Perfect Pairs: The Best Head-to-Head Matchups in the Elite 8

Thad NovakCorrespondent IMarch 29, 2014

Perfect Pairs: The Best Head-to-Head Matchups in the Elite 8

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    Basketball is a team sport, but when the NCAA tournament gets down as far as the Elite Eight, games are just as likely to turn on one individual battle.

    The teams that have made it as far as the regional finals all have stars to rely on, and the ones who will move on to Arlington are the teams whose leaders can outduel the best the opposition has to offer.

    One of the most surprising such contests will be in Memphis, where Dayton’s Jordan Sibert wasn’t supposed to get anywhere near the Elite Eight. Now, the leader of the underdog Flyers will take on the SEC Player of the Year, senior Scottie Wilbekin of No. 1 overall seed Florida.

    Herein, a closer look at the backcourt battle at the FedEx Forum and the rest of the half-dozen best individual clashes that will decide who goes to the 2014 Final Four.

Nik Stauskas vs. Aaron Harrison

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    Teams: No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 8 Kentucky

    Where: Lucas Oil Stadium (Indianapolis)

    When: 5:05 p.m. ET on Sunday, March 30

    There isn’t a more dangerous pure shooter in the Elite Eight than Nik Stauskas, he of the .448 three-point percentage and 90 treys made. Michigan’s leading scorer (17.3 points per game) also creates plenty of opportunities for his teammates, as he showed in handing out eight assists against Texas in the round of 32.

    Stauskas also stands 6’6”, meaning that he poses a rare opportunity for Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison to take on someone his own size. The physical shooting guard (the better scorer of the Wildcats’ backcourt twins) hit the go-ahead three-pointer in UK’s thrilling win over Louisville on Friday night.

    Harrison is the superior athlete here, but he’s not an especially adept defender. Stauskas, who’s battled some of the best during Big Ten play, should have an easier time getting his points than the Kentucky freshman will have on his side of the matchup.

Nick Johnson vs. Ben Brust

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    Teams: No. 1 Arizona vs. No. 2 Wisconsin

    Where: Honda Center (Anaheim, Calif.)

    When: 8:49 p.m. ET on Saturday, March 29

    Nick Johnson proved how important he is to Arizona’s offense when his 0-of-10 start against San Diego State kept the Wildcats behind for most of the second half. The high-flying shooting guard also proved how much damage he can do as a scorer with the 15 points he proceeded to pile up in the final four minutes of the win over the Aztecs.

    On Saturday, he’ll be facing the most accomplished three-point shooter in Wisconsin history, Ben Brust. The senior marksman is a phenomenal rebounder for a guard in addition to his penchant for knocking down clutch shots.

    Brust is tough as nails, but at 6’1”, he’ll have a difficult time challenging the jump shot of the more athletic 6’3” Johnson. He’ll get his own points, especially if Johnson has to help on Wisconsin's many other shooters, but he’s unlikely to outpace the Wildcats’ scoring leader.

Branden Dawson vs. DeAndre Daniels

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    Teams: No. 4 Michigan State vs. No. 7 UConn

    Where: Madison Square Garden (New York)

    When: 2:20 p.m. ET on Sunday, March 30

    A valuable complementary player in the regular season, Branden Dawson has turned into a superstar in the last two games. Against Harvard and Virginia, the fleet-footed combo forward has muscled his way to a total of 50 points and 19 rebounds.

    UConn, though, has a postseason revelation of its own in DeAndre Daniels. The 6’9” high-flyer, who had 18 points against St. Joseph’s, turned in a career night in a win over Iowa State with 27 points and 10 boards.

    Both Dawson and Daniels are alley-oop artists who should produce eye-popping highlights challenging each other near the rim. Dawson, though, has the edge in strength and postseason experience, so if either March phenom blinks, it’s not going to be him.

Scottie Wilbekin vs. Jordan Sibert

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    Teams: No. 1 Florida vs. No. 11 Dayton

    Where: FedEx Forum (Memphis, Tenn.)

    When: 6:09 p.m. ET on Saturday, March 29

    SEC Player of the Year Scottie Wilbekin has set the tone for Florida on both ends of the floor all season. He’s the ringleader of the Gators’ stifling full-court press, a skilled distributor (six assists in the SEC title game against Kentucky) and a combustible scorer (21 points in a rout of Pitt in the round of 32).

    Even Wilbekin, though, will be in for a battle against Dayton’s own multipurpose leader, Jordan Sibert. The Ohio State transfer carried the Flyers with 18 points in their win over Stanford, and he’s been throwing his weight around (at 6’4”, 187 lbs) for 4.0 rebounds per game in tournament play.

    Although Sibert will test Wilbekin’s defense, the Gators senior should have a noticeable advantage when his team has the ball. Aaron Craft and Tyler Ennis both posted unusually impressive scoring nights in their respective losses to the Flyers.

Keith Appling vs. Shabazz Napier

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    Teams: No. 4 Michigan State vs. No. 7 UConn

    Where: Madison Square Garden (New York)

    When: 2:20 p.m. ET on Sunday, March 30

    Less has been more for Keith Appling, who has turned reduced scoring as a senior into a first-class performance. The speedy point guard is having his most efficient offensive season, with radically improved three-point shooting and the best assist-to-turnover ratio of his career.

    Shabazz Napier is having a career year of his own, but his includes a lot more point production. He’s put the Huskies on his back in the tournament, averaging 22.7 points and 4.7 assists in three hard-fought wins.

    Appling is a warrior, but he’s not the kind of player who can trade baskets with UConn’s leader. He’ll need to keep the rest of the Spartans involved and make sure that the game doesn’t come down to his scoring against Napier’s.

Glenn Robinson III vs. Julius Randle

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    Teams: No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 8 Kentucky

    Where: Lucas Oil Stadium (Indianapolis)

    When: 5:05 p.m. ET on Sunday, March 30

    In his second season as a power forward-by-necessity, Glenn Robinson III has emerged as a serious offensive weapon for Michigan. The athletic sophomore has spent the last two games exploiting the mismatches his quickness and ball-handling skill cause when he drags bigger, bulkier forwards out to the perimeter.

    In Julius Randle, though, Robinson will face a big man nimble enough to challenge him while still big enough (at 6’9”, 250 lbs) to dominate in the paint. Randle leads the nation in double-doubles, including one logged in the first half against a punishing Louisville defense in the Sweet 16.

    As agile as Robinson is, he (like most college players) has little hope of containing Randle one-on-one. The Wolverines standout will make his share of plays on offense, but defensively his job will be damage control against one of the best post players in the country.