The Elite and the Sweet: Breaking Down NCAA Men's Thursday and Previewing Friday

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The Elite and the Sweet: Breaking Down NCAA Men's Thursday and Previewing Friday
Bill Wippert
Shabazz Napier will try to keep his All-America-caliber season going against a tough Iowa State team.

We've seen a sports movie that's started  to resemble this insanely compelling NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Tournament. The movie Warrior, directed by Gavin O'Connor, stars Tom Hardy (also known as Bane from The Dark Knight Rises) and Joel Edgerton as brothers participating in a big-money mixed martial arts tournament who both make it to the finals. The story is compelling, sure, and Nick Nolte delivers an Oscar-worthy performance. That said, the plot seems to be the problem, right? I mean, two brothers competing in the final round of a nation-wide tournament, head-to-head? What are the odds of that? C'mon...

And here we are, with half of the Elite Eight field decided. We now know that two of the eight head coaches remaining by the end of Friday grew up eating at the same dinner table. Archie Miller led the Dayton Flyers, forced to sweat out Selection Sunday before making the field as an 11-seed, to their third straight upset of a premier program from a power conference, defeating Stanford 82-72. After Dayton dispatched of Ohio State and Syracuse in their first two tournament games, this win didn't even really come as a surprise. Heck, it wasn't even the closest game of the day.

The closest game of the day was won by Archie Miller's brother, Sean, who coaches the West region's top seed, the Arizona Wildcats. 'Zona held on against San Diego State, 70-64, after San Diego State held the lead for most of the game while the Wildcats' Wooden Award finalist, Nick Johnson, struggled to make his first field goal (he eventually scored 13 of Arizona's final 14 points).

It's worth noting that the Aztecs were pegged in the preseason to be the fourth-best team in the Mountain West Conference (not the South region of the NCAA tournament) after losing the NBA-bound Jamaal Franklin and graduating senior Chase Tapley. 

Xavier Thames, a role player for past Aztec tournament teams in the same way Shabazz Napier, also known as the most dangerous scorer still in the tournament, was a role player for Kemba Walker's UConn teams, has been just one of the revelations of this year's Big Dance. Here are some other findings from Thursday's action.

Those discoveries will be followed by previews and predictions for what could be the best evening of the entire tournament, with all four games predicted to be nail-biters for each side. Here's the Thursday recap:

John Bazemore

 

Dayton (11) over Stanford (10), 82-72

The most surprising aspect of the Flyers' easy-looking victory over the Cardinal wasn't their exceptional field-goal percentage (over 48 percent), or their ability to limit Stanford's big men, especially center Stefan Nastic, who fouled out with over five minutes left to play. It was the production they received from not just top scorer Jordan Sibert, but their other starters and bench players as well.

This was the definition of a team victory, as Sibert led the way with 18 points, but other players, such as Devin Oliver (12 points, seven rebounds and three assists) and Kendall Pollard (12 huge points off the bench), provided the backbone for the Flyers, whose transition defense kept Stanford from easy points after rare Dayton turnovers and bad shots.

It was Devon Scott, another bench player, who provided a huge and-1 opportunity after Stanford cut the deficit to 64-58 with eight minutes left in the game, swinging the momentum back to Dayton's side.

Stanford's all-time blocks leader, Josh Huestis, swatted away four Dayton shots, but Dayton's efficient long-range shooting and crisp and timely passing won the day for the plucky A-10 team which is just fine with people continuing to call the team "underdogs."

Next up: Florida, Dayton's toughest test to date.

 

Cracks In the Armor

Dayton tied Stanford with 35 rebounds, but none of them came from starting center Matt Kavanaugh, who will need to be much more active on the boards against the Gators' Casey Prather and Patric Young. Also, Dayton struggled mightily from the free-throw line, shooting under 70 percent. The Flyers were worse from the charity stripe (shooting 55.6 percent) against Syracuse in a game they only won because at some point during their game in Boston College, Syracuse forgot how to score the basketball.

If either of those things continue, Dayton's tournament run will end in Memphis against a top-notch team who can and will make its opponents pay for fundamental lapses.

John Bazemore

 

Florida (1) over UCLA (4), 79-68

The Gators were extremely efficient in a game where the Pac-12 champion Bruins put up a fight through the first 40 minutes. Florida was able to limit UCLA's 6'9" all-around threat (and future NBA lottery pick) Kyle Anderson to 11 points, despite a good all-around game for the guard (nine rebounds and five assists).

Sharpshooter Michael Frazier III did his thing, dropping four three-pointers in the first half and adding another early in the second. SEC Player of the Year Scottie Wilbekin added 13 points, and reserve Dalton Finney-Smith had 10 points, six rebounds and four assists off the bench.

Florida shot 50 percent from the field and won the turnover battle, 12-8. Pundits were saying coming into the game that UCLA had just as much talent on its side as Florida did. That may be, but it looks like experience does count for something in March, after all. Florida's seniors and depth proved to be the difference for Billy Donovan, who has led his corps into their fourth consecutive Elite Eight.

 

Cracks In the Armor

Wilbekin took eight three-pointers, making just two of them. If Frazier and Wilbekin both go cold against Dayton, which has made its mark in this tournament by playing exceptional defense, that will put a lot of pressure on Patric Young and Will Yeguete to create their own offense in the paint. As usual, small forward Casey Prather (12 points against UCLA) will be the X-factor, and probable hub, for Florida's offense. 

 

Mark J. Terrill

Wisconsin (2) over Baylor (6), 69-52

There was a lot of concern before the game started regarding the Badgers' ability to score against Baylor's 1-3-1 zone and defensive length. Turns out Creighton may have just had a bad shooting night in the previous round (a point which I'll come back to when discussing one of Friday's games), because Wisconsin got it done against Baylor from inside and outside of the three-point arc. Wisconsin didn't bomb threes like a lot of people thought that they'd have to, only shooting 16 three and making six of them.

Ben Brust, the Badgers' all-time three-point scoring leader, had a very good all-around game, scoring 14 points and pulling down six boards while turning the ball over just once.

Wisconsin held Baylor to just 16 points in the first half and widened the deficit for Baylor once the second half started. Baylor deadeye Brady Heslip was held to just one three-point basket, and despite scoring 12 points, NBA prospect Isaiah Austin was consistently forced out of his comfort zone, being forced to take two three-pointers after his post presence is what keyed Baylor's late-season run after a 2-8 start in Big 12 play.

This game wasn't even as close as the final score indicated, which was a blowout. It was Wisconsin's strongest showing yet, and Arizona should bring its A-game to their Elite Eight meeting.

 

Cracks In the Armor

When they're able to run the game at their own pace and can find their shots, the Wisconsin Badgers are as good as anybody. It's when they're forced out of that comfort zone, and when other teams go on shooting runs, that the Badgers are vulnerable, as a 1-5 skid during Big Ten play demonstrated.

Arizona is ranked second in defensive efficiency over the course of this season, and the Wildcats are a physical and lengthy bunch on the glass, even more so than Baylor. Wisconsin will have to shoot well, and it wouldn't hurt if Nick Johnson's cold shooting performance from Thursday night carries over in to Saturday.

If Johnson and T.J. McConnell both get hot? The Badgers could very easily find themselves in an early hole that they can't crawl out of.

 

Arizona (1) over San Diego State (4), 70-64 

Johnson was the beating heart of the Arizona team throughout the season, but it was the freshman star-in-the-making (and early lottery pick) Aaron Gordon who played the biggest role in the Wildcats' victory on this night. Gordon had 15 points, seven rebounds and two assists against a relentless San Diego State team, including power forward Josh Davis, who had 14 rebounds of his own.

Forward Skylar Spencer also had seven, but outside of Xavier Thames and Dwayne Polee, the Aztecs have struggled to get consistent scoring for a good portion of the season. That didn't change Thursday night, and Gordon got the momentum on his team's side after a monster dunk which you've likely seen on highlight reels already.

 

Cracks In the Armor

Nick Johnson has to be on his A-game for close to 40 minutes Saturday night against a Badgers team that surrendered under 60 points a game this season while playing over half their games in what is widely considered to be the deepest conference in all of college basketball.

It wouldn't hurt if Gordon pitches in a double-double as well against a deep Wisconsin frontcourt which includes Frank Kaminsky and Nigel Hayes and a Wisconsin team (including point guard Traevon Jackson, who pulled down seven rebounds against Baylor) who knows how to maintain ball possession. 

 

Friday's Games

Tennessee (11) vs. Michigan (2), 7:15 p.m. ET

This game will be characterized by the shooting abilities of Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Caris LeVert of Michigan, as well as Jordan McRae and Josh Richardson of Tennessee.

The battle, though, will be down low, between Michigan's Jordan Morgan and Tennessee's Jarnell Stokes, the best player you've probably never heard of. Stokes averaged 15.2 points and 10.7 rebounds while playing in a conference (the SEC) that has gotten all of its entries in the NCAA tournament into the field of 16. One, Florida, has already advanced. Tennessee pulls off the upset Friday night to become the second.

Stokes (18 rebounds against Mercer) and Jeronne Maymon will crash the boards vigorously, creating opportunities for McRae and Richardson to continue their terrific shooting in the tourney.

Prediction: Tennessee 75, Michigan 71

 

Iowa State (3) vs. UConn (7), 7:27 p.m. ET

There's the old adage in basketball that a team who lives by the three will eventually die by the three. We saw that happen to Creighton last weekend against Baylor, and it could very well happen to either of these teams Friday night. Ryan Boatright and Naz Long have both been hot from the field, but if either one of them goes cold, it could spell trouble for their wunderkind point guards. 

For ISU, that's DeAndre Kane, the Marshall transfer who dropped 24 points, 10 boards and seven assists against no less than UNC's Marcus Paige in the round of 32. Those heroics included the driving game-winner, a huge victory against a formidable foe following the loss of the invaluable guard-forward Georges Niang for the remainder of the Dance. 

UConn's Shabazz Napier, on the other hand, has also looked like Superman during this tournament, scoring at will on Villanova in a comfortable third-round win, 77-65. The Huskies looked like the No. 2 seed playing No. 7 seed rather than vice versa, as Amida Brimah and Lasan Kromah patrolled the paint for the game, and Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels aided the frontcourt in making sure that Nova's only chance at victory would be getting hot behind the arc. They did not.

UConn will do the same thing to an undermanned Iowa State, using its height advantage to win the rebounding battle and forcing Big 12 Player of the Year Melvin Ejim out of his comfort zone and into taking contested jumpers.

The Huskies will ask Iowa State the same thing they asked Villanova: "Are you feeling lucky today?" With the best player in the country not named Doug McDermott (Napier) on their side, an ideal matchup for the explosiveness of Kane, the Huskies have got to like their chances.

Prediction: UConn 72, Iowa State 68

Bill Wippert
While Iowa State is missing Georges Niang, UConn has taken advantage of their size and depth during their first two wins of the NCAA Tournament.

 

Louisville (4) vs. Kentucky (8), 9:45 p.m. ET

We all know the history here. This isn't Big Brother vs. Little Brother. These are fraternal twins who seem to duke it out every year now not just on the schedule, but in meaningful games. 

Last time we were here in the tournament, the Anthony Davis-led Wildcats defeated the Cardinals in the Final Four before dispatching of Kansas in the championship game. The following year, Russ Smith led the Cardinals back to the Final Four and, with the help of Peyton Siva, finished the job this time. 

John Calipari is 5-1 against Rick Pitino while they've been coaches at these respective schools, and Louisville was unequivocally outplayed the first time these two teams met this season, losing 73-66 at Rupp Arena. But now, these two squads are on a neutral court.

And no matter how much talent these Cats have, each successive round is uncharted water for them. Louisville not only has the experience a champion needs, but it also has big men down low in Montrezl Harrell and Wayne Blackshear who match up well with the likes of Julius Randle and Willie Cauley-Stein.

Let's not let their recent run make us forget that this is the same team who was imploding three weeks ago in SEC play, losing to teams like LSU and South Carolina. Let's not forget that Louisville's backcourt is even better than the Wichita State backcourt, which nearly finished off the 'Cats less than a week ago. And let's not forget that Louisville still has the best player on the court on its side, Russ Smith. 

In one of the best games of the tournament, Louisville gets its long-awaited revenge on its in-state rival.

Prediction: Louisville 77, Kentucky 74

 

Virginia (1) vs. Michigan State (4), 9:57 p.m. ET

Something's gotta give here. It's the team every "smart" college basketball fan picked heading into the season and the team who just won't stop winning when the games matter. 

People have been waiting for the other shoe to drop on a Virginia team that lost to Tennessee by 35 points and lost to Wisconsin-Green Bay earlier this year. It still hasn't happened yet, and the Cavaliers have won their two most important games of the season, against Syracuse at home to clinch the ACC regular-season title and against Duke on a neutral court to win the ACC tournament. 

Michigan State, on the other hand, has been the early favorite and has been unranked, all in the same year. At full strength, the Spartans are as good as anybody in the nation, maybe the best. Adreian Payne will be a solid NBA player, and Gary Harris has a chance to be a great one. 

Virginia's defense has been superb all season long, but even so, its methodical demolition of a good Memphis team in the round of 32 was still pretty shocking. Malcolm Brogdon and Joe Harris anchor an offense that isn't prolific, but scores when it needs to. 

The difference here will be Branden Dawson, Michigan State's starting power forward. Injured for most of the year, Dawson was probably the best player in the Big Ten tournament and is now reminding college basketball insiders exactly why they fell in love with Sparty at the beginning of the year.

Virginia is a Final Four-capable team, but the Spartans are a championship-caliber team. Their physicality, combined with the backcourt duo of Harris and Keith Appling, reminds viewers what the difference is Friday night.

Prediction: Michigan State 76, Virginia 69

 

This should be one of the best days of the year in college basketball. Enjoy.

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