College Basketball Coverage: Previewing Regionals Weekend

The NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 tips off on Thursday night, starting another four-day run of college hoops that will settle the Final Four. In today’s college basketball coverage, TheSportsNotebook will preview the entire weekend of regionals action, look at the betting odds and for comic amusement review how this site’s earlier advice has paid off.

EAST REGIONAL (Thursday & Saturday, Washington D.C.)
Miami-Marquette (7:15 PM ET)
Indiana-Syracuse (9:45 PM ET)

THE MATCHUPS: I really think Miami-Marquette is a talent mismatch. The Golden Eagles don’t have the  talent to match up with the Hurricanes down low and I can see Miami blowing this game open. The positive for Marquette is twofold—Miami’s interior personnel is the least consistent aspect of its team,  especially now that center Reggie Johnson is out for this weekend’s games, while Marquette brings very consistent effort levels on the defensive end. And we can add a third positive—MU knows it can survive close games, having won its share of the Big East regular season title, plus both games last weekend on last-second hoops by Vander Blue. I like Miami to win this game, but if it’s razor-tight with five minutes left I won’t be feeling good about my pick.

Indiana showed they could win ugly in Sunday’s victory over Temple and that says something for a team that’s mostly won all year by looking really smooth offensively. I think the Hoosiers match up very well with Syracuse. Jim Boeheim coaches the zone defense as well as anyone, both current and historical. But coaching a zone only goes so far if the other team’s entire lineup can bury the three-ball. Indiana has a lot of shooters who are really good behind the arc. The three-point shot is always a risky way to live, but at the very least it would require a complete teamwide epidemic for Indiana to lose this one. I don’t think Syracuse can match up athletically and force the Hoosiers into mistakes.

THE ODDS: Indiana is a 6-5 betting favorite to win the regional, somewhat strange, because they were 10-11 when the tournament began. How are they worse odds after getting halfway home? Apparently the market wasn’t impressed by the lackluster win over Temple. Miami goes off at 9-4, with Syracuse and Marquette each clocking in at 7-2. I had Miami at the start of the tournament and have no reason to change. From an odds standpoint, I lost my longshot pick of Cal at 60-1 and still don’t like the prices on either of the top two seeds, even as I have them advancing to Saturday’s final.

WEST REGIONAL (Thursday & Saturday, Los Angeles)
Ohio State-Arizona (7:47 PM ET)
Wichita-LaSalle (10:17 PM ET)

THE MATCHUPS: Ohio State-Arizona is, in all likelihood a de facto regional final matchup. Wichita is well-coached, LaSalle has a great player in Ramon Galloway, but neither one can really match up with the two favorites. For the record, I like Wichita to advance to Saturday’s final.

Now let’s get down to business on the Buckeyes and Wildcats. Ohio State has the best player on the floor in DeShaun Thomas and that can never be underestimated in basketball. But Arizona has deeper talent. They’re bigger up front and control the glass. I also give Arizona a very slight edge in the backcourt, with Nick Solomon and Mark Lyons. Ohio State’s Aaron Craft is a great defender, but he can only guard one of them.

Ohio State’s formula is simple—Thomas has to completely put this team on his back, along the lines of Danny Manning and Kansas in 1988. It’s certainly possible, but acknowledging what’s possible is different from predicting what will happen. Arizona is a team that mostly underachieved this year, while Ohio State overachieved, but in the NCAA Tournament life isn’t always fair. The Wildcats were able to get their mojo back last weekend and I don’t think they give it back in Los Angeles.

THE ODDS: Ohio State is a solid 4-5 favorite, with Arizona coming in at 3-2. Wichita is 5-1 and LaSalle is at 12-1. The odds on the latter two aren’t bad, considering one of them is going to a winner-take-all shot at cutting down the nets on Saturday. But I used up my longshot chances on Notre Dame at 25-1, and my pre-tournament strategy was to hedge that by taking favorites Gonzaga and Ohio State and breaking even if one of them won. Even though I’m not picking the Buckeyes, I may as well stick with that this weekend. This is the one regional where my Final Four pick (Notre Dame) is gone, so when in a hole, stop digging.

SOUTH REGIONAL (Friday & Sunday, Arlington)
Kansas-Michigan (7:37 PM ET)
Florida-Florida Gulf Coast (9:57 PM ET)

THE MATCHUPS: Kansas can’t be feeling comfortable. Normally a 1-4 matchup in seeding indicates at least a team that should be a solid, if not unbeatable favorite. But Michigan is a team that was in the top five nationally for much of the season, came within a few missed free throws and a missed tip-in of tying for the championship in the nation’s best conference and now appears to have completely recaptured its mojo after blowing out Virginia Commonwealth to get here. Kansas center Jeff Withey has a lot of pressure to deliver games along the line of his 16 points/16 rebounds./5 blocks that rallied the Jayhawks past Carolina.

If Kansas is going to survive the entire weekend, it’s going to have be dominance from Withey, with two-guard Ben McLemore coming up big in both games. Both Michigan and Florida can attack in the backcourt and McLemore  is the KU guard best suited to meet the challenge. As for Florida, they’re going to be reliant on getting clean looks from the three-point line and then knocking them down. It’s a risky way to live, but Florida is similar to Indiana in that at least they have players who have been good at it all year long.

This brings us to Florida Gulf Coast. As anyone who watched FGC play in their wins over Georgetown and San Diego State knows, this is no ordinary #15 seed. I’m still not sure how the Selection Committee seeded them that low to begin with—of all those small-conference teams at the bottom of the bracket, how many had a resume that included beating Miami and hanging with Duke? We know the Gulf Coasters can play at this level and this team has absolutely no fear. The issue is going to be how long they can play at a hyper-aggressive pace and not eventually commit too many turnovers. If Florida can’t force mistakes, I wouldn’t rule out a third straight upset.

THE ODDS: This remains the most interesting regional in Las Vegas. Florida as the #3 seed is the betting line favorite, going off at even money. Kansas is 8-5, with Michigan at 5-2, then it’s a big dropoff to Florida Gulf Coast at 25-1. The question FGC players have to be asking is simple—Why not us?

MIDWEST REGIONAL (Friday & Sunday, Indianapolis)
Louisville-Oregon (7:15 PM ET)
Duke-Michigan State (9:45 PM ET)

THE MATCHUPS:  Duke-Michigan State is the pre-eminent game of the Sweet 16 with both teams more than capable of winning the national championship. The pressure is going to be on Blue Devil center Mason Plumlee. He’s a good rebounder, but Duke hasn’t played too many teams that hit the boards as hard as the Spartans. I’m giving Plumlee the benefit of the doubt and the Dookies were my Final Four pick at the start of the tournament, but this game should be a nailbiter. Michigan State’s Achilles heel will be what happens if guard Keith Appling has a poor shooting game. The concern for Duke is whether their backcourt defense is good enough to pressure Appling into mistakes.

I don’t give Oregon too much of a chance against Louisville. The Cardinals are far from a perfect team, especially offensively, but their pressure defense is so good and the Ducks have not seen anything like it. And as tough as Oregon center Arsalan Kazemi was over the first weekend (33 rebounds in two games), he can be matched up with by Louisville’s Gorgui Deng. Ultimately, this is a three-team regional and Louisville is reaping the rewards of the #1 seed with their matchup.

The reason I don’t have Louisville moving on to the Final Four is the difficulty they have generating offensive flow against really good teams, the kind of which they’ll play on Sunday. While my bracket might have Duke advancing, I would also take Michigan State if the Spartans get to a matchup with Louisville, a game that would be a rematch of a 2009 regional final—a game also won by Michigan State when the ‘Ville was the #1 overall seed.

THE ODDS: Louisville was a hefty 10-11 favorite when the tournament opened and that hasn’t changed, with the number currently posted at 4-5. Given the virtual certainty they’ll play on Sunday, I see the logic of that number—frankly if they were even money I might take them, just because I’m sure I’m at least getting a shot in the final. Duke and Michigan State are at 5-2 and 7-2 respectively, numbers that also sound about right. I’m surprised Oregon is at 6-1. Compare that to Wichita in the West at 5-1. Do you really the Ducks’ chances of beating Louisville and Duke/Michigan State in succession are almost the same as Wichita’s odds of beating LaSalle and then winning the final? That’s a high level of respect given Oregon—much too high, in fact.

THESPORTSNOTEBOOK PICKS: My pre-bracket Final Four was Michigan, Miami, Duke and Notre Dame. I’ve got Arizona replacing Notre Dame. I’m really torn about Miami—I don’t know that I’d have picked them if Reggie Johnson had been hurt at the outset of the tournament, but I feel like they can still survive Marquette and Indiana remains vulnerable defensively. I’m not thrilled about the situation, but when in doubt, stick with the pick.