Thursday, March 23, 2017

What to watch for in the NCAA Tournament’s Regional Weekend

The second weekend of the big dance is here. The Big 10, Big 12, Pac 12 and SEC all have three schools competing in regional semifinals taking place tonight and tomorrow. Yet, the ACC, which was the country’s best conference from start to finish in the regular season this year, has just North Carolina left in the tournament. We are also without two number two seeds and the number one overall seed as the second weekend tips off. It’s not called madness for nothing. Here are some things I’m looking for in each region this weekend.

Midwest: The first game of the Sweet 16 gets started tonight in Kansas City featuring the red-hot Michigan Wolverines and the Oregon Ducks. It’s been easy to cheer for John Beilein’s team over the last two weeks after a plane crash nearly prevented Michigan from competing in the Big 10 tournament two weeks ago in the nation’s capital. The Wolverines then reeled off four wins in four days to earn the conference’s automatic bid, won what might have been the most exciting game of the first round of the tournament against Oklahoma State and then upset Rick Pitino and Louisville to extract a little bit of revenge from the 2013 national championship game.  Some felt the tournament for Oregon ended before it even started as the Ducks lost big man Chris Boucher for the rest of the year to a torn anterior cruciate ligament. But, the Ducks had their way with Iona in the first round and narrowly survived against Rhode Island to earn a trip to Kansas City. However, in the first half against Rhode Island, Oregon did not look like a Sweet 16 team. Michigan has had some ups and downs of its own, but is certainly trending up now. The Wolverines are the hotter team and without Boucher in the lineup for Oregon, probably the better team.

Up next in the Midwest is a Big 12-Big 10 matchup between Kansas and Purdue. Kansas was very impressive in the latter stages of its latest victory against Michigan State and seems to have erased any doubt that may have lingered from a bad loss to TCU to open play in the Big 12 tournament. Purdue was the top seed in the Big 10 tournament but was one of the four teams that fell victim to Michigan two weeks ago at Verizon Center. The Boilermakers have since dispatched of Vermont and Iowa State in two close games. This game features two Naismith award candidates with in Kansas guard Frank Mason and Purdue forward Caleb Swanigan. In addition to Mason, Kansas has gotten here thanks in large part to guards Devonte’ Graham and Josh Jackson while Purdue’s other frontcourt players have aided Swanigan all year. Keeping the dynamic Kansas’ backcourt under control long enough will be a big challenge for Purdue, but one it will have to live up to if it is going to pull of an upset.

West: The two favorites in both games in San Jose tonight have coaches that are still seeking their first trips to the Final Four. Arizona’s Sean Miller has been to the Elite Eight three times with the Wildcats and once while he was still at Xavier. Gonzaga’s Mark Few has been to the Sweet 16 seven times, but only once to a regional final. Therefore, a Gonzaga-Arizona game on Saturday would make for a fun Elite Eight contest. It’s unlikely Xavier stands in the way of that as Sean Miller’s current team should have its way with his old team. The Musketeers entered the tournament cold but benefited from a favorable draw in the first weekend and Chris Mack now finds himself in his fourth Sweet 16 since taking over for Miller in 2009.  West Virginia and its full-court press has posed problems for its first two opponents in the tournament as Bucknell and Notre Dame turned the ball over 15 and 14 times respectively in the first two rounds. West Virginia has looked very good at times this season but also very pedestrian at other times. If the West Virginia team that throttled Kansas in Morgantown shows up then the Mountaineers could surely upset Gonzaga. But, if the team that lost to Temple in Brooklyn over Thanksgiving weekend shows up, then this could get ugly for Bob Huggins’ squad.

East: Wisconsin, Florida, Baylor and South Carolina. Those are the four teams everyone thought would be playing at Madison Square Garden this weekend, right?  After upsetting number one overall seed Villanova last weekend in Buffalo, Wisconsin looks like the best team of the four left in this region. Florida had a favorable draw, dispatching of East Tennessee State and offensively-inept Virginia. Baylor trailed at halftime against New Mexico State in the first round and had a dogfight against Southern California but both of those opponents were double digit seeds. South Carolina probably looked the most impressive of these four teams in the first weekend, bludgeoning Marquette and dropping 65 points in the second half of an upset victory against Duke. I’ll roll with Wisconsin to pick up two wins and advance to Phoenix, but it’s probably not worth making any more predictions with this region given the hysteria we’ve seen so far.

South: North Carolina is all the ACC has left and will be in for a tough test tomorrow night against Butler. This should be an interesting battle of frontcourts with both teams featuring experienced big men. Kelan Martin and Andrew Chrabascz lead the way for Butler while Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks have played their fair share of games for the Tar Heels. Joel Berry’s right ankle will be worth monitoring here but he’s made progress and likely won’t be too limited. The Tar Heels are the better team, but nearly choked away their last game against Arkansas and Butler has played well in two wins against Winthrop and Middle Tennessee State so this game should be a tight one.

Lastly is the game everyone’s waiting for. The rematch between UCLA and Kentucky. The Bruins bested the Wildcats in Lexington back on December 3 in what was a high-scoring, fast-paced game. It will likely be more of the same tomorrow night in Memphis as UCLA, led by freshman sensation and likely top five NBA draft pick Lonzo Ball, was first in the nation in scoring averaging 90.4 points per game. But, the Wildcats averaged 85.9 points per game in the regular season which was fifth in the nation.  Kentucky grinded one out in the previous round against Wichita State winning 65-62 and making some big plays on defense down the stretch.  Granted, it will be much tougher to defend UCLA, but that type of grittiness the Wildcats displayed last weekend could go a long way in harnessing UCLA’s offensive attack. Look for defensive anchor Bam Adebayo to be the difference to Kentucky.

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