Like the rest of America, my NCAA tournament bracket was screwed from Day One, but Kansas State vs. Xavier is one of the two Sweet Sixteen match ups I had correctly anticipated.
These two teams met earlier this season, with Kansas State soundly defeating the Musketeers 71-56. But that game took place in December, and now that there’s only 16 teams still in contention for the National Championship, I’d say the previous meeting means nothing, and all bets are off.
My breakdown will consist of five criteria: the quality of each team’s previous two wins, team fouls, shooting, defense, and star players.
Kansas State, as the No. 2 seed in the region, had a considerably easier road to the Sweet Sixteen.
The Wildcats thrashed North Texas by 20 points in the first round, and knocked off a likely tired BYU team by 12 points to clinch their place in the second weekend of games.
While BYU was a great team this year, Kansas State was just too much, taking the lead with 2:14 left in the first half and not giving it up after trailing 10-0 to start. Having had to play two overtimes to beat Florida undoubtedly took a lot out of the Cougars, leaving the door wide open for Kansas State.
Xavier had a fairly simple first-round match up, beating a rebuilding Minnesota team by double digits before having to avenge their Sweet Sixteen loss from last year against always-dangerous Pittsburgh.
Don’t let the 71-68 final score fool you—the Musketeers last trained 18-17 with 8:32 left in the first half.
Xavier’s 1-2 punch of Jordan Crawford and Jason Love was ultimately too much for Pitt, as they combined for 36 points, 14 rebounds, and only four fouls (two for each player).
While Kansas State had a greater combined margin of victory (+32 against +14), Xavier played against tougher opponents (a Big Ten and Big East school compared to K-State’s Sun Belt and Mountain West school opponents). I have to give Xavier the edge. They won against better teams with better coaches and still did it convincingly.
Fouls showcase the discipline of a team. It could be as simple as knowing when to not complain about a ref’s call or as difficult as thinking quickly enough to avoid a defensive trap when avoiding charges.
Kansas State averages 22.3 fouls per game, more than enough to enable their opponents to reach the double bonus for free throw shooting. Worse yet for the Wildcats, two of their top five scorers average more than three fouls per game. Another two of their players average 2.5 and 2.7 fouls per game in only 11.4 and 14.7 minutes per game, respectively.
Xavier fares much better when it comes to fouls, only committing 18.6 per game. Their team leader in fouls only averages 2.7 per game: two Kansas State players average more than that.
Also helping Xavier’s case is the fact that Jordan Crawford (who will be discussed in-depth later on) only averages 1.6 fouls per game.
Translation: when your star players stay out of foul trouble, they can stay in the game longer and be a bigger threat to their opposition.
This one is a no-brainer. Xavier gets the nod.
Since it’s such a broad category, I’m going to look at field goals, free throws, and three-pointers.
Let’s start with Kansas State.
The Wildcats average a very respectable 45 percent from the field, but then start to slip. Shooting 35.9 percent from downtown isn’t necessarily bad, but for a high-major team like Kansas State, you could expect better. And while Jacob Pullen hits an excellent 81.6 percent of his freebies, the team as a whole averages a paltry 67.1 percent.
The Musketeers have Kansas State beat from the field, but not by much with 46.3 percent. Their advantage in three-pointers and free throws are significantly larger: Xavier hits 37.4 percent from downtown and 71 percent from the charity stripe.
In spite of percentages, the total offense produced by each team is remarkably similar: Xavier averages 79.3 points per game, while Kansas State puts up 79.8 per game.
I think this one is decided by the free throws, going hand in hand with team fouls. The Wildcats commit more fouls, which gives Xavier more free throw opportunities, and ultimately more chances to score.
Again, this is too broad of a category, so I’m breaking it down again. Rebounds, blocks, and steals are the primary criteria I’m looking at for defense.
Kansas State pulls down 39.1 rebounds per game, blocks 4.9 shots, and steals the ball 7.4 times per game. The defensive stats are solid, and a show-stopping block could easily turn the momentum in favor of the Wildcats if they need a boost.
Xavier grabs more rebounds with 40.1, but falls short to K-State overall, blocking 3.8 shots and creating 6.7 steals per game.
Also consider offensive rebounds versus defensive.
Kansas State out-rebounds Xavier on the offensive glass an overwhelming 532-425. This will result in more second-chance opportunities for the Wildcats, and it’s enough to give them the edge in the defensive category.
After all, the best defense is a good offense. Or in this case, offensive rebound.
Kansas State’s two-headed monster comes from their guards, Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente, who average 19.2 and 16.3 points per game, respectively. These guys are dangerous shooters, each hitting more than 75 percent of his free throws and over 40 percent of his field goals. They combine for more than half of the team’s 14.7 assists per game with 7.7, and both do reasonably well staying out of foul trouble, averaging 2.3 and 2.2 fouls per game.
Xavier is led by forward-center Jason Love and guard Jordan Crawford. Love is dangerous enough on his own, averaging 11.8 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, as well as hitting 56 percent of his field goals and 71.1 percent of his free throws. A big man that can shoot that well and still pull down close to double-digit rebounds per game is reason enough to worry.
But then there’s Jordan Crawford.
You might remember the video from last summer of LeBron James getting dunked on by a kid at his own skills academy. Nike immediately tried to confiscate all footage as not to make King James look bad.
Well, that kid that made LeBron look foolish was none other than Xavier’s Jordan Crawford.
In his first season at Xavier after transferring from Indiana, Crawford has been dominant. He averages 20.2 points and 4.8 rebounds per game, as well as shooting for high percentages from the field (46.3), the charity stripe (77.3), and from downtown (40 even). He’s only been held to single-digit points once this season: 9 against Marquette.
Crawford is absolutely destroying opponents in this year’s NCAA tournament. He dropped 28 points on Minnesota, and to prove it was no accident, scored 27 against Pittsburgh. He also pulled down six rebounds in each game and stays out of foul trouble, only committing 1.6 per game this season.
Crawford is the ultimate X-factor in this year’s tournament, somehow still flying under the radar. While Omar Samhan has been getting more media attention for his performance with St Mary’s, Crawford is a ticking time bomb, and it’s only a matter of time before he explodes for 40 points and embarrasses his opponent.
Considering I gave Xavier the edge in four out of five categories, I’m picking them to win this game. This is their third straight trip to the Sweet Sixteen, and the only other team in college basketball that can make that claim is Michigan State. No other team has an active streak of three or more straight trips to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.
Frank Martin may have the edge in coaching experience over Chris Mack, but Xavier seems like a more complete team right now, and unlike Kansas State, has something to prove. The Musketeers are out to prove the legitimacy of the Atlantic-10 conference and try to cast off that ugly “mid-major” label once and for all.
This is a team with high-major talent, and having already played Kansas State this year gives them an advantage. They know what cost them the win in their previous game with the Wildcats, and have nearly a week to prepare for their rematch. Look for Crawford and Love to have big games as the Cinderella from Cincinnati moves on.