Sweet 16 Preview: East Region
As we prepare for the second weekend of March Madness, one thing has become abundantly clear: There are a handful of top echelon teams --- and everybody else. For a lucid snapshot of the current college hoops landscape, look no further than the East Region. The two top dogs, Kentucky and West Virginia are still standing, but the rest of the bracket has been decimated.
Arising from the mayhem is an Ivy League school that had never won an NCAA Tournament game until this year and a Pac-10 program that struggled mightily early in the season, and was disregarded by many because of their conference affiliation.
Yes, Cornell and Washington are among your Sweet Sixteen. And yes, the East Region has some delectable matchups in store for us..
Washington vs West Virginia
The 11th-seeded Huskies are running like a well oiled machine at exactly the right time. They overcame a 60-45 second half deficit vs. Marquette in the first round, with Quincy Pondexter sealing the deal with a leaning banker with under 2 seconds remaining.
The Huskies shot 55% in the opening round, including 9 of 14 from the three point line. They assisted on 21 of their 30 baskets. In the second round, they ran No. 3 seed New Mexico right off the floor, shooting 49% and assisting on 21 of 32 buckets.
Very few teams can match the Huskies' speed from baseline to baseline. Their front line players, Matthew Bryan-Amaning, Justin Holiday and Pondexter, are especially nimble, routinely beating the opposition up the court for the easy deuce. They've executed quite efficiently in the half court as well in the opening two rounds.
Point guard Isaiah Thomas averaged 17 points, 7.5 assists, 3.5 made 3s and only 1.5 turnovers per game in the opening weekend. Pure shooter Elston Turner has given Washington strong minutes off the bench, knocking down 6 treys in two games. However, solving West Virginia's half court D will be a far more difficult assignment.
After falling behind 10-1 to start the game, second-seeded West Virginia turned up the heat in a 27-point thrashing of Morgan State. They held the Golden Bears to under 30% shooting from the field.
The real test came in the round of 32 against a tenacious Missouri team. The Mountaineers had serious trouble finding the hoop, going on a 12:47 stretch without a field goal. Despite their futility from the floor, they held the lead throughout, thanks in large part to the charity stripe. West Virginia converted on 25 of 33 free throws, while Missouri cashed in on just 12 of 20. DaSean Butler hit 12 of 13 from the stripe on his own and finished with 28 points. The Mountaineers controlled the pace for much of the game, limiting their turnover total to 10.
Junior point guard Joe Mazzulla did an excellent job orchestrating the offense, which will be important now that starter Daryl "Truck" Bryant is out for the remainder of the tournament with a broken foot. On the defensive side of the ball, the Mountaineers again suffocated their opponent, holding the Tigers to 33% shooting.
The winner of this game will be decided by the winner of the pace battle. West Virginia doesn't have the depth or the speed to handle Washington in a full-court game. In all likelihood, Washington won't have the patience or execution to handle West Virginia's length and changing defensive looks. The Mountaineers have imposed their will on many opponents this season, and will likely do it again here. However, if they don't, they could be heading back to Morgantown earlier than expected.
Pick: West Virginia
The two senior small forwards have hit their share of clutch shots lately. Butler has carried West Virginia's offense on his back for much of the year, putting up 18 boards, 3 assists, 35% threes and 78% free throws. The 'Maestro of Clutch' has hit four game winners this season, including two in the Big East Tournament. Butler does his damage from an assortment of areas: He can knock down the trey, has a smooth mid-range game, and can beat you in the post or on the glass. Pondexter has also been the consistent workhorse for Washington, averaging 20 points on 53% shooting, 83% from the FT line and 8 rebounds per game. He does the bulk of his work slashing to the basket and attacking in transition, but also utilizes his post game to good effect. While he doesn't attempt many 3-pointers, he has a useful midrange jumper. This should be an enthralling battle between two potential first-round draft picks.
Cornell vs. Kentucky
It's hard to imagine playing two more picture-perfect games than Cornell has to start this tournament. Their first test came against Temple, one of the top defensive teams in the nation. The Big Red made the Owls look like VMI, hitting 56% of their shots including nine 3-pointers. Every time the Owls crept close, Cornell had the immediate answer. They also outrebounded a rugged Temple team 24-19.
In the second round, they faced off with a perennial defensive stalwart in Wisconsin. As if their first round performance wasn't comprehensive enough, they absolutely toyed with the Badgers for 40 minutes. The Big Red piled up 87 points on a Wisconsin team that held opponents to 57 per game during the regular season. Point guard Louis Dale and small forward Ryan Wittman combined for 50 points on 20-32 shooting. As a team, they shot a mind boggling 61%, including 53% from three on eight makes. They again handled Wisconsin on the glass to the tune of 27-20. While Cornell was able to speed up the tempo in the first two rounds, running against Kentucky will be a recipe for defeat.
You figure a young, inexperienced Kentucky team might be a little tight in their first tournament appearance, right? Wrong. The Wildcats served notice immediately, putting a 100 spot on East Tennessee State in the 1/16 matchup.
Freshman lightning rod Eric Bledsoe scored 29 points and nailed eight 3-pointers. John Wall had his third double-digit assist game of the season, finishing with 11, and added 17 points to boot. In the second round, against a dangerous Wake Forest team with comparable size, Kentucky never let its foot off the pedal. The Wildcats laid a whooping on the Deacons, prevailing 90-60. They shot 60% from the field and held Wake Forest to 33 percent. They had 21 assists on 38 baskets and outboarded Wake 38-29. Their only unfavorable characteristic in this tournament has been free throw shooting. They shot 23-34 from the line against ETSU, and 7-17 against Wake Forest.
This is the ultimate David vs. Goliath scenario: The experienced Ivy Leaguers against the youthful future NBA lottery picks. If Cornell can continue to shoot lights out as they have, they can beat anyone in the country. They proved that earlier this season by almost knocking off Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse. However, the Big Red are going to have to manufacture that same success entirely in the half court. If they try to go up and down with Kentucky, they will get run off the court. They can't afford to be lulled into a false sense of security if the quick triggers are falling early. They need to keep the reins on Kentucky, and do their best to hang on the glass.
Top Player Matchup:
The story goes that Foote, the long senior center, was not even recruited out of high school. That he didn't even have a Division I offer. Cousins, meanwhile, could have basically thrown every Division I school in the country into a hat and picked his destination. Now, the pair will face off in the most important battle for Cornell to win. It's tough to handicap a matchup like this. Foote is longer and skilled. He's got broad shoulders that he hasn't completely filled out, with the body of an 18-year-old rather than a fifth-year senior. Cousins is all strength. He's got the skills to match Foote, but he's also far more powerful. While Foote is 7-foot, 240 pounds, Cousins looks to be 6-11, 270. If Foote's length and rounded-skill set can throw Cousins off his game early, it's not clear the freshman has the mettle to rebound late in a game. But if Cousins starts shoving around Foote from the get-go, it'll be a long day for the Big Red.
Final Four Prediction
We're guessing this comes down to West Virginia and Kentucky. One of the Mountaineers' greatest assets is rebounding. They're not blessed with the greatest height, but their length usually gives opponents fits. Unfortunately for them, Kentucky is a superior rebounding team, with superior size, athletic ability and strength. When the Mountaineers go through one of their patented dry spells, they won't be able to rely on second chance opportunities to bail themselves out. West Virginia lacks consistent scoring punch outside of DaSean Butler and Kevin Jones. Will West Virginia's deliberate pace and variety of defensive looks take Kentucky out of their element? It's possible, but they have too many weapons to hold down. The Wildcats significant talent edge will take its toll on West Virginia, and they will slowly but surely get out transition and run the Mounties to their demise.
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