#2 Arizona vs. #6 Xavier
Neither of these squads faced much of a challenge in their first two games. Arizona ripped apart an undermatched Texas Southern team and then knocked off a one-dimensional Ohio State team that was nothing but a strong 10 seed. Xavier handled Ole Miss, one of the last four at-large teams in the dance, then reminded us why Georgia State was seeded no higher than #14. Obviously, each side will be facing its stiffest competition of the tournament to this point.
Arizona is one of the most athletic teams in the nation, perhaps second only to Kentucky. Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson make for a strong, smart, skilled, athletic pair on the wings that makes great plays on both the offensive and defensive ends. The Wildcats round things out with a savvy senior point guard in TJ McConnell, a talented big man duo of Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski, and a deadly outside shooter in Gabe York. It’s a fantastic 6-man rotation, but beyond it, there’s not much experience or depth. While there are some serviceable players such as the 7-foot freshman Dusan Ristic and sophomore guard Elliott Pitts, coach Sean Miller likes to keep his rotation tight, which can create fatigue concerns, especially for a team like Arizona, which likes to play at a fast tempo. But the main story for the Wildcats is the fact that they rank in the top 7 in both offensive and defensive efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. They have had few off nights and looked very beatable in shocking losses to UNLV, Oregon St., and Arizona St. But those were their only losses, as they went 11-0 against tournament teams. This Arizona squad is playing like a 1 seed right now and I’m sure Bo Ryan and the other coaches in the region aren’t feeling lucky to be put in their bracket.
Xavier actually matches up to Arizona pretty well. They have the size and speed to match up with the Wildcats, and the outside shooting ability to keep things interesting if they find themselves to be physically overmatched. Unlike the Wildcats, they like to play at a slightly slower, more deliberate pace, as the Musketeers try to pound it inside to big men Matt Stainbrook and Jalen Reynolds, who will bully their way to the hoop time and time again. On the perimeter, Trevon Bluiett and Remy Abell are strong, physical wing players who can get the basket and finish, and Myles Davis is a stellar outside shooter who hit some big shots against Georgia State. Finally, senior point guard Dee Davis runs the show and ranks 37th in the nation in Ken Pomeroy’s Assist Rate. The Musketeers have been up and down this season, and, with 13 losses, including snafus against UTEP, Long Beach State, Auburn, Depaul, and Creighton and a decent-but-not-outstanding collection of best wins that includes a triple-sweep of Georgetown, home wins over Providence and Butler, and not much else, they may be lucky to have even gotten anything near a 6 seed. But here they are, and they are playing some excellent basketball. Stainbrook is the man to stop when facing the Musketeers, and Tarczewski will have his hands full in this matchup, facing a big man who can both bang around inside and find the open teammate on the perimeter with his excellent vision.
Ultimately, Arizona just has too much talent for this well-coached, cohesive Xavier squad. I would be very surprised if Xavier pulls off the upset. To do so, they would need excellent outside shooting from Davis, Abell, and Bluiett, and great work insde from Stainbrook to get some buckets around the rim and put a dent in Arizona’s limited rotation by getting their big men in foul trouble. But Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson are simply playing too well right now, and should get the W.
#1 Wisconsin vs. #4 North Carolina
This contest offers a contrast of wildly different styles. While both teams have NBA size on the front line, that’s where the similarities end. Wisconsin, as we all know by now, loves to play Bo Ryan’s slow-paced, grind-it-out, epitome-of-Big-Ten-basketball style and plays at the 6th-slowest pace in Division I basketball according to Ken Pomeroy. North Carolina, on the other hand, likes to get up and down the court, sparked by all-everything point guard Marcus Paige. They play at the 7th-fastest pace in the nation. There’s a lot of talent on both sides of the ball, and whoever can control the tempo could be the deciding factor in the game.
One of the main reasons why the Badgers are a 1 seed and the Tar Heels are a 4 seed is consistency. Wisconsin has been able to play the kind of game they want to play and get the win almost every night they’ve taken the court, and lost only two games with Frank Kaminsky in the lineup (to Duke and @Maryland, both fairly excusable). North Carolina, on the other hand, has had several off nights and hasn’t been able to play through and get the win, leading to 11 losses on the year. Really, “consistency” is the word that best describes the Wisconsin program throughout the Bo Ryan era. The Tar Heels can expect that the Badgers will play through Frank Kaminsky as he dominates on the block, stretches the defense with his outside shooting, and creates looks for his teammates as he draws numerous double teams. They can expect Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes to bring further size, athleticism, and shooting ability on the front line. They can expect Josh Gasser to be the efficient sharpshooter on the perimeter. And they can expect Bronson Koenig to provide savvy point guard play, as he has done all year since Traevon Jackson went down with an injury. Wisconsin turns the ball over at a pace so low, that you have to go back a few years to find a team (another Wisconsin team) with such a low turnover rate. Additionally, they’re a top 5 team in defensive rebounding and rarely send their opponents to the free throw line. They simply play a smooth, efficient style of offense and a suffocating defense and beating them will be almost impossible for anyone but a super-talented, super-athletic team that can create mismatches for the Badgers.
North Carolina may not fit that description to a T. But they have shown signs that they can be that team. In Wisconsin’s three losses, they have been torn apart by the opponent’s guards, whether it was Tyus Jones of Duke, Myles Mack of Rutgers, or Dez Wells and Melo Trimble of Maryland. Marcus Paige happens to be one of the best guards in the nation. And he’s helped out by a cadre of long and talented forwards and big men, including Brice Johnson, JP Tokoto, Justin Jackson, Isaiah Hicks, and starting center Kennedy Meeks, who will be a game-time decision due to a knee injury. The Heels played their best basketball in the ACC tournament, knocking off Louisville and Virginia before falling to a hot Notre Dame team. On offense, they’re a very efficient team that gets a lot of good lucks around the rim and gobbles up a ton of offensive rebounds. It will be interested to see who wins the battle on the boards off of missed UNC shots. This team does lack outside shooting, however; outside of Marcus Paige, no player makes more than 0.7 3’s a game, and no player, Paige included, shoots 3’s better than 39%. Though not their bread and butter, UNC also boasts a solid defense, especially in the area of limiting opponent’s field goal percentage. Their length allows them to defend on the perimeter and alter shots with regularity. In their losses, they’ve allowed teams to put up a lot of points on them, but that’s not really Wisconsin’s style, with how slow they play.
North Carolina lost 6 of their last 11 games as they weathered a tough stretch of play in a tough ACC conference, so they have lacked consistency throughout the year. If good UNC takes the floor, they could be the best team out there. If bad UNC takes the floor, this relentless, coldly efficient Wisconsin team will take advantage of every mistake and will prove that they are the far more disciplined team. If Kennedy Meeks is out, there may be no stopping Frank Kaminsky. (There may be no stopping Frank Kaminsky, regardless.) The key will be how well Marcus Paige plays, and if he plays out of his mind and takes advantage of the inexperienced Koenig, the Tar Heels will be right there in it til the end. Wisconsin may struggle to contain Paige’s speed and finishing ability. Brice Johnson’s play will also be an x-factor. He really came on strong at the end of the year, emerging as the #2 scoring option to Paige, but he scored only 7 against both Arkansas and Harvard in UNC’s opening tournament games. Look for him to match up with Sam Dekker, in a battle of two exciting forwards who are generally counted on to step up and be the #2 guy for their teams. Wisconsin will be very tough to stop, but Marcus Paige may be the man for the job
There’s really no getting around it: Wisconsin and Arizona appear to be on a collision course for the Elite Eight. As much as I would like to throw out a bold upset prediction, these two teams are just too good, and it’s a shame they have to be in the same region when Oklahoma is the highest-seeded team in another region. I, and the majority of America, predicted it when filling out the bracket, and I’m predicting it now: Wisconsin and Arizona will meet in the Elite Eight. UNC and Xavier are both Sweet Sixteen-worthy teams, and I think both hold the deficit to single digits, but they aren’t quite good enough to take UW and UA out of their gameplans. After that, it’s almost a toss-up, as each team is just so good at what it does that either one could control the game and win. While Wisconsin has a very good chance to beat Arizona with their veteren bunch, Arizona has an athletic frontcourt and center, Kaleb Tarczewski to match up with Frank the Tank. Their steady and healthy point guard, superior athletes and depth will make it tough for the Badgers to handle, and therefore Arizona reaches Indy.