All games played at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta
The suave and sophisticated thing for the chic Prospectus-reading clientele in Atlanta to say this weekend will be that Kentucky faces a bigger challenge from Indiana than they would/will in a regional final against either Baylor or Xavier. Maybe. I'm fully aware of the danger IU poses to the Wildcats (see below) -- and remarking upon that degree of danger correctly in no way precludes one from also noting that Brady Heslip is a man possessed right now. If this tournament's No. 1 overall seed does reach New Orleans, there's a good chance they will have some harrowing war stories to tell, starting with Royce White and including chapters as yet unwritten.
(10) Xavier vs. (3) Baylor (Friday, 7:15 on CBS)
The opponents that these two teams defeated to get this far were Notre Dame, Lehigh, South Dakota State, and Colorado. Of that quartet the overachieving Abromaitis-less Fighting Irish would likely rate as the toughest outfit, and they outscored the Big East by all of 0.06 points per trip.
In the postseason we most often choose to focus on the fact that someone has to lose, which is true enough and indeed is the koan that has launched a thousand fatalistic end-of-year posts suffused with valedictory ennui. But the flip side is that someone has to win, and Baylor and Xavier have been pushed forward by that truism. Of course now that they're here, however they got here, anything can happen.
Anything can happen for Baylor. Brady Heslip is 24-of-43 (56 percent) from beyond the arc over his last five games. This will sound absurd on its face when speaking of a team this popular with NBA scouts, but at the present moment it's legitimate for a Baylor opponent to say they're going to keep the ball out of Heslip's hands and make some other Bear beat them. Make that "perfectly legitimate." In two NCAA tournament games BU's shooting 47 percent on their threes but just 42 percent on their twos. Heslip and the diminutive Pierre Jackson are taking an awful lot of shots, and all of those provebial "long and athletic" types have been content to simply shut down physically overmatched NCAA opponents on D. Put it this way, if this were 2010 Ronald Nored would be guarding Heslip.
Anything can happen for Xavier. Tu Holloway has quietly resumed the level of performance that was expected of him when he made a good many preseason All-American teams. In the postseason he's drained 53 percent of his twos and 39 percent of his threes while taking a star's share of the shots (31 percent, during his minutes). Kenny Frease, last seen going nuts against Lehigh to the tune of 25 points and 12 boards, has been even more efficient from the field than Holloway since the close of the regular season. Note however that as this is written it's still unclear whether Dezmine Wells (toe), and/or Andre Walker (blow to the head suffered in the Notre Dame game) will be available against Baylor.
Holloway and Frease have been exemplary of late, but it's tough to find something in the postseason performance of Chris Mack's team collectively that says "Elite Eight." They've shot threes significantly better than their March opponents have, and they've taken excellent care of the ball. Anything can happen, but I don't think that will be sufficient against Baylor.
(4) Indiana vs. (1) Kentucky (Friday, 9:45 on CBS)
I'm not hearing nearly enough about this game. Just because I think Kentucky's going to win doesn't mean I think it will be a piece of cake. On postseason possessions where IU does not commit a turnover they're averaging 1.45 points per trip. VCU was able to freak the Hoosiers out to a sufficient degree that Tom Crean's men gave the ball away on one in every three possessions, but Kentucky will be content, for the most part, to force misses and grab the rebound. That approach will receive a severe test from Indiana.
The Hoosiers haven't shot many threes in the postseason, but when they do they connect 48 percent of the time. In Cody Zeller, Christian Watford, Jordan Hulls, and Victor Oladipo, IU has several attractive options for points in qualitatively different positions on the floor. That places pressure on opposing defenses, who need qualitatively different guys to guard each of those players.
I simply think Kentucky will win anyway because their offense is even better than Indiana's, and because IU's defense is susceptible to fits and spells where they're a bit permissive.
There's a stubborn myth attached to Kentucky teams -- and indeed teams this dominant in general -- where it's said that the only way to beat them is to force them to shoot from outside. In fact the Wildcats are an outstanding three-point shooting team. In any normal year their 41 percent accuracy in conference play would have led the SEC, but Vanderbilt's 42 percent shooting won that title this season. That being said, it is true the threes have stopped falling in the postseason for John Calipari's team. Doron Lamb has continued his accurate ways, but his teammates are a combined 14-of-57 from beyond the arc since the close of the regular season.
When Vanderbilt beat Kentucky in the SEC title game, one of the many triumphs achieved by the Commodores was that they got to the line. That simply isn't done against UK, but Festus Ezeli, Jeffery Taylor, and John Jenkins each shot between eight and ten free throws that day.
Last thing. Seven days ago I said this: "Would you rather try to score on Anthony Davis and four other UK players who are dug in and ready? Or would you rather two of your players take their best shot in transition against, say, Marquis Teague?" I still think those questions are worth asking, even though so much time has passed.
No, I don't think Indiana will beat Kentucky. But the best way to try would be: 1) seize absolutely every opportunity to score in transition; 2) let any UK player not named Doron Lamb shoot a three if he wishes; and 3) get to the foul line -- hurl yourself like a missile into the nearest Wildcat, preferably Anthony Davis. Give it a shot and see what happens.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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