NCAA Tournament 2013: Biggest X-Factors in the Sweet 16

Mike SingerFeatured ColumnistMarch 25, 2013

NCAA Tournament 2013: Biggest X-Factors in the Sweet 16

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    Next week's Sweet 16 will feature a number of elite teams as well as a few new-look participants, which makes predicting the unknowns that much more intriguing. 

    Blueblood programs like Kansas, Indiana and Syracuse all managed to advance, while surprising teams Wichita State and Florida Gulf Coast will look to crash the party. 

    The West region appears wide open, while the Midwest quadrant looks extremely daunting for Michigan State, Louisville, Oregon and Duke. 

    We'll get you prepped for next week's mayhem with the biggest X-factors in each of the Sweet 16 contests. 

No. 2 Miami vs. No. 3 Marquette: Golden Eagles Turnovers

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    The Golden Eagles have been spared twice so far this NCAA tournament, coming back from two separate late-game deficits to earn a trip to the Sweet 16. 

    But if they want to beat Miami, they’ll need to stop beating themselves.

    Buzz Williams’ squad turns the ball over on 20.9 percent of possessions, according to KenPom.com, and against Butler, they escaped despite 15 turnovers. Vander Blue, the Eagles’ hero in both games, has turned it over six times in the two wins, while point guard Junior Cadougan had three miscues against the Bulldogs.

    In Blue’s defense, though, he’s almost made up for his turnovers with five steals.

    Hurricanes point guard Shane Larkin is one of the best in the country, and although Miami doesn’t excel at turning teams over, each possession is vital, considering that three of their four games have been decided within the last minute. One extra possession made the difference in Miami’s win over Illinois, and both of Marquette’s games have gone down to the wire.

    Marquette is also at a major disadvantage in the post, where neither Chris Otule nor Davante Gardner has the mobility to keep up with Kenny Kadji.

No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 6 Arizona: Buckeyes Supporting Cast

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    While Ohio State is known for its defense, the story of the No. 2 Buckeyes throughout the first two games of the tournament has been its scoring and, more specifically, offense from the supporting cast.

    Deshaun Thomas is a near-lock for 20 points, but in Ohio State’s two wins, there were three in double figures each game. 

    The Buckeyes will need every ounce of scoring against Arizona's explosive offense led by Mark Lyons. In two wins, Arizona has made 56 of its 100 shots, including 18 three-pointers. That three-point shooting was the same recipe that allowed Iowa State to hang around in Ohio State’s thrilling win Sunday.

    The success of OSU's role players is imperative, as it won’t allow Arizona to double-team Thomas. In particular, the jump shooting from guys like LaQuinton Ross, Sam Thompson and Lenzelle Smith Jr. is crucial, since the Wildcats have a decided advantage in terms of length and interior size.

    The best way to combat Arizona’s size advantage is to stretch the defense. The Buckeyes have hit 16-of-33 three-pointers so far in the tournament, and Thomas is responsible for just five of them. 

No. 1 Indiana vs. No. 4 Syracuse: Execution Down the Stretch

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    While both teams won relatively close games to advance to the Sweet 16, one team showed poise and maturity down the stretch while the other all but handed its opponent the victory. 

    The Orange were up 13 points over California with just over two minutes remaining, yet they missed free throws and let up bad turnovers, helping close that gap to six on three different occasions. Syracuse missed five free throws and had three turnovers over that span, only advancing because of Cal’s equally egregious errors. 

    By contrast, the Hoosiers were engaged the entire second half, constantly battling a physical Temple team which wouldn’t relent. With the Hoosiers trailing 46-43 at the 5:17 mark of the second half, Indiana went on to hit 8-of-10 free throws and yield just two field goals the rest of the way. Five different players scored as Indiana eventually won, 58-52.

    Both Indiana and Syracuse rank in the top 20 in terms of adjusted defensive field-goal percentage, and Indiana may take time to solve the Orange’s zone defense. Syracuse won’t have the athletic advantage it’s used to and will also need to limit Cody Zeller, who is bound to be Indiana’s biggest mismatch.

    If the game is close, Indiana may have the edge. The Hoosiers, groomed on defensive battles in the Big Ten, hit 74.5 percent of their free throws, while the Orange make just 67.5 percent of their attempts. 

No. 9 Wichita State vs. No. 13 La Salle: Three-Point Shooting

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    Wichita State is going to the Sweet 16. The fact that the Shockers earned one of the four coveted spots out of the West regional is indicative of how many upsets there have been in that pod. 

    But the fact that they’ll be favored against No. 13 La Salle is even more proof of how wild this tournament has been. Both have taken down top-four seeds using superior perimeter shooting; logic serves that whichever team gets hot from beyond the arc will advance to the Elite Eight.  

    The Explorers made it past the the play-in game and the first weekend behind a 39 percent effort (9-of-23) from beyond the arc against Mississippi on Sunday night. Senior guard Ramon Galloway continued his torrid three-point pace, connecting on 6-of-10 just two days after draining three in the upset over Kansas State. He also hit three three-pointers against Boise State on Wednesday night.

    The Shockers lived up to their name by making seven consecutive shots over the final 7:35 against Gonzaga, including five three-pointers. Wichita State has hardly relied on the deep ball throughout this year, eschewing the perimeter game for toughness around the basket.

    But who’s to mess with a good thing? If the deep ball isn’t falling, the Shockers can rely on their size advantage in the post to pound the Explorers on the glass. 

No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 4 Michigan: Post Play

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    As loaded as both rosters are with potential NBA talent, this game will come down to the heralded big men down low. 

    Kansas’ Jeff Withey saved the Jayhawks against North Carolina as he (and Travis Releford) spearheaded a 49-point second-half comeback effort. In total, he swatted five shots, altered countless others and sparked the resilient effort with a few mammoth dunks.

    As active as Withey is, John Beilein’s 6’11’’ workhorse Mitch McGary is more instrumental to Michigan, as his motor lets him keep up with Michigan’s fast-paced style. What’s more, he brings a toughness that can match the Jayhawks center. Whether it’s crushing unsteady defenders on high screens or finishing on dump-offs after Trey Burke dissolves the opposing defense, McGary is the Wolverines’ Energizer Bunny.

    Both are elite rebounders, but watch for Withey, a heady senior, to take advantage of his young counterpart and bait him into careless fouls.  

    The matchup also pits offensive wizards Burke and Ben McLemore against one another, the latter having struggled mightily in his first NCAA tournament. But as gifted of scorers as both can potentially be, the game hinges on the matchup in the post, where either of the aforementioned bigs has the ability to carry his team.  

No. 1 Louisville vs. No. 12 Oregon: Ducks Turnovers

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    Any team that makes it through the first weekend can’t be taken lightly, but with their two wins, the Ducks have proven that the selection committee vastly underrated their march through the Pac-12 tournament.

    With that said, against Louisville with an Elite Eight berth on the line, their ball-handlers will be swarmed and flustered. Oregon has turned the ball over 18 times in each of their tournament wins.

    The biggest culprits have been forward E.J. Singler (12 turnovers) and backup guard Johnathan Loyd (nine). The latter has been more detrimental, especially with starting guard Dominic Artis’ struggles against Saint Louis.  

    Every one of Louisville’s starters is above-average in transition, and should the Ducks be as careless with the ball as they’ve been all season, the Cardinals will bury them. Peyton Siva and Russ Smith (4.5 steals per game combined) are deadly on the break. Center Gorgui Dieng is way more mobile than he’s given credit for, and even he isn’t averse to tracking down a loose ball in the corner on occasion.

    Louisville forces the second-highest turnover percentage in the country. Nothing will impact the game more than how much the Ducks value each possession. 

No. 3 Florida vs. No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast: Gators' Size

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    As improbable and exciting as the No. 15 Eagles’ run has been, they have a daunting task in facing No. 3 Florida in next week’s Sweet 16. 

    At this point, the seed differential is irrelevant. If it wasn’t already apparent, Florida Gulf Coast emphatically reinforced that point in the second half against San Diego State.  

    While energetic and thrilling, the Eagles aren’t big, and they rely on their quickness and athleticism to spring fast-break opportunities. Florida’s an excellent three-point shooting team, led by 6’10’’ forward Erik Murphy, who has 70 so far this season.

    But why play a perimeter game when the Gators have the size to pound the ball inside?

    Murphy, 6’9’’ forward Patric Young and big man Will Yeguete each average over five rebounds per game. By contrast, the Eagles are led by animated guard Sherwood Brown, who, at 6’4’’, rakes in 6.5 boards per game. At 6'8", forward Chase Fieler is their second-leading rebounder with 5.5 per game, but he weighs just 205 pounds and will hardly be able to hold his own in the post.  

    Billy Donovan should have no qualms about exploiting the Eagles’ glaring weakness. 

No. 2 Duke vs. No. 3 Michigan State: Freshmen Sensations

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    Something has to give when two titans of college basketball collide next Friday. 

    Duke is the fifth-best three-point shooting team in the country at 40.5 percent, while the Spartans’ three-point defense is among the best in the nation. Michigan State has the length to extend to the perimeter, while five Blue Devils shoot at least 35 percent from beyond the arc.

    Both these teams match up evenly from the post, to the perimeter, to the coaching to the guard play. So what singular component could differentiate the winner from the loser?

    How about the freshmen?

    Michigan State’s Gary Harris is arguably the most talented player on his team. He shot the Spartans into the Sweet 16 with 23 points on 4-of-7 three-point shooting against Memphis. He’s been clutch all season long. Not to mention backup point guard Denzel Valentine, also a first-year, had nine points, six rebounds and six assists in the win over the Tigers. Valentine has incredible vision as a passer and is an underrated rebounder.

    Rasheed Sulaimon is Duke's Gary Harris. He’s a superior long-range shooter who’s also capable of driving the lane and finishing in traffic. None of the first-years have been overwhelmed by the stage, and either Harris or Sulaimon could swing the game in their team’s favor.