Sweet 16 Preview: Friday’s Games
Barnes, Sullinger, Knight… and the Morris twins.
by Jon Jaques / @JJaques25
After popping in and out of the bubble for the last month of the regular season only to be saved by a run in the Big East tournament, one of two Big East teams to make the Sweet 16 is none other than Marquette. Vintage March Madness. The Golden Eagles are trying to advance to their first Final Four since the Dwayne Wade-led 2003 season, and if they make it to Houston, it will be one of the most herculean efforts in NCAA Tournament history. It’s not as if Marquette is a poor basketball program (far from it: how many schools have made the NCAA Tournament the past six seasons?), but their competition in Newark is Final Four-esque: first North Carolina, and then potentially Ohio State or Kentucky.
Still, don’t be surprised to see Marquette in the Elite 8 on Sunday. North Carolina, as demonstrated in its comeback win against Washington last weekend, is vulnerable. Interestingly, Marquette is a very similar team, style-wise, to the Washington team that gave UNC fits for 40 minutes. Both play aggressive, man-to-man defense, and each has small quick guards that can penetrate and make plays off the dribble. If Washington could shoot the three like Marquette is capable of doing, the Huskies probably defeat the Tarheels. North Carolina possesses an enormous advantage inside with Tyler Zeller, John Henson, Justin Knox, and even Harrison Barnes if he ventures onto the block. The three-pointer should keep Marquette in the game, but I think UNC learns from last weekend and exploits Marquette’s smallish frontcourt.
Dream Final Four matchup right? Not a shabby Sweet 16 game either. Ohio State is doing what Kentucky did last season on its way to the Sweet 16 and steamrolling through the first two rounds. 1 seeds are supposed to beat the 8/9s, but not totally embarrass them the way the Buckeyes schooled George Mason on Sunday. Kentucky ushered out its 2010 second round opponent Wake Forest in similar unceremonious fashion. This season though, Kentucky has had to scratch and claw through two tough games to reach the Sweet 16.
In order for Kentucky to win, Brandon Knight needs to be the star he was against West Virginia and not the guy who disappeared until the final seconds against Princeton. Josh Harrellson, who has been Kentucky’s most consistent player so far, obviously has the enormous responsibility of guarding Jared Sullinger. Harrellson is certainly big enough … he’s probably one of the only players in the country who can handle Sullinger in the post one-on-one, which is huge considering how adept the player-of-the-year candidate has become at kicking the ball out of double teams to Ohio State’s fleet of shooters. The Buckeyes, of course, have edges elsewhere. Kentucky’s freshmen might have more promising futures, but Aaron Craft and Sullinger rarely play like freshmen while Knight, Terrence Jones, and Doron Lamb frequently do. It’s not a knock on the Kentucky kids but an indication of how special this Buckeye duo is. Their uncanny moxie plus the leadership of ageless seniors David Lighty, Jon Diebler, and Dallas Lauderdale is hard to pick against. Buckeyes win this one going away.
My eventual national champion has a “Golden Brick Road” in front of it on the way to the Final Four (the highest remaining seed in the region outside the Jayhawks is #10 Florida State). So why am I so nervous? Oh right, because it’s Kansas.
In a normal scenario, I wouldn’t sweat the Spiders. Richmond is an outstanding basketball team, but outside of future pros Kevin Anderson and Justin Harper, Chris Mooney’s team is built on basketball IQ, not McDonald’s All Americans. But that has never stopped a Kansas team from losing before now has it? If Kansas can lose to Northern Iowa, what is stopping largely the same group of players from losing to a much more athletically gifted and talented Richmond team? The answer is the development and maturation of the Morris twins. The combination of the two should be too much for the Spider frontline to handle. Richmond plays the classic Princeton matchup zone on defense that relies on switching men on offensive cuts and screens. The Spiders can do this effectively against opponents (including their first two tournament opponents Vanderbilt and Morehead State) because most teams don’t have more than one low post threat. Kansas is the rare team that has a handful, so Richmond can’t hide a guard in a switch behind an ineffective low post scorer. The styles just don’t mesh well. Richmond might fluster Kansas for a half with its switching defense, but after getting adjusted, the Jayhawks should punish the Spiders inside for a decisive victory.
I’m most surprised to see these two teams in the Sweet 16 out of all the teams remaining. Florida State has miraculously found an offense after struggling to break 60 points in games for much of the season, and VCU has gone from surprise tournament entrant to the only team in the field to win three tournament games.
It’s a matchup of schools that have recently discovered there are, in fact, two ends to a basketball court. The Seminoles have always been impossible to score on, but now are putting the ball in the basket at a surprising clip (Hard to imagine how shocked Mike Brey was to see Florida State make nine three pointers in game). And VCU was not able to guard anyone in the regular season but pushed around a normally stout Purdue team like they were a bunch of fifth graders. So what wins out? New-found offense or renewed defense? The answer is neither. Florida State is not going to forget how to play defense any time soon. Leonard Hamilton has molded this team to be one that wins ugly. VCU, on the other hand, is an offensive team that is perfectly capable of having an off day from the field. It’s very likely Florida State goes cold on Sunday (you’re either a good shooting team or you’re not), but it can always rely on its defense to bail it out in a close game. If defense wins ballgames, I think it’s safer to trust the defensive-minded team to prevail in this one.
Jon Jaques is a former starter for the Cornell Big Red and current forward for Israel’s Ironi Ashkelon club.