Sweet Sixteen Preview: South
No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 4 Michigan
When/where: 7:37 p.m. Friday; Arlington Texas (Cowboys Stadium)
It’s Kansas’ experience against youthful and energetic Michigan. It’s Big 12 vs. Big Ten. It’s lots of turnovers vs. not very many. But above all else, it’s the Sweet 16 – two wins stand in the way of college basketball glory.
The Jayhawks continue to be an enigma, but one thing is clear: they remain a deep team capable of beating anyone. By eliminating No. 8 seed North Carolina on Sunday, Kansas became the first program in Division I history to win at least 31 games in four straight seasons. And they did it without a field goal from leading scorer Ben McLemore, who will be a top-five pick in June’s NBA Draft when — not if — he declares after his freshman season. Coach Bill Self benched McLemore for the majority of the second half against North Carolina after he continued to struggle to find a rhythm. He finished 0-for-9 from the field, scoring two points on free throws. Six of those misses came from beyond the arc, where he now is 0-for-8 for the tourney. In fact, Kansas as a whole has an outside shooting problem. It went 0-for-8 outside the paint in the first half against North Carolina. Travis Relaford hit the Jayhawks’ first 3-pointer of the tournament several minutes into the second half, after an 0-for-13 start to the NCAAs. Kansas was 0-for-6 in its opening round 64-57 win against Western Kentucky, the first time in 201 games the program hadn’t made one. Michigan isn’t a great defensive team on the perimeter, though, (opponents shoot 32.4 percent, 100th worst in the nation). The Jayhawks will get good looks, and will have to forget about the trials in Kansas City.
Like Kansas teams often do, the Jayhawks persevered through the shooting struggles by getting strong play from the seasoned Relaford in the second round, a game Self said was the best of the senior’s career. Relaford scored 22 points on 9-of-13 shooting, mostly around the basket, and collected eight rebounds. Relaford’s shot 13-of-19 for the tournament after scoring 11 points in the opener and figures to be the bail-out option offensively if McLemore and Elijah Johnson continue to struggle. Johnson went 1-for-6 in both games.
Center Jeff Withey’s task is to corral of some of the confidence Michigan freshman Mitch McGary has accrued thus far in the tournament. The 6-10 McGary has improved immensely since the start of the season and is in a groove now that he’s taken over starting duties from senior Jordan Morgan. McGary has shown a knack for being in the right place at the right time, whether he swoops in after a teammate’s miss for an easy lay-in or cuts to the hoop at the most opportune time for a score. He’s also set bone-crushing picks and helped Michigan get out in transition by finding Trey Burke or Tim Hardaway Jr. upcourt. Withey, who will have a few inches on McGary, has continued to be a defensive monster inside, blocking a combined 12 shots thus far in the tournament. He also grabbed 16 rebounds against the Tar Heels and has scored over his 13.8 ppg average in each of the past four games. But another thing Withey provides is a roadblock for Burke if he gets past the first line of defense on the perimeter. Kansas’ guards can aggressively check Burke outside and if he’s able to penetrate into the lane, Withey will be waiting. Of course, the other challenge is not letting Burke find an open teammate for a dunk.
Another thing: Michigan does not turn the ball over. They just don’t. VCU’s “Havoc” defense forced Burke into a season-high seven turnovers, but Michigan as a team had a combined 12 — almost three more than their nation-leading 9.3 per game after giving it up nine times against South Dakota State. Hardaway is a safe bet with the ball if Burke isn’t bringing it up as well. Kansas, on the other hand, has turned the ball over 39 times in its two tournament games. Turn the ball over 19 times vs. Michigan? That could spell disaster for the Jayhawks and more than few Burke-to-Hardaway or Burke-to-Glenn Robinson III alley-oops on the break. Kansas has a total of six fastbreak points this tournament. Michigan? 22.
Bottom line: If Johnson and McLemore hit their shots early and often, it will make for a long day for the Wolverines, who have had their struggles on defense this season. But the Jayhawks can’t play like they have in their first two games and expect to see Sunday. Michigan seems to be the more in-tune and efficient team, getting contributions across the board. But they’ll need to find a way to space the floor and get out in transition. Prediction: Michigan 71, Kansas 66
No. 3 Florida vs. No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast
When/where: 9:57 p.m. Friday; Arlington, Texas (Cowboys Stadium)
Anyone see this tournament matchup coming before the season? Were the Eagles even in the discussion when it came to who might earn in-state postseason bragging rights? No. But what the first 15-seed to get to the Sweet 16 has done in this tournament can’t be dismissed. Florida Gulf Coast can earn a sweep of the Florida schools that earned trips to the tournament this season with a win. No wonder the Eagles downed Miami in November. During the past few days, I’ve seen them referred to as the “Harlem Globetrotters” because of the show they put on in Philadelphia in the first two rounds. Who knew Florida Gulf Coast had those types of athletes? All I know is, somebody better guard Chase Fieler, Eric McKnight and Eddie Murray on the break, or point guard Brett Comer (6.6 apg, 14th nationally; 10 vs. Georgetown, 14 vs. San Diego State) will throw a perfectly-placed pass for a jam over an opponent. And watch out for Sherwood Brown on the break and from mid-range (24 points vs. Georgetown, 17 points vs. San Diego State).
The Gators, meanwhile, have just gone about their usual business in the tournament. They’re in the Sweet 16 for the third straight year under coach Billy Donovan. And this season, they’re one of the most dangerous teams on both sides of the ball, statistically speaking. The only team left that ranks in the top five of Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency rankings on both offense and defense, Florida has taken some heat for being 0-6 in games decided by less than 10 points. But that also means they’ve won their 28 games by more than 10 points, and just one loss (80-69, Feb. 5 at Arkansas) has been in double digits. It looked like Minnesota might give them their first win in single digits after Andre Hollins got hot Sunday, but solid free-throw shooting (26-of-36, 72.2 percent) helped the Gators pull away and win 78-64.
The Gators drilled Northwestern State, the nation’s highest-scoring team, 79-49 in their first game — holding the Demons to 34 points below their season average. Fifth-year senior Mike Rosario, a Rutgers transfer, didn’t have much of an impact in that one (eight points in just 15 minutes), getting called out by Donovan afterward because of his lack of energy and execution. But Rosario responded with 25 points against the Gophers. Patric Young, ranked No. 45 on our top 100 prospects, struggled against savvy veteran Trevor Mbakwe in the post Sunday, scoring just five points, all at the free-throw line. He had 16 points and nine rebounds against Northwestern State.
Erik Murphy, a 6-10 senior, might be the key to ending the Eagles’ improbable run, though. He’s averaging 16.5 points on 4-for-7 shooting from 3-point range in the tournament and can stretch Florida Gulf Coast’s defense a bit. The Gators will be the Eagles’ toughest perimeter test on defense thus far. Georgetown and San Diego State didn’t rank in the top 100 for 3-point percentage, while Florida is 23rd at 38.2 percent. Though Gulf Coast ranks 47th in the nation by allowing just 31.0 percent from long range. The Gators’ defense likely will be able to contain the Eagles on their run-and-gun fastbreak, too. Florida has given up just 11 fastbreak points in their pair of games, while Gulf Coast has a combined 29 points on the break. The Eagles also aren’t a great 3-point shooting team, although they’ve hit 13-of-33 in the tourney (39.4 percent, more than 5 percent above their average that ranks 155th in the nation). But Florida allows opponents to make just 30.2 percent from beyond the arc, good for 27th in the country.
Bottom line: Florida is 20-0 when scoring at least 70 points this season, and one would think they’d get there against Florida Gulf Coast. Unless the Gators backcourt of Rosario, Scottie Wilbekin and Kenny Boyton are unable to be mentally strong enough to handle Gulf Coast’s patented runs, Florida should make it to the Elite Eight by still not winning a game by less than 10 points. Prediction: Florida 78, Florida Gulf Coast 63.
Final Four prediction
The Gators sneak by the Wolverines in a classic, finally getting the close-game monkey off their back. A breadth of tournament experience helps Florida handle Michigan’s athleticism and McGary comes back to earth while the Gators finally hit some clutch shots.