#1 Kentucky vs. #5 West Virginia
The juggernaut that is the 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats face a dangerous West Virginia team that focuses in on frustrating their opponents’ backcourt on Thursday night in Cleveland. Kentucky barreled through Hampton, and then outlasted a gutsy and antagonistic effort by Cincinnatti. Freshman forward, Trey Lyles rose to the occasion and tallied a double double, in a very balanced offensive output by the Cats. West Virginia’s deep squad scrapped their way past Buffalo, and then took it to the higher seeded Terrapins of Maryland. West Virginia’s main post man, Devin Williams, has averaged 16.5 ppg and 9.5 rpg in his NCAA tournament debut, and given the Mountaineers a much needed boost down low that compliments their seemingly unending guard rotation.
John Calipari’s historic squad is lead by Karl-Anthony Towns, who’s sheer size, and emerging skill set absolutely dominated a pint sized Hampton team, and still managed to drop 8 points and 7 rebounds against the Bearcats, while Octavius Ellis was doing his best Dennis Rodman impression. Willie Cauley-Stein has been a steady defensive presence throughout the tournament’s early stages. WCS has yet to have a breakout game, but his defensive is stellar, and impacts the game even when he’s not scoring in double digits. Devin Booker has been in a bit of a long range slump, but Tyler Ulis, and Trey Lyles have stepped up to contribute in the scoring column. The Harrison twins have been playing their games, unspectacular, but steady, and always ready to contribute a big shot towards the end of a contest. The enormous Wildcats have a plethora of bigs to throw at an undersized West Virginia team, and will challenge them in the half court like no team has this season, but Bob Huggins’ press could provide a source of frustration to the Wildcat guards. Tyler Ulis’ play will be very key in this matchup.
Coming out of one of the deepest conferences in the country, the West Virginia Mountaineers and their stifling press have made a name frustrating opponents, and forcing turnovers at a sky high rate. In just two games, WVU has forced 40 turnovers, and the three guard lineup of Juwan Staten, Gary Browne, and Daxter Miles Jr are an absolute terror for any player handling the ball beyond they three point line. Staten is a two time All-Big 12 performer, and the sole player on this roster capable of creating one on one offense in the half court. He’s averaging just 11.5 ppg in the tournament, but for his squad to stand a chance against Kentucky, Staten is going to have to go for twenty plus Thursday night. Big man, Devin Williams, has been a revelation for Mountaineers, and just in time to face his biggest challenge of the season. Standing 6’9’’, and possessing the build of a defensive end, his presence on the glass, has been a major factor to his team’s post season success. The thing about West Virginia, is that they’re deep. They routinely play 10 to 12 players, and are possibly the most well conditioned team in the field. Scoring the half court will be a major challenge for WVU, but their press puts them in a position to frustrate anyone they play into a loss. Staten’s ability to have a big game, and Williams’ staying out of foul trouble will be the areas of the game that Huggins and company need to go their way in order to hang with the Wildcats.
The Wildcats are rolling, and they run into a very unique team. West Virginia’s conditioning, and ability to force errors are things that can win any game on the right night. Calipari’s huge front line is an area of Kentucky’s team that the Mountaineers will just have to try their best to deal with. They’ll fall short, but Devin Williams’ recent play is a nice sign going into the game. West Virginia will force mistakes, but will they be able to score enough in the half court to overtake the undefeated Wildcats?
#3 Notre Dame vs. #7 Wichita State
The second Sweet 16 matchup in the Midwest Region features 2012 Tournament underdog, and a team who hasn’t set foot in the second weekend of the tournament since 2003. Gregg Marshall’s Shockers ran through a lackadaisical Kansas team with a combination of terrific guard play, and lights out marksmanship from beyond the arc. The Shockers not only shot 10 for 20 on the game, but they turned the ball over less, and all five starters achieved a double digit scoring total. Notre Dame found a way to edge past a gritty Butler team in overtime Saturday night, and although this game was a far cry from their normal high efficiency selves, their ability to win a game, the ugly way was a nice sign from an Irish team that normally shoots 51% from the field.
Despite a humble seven seed, the Shockers boast bona fide tournament vets in Fred Van Vleet, Ron Baker, and Tekele Cotton. Wichita State’s stifling defense, and this array of guards that all boast assist to turnover ratios over two, and are capable both on the drive and spotting up are a truly dangerous three headed monster. Glue guy Evan Wessler, who averaged just 4.3 points on the season, caught fire versus the Jayhawks and proved himself a threat from downtown, and a prime candidate to dive on the hard wood in route to a loose ball. WSU’s front court is a little thin. Darius Carter is just 6’7’’, and despite being the Shockers’ leading rebounder, he only hauled in 5.3 per game. The Shockers lack a player over 6’8’’ in their regular rotation, but their guard play was enough to dismantle second seeded Kansas, who’s only advantage in the game came against the Shocker forwards. Going up against an average sized Notre Dame team their height deficit won’t be as major of a disadvantage, but they’ll absolutely have their hands full against an Irish team who rolled through Duke and North Carolina during the ACC tournament.
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish have battled past two close encounters to open their 2015 NCAA Tournament run. Normally a team that posts gaudy shooting numbers and scores nearly 80 points per game, Mike Brey’s team won two games in the 60’s, one when the Irish were red hot, and the other when baskets were much harder to come by. Jerian Grant is a dynamic lead guard, who despite a 16.5 ppg tournament average, has yet to really breakout this post season. He’s joined in the backcourt by sharp shooter, Demetrius Jackson, who’s already connected on eight long range bombs in just two tournament games. Pat Connaughton is almost a bigger, badder, Evan Wessler. At just 6’5’’, he hauls in over 7 rebounds per game, but also shoots nearly 43% from downtown. Standing 6’10’’ is Zach Auguste, who provided scoring (23 points) in the Northeastern victory, and glasswork (13 rebounds ) against the Bulldogs. The Shockers’ tough minded defense will most likely put a clamp on Notre Dame’s season shooting averages, but Mike Brey and company have found ways to win tough games despite the lack of a break through game by their star.
This is a classic battle between two contrasting teams. Wichita State allows just 56.7 points per game, but Notre Dame normally scores 78.8 points on 51% shooting. The Shockers have a lot of momentum after a sound victory over an in state opponent, but the Irish have found ways to win ugly games. Notre Dame is seemingly due for an 80 point outburst, but the Shockers will do their absolute best to keep it in the 60’s and see if the Irish can win another ugly one.
Final Four Prediction
Although the Mountaineers will dial up the pressure on Kentucky’s guards, the fact that they have a lone low post presence, in Devin Williams, will leave them at a severe disadvantage in the paint. I certainly think Bob Huggins’ squad can play a close game with Kentucky, but I don’t feel they have the fire power, or front line size to put an end to the Wildcats’ historic season. The Shockers are a tough squad, and one much better than the number seven next to their name suggests. They’re driven by tough defense, guard play, and shot lights out from downtown in their victory over Kansas. That being said, Notre Dame is one of the best three point shooting teams in the nation, and a long range battle will most likely favor the Fighting Irish. I feel Jerian Grant, and his super efficient teammates found a way to win an ugly game over Butler, and they’ll find a way to scrap past the gutsy Shockers as well. Kentucky moves on.