#1 Kentucky versus #4 Indiana
Let’s flashback three months to the regular season meeting in Bloomington—it’s borderline impossible to believe that UK can shoot 56% from the field and lose, but when you’re outscored 27-6 from behind the three-point line the image begins to crystalize. Not to mention the Hoosiers holding a +2 edge on the glass and +3 on the offensive boards. The circumstances for the rematch will be quite different. For starters, the game will be played in SEC country in the Georgia Dome, far from the friendly confines of Assembly Hall. But most importantly, a young and inexperienced Kentucky team has 27 more games under their belt, and they are now a precise wrecking crew.
While the Wildcats were tested at various points of their third round game against Iowa State, they always had another gear to go to. They played a near perfect offensive game: 55% FG, 10/20 three’s and 19 assists against 10 turnovers. UK also held a +9 rebound margin against an excellent rebounding Cyclone squad that decimated Connecticut to the tune of 40-21.
The play of lead guard Marquis Teague was a key area of concern entering the tournament, but Teague silenced the critics against ISU. He played 36 outstanding minutes, scoring 24 points (10/14 shooting), dishing out 7 assists (2 turnovers) and grabbing 4 rebounds. If he performs anywhere near this level in the remaining games, the Wildcats frankly can’t be stopped. Anthony Davis played perhaps his best all-around game of the season with 15 points, 12 boards and 5 assists (a measly 2 blocks).
Indiana was able to withstand physical battles against New Mexico State and VCU to reach their first Sweet Sixteen since 2002. The Hoosiers shot exceptionally well in the two games, converting on 56% of their field goals, 13/26 three’s and 17/21 free throws. However, critical flaws were exposed even in victory.
The Hoosiers were pushed around on the interior by NMSU, allowing 23/36 shooting on two-point attempts and getting outboarded 22-21 in a game with few missed shots. Indiana looked in slow motion against the havoc of VCU, turning the ball over 22 times, many of which came in embarrassing fashion. They have great difficulty initiating their offense against pressure, as their top ball handler Jordan Hulls doesn’t have the quickness to separate (1 assist and 5 turnovers). Victor Oladipo is an explosive penetrator, but he is anything but secure with the rock (6 assists and 5 turnovers).In spite of solid statistical efforts, Cody Zeller needs to play tougher- and meaner. The size and strength of NMSU’s frontline gave him fits and on both ends, and the peskiness of VCU had him rattled resulting in 4 turnovers and a missed point blank dunk. If the Hoosiers hope to stand a chance against Kentucky, his 9 field goal attempts need to double.
With revenge squarely on their minds, Kentucky will assuredly smell blood in the water after watching Indiana crumble under defensive pressure. UK leads the nation in field goal percentage defense, holding opponents to 37% shooting. It’s safe to say Indiana won’t sniff 50%, making ball control the ultimate priority. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist versus Christian Watford will be an essential matchup. The Hoosiers need Watford to go for 20. He’s their most in-form player and versatile offensive option. MKG struggled in the round of the 32 and will be raring to go.
#3 Baylor versus #10 Xavier
Despite two comfortable score line victories, Baylor didn’t exactly inspire confidence in their supporters. The Bears allowed a pair of undermanned squads in South Dakota State and Colorado to keep their heads above of water before finally sinking them with late runs. The puzzling Perry Jones did not show up offensively in either game, scoring 9 points on 4/14 shooting against dramatically inferior size/athleticism. Backup point guard A.J. Walton chewed up 58 minutes, but connected on 2/13 field goals and assisted on just 4 buckets.
The high-level play of Baylor’s starting backcourt, Pierre Jackson and Brady Heslip, surged the Bears forward in the draw without contributions from their top guns. Jackson brought his usual bounce and swagger to Albuquerque, averaging 16.5 points, 6 assists and 3.5 thefts. Heslip was, in a word, unconscious. He drilled 14 three pointers, including 9 against Colorado (6 in the first half), breathing life into a squad that seemingly had no pulse in a win or go home situation.
Where the Bears front line did leave an imprint was on the glass. They outrebounded their opponents 65-44, and a high percentage of their (minimal) paint buckets came on second chance opportunities from 25 offensive boards. The length of freshman guard Deuce Bello, who is steadily earning more playing time, could be a significant factor in this area going forward.
Rebounding and three-point shooting were weaknesses of Xavier all season long, but the Musketeers broke the mold in wins over Notre Dame and Lehigh. They outboarded their opposition 66-54, and while they didn’t shoot a large quantity of treys, they did connect on 12/25 (48%). The Musketeers did hold true to their calling card aggressiveness, holding a +19 edge in free throw attempts and +18 against ND alone.
As expected, senior leader Tu Holloway stepped up his scoring output in the bright lights of March. His fading bank shot in the closing seconds of the round of 64 was apropos given his history of tournament dramatics. Holloway put up 23 points per game in the two W’s, feeling his oats from distance with 6 makes in 12 attempts. Fellow senior and seven-footer Kenny Frease obliterated undersized Lehigh in the paint, going off for a season high 25 points on 11/13 shooting and 12 rebounds.
Dynamite freshman Dezmine Wells suffered a toe injury against Lehigh and played only 8 minutes, this after recording a 14/11 double-double in the opener and looking like a matchup nightmare. Wells won’t practice leading up to Friday’s game and his status remains unclear. If he can’t go, Mark Lyons must deliver more than 5/17 FG and 7 turnovers.
Is the “it factor” missing from Baylor? Or do they have a pristine effort(s) stored away? It’s hard to fathom that the Bears settled for 40 three-point attempts this past weekend when they have Perry Jones, Quincy Miller and Quincy Acy on their frontline. With the overwhelming talent that Jones and Miller bring to the table, their passivity is inexcusable. This favorable draw is a game away from ending and launching threes is fool’s gold. On the defensive end, their unique 1-1-3 zone could give Xavier problems with their breakdown guards and dearth of shooting wings.
Xavier is back in the second week for the fourth time in five years. While this particular roster is anything but loaded, they have guards that can improvise and they defend in the half court. However, the Musketeers isolation-dominant style is a concern against Baylor, where the one on one matchups are no longer in their favor athletically. Offensive efficiency is not a strength, as buttressed by their 19:23 assist: turnover ratio. The immobility of Kenny Frease, and X’s overall lack of proven frontcourt depth, is a major concern against the agility and versatility of Baylor’s trio of forwards. They need Dezmine Wells to play and play effectively.
Final Four Prediction
Baylor vs. Kentucky
The physical advantages presented by the higher seeds are too severe to overlook. Baylor will have the tougher ask against a Xavier team that believes it will in March, and you can never put it past the Bears to throw in a clunker. With that said, the length, athletic ability and multi-faceted attack of Scott Drew’s crew will be too much.
The cards are obviously stacked heavily against Indiana in the nightcap. The Hoosiers were abundantly unimpressive in their two wins, looking unathletic and overmatched for much of the games. Now facing Kentucky in Atlanta with revenge on their minds and a National Title in their sights; pray for another dome leak ala 2008?