#2 Arizona vs. #11 Xavier
If anyone deserves the most credit for getting their team to the Sweet 16, it should Xavier head coach Chris Mack. Mack lost his point-guard Edmond Sumner to a season-ending knee injury, and also lost his team leader Trevon Bluiett for a period of time. Following the Sumner injury, Xavier lost six straight games and were on the verge of losing their spot in the NCAA Tournament. And, they are here and are currently the lowest seeded team in the Sweet 16. They’re not getting lucky in these upset victories either, in their first game against Maryland they were in charge for most of the game and ending up grabbing an 11-point victory. Following their round of 64 game, they faced an extremely talented Florida State team who donned the 3-seed. Not only did they win, they obliterated them. Chris Mack’s squad won by a margin of 25, and they are not going to fear any team in their way. Even though I would be a little bit frightened if I had to go up against Arizona. The Wildcats are arguably the most talented team left in the tournament, and have four players who currently average double digits. Arizona dropped 100 on North Dakota in the opening round, there was never any upset possibility brewing. But, in their next go-around against St. Mary’s I was nervous. And by nervous, I mean St. Mary’s was really putting up a fight and my bracket couldn’t afford a Wildcats lost. St. Mary’s led for a good portion of that game, but Arizona’s talent carried them down the stretch. It is just tough to stop an offense consisting of Lauri Markkanen, Alonzo Trier, and Rawle Alkins. And when they aren’t producing, they have three players who average eight or more. Their offense comes at you in waves, but the way Chris Mack is coaching, he might be able execute something that can limit the damage.
Keys to the Game:
As I was talking up Arizona’s offense, there is one glaring flaw: they do not have a true starting point guard. Arizona’s offense had a total of four assists against St. Mary’s, Lonzo Ball had 7 dimes in his win over Cincinatti. Arizona’s offense looked stagnant and they were just solely relying on isolation. Luckily enough, their talent was too much for St. Mary’s and they were able to escape relying on that brand of basketball. But, as they progress in the tournament that is not going to work. Sharing is caring, and that is why guard play is so important in March. Why do you think Kansas has looked like the most impressive team in the tournament so far? Look no further then Frank Mason and Devonte Graham. I know Josh Jackson is filling up the stat sheet, but when you have two guards that can feed you the ball the way they do, it allows you to do that. That is the problem I see with this Arizona team, their leading assist man is Parker Jackson-Cartwright with 4.1 a game, but he isn’t being very effective for the minutes he is playing. So, if Arizona isn’t scoring the basketball, you know there is a glaring opportunity for an upset. Xavier just put up 91 against Florida State and have three players who average more than 14 a game. Therefore, the key to the game is if Arizona is going to decide to share the ball or not. I think Sean Miller is pretty desperate for a Final Four appearance and I think he has been in their head all week when it comes to executing. Xavier’s impressive run stops at the Sweet 16, I don’t think they have an answer for the combo of Markkanen and Trier.
#1 Gonzaga vs. #4 West Virginia
The question that everyone kept asking all year was, “Is this Gonzaga team for real? Or is it just going to get bounced in the Sweet 16 and underachieve again?” Well, I guess we will find out that answer on Thursday, but from the looks of the weekend that Mark Few’s squad had, I would say that narrative seems pretty spot on. Gonzaga rarely faced much game pressure during conference play, and everyone seemed interested in how they would react in a close ball game because you will never go the full distance in March Madness without controversy. Gonzaga received a first half scare against the No. 16 seed South Dakota Jack Rabbits, who they only led by four at halftime. And, almost blew a 22-point lead against Northwestern to round out their first weekend. Controversy and chaos is supposed to come at a minimum the first weekend of the tournament when you put together a 34-1 record and having an average scoring margin of 22.8, which leads the country. Just when Mark Few was content with escaping the first weekend, he runs into Bob Huggins Mountaineers whose defense epitomizes chaos in every sense of the word. Huggy Bear’s defense leads the country in turnovers forced per game by a pretty healthy margin. I mean, they forced Notre Dame into 14 turnovers, and the Fighting Irish are second in the country in turnovers averaged per game. West Virginia was in control for most of the game against the Irish following a scare against Bucknell where they squeaked out a 6-point win. West Virginia has been streaky all year, but when their offense looks like it did last weekend against an undersized Notre Dame team, they are scary.
Keys to the Game:
No, I am not going to sit up here and tell you the most important facet of the game is West Virginia’s full court press, that would be too obvious. But, there is no full court press without getting buckets to set that defense up. Against Notre Dame, West Virginia shot 57% from behind the arc which is 20 percentage points higher than what they usually shoot. If Gonzaga’s defense is having trouble keeping West Virginia’s offense out of rhythm they are going to be in for a long day. Gonzaga is accustomed to dominating down low, but when you can’t have Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins on the block because West Virginia’s daunting full court press, that creates matchup problems. This means this game is going to come down to guard play. Gonzaga knows what they are going to get out of their backcourt in Nigel Williams-Goss and Jordan Mathews. This game lies on the shoulders of Jevon Carter and Tarik Philip because if they are wreaking havoc like they usually do, and put enough pressure on the Gonzaga backcourt an upset could just happen. But, with all that said, I think Gonzaga pulls this out. West Virginia has been streaky all year, and I wanted to pick the upset, but I don’t know if their offense will be able to put up the points against the No. 1 overall defense in adjusted efficiency rating.
Final Four Predictions:
#1 Gonzaga vs. #2 Arizona is the matchup I am predicting in the Elite 8. I know, I should’ve called an upset, but the first weekend is over and the chalk matchups are now what the people want to see. And what I want to see if a Battle Royale between Mark Few and Sean Miller. It is constantly brought up and debated who the best current coach is who has not made a trip to the Final Four. The two most frequent names that are brought up are Sean Miller and Mark Few. Well, in this scenario one of the two is going to be able to get that huge burden off their back and be able to compete for a national championship. According to my bracket, I have Arizona knocking off Gonzaga and I am not the one to jump back and change my picks. Gonzaga looked shaky the first weekend, but I think they have the talent and obviously, the height to get to this position. But, when has their height not had a substantial advantage downlow where they just know they will be able to grab offensive board after offensive board and just feed off second-chance points? Arizona poses a problem. They are 16th in rebound margin per game, and have had plenty of matchups where their big men have been tested down low. Arizona won’t be scared of Gonzaga’s height advantage, and have the luxury of pulling Lauri Markkanen out to the perimeter to draw either big man from the paint. This leaves relentless driving lanes from the insanely athletic duo of Trier and Alkins. I believe the Arizona guards will out-athleticize and outplay Williams-Goss and finally get Sean Miller his long-awaited trip to the Final Four. Maybe next year Mark Few.