#1 North Carolina vs. #5 Indiana
One clash of the college basketball titans has led to another as Indiana took down the Kentucky Wildcats leading to a big matchup with the #2 overall tourney seed, the North Carolina Tarheels. North Carolina, in theory, had the easier road to the second weekend, but they struggled through a pair of first halves against Providence and #16 seed Florida Gulf Coast. The Hoosiers, on the other hand, ran a very good mid-major team in Chattanooga off the floor in round one and then matching Kentucky blow for blow before pulling away in the final minutes of their second round matchup. Indiana has arguably looked like the best team in this region so far.
There are several great player matchups to focus on as these two teams meet. A pair of the nation’s top senior point guards will try to end each other’s stand out college careers. For North Carolina, you have Marcus Paige, the one-time second team All-American who has since taken a bit of a backseat to some of his talented teammates in the frontcourt. But he remains as the heart and soul of this team and likely the guy who will command the last shot when the game is on the line. On the other hand, you have Yogi Ferrell who continues to step up and carry his team throughout this season with his dynamic offensive production. It’s hard to see either guy finishing their career without a deep tournament run in their last go-round, but the road ends here for one of these phenomenal point guards. At the power forward position, you have a pair of big-time athletes in Brice Johnson for North Carolina, who finished Top 8 in the ACC in points and rebounds while averaging a double-double, and Troy Williams for Indiana, the talented, but turnover-prone main complement to Ferrell. He’ll have a tall task ahead of him in trying to keep UNC’s leading scorer in check. Finally, inside, you have hulking UNC center Kennedy Meeks, a junior, taking on the rapidly-developing Indiana freshman Thomas Bryant, who is shooting 69% on the year, but could have trouble on the defensive end with Meeks’ strength and girth.
Keys to the Game:
Perhaps the most vital statistic that could be a determining factor in this one is UNC’s performance in defending the three-point arc against the Hoosiers’ barrage. Indiana ranks 5th in the nation in three-point percentage, whereas UNC is below-average at preventing the 3. On the other side of the ball, UNC relies very heavily on taking the ball to the rim, so if they struggle to limit guys like Ferrell and Nick Zeisloft and Robert Johnson from lighting them up from 3, that’ll put the pressure on them to be very efficient inside to keep pace with the Hoosiers. But the Tar Heels are the #1 seed for a reason, and they have an offense that ranks Top 5 in the nation in efficiency, in addition to a fairly distinct size advantage over the Hoosiers (their front line includes 6’10” Meeks, 6’10” Johnson, and 6’8” Justin Jackson), so they’ll want to come out and rely on their length and athleticism and physicality to overpower Indiana and run them off the court with their fast-paced offense. Both teams are great offensive rebounding teams but not so great defensive rebounding teams, so the team that can control the defensive glass will have a big advantage. Overall, it would be folly to think that the Hoosiers have no chance in this one. If they can come out, hit 3’s, and let Yogi Ferrell go to work on the UNC defense, then they can certainly keep up in this one, but UNC is a deep and talented team that, when it plays like it has in the second half in this tournament, is nearly unbeatable. This has the potential to be one of the best and most high-profile games in the Sweet Sixteen.
#6 Notre Dame vs. #7 Wisconsin
Not many saw this Sweet Sixteen matchup occurring, as Xavier and West Virginia were the prohibitive favorites to come out of their respective pods in the first weekend. But Wisconsin and Notre Dame are hardly Cinderella’s. Notre Dame has had it relatively easy so far, taking down Michigan, fresh off their First Four game, then getting to face a #14 seed in Stephen F. Austin, who they beat by the slimmest of margins thanks to a put-back by Rex Pflueger with a second left to play. Wisconsin, on the other hand, after putting away a pesky Pittsburgh squad, refused to go away against #2 seed Xavier before finally retaking the lead on a miracle step-back in the corner from 3 by Bronson Koenig. On a similar note, Notre Dame lost 4 of their final 7 prior to the tournament while the Badgers have won 13 of their last 16 games. But Notre Dame may have two of the best players on the court in this matchup in Demetrius Jackson, a point guard with pro potential, and Zach Auguste, one of the best big men in the ACC. Wisconsin is led by their unquestioned star forward, Nigel Hayes, but he’s struggled in this tournament, shooting a total of 5-27 (19%), including 0-11 from 3. But the emerging redshirt freshman big man Ethan Happ has shouldered the load with 33 total points in the opening weekend, and of course, Koenig stepped up against Xavier, as his gutsy 3 was just part of a 20-point effort. These teams are actually the two lowest remaining teams in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, so they’re both looking to shock some folks with a run to the Final Four. Whoever emerges from this contest will be the underdog in the Elite Eight. These are two teams that play at a snail’s pace, so expect a lot of half-court offense and not a lot of points.
Keys to the Game:
Every possession will be vital in this one because there won’t be a lot of them. Both teams rank in the bottom 30 nationally in the pace that they play at. When Notre Dame has the ball, it’ll be strength against strength, the efficient offense of the Irish vs. the stifling defense of the Badgers. The main weakness for the Badgers’ D, however, is the three-pointer, which is something the Irish are pretty good at. If Jackson and Steve Vasturia get left open, they can light up Wisconsin. On the other end of the floor, Wisconsin has been winning games despite relative inefficiency from Hayes and Koenig. Each of the Badgers’ two leading scorers shoot under 40% on the year, so if they find their stroke, this can be a dangerous team. Neither team is very reliant on their bench, so we’re going see 40 minutes of generally the same ten guys duking it out in an old-school slugfest. While the other matchup may be aesthetically pleasing, this one will be a highlight reel of fundamentals, and two solid, underrated coaches in Greg Gard and Mike Brey, will make for one of the most important matchups of all.
Prediction: North Carolina beats Notre Dame in the Elite Eight.