#1 Kansas vs. #5 Maryland
The Jayhawks managed to survive what was one of the wildest first weekends ever in NCAA Tournament history. With high seeds and title contenders dropping like flies during the Tournament’s first weekend, Bill Self’s squad managed to make easy work of their first two opponents and now have their sights set squarely on Melo Trimble and the Maryland Terrapins. Both teams come into this matchup with high expectations as both feel that they are legitimate Final Four contenders.
Both teams have a starting five that could rival any other team in the country but it is the depth of Kansas that could and should be the deciding factor in this one. The Terps are one of the few teams in the NCAA that have all five starters scoring in double figures with Trimble leading the way at just a tick south of 15 points per game. A couple of ACC transfers in Rasheed Suliamon (Duke) and Robert Carter Jr. (Georgia Tech) have meshed well with talented freshman Diamond Stone and the two holdovers from last season in Trimble and Jake Layman. The Terps featuring one of the better and more potent inside/outside games in all of college basketball. Mark Turgeon’s squad was tops in the Big 10 at getting to the free throw line which is something that Kansas struggled with on the defensive end a times ranking well outside of the top 150 in the NCAA in free throw attempts for their opponents.
As with quite a few other Big 12 teams, Kansas is an extremely efficient and high scoring squad that has a similar inside/outside game that makes them tough to defend. And while they lack the firepower in the starting lineup that Maryland does, when you start looking down both team’s benches at their 6th, 7th and 8th guys, the discrepancy in talent and experience starts to rear its ugly head. Perry Ellis is and has been one of the more underrated players in college basketball in the time that he’s been in Lawrence. He’s not going to wow you with any particular part of his game but he just does so many things well and has a high basketball IQ. His line of 17/6/1/1 isn’t something that gets scouts salivating, but when you watch him play the game you see how he can affect the game in positive ways that don’t necessarily show up in the box score. His play on the inside coupled with that of Landen Lucas, someone who has really solidified his spot in the rotation over the final two months of the season, should make for an interesting matchup in the paint between these two teams as Maryland has the big men up front to make things extremely difficult for Ellis and company.
Key to the Game:
Frank Mason vs. Melo Trimble. As much as I’ve touched on the battle of the bigs that will undoubtedly happen on Thursday, this NCAA Tournament is a guard’s game and as such, the battle between these two lead guards will be what I’m keeping my eye on. Trimble has the size advantage over Mason and will try and use that to his advantage by getting into the lane and causing havoc by getting to the free throw line. Trimble is one of the best in the country at using his body to create and absorb contact and get to the charity stripe. He’s averaged almost 6 free throws per game in his first two seasons with the Terps and hits them at an 87% clip. Mason is by no means an elite defender, but he can hold his own on that end of the floor. It will be up to him to keep Trimble in front of him and out of the lane. Trimble can be baited into tough shots at times and when he’s not on then the offense suffers as does the rest of the team. Mason is similar to Trimble in that he’s a drive first point guard and one that really attacks the basket off the dribble. Maryland is a good shot blocking team and led the Big 10 with 5.4 blocks per game so they will make it tough on Mason. The lead guard that can contain and slow down the other will come out of this one the victor.
#2 Villanova vs. #3 Miami
The ‘Canes and the Wildcats will kick off the Sweet 16 as they are the first two teams to tip off on Thursday night. Miami was able to get past Cinderella hopeful in Witchita State in the Round of 32 after taking down a scrappy Buffalo squad in round one. Villanova has been able to get that proverbial monkey off their back by making it to the second weekend for the first time since 2009 when they went to the Final Four. They were a top two seed in each of the last two seasons but failed to get past the second round either time. Jay Wright’s bunch are hoping that they can build on last weekend’s drubbing of Iowa on their way to Houston. Both teams are extremely guard oriented as each team’s "feature" post player averages less than 10 points per game on the season so it should be an exciting and high scoring matchup.
After watching UConn (2014) and NC State (2015) upset Villanova, it is and has been hard for most to get back on the bandwagon when it comes to Tournament success. In my personal bracket, I have them losing this matchup to Arizona (yeah, yeah…I know) and that shows you how little faith that I had in them heading into last weekend. But as I watched this team absolutely dismantle what I thought was a good Iowa team, I started to change my tune a little and think that this might just be their year to get over that hump and make a run at another Final Four. From the opening tip it was clear that Iowa and Villanova were in a different class altogether. It was as if ‘Nova took out all of their frustrations from the previous few seasons on the Hawkeyes. They shot 60% from the floor overall and at one point just couldn’t miss as they smothered Iowa on defense which led to easy transition buckets. Coach Wright has always relied on a guard oriented offense that, at times, can haunt him when they all go cold from the floor. But on Saturday night, Ryan Arcidiacono, Kris Jenkins, Josh Hart and Jalen Brunson were having none of it.
I underestimate the ‘Canes year after year in the ACC. What Jim Larranaga has done in his time there has been nothing short of spectacular. The school’s football program has been down for about a decade now, but their basketball program has picked up the slack and is thriving. Much in the same way that Maryland is relying on a few ACC defectors, the ‘Canes are relying on a few Big 12 transfers in Angel Rodrigugez (Kansas State) and Sheldon McClellan (Texas) to lead the way. Rodriguez had a career high 28 points on 9 for 11 shooting against the Shockers with McClellan chipping in 18 of his own. Those two combine for the bulk of the Miami offense and will need to be slowed down if Villanova expects to win this one. McClellan was one of the better scorers in the ACC this season and he should be who the Wildcats key in on as they try and slow Miami down. The Canes aren’t very deep and their rotation has become tighter during the Tournament so foul trouble and/or any kind of injury to one of their key players (Rodriguez, McClellan, Jekiri) could spell the end of the line for this team.
Key to the Game:
We already know about what the guards can/should do in this game. Yawn. What I’m looking to see is which big man decides to assert himself offensively and imposes his will on the glass. Daniel Ochefu and Tonye Jekiri are the two bigs who will get the most run in this one and they are similar players in that they are used primarily for setting screens, rebounding and blocking shots. Neither guy will be the focal point of either Coach’s offensive sets, but they both have a post move or two that can surprise you when given the opportunity. I would love nothing more than for Jim Larranaga and/or Jay Wright to try and get their bigs going early with a few post ups to start the game. The more involved bigs are in the offense, the more involved they are in the game as a whole. Maybe this is just a personal preference shining through as I think both players could be better offensive options if given the chance. I doubt this happens from an offensive standpoint, but both guys will be counted on heavily with regards to the glass. Statistically, Jekiri is a better rebounder overall but it isn’t by much and you can usually throw out the everyday statistics when we get into Tourney time.
Final Four Prediction
I chose Kansas to get to Houston in my own bracket and they’ve done nothing to show me that my prediction was wrong. They’ve seemingly waltzed through their first two games against Austin Peay and and UConn and while both Maryland and the winner of the ‘Nova vs. Miami game will present a much bigger challenge than either of those teams did, I still think that the depth and overall experience of the Jayhawks will end up being too much to handle. The guard play of Mason and Graham along with Selden slashing on the wing and guys like Ellis and second half breakout Landen Lucas on the inside make this Kansas team one of the more balanced and potent teams still left in the entire Tournament.
Kansas over Villanova in a close one 78 – 74.
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