Thursday, March 26, 2015

2015 March Madness (West and Midwest Regions) - Sweet 16 and Elite 8

Midwest Regional Semi-Final in Cleveland, OH

#7 Wichita State (30-4) vs. #3 Notre Dame (31-5)

The Shockers versus the Catholics will be a good old fashioned defense versus offense battle. Wichita State ranked 9th in the nation in points allowed per game, while the Irish ranked 12th in points scored, averaging almost 80 per game. The Shockers slipped past Indiana, and then had one of the most satisfying wins in program history when they crushed Kansas in the Third Round. Guard Ron Baker led the Shockers in scoring during the regular season, but it was fellow guard Fred Van Vleet that carried the load last weekend. Fellow guard Tekele Cotton had an unexpected impact in the game against Kansas, scoring 19 points against the Jayhawks. The Shockers leading rebounder this season was F Darius Carter, who averaged just a little over 5 boards a game.

That lack of size could present problems for the Shockers tonight. Notre Dame ranks low in rebounds but that is partially because they shot the ball so well. G-F Pat Connaughton averaged 7.4 rebounds per game and F Zach Auguste averages almost 7 rebounds per game. The best player on the floor will be Irish guard Jerian Grant. Grant leads Notre Dame in scoring and assists, and has been held to single digit scoring just twice this season. The Irish were a bad team this year, mostly due to Grant's absence and their quick turnaround is evidence of how important he is to the team. The Irish got a huge lift from G Steve Vasturia in their overtime win over Butler, after he was non-existent in their close win over Northeastern. The Shockers will need to keep a close eye on G Demetrius Jackson, who shoots over 40% from three point range.

Ultimately, I expect Wichita State's defense to keep this game low scoring, but the Irish have been battle tested all season long and will be ready to win an ugly game. The Shockers will have a bit of a letdown after the Kansas game, and while I think they will be ready to play, I think energy wise they will be down from the fire we saw last Sunday. Grant will be prove to be the difference maker, making some key shots late to key the Irish win.

Prediction: Notre Dame 62, Wichita State 58

West Regional Semi-Final in Los Angeles, CA

#4 North Carolina (26-11) vs. #1 Wisconsin (33-3)

Wisconsin breezed past Coastal Carolina and then made a late charge to push past Oregon to reach the Sweet 16. National Player of the Year front-runner F Frank "The Tank" Kaminsky dominated Coastal, and while not as dominant against the Ducks, was a key force in the Badgers victory. It will be fun watching Kaminsky go up against the size that North Carolina will throw at him. Unfortunately for the Heels they might be missing one key player, as Kennedy Meeks is battling an ankle injury he suffered in the Third Round win over Arkansas last Saturday. Meeks presence is vital to Carolina's hopes of springing the upset, even if he just serves the role of another body that can get physical and afford to foul Kaminsky.

Kaminsky receives all the attention but F Sam Dekker is another key cog in the Badgers machine. The Heels will need to try to force Dekker outside of the lane, as he shoots just 30% from three point land. When he is able to penetrate he is deadly, hitting over 50% of his shots. Sophomore F Nigel Hayes has really come on in recent weeks for Wisconsin, providing more scoring on the offensive end, and remaining a presence for opponents to deal with on the block. Another dangerous offensive player for Wisconsin is G Bronson Koenig, who shoots over 40% from three point range. Koenig has really stepped up his game since having to replace the injured Traevon Jackson. There is a slight chance that Jackson plays in this game, but even if he does, he will be so rusty that I wouldn't expect him to make much of a difference. This isn't old school Wisconsin, they have plenty of offensive talent and don't get by just on defense.

The Heels nearly blew a 16 point lead against Harvard before holding on to a victory and then beat Arkansas in a track meet in the Third Round. Marcus Paige was the difference in that game in the second half for Carolina, while freshman Justin Jackson continues to shoot better and better as the year has rolled on. Jackson is a much less refined version of Kaminsky, a taller player that can play like a guard and has the shot to back it up. Whether Meeks plays or not, Joel James should see heavy minutes off the bench, as I expect Roy Williams to try all sorts of defenders and tactics on Kaminsky. That means extra pressure on guards Paige, Nate Britt and Joel Berry to try to slow down Dekker and Koenig. Forwards Brice Johnson and J.P. Tokoto will be relied on heavily to guard Kaminsky.

Carolina is better offensively than Wisconsin, but the Badgers have the major edge defensively. If I am Carolina I let Kaminsky get his and focus on controlling Dekker, Hayes and Koenig as much as possible. Unfortunately, I don't think the Heels have the defensive chops necessary to pull off the upset. They also are way too turnover prone, which comes with their fast break style. Against lesser teams Carolina can overcome those turnovers but the Badgers are too good.

Prediction: Wisconsin 68, North Carolina 62

Midwest Regional Semi-Final in Cleveland, OH

#5 West Virginia (25-9) vs. #1 Kentucky (36-0)

The Mountaineers took out Bobby Hurley and the Buffalo Bulls, and then dispatched the Maryland Terrapins with their press to reach the Sweet 16. For Kentucky, they continued steamrolling through the competition, blowing out Hampton, then letting Cincinnati hang around for a bit, before demolishing them. The Mountaineers will need a perfect game to pull off the upset tonight. The Mountaineers like to push the ball and against the Wildcats defense that has proven ineffective this season.

West Virginia's leading scorer this season is G Juwan Staten. Staten couldn't buy a bucket against the Terps and was picked up by the rest of the Mountaineer starters. F Devin Williams has really come on strong recently for West Virginia but he will face a whole new set of challenges playing against guys like Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns. The Mountaineers are a horrific three point shooting team, so they will be forced to have to overpower Kentucky inside to try to score.

Kentucky has amazing depth and it has often been said that their backups could be their own Top 25 team. Ten Wildcats players averaged double digits in minutes per game. The Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron, along with freshman guard Devin Booker are the facilitators on offense. Booker has been struggling as of late though, but when you have nine other guys that can pick up the slack, no one really notices.

Mountaineers guard Daxter Miles Jr. may be predicting a win but I doubt anyone else is. I think West Virginia can keep the game interesting for a bit with their defensive pressure, but Kentucky will do what they always do, eventually impose their will and run away with the game. The final score will make the game appear closer than it actually was.

Prediction: Kentucky 70, West Virginia 60

West Regional Semi-Final in Los Angeles, CA

#6 Xavier (23-13) vs. #2 Arizona (33-3)

The Musketeers crushed Mississippi, and then held off Cinderella Georgia State to punch their ticket to the Sweet 16 as the Big East's lone representative. Arizona remains dominant and along with Wisconsin and Duke, appear to be the best bets to potentially knock off Kentucky.

Arizona's demolition of Ohio State in the Third Round was even more impressive considering freshman sensation Stanley Johnson played miserably. He scored just 4 points on 1 of 12 shooting. I expect Johnson to play much better tonight, especially if dork nerd Matt Stainbrook guards him at times. Stainbrook would have the height advantage but Johnson would easily have the athleticism advantage. The Wildcats other big is Rondae Hollis-Jefferson as Sean Miller's team has just the right mix of size and athleticism. The Wildcats second leading score Brandon Ashley was also quiet against Ohio State, and the struggles of Johnson and Ashley gave G T.J. McConnell a chance to shine.

Dee Davis will be charged with trying to slow down McConnell for Xavier. Forward Trevon Bluiett was non existent in the first two rounds for Xavier but for them to have any chance in this game, he will have to have one of his better games of the season, something I don't see happening. G Miles Davis and F Jalen Reynolds round out the Musketeers starting five, solid players in their own right, but nowhere near the level of players Xavier has.

This matchup appears to be the most lopsided of the eight Sweet 16 games. The level of competition for Xavier from what they faced in the first two rounds, to what they will face tonight will be overwhelming. I expect Johnson and Ashley to bounce back after tough games and for the Wildcats to cruise to victory.

Prediction: Arizona 82, Xavier 66

Kentucky will continue their undefeated run on Saturday when they outlast Notre Dame in a high scoring game. Wisconsin and Arizona meet in a rematch of last year's Elite 8, and once again Wisconsin will squeak by the Wildcats to make their second straight Final Four, and set up a Final Four rematch with the Cats. 

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