The 2011 NCAA Tournament resumes Thursday with four fantastic Sweet 16 match-ups.
The West regional from Anaheim, California, features the Aztecs of San Diego State battling the Connecticut Huskies, followed by Duke vs. Arizona.
The Southeast regional from New Orleans, pits the Florida Gators against the BYU Cougars and Cinderella Butler Bulldogs against the Wisconsin Badgers.
All four games have compelling storylines or players that constitute must-see TV.
In UConn-San Diego State: Can the Aztecs advance to the Elite Eight playing a virtual home game? Can Jim Calhoun finally win a game against a team that is playing in its home state?
In BYU-Florida: Can star guard Jimmer Fredette avoid the shooting skids and keep his Cougars marching deeper into the Dance? Can the Gators continue their unheralded run by knocking off the most dynamic perimeter scorer remaining?
In Butler-Wisconsin: Can Butler coach Brad Stevens coax another Final Four run out of his Cinderella squad? Can Bo Ryan reverse the curse on his late-March track record?
In Arizona-Duke: Can Derrick Williams, the Player of the Year in my book, carry the Wildcats past the reigning Champs? How does Duke contain Williams?
There are no duds on the Thursday slate and a lot of coin-flip games. Here are my predictions for the Sweet 16's first day.
The Temple Owls frustrated Kawhi Leonard all game long in SDSU's double-overtime victory in the Round of 32. The sophomore forward managed 16 points, but on 5-of-14 shooting with four turnovers.
The attention that Temple gave to Leonard, allowed forwards Billy White and Malcolm Thomas to have big games. But the paint looks a little different against the Huskies from the Big East.
Temple sent two forwards at the Aztec bigs, none of whom was bigger than the 6'9", 225-pound Lavoy Allen.
Connecticut recruits on a different level than Temple, and sends the 6'9", 240-pound Alex Oriakhi at you. After that, they send 6'8", 205-pound Roscoe Smith, with 1.2 blocks per game. Then, you'll get pushed around by Charles Okwandu at 7' and 255 pounds. That's without mentioning the 6'7" Jamal Coombs-McDaniel.
See the point? If Leonard is frustrated by the UConn forwards (Smith will likely start on him), then the opportunity for the other Aztec bigs to step up will be much harder to come by. The onus could fall to the San Diego State guards—D.J. Gay and Charles Tapley—to jump-start the offense.
For UConn, everything runs through Kemba Walker. San Diego State ranks second in the NCAA in defensive efficiency, so something's got to give. The Aztec backcourt is not a team strength, so Walker could find success from the perimeter.
In spite of the brutal neutral court drawing, I think UConn is up to the challenge. They're the hottest team remaining in the tournament with a current seven-game win streak, four of which came against ranked Big East teams. San Diego State's only hope is to get Leonard going early and often, and somehow control the paint and lock down on Walker, which few teams have been able to do.
Prediction: Connecticut wins by eight
Several factors will help determine this game. Among them are Florida's athleticism and versatility, BYU's underrated rebounding and physicality, and Kenny Boynton's ankle.
The biggest factor, though, is The Jimmer Factor.
BYU guard Jimmer Fredette, is the Cougars' only hope of winning this game. Their fate has continued to rest on how well his shooting stroke is going.
So far, Jimmer hasn't really had an awful shooting game this season. Sure, he's had a couple 7-for-21 games but, when you play in the Mountain West, you can escape against almost anyone after shooting poorly.
That can't happen now. This is the Sweet 16 of the NCAA. You're playing against good teams at their peak, and the margin for error is minuscule. Jimmer will have to shoot well for BYU to have any chance against Florida.
The Gators are the antithesis of BYU's relative one-man team. Four players—Erving Walker, Boynton, Chandler Parsons and Vernon Macklin—average double figures, and six guys play at least 17 minutes per game. They are a mismatch for BYU at several positions, especially in the paint, where BYU forward Noah Hartsock will have his hands full all night.
BYU wants to get down to the other end so they can score (8th in the nation in that category), so eliminating offensive rebounds for Florida will be crucial.
If Florida can slow Jimmer even a little bit, it will force the other Cougars to figure out how to score the ball, which will likely eat up more clock. The more clock that BYU uses to score, the less they own the pace of the game, which they want to be frenetic and high-scoring.
This game will be a fantastic contrast of style and philosophy. In the end, I think Florida, the more complete team, will end the magical run that Fredette has been on all year long.
Prediction: Florida wins by 14
The Arizona Wildcats have won two games that they could just as easily have lost. Both wins against Memphis and Texas went down to the last possession and required some heroics from superstar Derrick Williams to push the team through.
Many of the Arizona players, including Williams, hail from the Los Angeles/Orange County area, so the regional in Anaheim will be in familiar territory.
The Wildcats will have their hands full with defending national champion Duke, so they're hoping that familiarity breeds confidence.
The Blue Devils needed some late luck of their own to fend off fiesty Michigan, but showed their experience and moxie in cutting off the upset bid. They, in turn, will have their hands full containing Williams and his more athletic team.
The trouble for Duke is matching up man-to-man on the Player of the Year candidate. Kyle Singler probably isn't quick enough to hang with him on the perimeter and is more comfortable defending around the basket. Mason Plumlee is in the same boat, just to a further degree.
The Duke guards are far too small, so Singler will draw the assignment for most of the game. Freshman forward Josh Hairston, is the only comparably-sized player Duke has, so he could draw extended minutes on Williams as well.
For as much as Duke doesn't match up with Williams, Arizona has much more in the way of match-up concerns.
Duke's very strong rebounding numbers highlight the size they have in the Plumlees, Singler and Ryan Kelly. Arizona primarily plays with forwards who run at 6'7" or smaller, aside from Williams at 6'8". The mismatch is evident down low, where Duke runs out two at 6'10", one at 6'11" and Singler at 6'8".
Arizona also has trouble on the perimeter. It was going to be tough enough for Lamont Jones and Kyle Fogg to handle Duke guards Nolan Smith, Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins, but now freshman phenom Kyrie Irving will be playing extended minutes. Arizona could simply be overwhelmed by the depth Duke throws at them.
Arizona's athleticism outmatches Duke, but their lack of size down low and impact play on the perimeter are major shortcomings against Duke's depth. Derrick Williams needs to, and probably will, have a big game, but Arizona will need help from unexpected sources to keep Duke out of the Elite Eight.
Prediction: Duke wins by 9, but comfortably leads by 12-16 for most of the game.
Conventional wisdom says to take the steady Wisconsin against the underdog. Butler, however, is no conventional underdog.
The Bulldogs are in the process of repeating last year's improbable run to the National Championship Game that saw them topple a few March mainstays along the way. This time, they're looking to a second consecutive regional final after downing top-seeded Pittsburgh in the finish of the tournament so far.
This is the joining of two disciplined system teams. Neither is incredibly athletic, and both rely heavily on two players for scoring. Butler's leading scorer, Matt Howard, will likely match up with the Badgers' lead man, Jon Leuer. Both are 6'8" or taller and will start inside, but like to step outside to shoot threes as well.
Jordan Taylor runs the point for Wisconsin and will likely take on Butler junior, Shelvin Mack. Containing Taylor on the perimeter will be paramount for Mack or Ronald Nored, because he shoots 43 percent from three-point range. Wisconsin freshman Josh Gasser, will also factor on the perimeter significantly, so Butler's guards can't forget about him in trying to slow Taylor.
Containing Howard will be the main objective for Leuer and the Badger big men. They'll certainly have the flexibility to throw different looks at Howard with Keaton Nankivil and Mike Bruesewitz.
Neither team is impressive statistically, but sound team basketball has brought them to the edge of the Elite Eight. What will separate these similar teams?
Coaching. Bo Ryan has struggled deep in the tournament, while Brad Stevens has thrived. The way Stevens handled the end-game situation against Pitt showed that he is one of the brightest in the business. This coaching disparity makes a huge difference.
Prediction: I picked Wisconsin to go to the Final Four, but can't ignore what my head is telling me and what my eyes have seen. Butler wins by three in a low-scoring back-and-forth.