Log5 probabilities for the Sweet 16 are here.
The West didn’t go chalk in terms of seeding, but don’t let that fool you. There was a reasonable case to be made before play began that the four teams that made it to the tournament’s second week were the four best teams in this quadrant of the bracket.
Games in this region are being played at EnergySolutions Arena in Salt Lake City.
(5) Butler vs. (1) Syracuse (Thursday, 7:07)
The status of Syracuse center Arinze Onuaku has yet to be declared, but one wouldn’t expect that his presence is any more needed in this game than it was against Gonzaga’s large frontcourt. Butler’s front line consists solely of 6-8 Matt Howard. Howard played just 18 minutes against Murray State after getting in early foul trouble, a storyline that's familiar to Bulldog fans. In that respect, Syracuse is a bit friendlier to opposing bigs than the average power conference team, so Howard’s minutes have a better chance of being limited by his endurance rather than his foul total. And any time that offensively-limited DaShonte Riley gets filling the void of Onuaku will only help in that regard.
Whether Howard plays 15 minutes or 30, the Butler offense will rely on a rigid avoidance of taking challenged mid-range shots. In two tournament games, just 15 of Butler’s 100 field goal attempts have been long two-pointers. (That national average over the course of the season is around 33 percent.)
Against Horizon League opponents, this strategy resulted in roughly equal quantities of three-point attempts and close two-point shots. Against the lengthy Syracuse zone, whether it features Onuaku or not, this distribution figures to tilt more towards a dependence on the three-ball. Butler takes 40 percent of its shots from beyond the arc, which is the exact same number that the Syracuse defense has allowed. Given that both units are somewhat extreme, the expectation for Butler is that nearly half of their shots will be threes.
It’s tempting to say that Butler will have to make a lot of those shots to have a chance. However, the Bulldogs turned in one impressive defensive performance after another over the last half of the season, including allowing just 111 points over the course of 125 tournament possessions. This comes on the heels of holding Wright State to 45 points in 63 possessions in the Horizon League championship and limiting Siena to 53 points in 66 possessions in their BracketBuster game.
Obviously, Syracuse owns a much more explosive offense than Butler has seen during its 22-game winning streak. The Orange made a conference high 54 percent of their twos in Big East play and 58 percent on the season. In addition, Syracuse figures to get its share of offensive boards. The unknown is the true quality of Big East defenses this season, against which those impressive numbers were created. Even with adjustments, Butler’s defense currently ranks better than any in the Big East. However, the Bulldogs also have the shortest front-line left in the field. How those opposing concepts translate to this contest will be interesting to watch.
(6) Xavier vs. (2) Kansas State (Thursday, 9:37)
The nightcap in Salt Lake involves the Musketeers and Wildcats, who have met twice in the past three seasons. On the last day of 2007, Xavier beat Michael Beasley and Co. by 26 at U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati in what would turn out to be Beasley’s worst game as a collegian. This season, Kansas State won the return game in Manhattan, 73-57, when a total of 73 free throws were attempted by the two teams.
Both of these squads tend to produce whistles on both ends of the floor, so it wouldn’t be surprising if the rematch featured a bunch of free throws again. Lost a bit in the Wildcats comfortable win over BYU was their 27-of-30 performance from the line. In a game where their shot chart was skewed towards long range shots more than usual, the conversion at the line (in addition to making 40 percent of their threes and grabbing 15 offensive boards) contributed to an excellent offensive game.
The contest Thursday night will feature a lot of strength on strength. Kansas State’s pressure defense is effective at creating turnovers, but both of X’s starting guards, Terrell Holloway and Jordan Crawford, are excellent ball handlers. Kansas State is well-known for its ability to crash the offensive boards. But between Jason Love, Jamel McLean, and Kenny Frease, Xavier will have two mammoth big men on the floor for nearly the entire game that are effective at limiting second chances. Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente are two of the more frequent three-point shooters in the nation, but Xavier is one of 14 teams to hold opponents below 30 percent from behind the arc.
In addition, Kansas State’s primary weakness, too few defensive rebounds, wouldn’t figure to be easily exploited by Xavier. The Musketeers have two outstanding offensive rebounders in Jason Love and Jamel McLean, but Chris Mack assigns the other three players on the floor to the Transition Prevention Task Force, which makes the team as a whole rather ordinary on the offensive glass.
Despite the apparent gridlock here, this may be the only game in the third round that features more than 70 possessions, and it’s fair to expect that this one will be more compelling that the previous two meetings between the teams.
Ken Pomeroy is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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