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March 27, 2008
Ranking the Games
Sweet 16 Viewer's Guide

by John Gasaway


1. (3) Louisville vs. (2) Tennessee (9:57, tonight)

There are other Sweet 16 games that include one team who's better than either Louisville or Tennessee. No other game tonight or tomorrow, however, features two teams that are both this good. (Though games #2 and #3 below come very close.) Perception has been chasing the Louisville reality all season long and still hasn't caught up: the Cardinals are still better than commonly realized. More to the point, with the possible exception of Memphis, the 'Ville has the best defense Tennessee has seen this year. For their part, the Volunteers completely shut down Butler on the inside on Sunday. That's not going to happen tonight with Louisville, but this still doesn't figure to be a high-scoring affair. Rick Pitino has his team surrender offensive boards in exchange for negating any and all transition opportunities for the opponent.

2. (4) Washington State vs. (1) North Carolina (7:27, tonight)

Forget tempo. Please. Yes, Washington State is slow and North Carolina is fast. Just remember, Carolina can win at a slower than accustomed pace. (They did it at Boston College, for one.) As for those desultory Cougars, they actually weren't all that great on defense during the conference season this year, certainly not compared to last year. They do, however, appear to have turned things up a notch on D in the tournament. In two games, WSU has allowed Winthrop and Notre Dame a total of 81 points in 117 combined possessions. Do the math--that's unreal. The Cougars have done it by making opponents miss their twos, by giving them only one shot and by never fouling. That makes Tony Bennett's defense the stylistic ideal to play the Tar Heels, a team that scores its points in no small measure by dominating the offensive glass, getting to the free throw line and largely eschewing threes. So why do I feel being the stylistic ideal won't be enough for Washington State? Probably because both teams have outstanding coaches but only one has outstanding athleticism.

3. (3) Stanford vs. (2) Texas (7:27, tomorrow night)

Washington State vs. North Carolina is, of course, being touted as the classic defense vs. offense matchup, but if that kind of collision is to your liking you might be better served watching Stanford take on Texas. The first thing to note about this game is that the Longhorns are likely to hear the final horn having turned the ball over fewer than ten times. The Cardinal forced their Pac-10 opponents to give the ball away on just 17 percent of their possessions this year. Trent Johnson's team prefers to stay in position and make you miss your shot. With 14 feet of Lopez brothers close at hand, that's a sound defensive strategy. Texas, therefore, doesn't figure to shoot real well in this game; they don't shoot real well, anyway. The key will be the battle on the Longhorns' offensive glass. Surprisingly, Stanford is merely slightly above average when it comes to defensive rebounding. If Damion James can get some put-backs, that should be a very good sign for Rick Barnes' team.

4. (5) Michigan State vs. (1) Memphis (9:57, tomorrow night)

Michigan State has played almost exactly as well on offense during their two tournament wins as they did during the Big Ten regular season. The difference has been defense, particularly on the perimeter. Then again, Memphis is better on their twos, anyway. I had to laugh when I saw this week that Tom Izzo was being asked if he'd employ a "hack-a-Tiger" defense against the notoriously poor free throw shooters of Memphis. (This just days after Izzo fairly sniffled and sulked bloody murder when four of his players fouled out in MSU's Big Ten tournament loss to Wisconsin.) Talk about confusing the comparative for the normative. Sure, the Tigers make fewer of those free throws than almost any other D-I team in the country. Still, it's better, of course, to force a miss from the field and take care of the defensive glass than to risk even one make from the line. OK, hack-a-Dorsey is fine, but otherwise the Spartans would be well advised to play it straight. They will.

5. (10) Davidson vs. (3) Wisconsin (7:10, tomorrow night)

Michael Flowers will chase Stephen Curry. Curry will still get his points. Even so, Wisconsin figures to have the advantage. Bo Ryan has more contributors and his team holds on to the rock. The latter will come into play against an opponent that keys its defense off of getting turnovers.

6. (7) West Virginia vs. (3) Xavier (7:10, tonight)

Bob Huggins has been getting a lot of credit this week for blending his brand of defense with John Beilein-level results on offense. He should. The offense is just as good as it was last year but the defense has indeed improved significantly. Only problem: otherwise offensively stymied Big East opponents in fact had success launching threes against Huggins' allegedly "hard-nosed" D. That has to be worrisome when you're about to face Drew Lavender, Stanley Burrell, B.J. Raymond and Josh Duncan.

7. (12) Villanova vs. (1) Kansas (9:40, tomorrow night)

The Wildcats eked into the tournament by the slimmest of margins by forcing opponents to do two things: shoot threes instead of twos, and, better yet, turn the ball over. Translation: the Wildcats are doomed against the Jayhawks. Then again, I said the same thing last year about Vanderbilt in the Sweet 16 against Georgetown. If not for lax enforcement of the prohibition against traveling, the Commodores would have advanced. Buyer beware.

8. (12) W. Kentucky vs. (1) UCLA (9:40pm, tonight)

Drake-killer Ty Rogers notwithstanding, the Hilltoppers run their offense almost exclusively through seniors Courtney Lee and Tyrone Brazelton. They're both fine players, and indeed Lee will be drafted come June, but that won't get it done against the Bruins.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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Around the Rim (03/27)
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Prospectus Preview (03/28)

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