Sweet 16 Preview: West Region
After watching the first 2 rounds of this year's NCAA Tournament, it's almost a surprise that Syracuse and Kansas State are still alive for the Sweet 16. Despite all the mighty underdogs and wild upsets, the Orange are living up to their top seed status after pouncing on Vermont and Gonzaga, while Kansas State has quietly demonstrated it could be a viable Final Four candidate. But before either school can start to think about that plane ride from Salt Lake City to Indianapolis, they'll each have to get by tough mid-majors who plan on carrying the upset theme into April.
Syracuse vs. Butler
Butler will enter Thursday night's game on a roll, winning its last 22 contests, the longest streak in the nation, including a two-point win over Murray State to land the Bulldogs in the Sweet 16. But none of those 22 wins came against a defense quite like Syracuse's vaunted 2-3 zone, or against an attack as potent as the Orange's passing-based system starring Wesley Johnson and Andy Rautins. Syracuse has come out firing in its first two games, most recently making Gonzaga look more like a few scattered orange cones than an actual road block. Johnson and Rautins combined for 55 points, scoring effortlessly against what was supposed to be a tough matchup for the Orange. Inside, outside, the Orange just seem to be clicking on all cylinders. After watching their near-flawless performance Sunday afternoon, it would be hard to imagine anyone making them sweat if they continue to shoot the ball that well. Still, the Bulldogs present a tough matchup for anyone these days, led by Gordon Hayward and Matt Howard. They play a mistake-free game, and even if their shots don't seem to be falling, Brad Stevens has his team focused on finding alternative ways to win. In their last game against Murray State, they were out-shot 43% to 36%, and were out-rebounded by a whopping 38-20 margin, yet they only turned the ball over 6 times and ended up outlasting Murray State by 2 points. Murray State, however, is not Syracuse, and Butler will need to knock down more open jump shots if it stands a chance at taking down the powerhouse of the Big East. I like Butler to make a run at some point during this game, but expect the Orange defense and multiple offensive weapons to prevail, with Kris Joseph and Rick Jackson playing larger roles seeing that center Arinze Onuaku might sit his third straight game.
Top Player Matchup:
Wesley Johnson vs. Gordon Hayward
This is an important game for Hayward, who is coming in off a 3-of-14 shooting performance against a Murray State defense that is nothing compared to what he might see Thursday night. If Butler wants a shot at beating the Orange, Hayward is going to have to keep up with Johnson and force him to take difficult shots while keeping him off the boards. If Hayward starts to get in a rhythm, he could cause some problems for the Orange, especially if Onuaku can't go. Johnson on the other hand, is coming off maybe the best performance of his career with 31 points and 11 rebounds, and it looks like his mid-season slump is behind him. He shot 4-of-6 from downtown against Gonzaga, and if he shoots lights out like that again, it could be lights out for Butler. Both of these players are long, athletic swingmen with great versatility. Hayward is more in the point-forward role while Johnson is the deadly trigger man. This is the type of matchup Hayward will see regularly if he heads to the NBA, as Johnson is projected as a sure-fire top-10 pick. Hayward is playing for his future, in some ways.
Xavier vs. Kansas State
Xavier is coming off a strong performance against Pittsburgh, after being carried on the weighted-down back of Jordan Crawford, who scored 27 and 28 points back-to-back to lead Xavier to its third straight Sweet 16 appearance. Xavier has consistently excelled in the tournament, regardless of coach, players or seed. Kansas State's lightning-quick guard duo of Denis Clemente and Jacob Pullen stands to be the best guard tandem in the tournament. Pullen put in 34 points against BYU, complimented by Clemente's 19 as the Wildcats controlled the tempo for the majority of the game, showing the critics that their #2 seeding is no fluke. Earlier this year, the Wildcats handled the Musketeers 71-56 in Manhattan, Kan., a game in which Xavier shot a woeful 29% from the field. I don't expect the Musketeers to shoot that poorly this time around, as they're playing at a different level now and their confidence is high. But when it comes down to it, Xavier just doesn't have enough scoring options to keep up with the Wildcats backcourt and thoroughbred defense that caused the Musketeers to go on a 6 minute scoring drought back in December. This one should be a lot more competitive, but I like this Kansas State team and coach Frank Martin to find a way to end Jordan Crawford's run and force others to hit big shots. I just don't think those "others" are good enough to get the job done.
Pick: Kansas State
Jacob Pullen vs. Jordan Crawford
Though they may not guard each other, Pullen and Crawford both share the same accountability, as their teams will go as far as the two leading scorers will take them. Crawford's ability to take over games has landed his team in the position they are in today. With the way he's scoring the ball, Jacob Pullen is going to have to put up similar numbers to his last performance, hitting 7-12 from downtown and 11-11 from the line. Other than Clemente, Kansas State's supporting cast struggled against a weaker BYU team. Pullen is going to have to continue his run as the best guard that nobody seems to talk about if the Wildcats want to continue riding this exciting wave deeper into the tournament. During this three-day break, both coaches will be trying to figure out how to force Crawford and Pullen to give the ball up. With these two on the court though, we could see some fast pace, end to end action that could bring us once again to the final few possessions. Should Crawford and Xavier "fear the beard" of Jacob Pullen? Possibly, even though the catch phrase was lifted from Golden State Warrior fans during Baron Davis' stint.
Final Four Prediction:
Shouldn't be much of a surprise, but I like the Orange to emerge and represent the West bracket in the Final Four. They have been one of the top-four teams in the country throughout the entire year, and there is no reason to think any team moving forward could prevent them from playing in Indianapolis. They have a great mix of different talents, all of which are needed in order to succeed in a tournament that requires 6 consecutive wins over 6 different types of teams. I don't think Butler has a single good enough playmaker to get in the paint and create open shots for teammates, and if Syracuse can get Onuaku back, their ability to score the ball inside and out will be too much for Xavier or Kansas State -- both teams that can be classified as one-dimensional. Regardless, if the Orange shoot the ball as they did against Gonzaga, nobody will stop them from cutting down the nets in Indy.