Written by: John Bray (@44ShadesOfBray)
Edited by: Curt Ashcraft (@cashcraft740)
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I’m gonna start by officially proclaiming that Kentucky is the greatest college basketball team of all time. Everyone else is playing for second-place. Except my Fighting Irish, they’re our only hope. (No they aren’t, but let me just have this one.)
But seriously, am I good or am I good? I went 4/4 on my picks, missed Notre Dame-Wichita State being close, North Carolina nearly gave me a heart attack when they released that Kennedy Meeks was playing, Kentucky was even better than I thought, and I told you that the Arizona-Xavier game would be closer than you thought.
With all that being said, let’s take a look at Friday’s matchups:
#11 UCLA Bruins vs. #2 Gonzaga Bulldogs, Friday, 7:15 PM ET
Players to Watch:
Gonzaga #33 - Kyle Wiltjer (17.1 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 1.9 APG)
Wiltjer comes in as the most tournament experienced member of either team. As a reserve for the Kentucky Wildcats during their 2012 National Championship run, he was known as a spot-up shooter. After being forced to sit out last season due to the NCAA’s transfer policy, Wiltjer has diversified his game and can score in a multitude of ways. On tape he is still gangly, a little awkward, and forces some tough shots, but the numbers do not lie (.548 FG%, .479 3P%), he can flat out play. Oh don’t let me forget, in their December 13th matchup, Wiltjer beat the Bruins to the tune of 24 points on 9-13 shooting (3-5 3PT) and the Bulldogs easily won 87-74.
UCLA #5 - Kevon Looney (11.6 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 1.4 APG)
In possibly his last game as a Bruin, Looney will have the tall task of shutting down Wiltjer and keeping the Gonzaga bigs, especially Domantas Sabonis, off the boards. In their previous matchup, Looney mostly guarded Wiltjer, and to say it didn’t go well is putting it nicely. Well, that was early into his college career, the 24 games since that matchup has taught him a thing or two on both sides of the court. Looney has elite length, which could disrupt Wiltjer, and is quick enough to stick with him on drives. Offensively, his game has continued to improve and he has had big-time performances, but if the Bruins want to pull off the upset, Looney’s defense will be his greatest contribution.
Keys to the Game:
After much debate on whether they should’ve gotten in or not, UCLA has advanced to the second weekend and set up a rematch of the 2006 Sweet Sixteen thriller that left Adam Morrison sobbing at halfcourt. If UCLA wants a similar outcome (and one different from their Dec. 13th meeting), they MUST defend. Gonzaga boasts the highest team FG% in the NCAA, and UCLA plays some very average defense, not exactly encouraging for the Bruins. Another piece to their upset equation is three-pointers - its the ultimate equalizer. Unfortunately for UCLA, Gonzaga shoots the best from beyond the arc of all teams remaining in the NCAA tournament. All signs point to another Gonzaga victory, and I don’t see this one going any other way. Offensively, they have too many weapons between Wiltjer, Kevin Pangos, Byron Wesley, and just about everyone else on their roster. Defensively, it won’t matter, they are one of the best rebounding teams in the nation and they score too efficiently. If you can’t tell, I am VERY confident in Gonzaga advancing to the Elite Eight.
#8 North Carolina State Wolfpack vs. #4 Louisville Cardinals, Friday, 7:37 PM ET
Players to Watch:
Louisville #24 - Montrezl Harrell (15.4 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 1.2 APG)
Harrell is without a doubt the heart and soul of this dysfunctional Louisville squad. After Chris Jones’ dismissal amid rape charges, many were surprised to see Louisville surviving and thriving. I speculate Harrell is a big part of them keeping it together. In fact, the CBS announcers during their game against Northern Iowa (I can’t remember who it was, and I’m upset it wasn’t Gus Johnson) discussed how teammates are actually afraid of Harrell and how he reacts when they aren’t giving 100%. I guess this is one of those times that it’s better to be feared than loved, and opponents usually fear his physical, in-your-face style of play. But in a February 14th 74-65 loss to NC State, he had one of his worst offensive games of the season, going 1-5 from the floor and only hauled in 2 offensive rebounds. If Louisville plans on advancing, Harrell must come ready to play.
North Carolina State #1 - Trevor Lacey (15.7 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 3.5 APG)
Lacey is what we consider a “volume” shooter. His 15.7 PPG come on 12.4 attempts per game. North Carolina State runs a lot of isolation for him, so he is asked to make a ton of plays and forces some tough shots, but he is very capable of making them. In a close game, whether Lacey is hot or not could prove to be the difference. Louisville is a very strong defensive team, one of the best in the country, and if NC State is struggling to score, look for them to feed Lacey and let him go to work.
Keys to the Game:
In their first matchup, NC State’s Abdul-Malik Abu and Beejay Anya controlled the paint and contained Harrell. Anthony “Kat” Barber hit 10-13 FT for NC State and finished with 21 points. For NC State to keep their Cinderella run alive, they must have similar performances. This is going to be a defensive battle and the NC State guards, who all average over 12 PPG, cannot have an off night. Louisville’s Terry Rozier struggled in their previous meeting (3-11 FGM-FGA), but has been playing some fantastic basketball in March. In their last game against Northern Iowa, Louisville struggled to score - only making 22 field goals. Well, Rozier ended with 25 points and 7 assists. He was basically their entire offense and I think he’ll be able to continue his strong play. NC State may win the battle down low - they’re too big - but Louisville’s perimeter defense will prove to be the difference. NC State has shot makers, but I think the clock strikes midnight for this Cinderella. Plus, I’m not one to bet against Rick Pitino in March.
#5 Utah Utes vs. #1 Duke Blue Devils, Friday, 9:45 PM ET
Players to Watch:
Duke #15 - Jahlil Okafor (18.1 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 1.4 APG)
If you didn’t see this one coming, I am seriously judging you. Okafor is the best player on the court every time he steps on it. He’s the only freshman this season to be named a finalist for the Naismith Player of the Year award. He’s nearly unstoppable when he gets the ball on the block, scorching opponents with an array of moves. He’ll be going up against another impressive freshman big (more on him later), and it will be a good test against another NBA draft prospect.
Utah #42 - Jakob Poeltl (9.1 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 1.8 BPG)
Poeltl, that other freshman big mentioned above, has only missed one shot from the field in the tournament. ONE SHOT. Think about how insane that is, not to mention that he’s done it on 13 shots, so not a bad sample size for 2 games. But as well as he’s played offensively, his main goal will be containing Okafor. Its a tough assignment, one of the toughest in the nation, but if anyone is up for the challenge it’s Poeltl. Physically, he matches up well with Okafor (7”0’, 235 lbs.), and has to use his size and frame so Okafor doesn’t manhandle him like he has to many others.
Keys to the Game:
Coach K vs. Coach K, - one of the two Polish-American coaches has significantly more experience and pedigree than the other, and I’ll let you decide which one. (Hint: if you don’t know which one, then get out.) This game is going to come down to the Duke guards. Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook have struggled at times for the Dukies at covering attacking dynamic guards, much like Utah’s Delon Wright and Brandon Taylor. These two need to stay on the attack while Poeltl wrestles with Okafor on the blocks. Utah is a very balanced team offensively and defensively, so expect a tight game headed into the final minutes. Even if its close late, I’m giving Duke the upper hand because of Tyus “Cool as the Other Side of the Pillow” Jones, undoubtedly the most poised freshman in the nation. Jones has been clutch all season long, especially against rival North Carolina on two separate occasions, mostly in part because of his free throw shooting (.884 FT%). His backcourt partner, Cook, shoots even better with .891 FT%. This is why Duke will win. Their guards have started playing better defensively, and if its close (which it will be), Duke has great free throw shooters and that’s what wins games in March.
#7 Michigan State Spartans vs. #3 Oklahoma Sooners, Friday, 10:07 PM ET
Players to Watch:
Oklahoma #24 - Buddy Hield (17.3 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 1.9 APG)
The Big 12 Player of the Year is always looking to attack. He’s nearly unstoppable in transition, and is a good catch and shoot player from three (.361 3PT%). He’s pretty strong defensively and should be able to contain Michigan State’s combo guard Denzel Valentine (he’s made only 5 shots in the NCAA tournament). Hield is also pretty clutch, making the game winning tip-in against Kansas in the Big 12 tournament, and saving the Sooners against Dayton with a game saving block on the fastbreak. If Oklahoma wants to win, they need a big day out of Hield.
Michigan State #22 - Branden Dawson (12.1 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 1.8 APG)
I don’t think Oklahoma has anyone who can matchup with Dawson. His combination of size, quickness and power will be too much for the Sooners to handle. Defensively, he can guard up to three positions. Oklahoma’s best strategy is to force him to the free throw line where he makes only 50.5% of his attempts.
Keys to the Game:
Oklahoma needs to control the pace if they want to win. They are more athletic at most positions and want to push the tempo. Defensively they rank in the nation’s Top 25 statistically, which is very impressive considering their style of play. Meanwhile, this Michigan State team spent most of the regular season playing your classic breed of Big Ten basketball, slow paced and halfcourt set driven, but increased their tempo to knock off Georgia and Virginia, two strong defensive teams. I think those past two contests only boost MIchigan State’s confidence (“Well duh, they just won two tournament games” - You. Just give me a second to explain myself.) During the regular season, they were able to win slow paced games, and now they’ve proven that they can win faster paced ones. I personally think their best strategy is to slow it down, but don’t be surprised to see Tim Izzo yell at his guys to look ahead in transition and stick with what’s worked. I think Michigan State wins this one simply because they have more playmakers. Travis Trice has only improved as the season has gone on, and eventually Valentine will find his offensive rhythm. Plus, its March, Izzo is still the coach, he hasn’t been to a Final Four since 2010, the basketball gods won’t allow that drought to continue much longer.