Friday, March 27, 2015

2015 March Madness (South and East Regions) - Sweet 16 and Elite 8

South Regional Semi-Final in Houston, TX

#11 UCLA (22-13) vs. #2 Gonzaga (34-2)

After being told they didn't belong in the NCAA Tournament, UCLA knocked off SMU and UAB to reach the Sweet 16. They did it mostly on the back of coach Steve Alford's son, Bryce Alford. Alford has been lethal from three point range in the Tournament, shooting 12 for 16 in two games. They will need an almost equal performance from him tonight if they are to upset the Zags.

You always hear about the importance of guard play in the NCAA Tournament and that explains why UCLA is still playing. In addition to Alford, the Bruins have senior and leading scorer Norman Powell, as well as Isaac Hamilton. Down in the blocks are Kevon Looney and Tony Parker. Parker went ham on UAB scoring 28 points but against SMU he had just 3 points, and I would expect a performance similar to that since Parker will be dealing with Kyle Wiltjer. The Bruins are a balanced offensive team, with five players averaging double figures in scoring. The problem for UCLA is that they don't have much depth and most of their bench has trouble scoring.

The Bulldogs are led by the aforementioned Wiltjer and senior guard Kevin Pangos. Pangos shoots 45% from three point range, so we might see an impromptu three point contest between him and Alford. Gonzaga is an all around team, they lead the country in field goal percentage and rank 50th in points allowed per game. Down in the blocks with Wiltjer is Domantas Sabonis. If the name Sabonis sounds familiar it is because he is the son of former Portland Trail Blazer center Arvydas Sabonis.

Unless Alford hits about ten three pointers, I don't think UCLA can get the necessary stops on defense to upset Gonzaga. The Zags do a great job of getting the ball inside and getting easy looks, and even when forced to shoot from outside, they have a marksman in Pangos. Gonzaga also has much more depth than UCLA and that will be a huge factor as Gonzaga reaches their first Elite 8 under Mark Few.

Prediction: Gonzaga 74, UCLA 66

East Regional Semi-Final in Syracuse, NY

#8 North Carolina State (22-13) vs. #4 Louisville (26-8)

NC State had quite the adventurous first week in the NCAA Tournament. They overcame a 14-point halftime deficit to defeat LSU at the buzzer. Then they pulled off one of the biggest upsets to date in the NCAA Tournament when they knocked out fraudy #1 seed Villanova. Although to be fair, you wouldn't have been surprised by that upset if you had read my post last week. Now they face fellow ACC foe Louisivlle in a rematch from Valentine's Day, when NC State dominated the Cardinals on the road, winning 74-65, and it was a win that served as a turning point for the Wolfpack's season.

Guards Anthony Barber and Trevor Lacey had their way with the Cardinals in that game. Ralston Turner has been another consistent scorer for NC State this season, but he struggled in that game and has struggled thus far in the Tournament. The Wolfpack aren't really known for their defense but they have played solid defense so far in the Tournament and against Louisville in February held them to just 32% shooting. Louisville has had trouble scoring this season and is one of the worst shooting teams in the country. However, they have been successful this season thanks to their defense.

In their wins over California Irvine and Northern Iowa, the Cardinals gave up an average of 54 points. The biggest reason that Louisville lost to NC State earlier this season was their two leading scorers, G Terry Rozier and F Montrezl Harrell didn't show up on the offensive end. Chris Jones and Wayne Blackshear played well, but for Louisville to outscore the Wolfpack they need all of their offensive weapons to show up.

The East region opened up with both Villanova and Virginia going down the first weekend. The Wolfpack know they can beat Louisville and it wasn't just a fluke home win. I think NC State will end up dictating the pace, but the Cardinals scorers will be up to the challenge and enable Louisville to enact revenge for the February defeat.

Prediction: Louisville 75, North Carolina State 73

South Regional Semi-Final in Houston, TX

#5 Utah (26-8) vs. #1 Duke (31-4)

The Blue Devils cruised to the Sweet 16, blowing out Robert Morris and San Diego State. Jahlil Okafor was unstoppable, averaging 23.5 points in the two victories. The competition figures to be steeper tonight against the Utes of Utah. The Utes got past Stephen F. Austin and after a slow start cruised past Georgetown. They have one of the most exciting guards in the country in Delon Wright. Wright uncharacteristically struggled shooting in the Utes wins but still found other ways to contribute. He was all over the court grabbing rebounds, stealing the ball and dishing out assists.

The Utes might have an answer for Okafor in an outstanding freshman of their own, Jakob Poeltl. Poeltl averaged 15 points in the Utes victories and he was able to score 12 points in just 18 minutes of action against the Hoyas. Utah has a deep rotation of players and much more depth than the Blue Devils. Wright and Poeltl are the leaders but the Utes also receive contributions from Jordan Loveridge, Brandon Taylor and backup C Dallin Bachynski, another seven footer. Okafor may never have had to work as hard as he will have to work tonight going against the Utes bigs.

Wright will be matched up against the Blue Devils excellent backcourt of Quin Cook and Tyus Jones. Along with Okafor, Cook and Jones the Blue Devils start Matt Jones and Justise Winslow. Beyond that, not many other Blue Devils will see the floor. Even in the blowout win over the Aztecs, all five Duke starters logged over 30 minutes. The biggest challenge Duke figures to face in this game is the wave of players that Utah can throw at them.

Utah is a very tough matchup for Duke, with their size and depth. Tyus Jones will have his work cut out for him going against Wright. This is a true statement game for Okafor as he goes up against the Utes bigs. I think Okafor is the real deal and it is because of him that I am confident Duke can overcome this challenge and pull out a hard fought win.

Prediction: Duke 70, Utah 66

East Regional Semi-Final in Syracuse, NY

#7 Michigan State (25-11) vs. #3 Oklahoma (24-10)

The Spartans bandwagon is filling up quickly as Tom Izzo once again his team playing deep into March. If you listen to the media you are to never bet against Izzo in March, except you know when he coaches against Roy Williams or doesn't win a national title like he hasn't since 2000. The Spartans held off Georgia and then beat a Virginia team that couldn't hit the broadside of the barn in either field goal attempts or foul shots. The Sooners held off Albany and then won a pseudo road game against Dayton in Columbus, Ohio, overcoming a late deficit.

Oklahoma is better offensively than Virginia but their leading scorer Buddy Hield has been struggling. Hield is shooting just 10 of 29 in two Tournament games, but he was still able to make an impact in the Dayton game because he was able to get to the free throw line. To counteract the Spartans attack Hield is going to have to hit his shot at more consistent rate. If he misses, he at least knows that Ryan Spangler will be there to clean up his messes. Spangler averaged 8 boards a game this season and 23 rebounds in two games last week. TaShawn Thomas is the other Sooners big, and those two will have a distinct advantage going up against the Spartans Branden Dawson. Sooners guard Isaiah Cousins has been quiet thus far in the Tournament and like Heild has been struggling shooting.

Guards Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine shoulder the load for the Spartans. In fact, despite being listed as a guard, Valentine is second on the Spartans, averaging 6.5 rebounds per game this season. The Spartans are right up there with Kentucky as far as depth goes, and their rotation can sometimes go 10 deep. That allows Michigan State to play ultra physical defense, as they don't have to really fear harsh consequences if a player fouls out. F Matt Costello and G Bryn Forbes tend to log heavy minutes coming off the bench.

With so many people picking the Spartans, it makes me feel like going in a different direction. I really liked the resolve Oklahoma showed winning against Dayton in the midst of a partisan crowd. They won't be rocked by the Spartans physical style and I expect them to shoot much better than the Cavaliers did. I know that Hield and Cousins have been struggling but I expect a breakout game from at least one of them in this contest.

Prediction: Oklahoma 69, Michigan State 65

Gonzaga's dreams of finally reaching a Final Four will be dashed by the Blue Devils, as Okafor will outplay Wiltjer. The Sooners will reach the Final Four for the first time since 2002 by defeating Louisville in a close game, putting Sooners coach Lon Kruger back in the Final Four for the first time since 1994.

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