#2 Kentucky vs. #3 UCLA
And here we have the prime matchup of the Sweet Sixteen. As many as five lottery picks for the upcoming draft will be on display. UCLA might be the only team in the nation that can out-“showtime” the Kentucky Wildcats. A program so reliant on one-and-done players finds itself in a battle with a team that boasts equal, if not more star power, primarily in the form of freshman, as well. Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf take on Malik Monk and De'Aaron Fox, or at least that’s a big part of the narrative. But that doesn’t even account for more unheralded veteran players like Bryce Alford and Isaiah Briscoe. KenPom.com puts Kentucky as the 59% favorites, but I don’t think any Kentucky supporter feels 59% confident about this one. This is most likely a tossup in every sense. You may remember UCLA upset #1-ranked Kentucky IN LEXINGTON a million years ago, earlier this season, but this Kentucky team seems to finally be maturing after coach John Calipari questioned their seriousness after their close win over LSU. With this game in Memphis, Kentucky supporters should be out in full force, but it’s still anybody’s game.
The #1 word that might define this game will be “fast”. These teams both play at a top 13 tempo nationally, and we saw them combine for 189 points in regulation earlier this year. Not only do both have aggressive point guards (Ball and Fox) but they also have athletes at positions 1-5 that can get up and down the floor. In the backcourt, we will see Ball and Alford taking on Fox and Monk. The backcourt is Kentucky’s strength on this roster, as Monk and Fox can both score in bunches and are both likely NBA lottery selections. But the Bruins’ backcourt might be even better. For starters, Lonzo Ball is a potential #1 NBA draft pick who assists and scores like crazy. He is 49th in the nation in assist rate, but he, a 6’6” guard, is also 4th in the entire country in 2-point percentage, as well as top 10 in effective field goal rating and true shooting percentage. He shoots 42% from deep and 73%(!) from inside the arc. He is the model of offensive efficiency at the point guard position and is the key in this Bruins offense being first in the nation in effective field goal percentage as well as 6th in efficiency. Then you have Bryce Alford, the coach’s son, and a stellar player in his own right. He’s quick enough to blow right past you off the dribble, but he’s also a deadly outside shooter at 43%. To counter Ball and Alford, Malik Monk is a great athlete and fantastic scorer, 5th this season in PPG among players in this tournament and 3rd among Sweet Sixteen teams. Fox is also a great scorer as well as a great passer, ranking 94th nationally in assist rate. His assist-to-turnover ratio isn’t stellar and his outside shot is average at best, but he’s an electrifying player who can push the tempo and finish at the rim. He averages 16 PPG but eclipsed that mark in 5 of his previous 6 games.
All this and I still have not mentioned the frontcourt players, many of whom are future NBA players themselves. Amidst all the buzz about Lonzo Ball, some of the buzz about fellow UCLA freshman TJ Leaf has been lost. He’s a fantastic scorer at the power forward position due to his phenomenal faceup game. He is just behind Ball at 22nd nationally in offensive rating, as well as top 20 in effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage. He will likely matchup with the lone senior starter for UK, Derek Willis, a smooth stretch 4 in his own right, but not quite the player Leaf is. At center, Bam Adebayo is an imposing presence down low who dominated the glass the first weekend with 28 rebounds in two games, and he himself is a potential NBA lottery pick. He is very effective around the rim and gets to the free throw line at the second-highest rate of any player in the entire country, where he shoots 65%. And all this analysis has barely even touched on several other key contributors on both rosters. Kentucky’s roster has a bit of an odd makeup where everyone in the rotation is either 6’4” or shorter or 6’9” or taller. Similarly, UCLA has no one between 6’7” and 6’9”. There are perimeter players and there are post players in this game, but even so, most everyone on the floor at any given time can do a lot on the basketball court. Sophomore Isaiah Briscoe is a 6’3” off guard that is hyper-athletic and does a little bit of everything as the Wildcats’ “veteran player”. UCLA boasts a similarly versatile wing in 6’5” senior Isaac Hamilton. These teams are very similarly, but what it may come down to is defense. UCLA is a great offensive team and a very underwhelming defensive team, especially for how athletic they are. Kentucky is great offensively and pretty great defensively too. We saw already this year, that this won’t necessarily be a huge issue for the Bruins, and obviously we can’t count them out in this one against a team they have already beat. And perhaps their biggest weakness defensively, defending the arc, is not something the Wildcats are great at exploiting.
What a remarkable mix of teams remains in the South Region’s semifinals. Chalk ruled in the first weekend, giving us the top 4 seeds here in the Sweet Sixteen, and with this group of four, I think most college basketball purists wouldn’t have it any other way. Three of basketball’s bluest of blue bloods are here, along with the program that is perhaps the ultimate Cinderella in recent tournament history but is now a contender in one of the nation’s premiere basketball conferences.
#1 North Carolina vs. #4 Butler
The ever-reliable KenPom.com gives North Carolina a 65% chance of winning this game, which I will start by saying sounds reasonable to me. North Carolina is the clear favorite here, there is no doubt about it. They have tremendous size and experience, and they dominate the boards and run a very efficient offense (6th in the nation). Butler’s most likely lineup for countering the size of North Carolina will probably feature Tyler Wideman, Andrew Chrabascz, and Kelan Martin in the front court, a lineup which will still be giving up 5 inches to North Carolina’s starting frontcourt of Justin Jackson, Kennedy Meeks, and Isaiah Hicks. Not to mention, they have 6’6” Theo Pinson at shooting guard, where they will likely give up another 3 or 4 inches. Butler really is a good defensive rebounding team (3rd in the Big East) but they will still have a tough time keeping UNC off the glass. The Tar Heels are the more athletic team, as well, and since they like to get up and down the court at a much faster tempo than Butler, that will be tough for the Dawgs to counter. North Carolina will likely get a lot of buckets in transition and inside, where the Bulldog’s post defense is susceptible. Even though UNC is a solid outside-shooting team, they will have little need to rely on the three-pointer in this one if they can play the game they want to play.
But what are Butler’s strengths? Is it really a total mismatch for Butler? Hardly. Butler got this far and had the good regular season it did by limiting turnovers and getting smart shots. They rank 10th in the nation in turnover percentage. They rank 29th nationally in effective field goal percentage. And they rank 23rd in the nation in 2-point percentage, which for a team with their lack of superior size, is remarkable. It’s an indicator that they run an efficient offense and find a lot of good looks at the rim by playing smart and unselfishly. Plus their guards, particularly Kelan Martin and Kemar Baldwin, are great at getting to the rim and creating their shot. This North Carolina backcourt, unlike in most years, is good but not great. Joel Berry has developed into a solid point guard with a great shooting stroke and a fair amount of slashing ability. But beyond him, while Pinson, Nate Britt, and Kenny Williams are good players, they aren’t quite on the level of Kelan Martin. But Kelan Martin may, in fact, be matching up at the 3 with the most talented Tar Heel of them all in Justin Jackson. A future NBA player and the leading scorer on this team, Jackson has stepped up this season in the absence of Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige and played at an All-American level. He’s a deadly shooter who also has the athleticism to get to the bucket, and I don’t see anyone on this Butler team being near his level. In addition to North Carolina potentially dominating the glass and in transition, I think Jackson is in for a big game tonight. Ultimately, I think the Tar Heels are too big, too fast, and too good for the Bulldogs to keep up in this one. Villanova was a powerhouse whose strengths Butler could counter; North Carolina, in my estimation, is not.
We see a huge rematch and a battle of superstar freshman all over the court on one side; we see a 1 seed that barely escaped last round to get here and the regional underdog that no one is talking about on the other. North Carolina. Kentucky. UCLA. And Butler. Few would be surprised at any of these 4 emerging from this regional, even Butler, who could do just about anything in any tournament at this point without being a big surprise. Will the LeVar Ball show be put on hiatus? (Will that happen even if UCLA loses?) Will this year’s group of Kentucky freshmen finally, truly live up to the precedent of one-and-done-led teams of John Calipari’s past? Will North Carolina continue to single-handedly carry the ACC banner through this tournament? Narrative aside, can Butler even keep up with any of these teams and play like they did when they beat Villanova twice? It’s Friday, and it’s time for the Blue Blood Bracket to unfold.