Why Virginia Advances
Tony Bennett’s 2015-2016 rendition of the Virginia Cavaliers looks very familiar to years past. Lead by an stifling defense that has allowed opponents just 59.7 points per game, as well as an efficient offense, that ranked 12th nationally in terms of field goal percentage, not to mention, they only turned the ball over less than ten times per game, the Cavs truly do all the little things on the hardwood. Malcom Brogdon has emerged as a player who can get a bucket in a pinch, and although they’re not chalked full of household names, if Virginia can prevent you from scoring, and not turn the ball over, then they can continue to win.
Why Virginia Goes Down
The Cavs were fortunate enough to recieve a one seed, but unfortunate enough to be placed in the same region with Michigan State. The Spartans, along with UNC and Kansas are the three favorites to cut down the nets in Houston. Virginia has beat a lot of really good teams this season, but when you rely so heavily on defense, when your own offense isn’t firing, you can become vulnerable. The Cavs only mustered 63.1 points per game in their 7 losses. In the NCAA tournament, when a team shooting lights out can mean the end of your season, being a team that can struggle to score, can put you on the wrong end of an upset pretty darn quick. With plenty of shooting waiting in the wings in the Mid-West bracket, the Cavs don’t have the luxury of an off night scoring the ball. Michigan State not only has arguably the best player in the country in Denzel Valentine, but the best coach and also the best shooter not named Buddy Hield, in Bryn Forbes.
Sweet 16 Sleeper
After looking like a team on life support in January, the Zags not only bounced back, but look like a team poised to do some damage in the Midwest bracket. The Pirates of Seton Hall are not a team to be overlooked, but Gonzaga’s size makes them an intriguing team in this first weekend. 6’11’’ Domantas Sabonis is a first round talent who hauls in rebounds at a fervent pace, and 6’9’’ Kyle Wiltjer may not be a bruiser, but he’s a prototypical college stretch 4, capable of both going inside and creating space for the Bulldogs. While their guard play may not be at the level it has been in years past, the fact Gonzaga can throw two quality bigs at the Pirates’ 6’6’’ Desi Rodriguez, and 6’9’’ Angel Delgado, plus have a quality defender for a potential matchup against Utah’s Jakob Poeltl give them a shot as being a Sweet 16 sleeper.
Final 4 Sleeper
Speaking of size, I don’t know that there is a bigger team in the NCAA than Purdue, this season. Lead by 7 footer A.J. Hammons, the Boilermakers are not only stacked, but they’re also quite familiar with fellow Big Ten team, Michigan State, who just so happens to have landed a slot in the Midwest bracket. While I still feel like the Spartans are the favorite to emerge from the Midwest, Purdue has not only beaten them, but they just played them last weekend, and are quite familiar with the Spartans. There’s no such thing as an easy road to the Final 4, but if the Boilermakers can fight their way to the Elite 8, they may be more poised than anyone in the Midwest to take out the top seeded Spartans, who could emerge from the bottom half of the bracket.
Top 1st Round Matchup
Seton Hall vs Gonzaga
Two conference tournament champions, who are clicking at the right time of the season should be a nice contrast of size and guard play. The Pirates, led by Isaiah Whitehead just recently knocked off two top 5 teams (Xavier, and Villanova) in route to their title, while Gonzaga plowed through the WCC tournament erasing any doubt that they were the team to beat all along. Two teams that are both feeling it can make up for an exciting game, Whitehead can be electrifying at times, and Gonzaga boats a 1st round NBA talent in Sabonis. While this 6 vs 11 matchup may not be a key marquee matchup, it should prove to be an exciting show.
Top Potential Player Showdown
In the year of the senior, why not pick two prolific seniors potentially playing with a Final 4 birth on the line? Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon has saved his best season for last, averaging 18.7 points per game, as well with stellar shooting numbers, and a physical brand of defense. Michigan State’s Mr. Triple Double, Denzel Valentine is one of top 5 players in the nation, and the type of stat stuffer that doesn’t come around all that often. If the top two seeds can both advance to an Elite 8 showdown, we’d have Brogdon’s physical defense being matched up against Valentine’s versatility, and for a ticket to the Final 4 being punched for the winner.
Top Under the Radar matchup
Iowa State vs Iona
Iowa State legend Georges Niang does not want to end his career in Ames with another first round exit, but the Cyclones sure drew a tough matchup in the Gaels of Iona. A run and gun team with the capability of getting hot from downtown, the Gaels are not only a similar styled team to Iowa State, but to Iowa State’s Niang, they also have a senior in A.J. English that can be relied upon as a go to scorer. I wouldn’t expect a lot of defense in this battle, but in terms of first round matchups in the Midwest, Iowa State vs. Iona seems like a real fun one!
Side Note: Both teams combined for 585 made three pointers this season.
Top 5 NBA Prospects
1. Jakob Poeltl – Utah
A true 7 footer, with great footwork, and a powerful frame, Jakob Poeltl has made a real impact for the Utes this season. Poeltl has appeal as a two way big man at the next level, capable of holding his ground, despite not being an elite shot blocker, but also using his touch are the rim, and expanding mid-range game on offense. He increased his FT% from .444% as a freshman to .689% as a sophomore in exactly double the overall attempts.
2. Deyonta Davis – Michigan State
An extremely long athlete capable of a major defensive impact, Deyonta Davis blocked 1.9 shots per game in only 18.8 minutes for the freshman. He’s quick on his feet, fast, and can really get off the ground for a guy pushing 7 feet. His offensive ability is still raw, but he’s a strong finisher, and has shown decent touch at the foul line. Davis is a bit of a project for sure, but his length, shot blocking, and rebounding are all directly translatable to the NBA.
3. Domantas Sabonis – Gonzaga
After a solid freshman year, 6’11’’ Domantas Sabonis has taken his game to the next level in terms of production. While not particularly long armed, Sabonis is very mobile, and uses his physicality to rebound at an elite rate (11.6 rpg). He also has soft hands, and a nice touch around the hoop. With one of the most skilled big men in NBA history as his father, paired with his first to second year improvement, I think it’s also safe to say Sabonis is very much a work in progress with significant upside.
4. Denzel Valentine – Michigan State
Denzel Valentine has always showcased his versatility since stepping on the court at Michigan State, as a freshman, but now, in his senior campaign, he’s putting up elite numbers as the most well balanced offensive guard in the nation. Averaging 19.4 points per game, he’s shown comfort as the Spartans #1 scorer, and has developed into quite a one on one player, especially shooting off the dribble. More impressively is his 7.6 assists per game to go with only 2.6 turnovers per contest. Valentine is a solid athlete, and leaves a little to be desired in terms of positional size, but there’s no doubting his heart nor his ability to positively affect many parts of the game when he’s on the court.
5. AJ Hammons – Purdue
Enjoying his best year as a senior, A.J. Hammons is putting up career numbers in points, rebounds, and field goal percentage. At 7’ feet tall, and blessed with great mobility and a long wingspan, people have wondered for years why he hasn’t dominated the NCAA level. Still, he’s an athlete, a high level shot blocker, and a player who has shown improvement on his range and shooting touch. While a risk to take too early, Hammons could potentially be a steal if he puts it all together as a pro.