Sweet Sixteen Preview: East
#1 Virginia versus #4 Michigan State 9:55 EST
Three of the four #1 seeds struggled to separate in the round of 64, with Virginia being no exception. The Cavaliers trailed Coastal Carolina by double-digits in the first half before closing the gap to five at halftime. They took control in the second stanza behind 63% shooting and greater defensive intensity. No such struggles were had in the round of 32 against Memphis, building the lead to 27 points late in the second half. Tigers’ senior guard Joe Jackson was impressed: ''They've got to be the best defensive team I've ever played against in college. They never lose sight of the basketball, and they just help each other out on every possession. You will never get an easy layup on them.''
Virginia has executed flawless offense in their last 60 minutes of basketball. They shot 53% against Coastal, 56% against Memphis with a combined assist to turnover ratio of 29:17. However, Michigan State’s 40% FG defense will resemble the Chicago Bulls after exploiting the non-existent interior awareness of Josh Pastner and co. Shockingly, the Cavaliers didn’t grab a single offensive rebound in their opening two rounds. Not one. Michigan State will not be the elixir, as they sport a defensive rebounding percentage of 76% (9th in the NCAA). Needless to say, the pressure will be on to run hyper-efficient offensive sets.
Michigan State cruised in the round of 64 versus Delaware, led by a truly dominant effort from Adreian Payne. The senior scored a career-high 41 points in just 24 minutes, knocking down 10/15 field goals, 4/5 three-pointers and 17/17 free throws (record for FT’s without a miss). Payne didn’t miss an NCAA Tournament free throw in his career until the Harvard game. Speaking of Harvard… following a Laurent Rivard three-pointer with 7:13 remaining in the game, the Crimson led the Spartans 62-60. But an immediate 8-0 run by Travis Trice, Gary Harris and Payne ended the proceedings for all intents and purposes. The Crimson never got back within one possession.
As engaged and productive as Branden Dawson has been offensively, point guard Keith Appling continues to be a limited factor. Appling scored six points on 6 FG attempts in the two games, and he was hampered by foul trouble against Harvard. The Spartans need him to be a pick and roll weapon to proceed deep into this tournament. The agile forwards of Virginia will not allow MSU to milk easy buckets off the P&R.
The NBA athletes will mostly inhabit one side of the court. For the Cavs to prevail they will need to convert at the free throw line – Michigan State has fouled 47 times in two games. Additionally, Malcolm Brogdon will need to take a page out of Wesley Saunders’ playbook and ATTACK. The Spartans struggled to contain the power guard off the dribble, and Brogdon fits a similar profile.
#3 Iowa State versus #7 Connecticut 7:25 EST
The Cyclones Final Four aspirations took a huge blow with the loss of Georges Niang to a broken foot. A dynamic inside/outside threat with a freakishly high skill level at 245 pounds, Niang was the team’s second best playmaker. The burden to create now falls almost exclusively on the shoulders of DeAndre Kane. Iowa State carved up NC Central en route to shooting 64%, but they struggled to find quality looks inside the arc versus North Carolina – 12 of their 29 field goals came from distance. They did manage to outrebound a Brice Johnson-less UNC, an advantage they’ll also hold in the Sweet Sixteen.
In a game that promises to feature a myriad of jump shots, the Cyclones need proficiency from Monte Morris, Naz Long and Matt Thomas. Connecticut may not block shots with extreme frequency like they have in years past, but they are still long, athletic and active on the front line (11 steals vs. Villanova). Melvin Ejim will have a difficult chore going up against DeAndre Daniels. Lasan Kromah and Terrence Samuel are well-built guards who will be asked to prevent Kane from barreling into the paint at will.
For Uconn it all comes down to Shabazz Napier. It appears he’ll be a go for the remainder of the tournament, but how healthy is the knee? More than any team in the country, the Huskies rely on Napier’s late clock shot making. He put on a clinic in the second half against Nova, draining deep pull up three’s like they were bunny layups. With the Madison Square Garden energy in his corner, Napier is a strong candidate for a repeat effort. The Huskies need Daniels to utilize his athleticism and attack the rim. Iowa State has no rim detterent whatsoever. Versatile senior Niels Giffey makes the sneaky critical plays, whether it’s a silencing three, fighting for a big board or active hands defensively.
Which team will defend the three-ball? Iowa State allowed 250 three’s during the regular season at a clip of 34% -- Marcus Paige and Leslie McDonald hit four treys apiece in the round of 32. Connecticut allowed 217 three’s at a 33% conversion rate – Villanova jacked up 31 from deep, making 11. There were countless open looks they could not cash in on. Will Iowa State make those shots? Most likely, and they’ll get even cleaner openings because they run more efficient offensive sets.
Final Four Prediction
Unless Keith Appling figures things out in a hurry Michigan State will be in trouble. He’s the only MSU player – when healthy – who can break out of the offense and create a high percentage shot. Virginia has a ton of bodies to throw at Adreian Payne and their defensive concept won’t break down. Clear talent edge to the Spartans, but I’ll go with the unflappable team identity. On the bottom half, Napier’s health is the key factor. The Huskies without a 100% Napier cannot counteract the precision and organization of Iowa State, even without the presence of Niang. Ryan Boatright can step up, but it’s mostly isolation. Virginia would constitute a nightmare matchup for ISU because they can guard you everywhere. They boast a physically strong backcourt and wing players to frustrate Kane, and they defend the three-point line well (32%). The Cavaliers will march on to North Texas.