Sweet 16 Preview: Thursday’s Games
Kemba, Jimmer, Kyrie, Derrick Williams… Oh, and Butler.
by Jon Jaques / @JJaques25
Actual huskies are known for their endurance and perseverance in harsh conditions (these ones at least), so why was such a big deal made about the five games in five days that that the UCONN Huskies powered through in the Big East tournament? They squashed Bucknell quickly, and survived a conference battle v Cincinnati in the second round to reach the Sweet Sixteen in Anaheim. By now, there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that Kemba Walker is the classic alpha dog capable of carrying his team to the Final Four.
But if any remaining team in the field has experience facing dominant machine-like scorers, it’s San Diego State. The Aztecs didn’t come close to shutting down Jimmer in two regular season Mountain West matchups vs. BYU, but the familiarity of guarding and preparing for a pure scorer should make Steve Fisher’s squad as prepared as any to slow down Kemba (plus, I’m of the opinion that guarding Fredette is a harder guard than Walker, but that’s a discussion for another day, say… a potential National Final matchup?). Connecticut has faced athletic frontlines like San Diego State’s in the Big East but not one that combines as much quickness with that athleticism. These teams are pretty even on paper, so San Diego State’s home court advantage in Southern California gives them the edge in this one.
Duke snuck past Michigan, Arizona tiptoed out of Tulsa with two of the more controversial wins in a weekend of questionable finishes. The Wildcats have this going for themselves: who onDuke can guard Derrick Williams? Kyle Singler is quick and gritty enough but definitely too small, the Plumlees are freak athletes and plenty agile for their size but won’t be able to stick Williams consistently, and Ryan Kelly is a reliable team defender but we will see Bruce Pearl teaching an NCAA ethics seminar before Kelly is asked to guard Arizona’s stud forward for an extended period of time. The point is Sean Miller has the most favorable matchup in this game. Will it be enough to upset Duke in a rematch of the 2001 National Championship game?
That might depend on how useful a week of practice can be for Kyrie Irving’s healing toe and, more importantly, his timing. Irving was physically ready to play in Duke’s first two tournament games (his ball pressure on defense was outstanding, and his can’t-be-taught knack for finishing in the lane saved the Blue Devils in the final seconds v. Michigan) but it was obvious that rust was an issue on the offensive end. One more week of running, shooting, and simply becoming more comfortable on the court will be great for Irving and gut-wrenching for the Arizona staff. Even though Arizona has the matchup’s most dominant player and a slight home court advantage, I think a better-conditioned Irving and the senior-intangibles of Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler give Duke a slight edge. Expect another narrow Blue Devils win.
This is a rematch of one of last year’s most memorable first round games, when Florida got blitzed by Jimmer’s 37 points and late-game heroics and lost to BYU in double-overtime. One year later, Jimmer is a cult hero, a player-of the year finalist, and every Mormon kid – scratch that, every kid’s idol. I’m beginning to think that, as great as Fredette is, the real key to defeating BYU is to eliminate his friends from the equation. Jimmer is going to put up his 20-25 shots. Wild and ridiculous they may seem to mere mortals, but his shots nonetheless. Jimmer tossed up 25 shot attempts against Wofford for 32 points, and 23 shot attempts against Gonzaga for 34 points.
It’s easy to gawk at those stat lines and overlook the numbers of those around him, most notably Jackson Emery and Noah Hartsock. Especially now with Brandon Davies out, these two are the most reliable scoring options Dave Rose has outside his star gunner. There are other outside threats on BYU (Charles Abouu, Stephen Rogers, and Logan Magnusson can all stretch defenses), but when Emery and Hartsock play well BYU generally wins. No one is advocating giving Jimmer free reign to go off for 50 (he might do that anyway). But it’s not such a crazy idea to let Jimmer shoot his hard shots. Many will go in. But as long as he is forced to shoot contested floaters, step backs, and runners, and Florida isn’t putting him on the free throw line (easier said than done), I’m sure Billy Donovan can live with the result. Keep an eye on Kenny Boynton’s sprained ankle for Florida as well. He says he is going to play, but as anyone who has ever badly rolled an ankle knows, those things usually take months to heal properly.
I bet a lot of people picked either Butler or Wisconsin to get this far, but I’d be shocked if more than a handful predicted this Sweet 16 matchup in their bracket. Wisconsin-Belmont was the trendy upset pick in the first round, and if then wasn’t the Badgers’ time, then the next game against Kansas State certainly was. But Bo Ryan’s Badgers finally got over the upset bug to make the Sweet 16. Butler, meanwhile, was losing every other Horizon League game just months ago. Now, after two heart-stopping finishes over the weekend, Brad Stevens waltzes into the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive season with the college basketball universe spinning on his little finger (any job in the next 20 years is Stevens’ to turn down).
This game is a toss-up. Before the tournament, I wouldn’t have hesitated to pick Wisconsin because of their defense and toughness. But now that it’s March, Butler has suddenly perked up and re-inherited those traits for itself. Sound defense and fundamental basketball was what carried Butler within an inch of a national championship last season. And Stevens has his kids (can we really call them kids when some are barely a decade younger than their coach?) playing the same way once again. Matt Howard has ditched the baggy t-shirt for the shooting sleeve, but he’s still the same effectively reckless frontcourt menace for the Bulldogs. I’ve doubted Butler’s tournament prowess for way too long now … Bulldogs advance to the Elite 8.
Check back tomorrow for a preview of Friday’s games…
Jon Jaques is a former starter for the Cornell Big Red and current forward for Israel’s Ironi Ashkelon club.