By Adi Joseph
Wed, 03/24/2010 - 11:42pm
Was St. Mary's win against Villanova shocking to anyone? The Gaels have played tremendous basketball lately, the Wildcats were in the midst of their worst stretch of the season. While they slipped by Robert Morris in the first round, it was only a matter of time.
So Villanova ends its season with seven losses in its final 12 games. St. Mary's has won its last seven games, boasting an impressive 28-5 record. And the South Region moves on, with nothing changing in the least. Villanova wasn't going to make the Final Four. The Wildcats just weren't playing well enough. But there are four teams remaining, and one of them will.
Duke vs. Purdue
I cannot overstate how easy the road for Duke to the Final Four seems to be. My colleagues Josh Cochran and Joel Steiner described Mike Krzyzewski as a “Selection Committee Chairman,” and that almost does seem to be the case. After knocking off the play-in winner, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, in the first round, the Blue Devils had no problems with an underachieving California team in the second.
Kyle Singler is playing the best basketball of his career in the past month, coming after a season of questions about whether he could adjust to playing on the wing full-time. This is particularly important because, though the Blue Devils have enough depth and talent to beat No. 8 seeds without a great game from Singler, they rely on him against top competition. In the Blue Devils' last four losses, Singler has shot a combined 17 of 57 (29.8 percent) from the field.
A lot was made entering the tournament about Duke's struggles on the road. Generally, road games are a fairly good indicator of a team's ability to play at neutral sites. But the Blue Devils are a unique case because they get opposing fans' best shots. Duke is unbeaten at neutral sites this year.
The fourth-seeded Boilermakers are a feel-good story in a way, the Goliath that lost its best player and was reduced to being picked as a first-round upset by many, myself and President Barack Obama included. Purdue has hung on and topped Siena and Texas A&M with Robbie Hummel on the bench. And Purdue must have some level of luck going for it as Alex Hermann, the autistic teen with the perfect bracket, picked Purdue to win it all..
Make no mistake, this is still a very good team. Chris Kramer has played above his head in his final college games, and JaJuan Johnson may finally be finding his groove. But Hummel's injury hurts because the Boilermakers were so thin up front anyway. Now, they're starting four guards and their rotation features a total of two true frontcourt players, Johnson and seldom-used reserve Patrick Bade.
Duke has the size to take advantage of that deficiency without problem. If it hasn't been mentioned enough, this is the tallest Duke team in recent memory. Brian Zoubek, a 7-foot senior center, has made his presence felt since being named a starter mid-season, and his offensive rebounding is a key for a team that tends to take a lot of jump shots.
I don't think Purdue will have any answer for the Duke frontcourt. If Johnson gets in foul trouble, Matt Painter can't even pretend to have an answer for Duke's size. Even if Johnson stays clear, he won't be enough to counter the Duke attack. Purdue can win, but the odds are stacked against them. Then again, that was the story last weekend, too.
Top Player Matchup
Nolan Smith vs. E'Twaun Moore
If Purdue wants to have any shot, the Boilermakers must win this matchup. Though Moore is generally consistent as a scorer, Purdue will need the combo guard to create more for his teammates in this game. He'll also need to control the time-bomb that is Smith, should the two matchup against each other. Often regarded as the third wheel in Duke's Big Three, Smith has provided an unstoppable spark plug who can play well off Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler. What makes the junior so dangerous is that he can score in so many ways. He's strong around the basket, though he's not quite a slasher. He's a great shooter, both off the catch and the dribble. And he's a very smart defender. It's likely Duke will use Smith to guard Moore or Chris Kramer, and either of those two guards has the ability to draw fouls and knock Smith out of the game. That may be the key if Purdue wins.
Baylor vs. St. Mary's
Omar Samhan has made some interesting statements regarding St. Mary's being described as unathletic. It was probably unfair against Villanova, a team featuring several starters who don't exactly explode. But Samhan better get used to that very fair comparison against Baylor.
The third-seeded Bears have a boatload of athletes. LaceDarius Dunn and Tweety Carter are very difficult to defend, as each can handle with the deftness of a point guard and shoot like an off-guard. And they can straight-up go right around you. The pair take on St. Mary's Mickey McConnell and Matthew Dellavedova in what should be a very entertaining guard matchup. The Gaels' duo is similarly balanced – both players are comfortable on- and off-ball.
The St. Mary's guards are better shooters, with McConnell perhaps being the best in the nation from deep, but the Baylor pair is pretty close. And Dunn and Carter are both significantly more experienced.
The opposite is true in the frontcourt, where Samhan and Ben Allen provide two 6-foot-11 seniors with big-time rebounding ability. Baylor will send out shotblocker Ekpe Udoh, a junior transfer; sophomores Quincy Acy and Anthony Jones; and lumbering senior Josh Lomers, who only plays 17 minutes per game. Udoh, Acy and Jones are springy athletes who have high motors, and St. Mary's may struggle if any of those three gets going.
But the most indicative aspect of this matchup that could determine the winner is assist-to-turnover margin. St. Mary's averages 16 assists and 11.6 turnovers per game. Baylor is at 14.1 and 13.9, a pair of numbers that make it difficult to imagine this team playing into April. The numbers stem largely from high turnover rates from the Bears' frontcourt, not its experienced guards.
Should Baylor maintain possession, it's tough to imagine the Bears losing this game. They're simply more athletic, whether Samhan wants to admit it or not.
Top Player Matchup:
Udoh hasn't topped two blocks in any game this month. Might not sound like such a big deal, but he was averaging more than four per game entering March. Still, Samhan is a giant post scorer who doesn't have a whole lot of lift on his big frame, and Udoh could capitalize with a flurry of blocks. At the same time, Udoh doesn't practice ball denial, instead daring opponents to shoot against him. And Samhan is experienced enough, strong enough and skilled enough that, even if a few shots are sent flying, he could abuse his skinny counterpart down low. On offense, Udoh is very streaky. He's got the quickness and ball-handling ability to face up on Samhan and pull him away from the basket, but he seems to run short on confidence a lot of times and falls back on putbacks and ugly post moves to get a good chunk of his points. This matchup could never end up happening, though, as Josh Lomers is a more natural fit against Samhan. Still, Lomers is perpetually in foul trouble, and I expect Scott Drew to lean heavily on his shotblocker against St. Mary's star.
Final Four Prediction
Before last weekend, Baylor's Scott Drew had only coached in one NCAA Tournament game, and lost. Mike Krzyzewski made his first Final Four before I was born, then made nine more in my lifetime. I'm a believer that great coaches have to start somewhere, but there's something to that statistic. Both Baylor and Duke have great, experienced starting backcourts. They both have deep frontcourts. Neither has a single player who has ever played an Elite Eight game. But this region was Duke's to win from the moment the teams were unveiled. Duke has a much bigger front line and Baylor has no one to match up with Kyle Singler. And it's been a while since Krzyzewski's last Final Four trip – the longest stretch since he made his first appearance. Duke has all the makings of a Final Four team, not the least important of which is a great draw.