Sweet Sixteen Preview: West
#1 Arizona vs. #4 San Diego St.
Any doubts about Arizona’s status as the Team to Beat in this region after their single-digit victory over Weber St. in their opener were put to rest after they put a whupping on Gonzaga. San Diego St. took care of business against a pair of double-digit seeds, and thus a rematch in Anaheim was born. Way back on November 14th, when Brandon Ashley was still healthy for Arizona and [Player: Dwayne Polee Jr.] was not in the lineup for the Aztecs, Arizona beat San Diego St. on the road behind a game-high 23 points from Nick Johnson. After that game, Arizona won 18 straight and San Diego St. won 20 straight.
Both teams are more than capable on offense, but they hang their hats on their stout defenses. Arizona ranks first nationally in Ken Pomeroy’s Adjusted Defense rating, and San Diego St. ranks seventh. Arizona held its first two opponents to a combined 29 points below their season scoring averages while San Diego State held its first two opponents to a combined 40 points below their scoring averages. The main advantage Arizona has over San Diego St. is its balance. Along with all-American candidate Nick Johnson, the Wildcats have super-freshman, human-highlight-reel Aaron Gordon, a versatile power forward, the seven-foot skilled center, Kaleb Tarczewski, long, athletic forward [Player: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson], and savvy, ball-hawking point guard [Player: T.J. McConnell] bringing it all together. San Diego St. has talent, but the lion’s share of their offense comes from Xavier Thames who averages 17.4 PPG. Beyond Thames, their primary scorers are Winston Shepard (11.7 PPG) and Polee Jr. (8.4 PPG).
Thames has had a great tournament, with 53 points in the first two rounds, fifth among tournament players (the first three are all on Tennessee, who has played three games due to their play-in game). The key for Arizona will be limiting Xavier Thames with that stingy pack line defense of theirs. If he is shut down, there’s not much else San Diego St. can do. If Thames can score, the Aztecs need to play tight defense themselves, limit Arizona in transition, stick to Nick Johnson like glue, and hope Arizona has a poor night from the field and the free-throw stripe. Steve Fisher has the edge over Sean Miller is coaching experience and the Aztecs have senior leadership that Arizona lacks. The Wildcats are the favorites here, but San Diego State has only lost four games this year and won’t be phased by Arizona’s size and athleticism.
#2 Wisconsin vs. #6 Baylor
The Badgers are the favorites in this one but these two teams are thought to be on a much more even playing field than Arizona and San Diego St. On one hand, Wisconsin has had a pair of low starts to open the tournament, after being tied at 20 with American, then needing to erase a 12-point halftime deficit to beat Oregon; Baylor, however, manhandled Nebraska and then absolutely destroyed Creighton and Doug McDermott. Wisconsin got upset in their conference finals; Baylor made a run to the finals of the Big 12 as a 7 seed. But Bo Ryan hasn’t forgotten how to beat good teams and his Badgers will show up against Baylor like Creighton failed to do.
Wisconsin got to this point with an incredibly efficient offense. They’re fourth nationally in Ken Pomeroy’s offensive ratings and boast a big lineup that can stretch the floor and penetrate like few Bo Ryan teams can. Baylor uses its superior size to bully teams on the offensive glass and create second-chance opportunities. Cory Jefferson is a force down low and Brady Heslip is one of the purest outside shooters in college basketball. There will be some interesting matchups in this one, particularly in the frontcourt. Isaiah Austin for Baylor and Frank Kaminsky can both stretch the floor at the 5 position. The versatile Sam Dekker of Wisconsin will likely spend some time matched up against Jefferson, who is more of an inside player. Nigel Hayes, the freshman sixth man for Wisconsin, is a big-bodied forward who will also be an interesting matchup for Jefferson. And at the point guard position, Traevon Jackson of Wisconsin and Kenny Chery of Baylor are both cool-headed upperclassmen who can get to the rim and distribute.
Both teams play at a very slow pace and so this one should be a grind. We’ll see some physical, deliberate offense and lots of bodies falling to the floor. Wisconsin plays games like this in the Big Ten every week. Baylor relishes a physical contest. And though Baylor comes in as the hotter team, Wisconsin is a disciplined and efficient as anyone in the nation can could run away against a Baylor team known for inconsistency. This one is shaping up to be the more competitive of the two matchups.
Final Four Prediction:
San Diego St. has had a great year, but Arizona is just too talented at too many positions. They should be able to win this one comfortably and face the winner of Wisconsin and Baylor. The Bears are big and physical and are finally fulfilling their potential. I anticipate them pushing Wisconsin around inside. They’ll give up some outside shots and make some mistakes, but they will earn a chance to play Arizona in the Elite Eight. I predict Baylor takes control of the game to start and wins the battle on the boards, but the Wildcats will play more disciplined and their talent and cohesiveness will give them the win. Their defense will force Baylor into offensive struggles and stagnancy and Arizona will earn a chance to compete in Arlington.