The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament is pure mayhem; games begin and end simultaneously, buzzers sound from TV’s, iPads, iPhones, and computers, celebrations are loud … and defeat is inevitable for more than three-quarters of the field…
Which brings us to these next four days of college basketball: Games are fewer than the week before, but the stakes continue to rise as the Sweet Sixteen turns into the Elite Eight, and, eventually the Final Four.
The matchups are always intriguing, and every single one of the players and coaches know that they’re playing for the name on the front of their jersey, competing for a spot amongst the heroes of March Madness who came before them.
So let’s get right to it and preview the Sweet Sixteen games:
No. 3 Marquette Golden Eagles vs. No. 2 Miami Hurricanes
Marquette, reliant on their slashing and ability to make timely plays at both ends of the court – thanks to their full-court pressing and frequent substitutions – will have their hands full with a Miami team that, despite having won the ACC regular season and conference tournament, was probably slighted by the committee coming into March Madness (that last point is neither here, nor there, but it’s true).
Marquette’s star slasher, Vander Blue, who has embodied the team’s run, scoring 16 points and the game winning layup against Davidson in the first round and 29 big ones (19 in the second half) to lead the Golden Eagles’ comeback effort against Butler.
Blue will likely need to have another high-scoring performance if Marquette is to get by Miami, which has an extremely well-balanced attack.
Miami is led by as tough of a backcourt as there is in America in Shane Larkin and Durand Scott. Trey McKinney Jones and Rion Brown are both solid defenders with good length and athleticism on the wing. Both are capable of knocking home the deep ball, too. Against Illinois on Sunday evening, Brown came up huge with 21 points (5-10 on 3-point FGs) in the Hurricanes’ close win over Illinois.
How McKinney-Jones, Brown and Scott match up with Blue defensively (likely they will rotate to show a few different looks) will be crucial.
However, the most important battle will come up front. Kenny Kadji and Julian Gamble will have to stay clear of foul trouble because the Hurricanes are without forward Reggie Johnson (surgery). If Kadji and Gamble do their jobs and the guards can control the pace, it’s going to be tough for Marquette to get by Miami.
The Golden Eagles don’t have the interior size or depth that Miami does; they rely on rebounding by committee, as no single player averages over 5 boards per game.
That being said, do not count Marquette out.
“There were multiple times we could have gave up,” Blue said following the Butler win. “But there’s something about this group. We’re relentless and we want to win.
“We’re not ready to go home yet.”
Prediction: Dogfight most of the way through, but I think Miami will prevail. 75-69.
No. 4 Syracuse Orangemen vs. No. 1 Indiana Hoosiers
Will the Indiana Hoosiers control the speed up the tempo of the game and score around their average of 79 ppg, or will Syracuse’s zone take IU out of their rhythm enough that the Orangemen will have a chance to win the game?
In an effort to beat ‘Cuse’s 2-3 zone defense down the floor, IU is going to push the ball at a breakneck pace whenever they get a defensive rebound or turnover. With Cody Zeller, who runs rim-to-rim as well as any big man in America, combined with Jordan Hull’s shooting stroke, Yogi Ferrell’s ability to penetrate and kick, Oladipo’s versatility, Sheehey’s scoring ability off the bench and Watford’s ability to play the high-low game with Zeller, Indiana has all the tools to bust the Orange’s zone defense.
That being said, the Orange have four players – Triche, Carter-Williams, Fair, and Southerland, “who are capable of scoring 15-20 points on a given night,” said coach Boeheim during the Big East Tournament.
According to Hoosiers coach Tom Crean, though, the most underrated aspect that Syracuse brings to the table is their physicality, especially at the offensive end.
“The thing they do on offense that they get in my mind very little credit for is how well they screen,” explained Crean. “There is an area where Northwestern’s guards and forwards are as good a screeners as there are in our league, I think, but there is really nobody that we have played, nobody that these kids have played that you can look at and say, yeah, we went through forty minutes of this, there is not.”
Where I think the Orange (should be) outnumbered is on the interior on both ends. They’re long and athletic, but when Zeller’s not posting up, he’ll be moving around the paint and can play-make for teammates with the pass as the defense collapses, shoot a chip-shot jumper (confidence will be key) or attack the rim. Zeller and Watford are both excellent candidates to play in the high post against the 2-3. When Watford is at the foul line, he should be looking to throw duck-in passes to Zeller on the interior.
The Orangemen also don’t have a true post presence on offense, which will hurt them as well.
Prediction: Indiana wins the transition battle, and the game, 82-76.