina vs. #5 USC (9:57 PM, East Rutherford, NJ)
The Tar Heels probably have more talent than anyone else in the country, but the team is not firing on all cylinders. Roy Williams generally plays all 12 players in a given game, though only 10 players get 10+ minutes per game. They’re led by forwards Tyler Hansbrough (18.6 ppg, 7.9 rpg) and Brandan Wright (14.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg), but if North Carolina is to advance to the Final Four, freshman guards Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington need to play well.
In USC, the Tar Heels face a hot team that basically dismantled Texas using a series of double-teams to limit the effectiveness of Kevin Durant. Nick Young (17.6 ppg) and Lodrick Stewart (13.8 ppg) lead the Trojans, though freshman Taj Gibson continues to play a bigger role both offensively and defensively.
Who will win? North Carolina. The Trojans are gritty, and if they play a solid game, they should be able to hang with the Tar Heels. But this is a team that hasn’t won three straight since early February and has to travel cross-country for the game. The Tar Heels are vulnerable, but the odds are against USC knocking them off.