#11 Gonzaga vs. #10 Syracuse
The late game in the Midwest region is one between two double digit seeds that many thought would be on the outside looking in a month or so ago. Syracuse gained an at large bid and made the most of it, while Gonzaga won their conference tournament to cement a tourney birth.
The Bulldogs of Gonzaga have gone from an 11 seed to a powerhouse in the past week. Kyle Witljer and company handled 6 seeded Seton Hall, and the bulldozed 3 seeded Utah by 23 points, while holding projected lottery pick Jakob Poeltl to just 5 points on 5 shots. The Zags won two completely different games, the first sported low shooting numbers, and a whopping 20 turnovers, while the second Gonzaga was on fire and turned the ball over just 9 times. Each ended up in a double digit win. Lithuanian big man Domantas Sabonis has looked like the best big man in the tournament thus far and is sporting averages of 20 points, 13 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.5 blocks, and 1.5 steals per contest two games in to the Big Dance.
Jim Boeheim’s Orangemen have also looked impressive this past week. They dominated Dayton, and pulled off a 19 point win. Freshman, Malachi Richardson came up huge in the Dayton game scoring 21 points while senior Michael Gbinije struggled with his shot early. Two days late Gbinije hit his stride again, and dropped 23 on the Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee, while Richardson struggled from the floor. While Syracuse doesn’t sport the deepest team in the country, their fluidity and knack for having someone step up while another player struggled has been very impressive, as has their defense, which only gave up a total of 101 points in two games.
The battle of the double digit seeds should be a good one. Each team has been on a roll, partially fueled by a chip on their respective shoulders. Jim Boeheim is a Hall of Fame Coach, and Mark Few is a 400+ game winner and the architect of Gonzaga basketball as we know it today. This should be a good one.
Key to the Game
Domantas Sabonis may be just kicking off his coming out party this March. The 6’11’’ Lithuanian is a load for anyone wearing Orange on Friday night. He inhales rebounds, has great touch, and his ability to find open teammates could mean disaster for a zone team. The mid-range, and players who can pass out of the high post are often trouble for zones, and Sabonis is not only hot, but has the ability to shred Boeheim’s signature defense. On the other hand, Syracuse has been flat out hand cuffing offenses and their un-characteristic style may frustrate the Bulldog’s big man. If the Orangemen can hold tight and frustrate the young post, then the victory is theirs, but if Sabonis gets the hang of their style and utilizes his full skill set, then Gonzaga can advance.
#4 Iowa State vs. #1 Virginia
The first game from the Midwest region Saturday night is the top seeded Virginia Cavaliers versus the Iowa State Cyclones in Steve Prohm’s first year at the helm. This bout pits one of the most stifling defenses in college basketball against one of the top 3 point shooting schools in the country.
In true number one seed fashion, Virginia bowled through 16 seeded Hampton in their opening round matchup before being met with Butler’s gritty style of play in which they prevailed by 8 points. Still, Virginia has looked pretty impressive, but not nearly as scary as fellow top seeds like North Carolina and Kansas. Anthony Gill has been on fire this post-season, and has provided a nice second scoring option to Malcolm Brogdon.
Nothing comes easy in the NCAA tournament, but it’s safe to say Iowa State’s path to the Sweet 16 has been a little more matchup friendly than many had laid out a week ago. They prevailed without much drama against a tough Iona team, and then faced an Arkansas Little Rock team fresh off an upset victory against Purdue. Iowa State didn’t overlook the Trojans and handily dispatched ALR by 17 points. Georges Niang’s 28 point per game tournament average is what you’d expect for the most decorated Cyclone of the past 15 years, who has been doing all he can to push ISU further than they have yet to travel in his tenure in Ames.
The Cavs are more than formidable, but because of their tendency to struggle getting the ball in the hoop, a sharp shooting team with a bona-fide NCAA star, like Georges Niang, gives the Cyclones a fighting chance to knock down the top seed of the Midwest.
Key to the Game
If you haven’t guessed already, I feel Iowa State’s Niang is the key to this matchup. Virginia is extremely polished defensively, and if they can lock down, or even make life extremely difficult for Georges, then I think they prevail this weekend. However, a big shot player, who is masterful at both creating for himself, and for others can pose a real problem against a team that can sometime stay stagnant in the scoring column. If Niang has a modest game, I don’t think his supporting cast are strong enough offensively to vault ISU past Virginia. If Niang goes off, watch out!