Sweet 16 Previews: Thursday Night

The Sweet 16 starts tonight with the regional semi-final games in both the East and West Regional. Here’s a look at the four games coming from Boston and Phoenix, in the order they’ll sequence on TV…

EAST: Syracuse-Wisconsin (7:15 PM ET, CBS)
This is the game a lot of people, myself included, had targeted for Syracuse’s demise, thanks to the absence of center Fab Melo. Furthermore, a lot has been made about how Wisconsin is the ideal team to match up with Syracuse, because the Orange are renowned for their airtight zone defense, while Wisconsin’s offense is built around shooting the trey. But before we get ahead of ourselves—and before the get-together of Badger fans that I’ll be attending for tonight’s game starts thinking ahead to Saturday, let’s remember this—the two reasons that pro-Wisconsin prognosticators are citing run in contradiction to each other. The loss of Melo hurts less here than in other games, because the Badgers aren’t the type of team that would go flying to the hoop and right into his great shotblocking ability. Furthermore, if Duke can lose to Lehigh because their overly dependent on the three-ball, why on earth would we assume that Wisconsin’s just going to roll past Syracuse thanks to that same dependence?

The best individual battle of this game is going to be Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor and Syracuse’s Scoop Jardine at the point. Both run the offenses extremely well. Taylor is the one Badger player who can penetrate into the zone and take advantage of Melo’s absence. Or he can kick it out for the open three-pointer. Jardine will be responsible for breaking down Wisconsin’s own tough defense. Taylor has the greater capacity to step up with a huge game and will his team to victory, but Jardine has been a solid, steadying presence all year. I’m picking Wisconsin with my heart, because with the head this is an easy game to analyze—either the Badgers get open looks from behind the arc, make them and advance. Or they either don’t get open looks or miss them, and go home.

WEST: Louisville-Michigan State (7:47 PM ET, TBS)
The big battle in the post is between Michigan State’s Draymond Green and Louisville’s  Gorgui Dieng. There’s no question that Green is the better player and he had a great first weekend. But it’s not enough for Green to merely win this battle down low. He must control Dieng decisively—as in outscoring him by a substantial number (let’s say eight points for the sake of having some kind of baseline measurement) and winning the battle on the boards. If Dieng makes it a draw down low, Louisville can win the battle  on the perimeter. Both teams have solid point guards, in Peyton Siva for Rick Pitino and Keith Appling running the show for Tom Izzo. But Siva can get the ball to Kyle Kuric and Russ Smith, while if Appling doesn’t have Green to find, he has to score himself.

A simple rundown of personnel doesn’t factor in the physical nature that Michigan State plays on the boards, and that’s why they’re the #1 seed in spite of having fewer talented players.  My bracket on this side of the West is shot (I took the big gamble on Long Beach State to make the Final Four), so I can start fresh here. I’ve been one who’s always believed that the kind of surprise run that Louisville had through the Big East Tournament made it unlikely they would have NCAA success. Even when UConn won it all last year, I was more inclined to just say that it was one historic run that wouldn’t be repeated. While I’m not attempting to imply Louisville is about to win the national championship, I’m done banging my head against the wall with the Big East tourney champ. I’ll take Pitino and the Cards to assert their talent advantage and take revenge for their own loss as a #1 seed in the 2009 Midwest Regional final to this same Michigan State program.


EAST: Cincinnati-Ohio State (9:45 PM ET, CBS)
These in-state rivals once battle for the national championship two straight years, with the Bearcats coming out on top in the NCAA final in both 1961 and 1962. This was after Ohio State had won the crown in 1960. Now the state of Ohio is riding high again, with its two biggest programs slated to play tonight at the Boston Garden, and Ohio U and Xavier on tomorrow’s docket.

Ohio State has the best player on the floor on Jared Sullinger, and when you combine him with DeShaun Thomas—a forward who can score down low, rebound and hit the three—it’s going to be impossible for Cincinnati to defend. The Bearcats have to win this game with depth and on the perimeter. Ohio State has excellent quality in the backcourt with Aaron Craft and William Buford, but quantity is where Cincinnati has the edge. The Bearcats need to push the pace, ideally get someone from Ohio State in foul trouble, and if nothing else, win a battle of fatigue.

While the Cincy backcourt of Cashmere Wright at the point, Sean Kilpatrick and Dion Dixon is good, and Yancy Gates a very talented forward, I don’t think they’re going to win this game without foul problems for Ohio State. Sullinger and Thomas can own the paint, and Craft and Buford are a good combination of playmaker and scorer. I realize this is a lot of the same logic I used in doubting Cincinnati last Sunday (I picked them, but reluctantly), but there are two points to make. The first is that I’d do it again—the Bearcats won a close game and there’s nothing saying it would happen again. But the second is the more important one, and it’s that Ohio State’s edge inside is much greater thanks to the presence of the magnificent Sullinger. The Buckeye backcourt is much more balanced and consistent. If Ohio State’s Core Four—Craft, Buford, Sullinger and Thomas stay on the floor, Ohio State wins.

WEST: Marquette-Florida (10:17 PM ET, CBS)
I’m looking for a very finesse-oriented game, one that will likely be played at rapid pace. Marquette’s Darius Johnson-Odom is the best guard on the floor, but Florida has more depth at the position with Kenny Boynton, Ervin Walker and Bradley Beal. Neither team plays to the post. While Florida has big people, notably 6’10” Erik Murphy, he’s more effective when he steps out to shoot the trey. So even though MU’s key big man, Davante Gardner, is only 6’8”, he plays bigger than Murphy, and to a lesser extent Patric Young.

That’s a lot of names of good players that have been dropped, most of them belong to Florida. But we haven’t mentioned the best one on the floor yet and that’s Jae Crowder, who dominated both BYU and Murray State over the opening weekend from his wing position. Crowder is a 20/10 player when he’s on, and he’s the one player who can really take this game over. From that standpoint, Marquette would get the edge. The flip side is that while Buzz Williams has done a great job this season on the MU sideline, if it’s close at the end, do you really trust him in a battle of wits with Florida’s Billy Donovan, who’s got three Final Four trips and two NCAA titles on his resume?

I’m torn on this game. On the one hand, I predicted at the start of the tournament that the West would be gutted and a team seeded lower than 4th would win the regional. Florida’s my only option left. On the other hand, I’ve doubted Marquette all year and they keep coming through. I’m still picking against them, although it’s more of pro-Billy D pick than anything. Plus, even though my loyalties are to Wisconsin, I know a number of people who like Marquette, and out of courtesy to them, I’ll help keep MU’s run going by continuing to pick against them.  It’s Florida in a nail-biter.