#1 Duke vs. #5 Utah
The Blue Devils avoided another early round exit by routing both Robert Morris and San Diego State on their way to Houston. Jahlil Okafor has been an absolute beast on the block through two games and there’s not a player on his side of the bracket that can guard him in the post. He knows it, his teammates know it, Coach K knows it and so do you. Having seen Okafor and the rest of the Dukies play up close and personal against the Aztecs, this team is no fluke. The way they picked apart the #2 overall defense in the country during stretches of the game was unreal. The move made by Coach K to insert Matt Jones into the starting lineup and slide Justise Winslow to the four spot has been the difference in this team of late. Winslow has been a matchup nightmare on offense at that spot and has really rebounded the ball well (10 per game over his last four) and Duke has seen a spike in transition buckets from his ability to rebound the ball and start the break. Factor in the dynamic duo of Cook and Jones in the backcourt and this team has played it’s best basketball of the season lately, with the exception of a few lackluster stretches in games where they almost seem to be coasting after building big leads.
Utah has had a tougher road to hoe en route to the Sweet 16 but they’ve made it look easy. The Utes avoided that infamous 5-12 upset game against a Stephen F. Austin team that took down VCU in last year’s Tournament. They were tested by an overrated but tough Hoyas team that played them close down to the wire. Do it all guard Delon Wright hasn’t shot the ball particularly well in either game, going 2-7 in both, but he’s been able to be effective by getting to the line shooting 18 free throws combined in the two games. The real key for the Utes thus far has been the play of their two centers Jakob Poeltl and Dallin Bachynski (brother of former Arizona State great Jordan Bachynski). The duo has combined for 41 points, 17 boards and 7 blocks in the Tournament with both having spectacular games when their teams needed it most against the Hoyas. Both big men and the aforementioned Wright will have to be on their games Friday if they want to knock of the Blue Devils.
Key to the game:
I’d love to go with the Utah centers trying to shut down Okafor but what I’ll be watching is how Duke defends Wright. He’s essentially a 6’5 point guard that creates matchup nightmares for opposing teams. Neither Cook nor Jones has the size or length to guard Wright. What Coach K will likely do is give that task to Winslow who is the team’s best wing defender. He’s big enough and long enough to slow down Wright. He’ll also be quick enough and strong enough to hopefully keep Wright out of the paint. If a combination of Winslow & M. Jones can slow down Wright enough, which I think they will, it might be a long night for Utah.
#2 Gonzaga vs. #11 UCLA
Much like Duke, the ‘Zags really haven’t faced much adversity through the Tournament’s first two rounds. They handled both North Dakota State and Iowa with ease, never trailing in either game. Kyle Wiltjer has been his usual self in both games knocking down shot after shot after shot and showing why he was so highly touted coming out of High School and why he was so sought after when he decided to leave Kentucky. Gonzaga is known for flaming out come Tourney time but they seem to have both the roster and the draw to make a deep run this year. Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell are going to have to continue to play Robin to Wiltjer’s Batman if this team is going to continue moving forward. I would argue that this is Mark Few’s most talented and complete team that he’s had since the Adam Morrison/Ronny Turiaf days and that’s saying a lot as there have been quite a few solid players and teams come through Spokane over the last decade.
Remember when UCLA was the team that no one thought should be in the Tournament? Remember how the ESPN analysts rocked the committee for having them in and other teams out? UCLA doesn’t remember that either as the dialogue has changed over the last week due to this team’s wins over a really good SMU team and a surprise UAB team that knocked off Iowa State for the Tournament’s first upset. While this team lacks the overall talent and depth that we’ve come to expect from UCLA over the last decade or so, they are a resilient bunch that has apparently embraced the "underdog" role. The emergence of Tony Parker, a player more known for his calling out of Duke’s ability to develop big men than what he’s done on the court (Mason Plumlee and Jahlil Okafor say hi by the way), has really come on of late. He can be a dominant player in the post when he wants to be and is a game changer if he can stay out of foul trouble. The Bruins were 6-5 in the Pac-12 when Parker racked up 4+ fouls and 5-2 when he had 3 or less.
Key to the game:
This is a rematch of a game earlier in the season, one that the Bulldogs won 87-74. But that was December. It is March now, a month where you can throw all other games out of the window as they really don’t matter in these "winner take all" scenarios. UCLA is 265th in the country in defending the three ball and Gonzaga is 3rd in the Nation in hitting the three ball, at least from a percentage standpoint. The ‘Zags are 1st in the Nation in overall field goal percent as UCLA ranks 109th in defense. Simply put, the Bruins are going to have to defend, which is something that they’ve struggled with all season. Gonzaga shot almost 60% from the field against UCLA back in December which doesn’t bode well. But then again, it is March where anything can happen.
Final Four Prediction
A Duke vs. Gonzaga Elite 8 is probably the easiest of the Regions to pick this weekend. Both teams should advance past the Sweet 16 and matchup with one another on Sunday. This game will likely be a high scoring affair with Duke coming out on top. Too much Jahlil Okafor and too much Justise Winslow for the ‘Zags to handle. Jones and Cook should neutralize Pangos and I doubt that Wiltjer will get his shot off as easy with the more physical Winslow trailing him wherever he goes.
Duke 81 – Gonzaga 75
Coach K gets to his 12th Final Four and first since the Dukies won it all in 2010.
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