The Best Head-to-Head Matchups in the Sweet 16

Jake Curtis@jakecurtis53Featured ColumnistMarch 22, 2017

The Best Head-to-Head Matchups in the Sweet 16

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    The game within the game—that's what head-to-head matchups are about. And there are plenty of top-notch players to go around in the eight Sweet 16 games during the second week of NCAA tournament play. Six conference players of the year are still playing. Six players projected by DraftExpress to be among the first 13 players taken in the 2017 NBA draft are still in contention for a national title.

    College basketball is a team game, but those head-to-head matchups play a major role in which teams advance and which go home. They also play a role in how entertaining the game is.

    We take a look at seven head-to-head matchups looming in the Sweet 16. We included no more than one such matchup per game, then ranked them first through seventh based on that matchup's importance to the outcome and its entertainment value. They are presented in ascending order, with the best head-to-head matchup listed last.

7. South Carolina's Sindarius Thornwell vs. the Baylor Zone

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    OK, we obviously fudged this one a bit, because it is not a one-on-one matchup. Nonetheless how well Baylor's zone shuts down Sindarius Thornwell is the story of the game.

    Baylor's zone is all long arms and athletic bodies, making it difficult to get easy shots. Even if you get through the first wave, long-armed, 6'10" Johnathan Motley, who has 36 blocks this season, and 7-footer Jo Lual-Acuil Jr., who has 86 blocks, will be waiting to swat away anything that comes their way.

    Thornwell's star quality has been revealed to the country in the NCAA tournament. He is averaging 21.4 points per game for the season, the 15th-highest average in the country and the highest among players still in the tournament. He has scored more than 20 points in nine of the past 11 games.

    The day after Thornwell scored 29 points and grabbed 11 rebounds to lead South Carolina to a 93-73 first-round victory over Marquette, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski called Thornwell "the best unheralded, great player in the United States."

    The next day Thornwell dropped 24 points on the Blue Devils, leading the Gamecocks to an 88-81 victory and outshining his more heralded shooting guard counterpart, Luke Kennard, who was held to 11 points by Thornwell.

    The SEC player of the year was Thornwell, not Malik Monk or De'Aaron Fox. Thornwell has carried his team this far. Now he must get by the Baylor zone. 

6. Arizona's Allonzo Trier vs. Xavier's Trevon Bluiett

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    Don't be too concerned if Arizona shooting guard Allonzo Trier and Xavier shooting guard Trevon Bluiett don't live up to your expectations in the first half. They are just laying their groundwork for second-half explosions.

    Whether they guard each other in their Sweet 16 matchup is in question because their coaches may not want to expose their top scoring threat to foul trouble. But at some point during the game, the two will likely find themselves going head-to-head.

    The 6'5" Trier missed the first 19 games of the season after testing positive for a banned substance, although Trier said he was unaware he took it, as noted by KGUN in Arizona. When he returned, he provided the offensive punch the Wildcats had been lacking. As the season progressed, Trier's scoring increased, averaging 20.8 points over the past nine games.

    The Wildcats might be able to win without Trier putting up 20 points. That's not the case for Bluiett, who needs to put up big numbers for Xavier to win. He is certainly capable, having averaged 22.0 points over the past six games.

    The 6'6" Bluiett scored 21 points in the 76-65 first-round victory over Maryland and 29 in the 91-66 second-round rout of Florida State. He has made 8-of-15 three-point shots in the tournament.

    What makes Bluiett particularly dangerous is that he is a second-half terror.

    He was just 1-of-8 from the floor in the first half against Maryland, but in a span of less than 10 minutes in the second half, Bluiett scored 16 points, hitting four three-pointers in the process, to turn a five-point deficit into an 11-point lead.

    He finished that game with 18 second-half points, then had 21 of his 29 points against Florida State in the second half. It was the fifth time in the last six games that Bluiett scored at least 17 points in the second half.

    Trier may not be impressed. He went scoreless in the first half of the second-round game against Saint Mary's, missing all four of his shots. Trier then proceeded to score 14 second-half points, including nine in a span of three minutes and 50 seconds to help turn a two-point deficit into a seven-point lead.

5. Purdue's Caleb Swanigan vs. Kansas' Josh Jackson

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    Sometimes intriguing matchups just materialize for the viewer's benefit.

    Slender Kansas small forward Josh Jackson would seem ill-equipped to handle powerful Purdue power forward Caleb Swanigan. Of course, Swanigan would figure to have a difficult time keeping up with the athletic Jackson on the other end.

    The game won't start out with those two facing each other. Isaac Haas, Purdue's 7'2" center, no longer starts games as he did early in the season, even though he is the team's third-leading scorer and No. 2 rebounder. Instead both Kansas and Purdue will begin the game with three-guard lineups. That makes matchups easy. The small forward matchup between Jackson and Purdue's Vince Edwards would still be a dandy since Edwards scored 21 points in each of the Boilermakers' first two tournament games.

    But the more interesting matchup might occur if Purdue coach Matt Painter goes to his big lineup, with Haas, Swanigan and Edwards across the front line. That was starting frontcourt when the season began. In that alignment, Kansas' 6'10" Landen Lucas would have to guard Haas, leaving Swanigan for Jackson.

    The possibilities are not lost on Nebraska coach Tim Miles, who explained it this way to the Lawrence Journal-World:

    The lineup that will be interesting is when Purdue plays Haas and Swanigan against Jackson and Lucas. Something's gotta give. If Josh plays anywhere close to what he did against Michigan State, holy cow. He was terrific. But it'll also be a different challenge for Josh than (Michigan State forward) Miles Bridges was. Swanigan's physicality is far greater than Miles'. It's guarding a totally different dude.

    Purdue has been more successful this season when Haas is on the bench, but Painter might decide that the matchups are better if he uses the big lineup, at least on occasion.

    How would the 6'8", 207-pound Jackson defend the 6'9", 250-pound Swanigan? And how would the hulking Swanigan guard a gazelle like Jackson? We can only hope.

4. Florida's Kasey Hill vs. Wisconsin's Bronson Koenig

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    Kasey Hill, Florida's second-team all-SEC point guard, has developed into a defensive stopper. He held Virginia's leading scorer, London Perrantes, to six points on 2-for-12 shooting in the Gators' 65-39, second-round thrashing of the Cavaliers.

    Hill has come to relish his role as a defender, as noted in this article by Andy Staples, who described Hill's defensive approach this way: "Hill defends like an angry yellow jacket attacks, using his quickness to dart in and out of the offensive player's personal space without spending long enough to get called for a personal foul."

    Hill scored only three points in the win over Virginia, ending a string of four straight games in which he had reached double figures.

    But Florida coach Mike White is all about defense, and Hill fits the requirements.

    The 6'1" Hill may have a bigger challenge in the Sweet 16 when he tries to cool off Wisconson point guard Bronson Koenig.

    The 6'3" Koenig has a slight edge in height and a considerable advantage in NCAA tournament experience over Hill, who played in five tournament games as a freshman reserve in 2014. Friday will be Koenig's 17th NCAA tournament game and his 12th as a starter. He has already played in a national championship game and has already had a game-winning shot in the tournament, hitting a shot at the buzzer to beat Xavier last year.

    What he has at the moment is a hot hand. He made eight three-pointers while scoring 28 points in the Badgers' first-round victory over Virginia Tech, and he made seven of 11 shots, including three of six from long range, while scoring 17 points in the 65-62 upset of Villanova in the second round.

    Koenig has scored at least 16 points in eight of the past nine games and has made 29 of his last 61 three-point shots (47.5 percent). Putting a stop to that is Hill's challenge.

3. Oregon's Dillon Brooks vs. Michigan's D.J. Wilson

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    What? Wait a second.

    Pac-12 Player of the Year Dillon Brooks is a classic wing man: an athletic 6'7" small forward who can check a shooting guard if needed. Meanwhile, 6'10" D.J. Wilson is a power forward who could move to the 5 spot if required. How would either wind up guarding the other?

    And yet, it might happen, at least part of the time.

    That is the intrigue of the Oregon-Michigan game because the matchups just don't fit. When Chris Boucher was healthy for the Ducks and coming off the bench early in games, it all made sense. The 6'10" Boucher and 6'9" Jordan Bell would defend the opponent's two big men and swat away shot after shot.

    But Boucher is out with a knee injury, leaving the Ducks with a lineup that usually consists of four guards and Bell. Michigan's 6'6" guard Zak Irvin would be the logical candidate to cover Brooks, but he will be needed on 6'4" Tyler Dorsey, who is the hottest Ducks player at the moment. Dylan Ennis and Payton Pritchard figure to go against their Michigan counterparts, Derrick Walton Jr. and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman.

    That leaves Bell and Brooks against Wilson and 6'11" Moe Wagner. Wagner went for 26 points against Louisville, so Bell probably will draw that assignment, leaving Brooks with Wilson, who has been the X-factor for the Wolverines during their magical seven-game winning streak.

    Wilson scored 26 points in Michigan's win over Purdue in the Big Ten tournament, added 17 in the victory over Wisconsin in the championship game, and scored 19 and 17 points in the NCAA tournament wins over Oklahoma State and Louisville, respectively.

    Brooks has guarded big men before, taking on California's 6'11" Ivan Rabb in Pac-12 play. So Dillon will probably try to push Wilson away from the basket and do the best he can.

    But is there any way Wilson can handle the versatile Brooks at the other end? Or would UM coach John Beilein concoct some other matchup, leaving Wilson to guard...who? Beilein might do neither and go to his 1-3-1 zone, hoping to avoid those unattractive matchups altogether. However in January, Beilein spent time explaining to Mark Snyder of the Detroit Free Press why he is reluctant to use a zone with this team.

    At some point in the game, you are apt to see some odd matchups.

2. West Virginia's Jevon Carter vs. Gonzaga Nigel Williams-Goss

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    Here we have two excellent point guards with very different missions in their Sweet 16 matchup: West Virginia's Jevon Carter wants to create chaos on the court; Gonzaga's Nigel Williams-Goss wants to prevent it. 

    Oh, they can both score. Carter, a second-team all-Big 12 selection, scored 24 points and made four of five three-pointers in the 83-71 second-round victory over Notre Dame. Williams-Goss, the West Coast Conference player of the year, tossed in 20 points in the Bulldogs' 79-73 win over Northwestern. 

    The most important statistics for their Sweet 16 meeting, however, will be in the steals column for Carter and in the turnovers column for Williams-Goss.

    West Virginia lives and dies with its ferocious pressing defense. It has forced an average of 20.1 turnovers per game this season, by far the most in the country. The ring leader is Carter, whose 2.5 steals per game rank seventh in the country and are the most by any player still in the tournament. Notre Dame is second in the country in fewest turnovers per game (9.5), but the Irish committed 10 in the first half against West Virginia. 

    The Mountaineers hope to rattle Gonzaga, which has demonstrated that it can be rattled. The Bulldogs committed 11 second-half turnovers against Northwestern, which reduced a 20-point Gonzaga lead with 13 minutes left down to five with 5:31 to go. Williams-Goss had two of those 11 turnovers.

    In their only loss this season, Gonzaga committed nine second-half turnovers against BYU, which overcame a 12-point deficit with 13 minutes left to win 79-71. Williams-Goss had two of those nine turnovers.

    Neither of those opponents can apply pressure like West Virginia.

    Williams-Goss has a 2.24 assist-to-turnover ratio this season, which is decent but not great. The challenge is to prevent Carter from turning the game into mayhem.

    "Their style of play is hard to deal with," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said, according to the Spokane Spokesman-Review. "It wore on us at times."

1. UCLA's Lonzo Ball vs. Kentucky's De'Aaron Fox

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    It's possible UCLA freshman point guard Lonzo Ball and Kentucky freshman point guard De'Aaron Fox won't guard each other, especially if the Bruins use a zone defense. But in our minds, they will be going head-to-head as we measure one against the other in what promises to be an exciting matchup, whether it is real or imagined.

    DraftExpress projects that both will be among the top five picks in the upcoming NBA draft, so this will probably be the last college game for the one who is on the losing end.

    Although they play the same position, they have very different styles. Fox is a blur in the open court and can penetrate and finish against virtually any defense. Although he orchestrates the Wildcats' attack, he has focused more on scoring than playmaking lately. He averages 4.6 assists for the season but has averaged just 2.0 assists over the past seven games, while scoring 18.7 points in that stretch.

    He is accurate with his shot out to 16 or 17 feet, but the three-point shot is out of his range. He is hitting just 23.4 percent of his three-pointers and has attempted only two in the NCAA tournament, missing both.

    Ball can do anything that needs to be done, whether it be a three-pointer from 10 feet behind the line or a court-length pass to a streaking teammate for a dunk or a steal that turns into a fast break. In his two NCAA tournament games, he is averaging 16.5 points on 13-of-17 shooting (76.5 percent) and 6-of-10 accuracy on three-pointers. He also has 11 rebounds, 12 assists and just two turnovers. In fact, the entire UCLA team has committed just nine turnovers in the NCAA tournament, with just three against Cincinnati.

    Nick Martin of Deadspin had this to say about Ball after watching him against Cincinnati:

    There is no player left in this tournament quite like Ball. There are times when the hype surrounding him can start (to) feel exhausting—thanks, LaVar!—but then you watch him snuff out a solid team like Cincinnati in 20 easy minutes, and it suddenly feels like the hype doesn’t do him justice. College fans, enjoy him as for as long as you have left. NBA fans, get ready.

    In UCLA's 97-92 victory over Kentucky back in December, Ball had six turnovers, to go along with 14 points, six rebounds and seven assists. Fox had the better numbers that day with 20 points, nine assists and two turnovers. But Ball's performance was the one people remembered.