Games of Friday, March 28
All games on CBS
Ford Field (Detroit, MI)
Matchup: #10 Seed Davidson (28-6, 20-0 Southern) vs. #3 Wisconsin (31-4, 16-2 Big Ten), 7:10
Rankings: Davidson, #29 in Pomeroy Ratings (1st of 11 in Southern); Wisconsin, #3 (1st of 11 in Big Ten)
Pomeroy Prediction: Wisconsin, 67-58 in 64 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 17%
Prospectus: The Wildcats' run was over, the team was dead, down 17 in the second half to Georgetown, the region's No. 2 seed looking to advance to its second straight Final Four. But Davidson came up with an improbable rally, as sophomore shooting guard Stephen Curry scored 25 of his 30 points in the second half to help his team to a 74-70 victory and its first trip to the Sweet 16 since 1969. Curry is fast becoming a master of breaking the backs of favored opponents in the second half of huge games--he killed Gonzaga in the same way in the opening round, scoring 30 of his 40 points in the latter period to key a comeback from 10 down. Will the 6'2 son of former NBA guard Dell Curry do it a third straight game? This time, the bar has been raised for him once more--from Gonzaga (34th in adjusted defensive efficiency) to Georgetown (8th) to the No. 1 defensive squad in the country, by both raw and adjusted efficiency, the Wisconsin Badgers.
The Badgers, which shut down first Cal St. Fullerton and then Kansas St. to return to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2005, have two players who made the Big Ten All-Defensive Team, junior forward Joe Krabbenhoft and senior guard Michael Flowers. The 6'2 Flowers will likely get the assignment on the 6'2 Curry, and might be the best defensive player that Curry has gone up against all season. To compete, the Wildcats will need another monster game from their star guard, whose latest exploits have lifted him to fourth nationally in offensive rating amongst players using 28 percent of possessions or more, one spot ahead of Kansas St. freshman and possible Player of the Year Michael Beasley. Curry will be going up against a defense that has held opponents to 30.5 percent shooting form deep, and 41.5 percent from two-point range. Wisconsin's strong rebounders should also be able to dominate the defensive glass against a Davidson squad that has little presence on the offensive boards. And don't expect to see more than a handful of free throw attempts for the Wildcats. Davidson has gotten the eighth lowest percentage of its points from free throws of any Division I team, due to an inability to get to the stripe, while Wisconsin is the ninth best team at keeping opponents off the line. The one area of Wisconsin's defense that is not razor sharp is forcing turnovers. Davidson, which turned it over just four times against Georgetown, is an excellent ball-handling team. The Wildcats should therefore be able to get off a shot almost every time down the floor, although they'll have a tough time getting those shots to go down.
The Badgers have no one player who dominates their offense like Stephen Curry does. In the win over Kansas St., it was sophomore guard Trevon Hughes who rose to the fore with a career-high-tying 25 points on 71 eFG% shooting. Hughes has improved markedly from last season, when he played sparingly and shot poorly as a freshman, and he now ranks second on the team in percentage of possessions used to senior center Brian Butch, and first in steal percentage (Hughes could also see duty guarding Curry). Hughes is also one of the trio of Badgers capable of distributing to teammates. Wisconsin is unique in that it doesn't really play with a point guard, and Hughes, Krabbenhoft, and Flowers lead the team with assist ratios between 16.9 and 17.7, figures that don't even crack the top-500 nationally. Davidson has a true point guard in senior Jason Richards, who has the 10th best assist rate in the country, with helpers on 38.1 percent of baskets while on the floor. Richards is also the team's second-leading scorer, at 12.9 points per game on an eFG% of 50.6. To have a chance, the Wildcats will need Richards to play like he did against Georgetown, when he scored 20 points despite shooting just 5-of-13 from the floor thanks to 10 trips to the line, and also compiled a 5/1 assist/turnover ratio in 40 minutes on the court.
Matchup: #12 Seed Villanova (22-12, 9-9 Big East) vs. #1 Kansas (33-3, 13-3 Big 12), 9:40
Rankings: Villanova, #45 in Pomeroy Ratings (9th of 16 in Big East); Kansas, #1 (1st of 12 in Big 12)
Pomeroy Prediction: Kansas, 81-64 in 71 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 7%
Prospectus: More Wildcats roaming in the Sweet 16--which destruction has the better chance at the upset? That of Davidson, although an extremely young Villanova squad (324th in the nation in experience) has shown quite a bit in beating Clemson and Siena in the first two rounds, especially on the defensive end, where the youthful Wildcats are rapidly improving. That defense will get its greatest test of the season in going up against Kansas, which easily handled Portland St. and Nevada Las Vegas to reach the Sweet 16, and which has the best offense in the country by both raw and adjusted efficiency.
This game features an a potentially exploitable matchup for Kansas at the three-point line. Villanova's defense is extremely vulnerable on the exterior, with Wildcats opponents having hoisted 41 percent of their field goals from deep, and hit on a healthy 36 percent of those. Kansas doesn't shoot that often from long range, with three point attempts on less than 30 percent of field goal attempts, but when it is deadly when it does fire away--40 percent from downtown, eighth best in the country. Kansas junior guards Mario Chalmers and Brandon Rush, who have combined to hit 128 three-pointers at a 45 percent clip this season, might therefore find more good looks from deep than usual and have huge games through utilization of the three-point shot. Villanova's defense is also the worst of the 16 Big East squads at keeping opponents off the line, giving up close to half as many free throw attempts as field goal attempts (46.4 per 100). Kansas is not particularly strong at getting to the line, or hitting its free throws--the one offensive zone the Jayhawks don't dominate being the foul line--but you can expect to see Jayhawks perimeter slashers Chalmers and Russell Robinson and interior bangers Darnell Jackson and Sasha Kaun head to the line more than usual.
Villanova's strength on offense is getting steals from its guards and forcing turnovers, but Kansas is a solid ball-handling team, ranking 44th in the country, and hasn't turned it over on 17 percent of possessions or more in its last four games. When the team does get sloppy, however, it is extremely detrimental to the Jayhawks' offense, as evidenced by the -0.64 correlation between Kansas' turnover percentage and its offensive efficiency (as well as the team's February 23 61-60 loss to Oklahoma St., when the Jayhawks turned it over on 31 percent of possessions and scored just 0.93 points per trip). Villanova's chance at an upset, therefore, likely lies in generating a good number of thefts, which has the potential to throw Kansas' offense out of whack.
Kansas' weakness on defense is also the three-pointer (although not nearly to the extent that Villanova is vulnerable on the perimeter), and so the Wildcats' upset bid also relies upon the shooting of their young trio of guards, the freshmen Corey's (Stokes and Fisher) and sophomore Scottie Reynolds, who all enjoy dialing it up from long range. Reynolds in particular has had an outstanding tournament. He scored 25 points on 4-of-7 from three-point range and 7-of-9 from the line against Siena, to go along with eight rebounds and five assists, and he scored 21 on 4-of-5 from deep in the upset of Clemson. Stokes chipped in with a season-high 20 points against Siena on 75 eFG% shooting. Reynolds and Stokes, however, will be attempting to probe a Kansas perimeter defense that is led by two superior defenders in Chalmers and Robinson, who were both named to the Big 12 All-Defensive Team this season.
Kansas will be attempting to make it to the Elite Eight for the second straight year, and third time in five years since the team fell to Carmelo Anthony and Syracuse in the 2003 national title game. Villanova reached the Elite Eight two years ago, when the Wildcats team led by guards Allan Ray and Randy Foye lost to eventual-champion Florida.
Reliant Stadium (Houston, TX)
Matchup: #3 Stanford (28-7, 13-5 Pacific 10) vs. #2 Texas (30-6, 13-3 Big 12), 7:27
Rankings: Stanford, #11 in Pomeroy Ratings (3rd of 10 in Pac 10); Texas, #10 (2nd of 12 in Big 12)
Pomeroy Prediction: Texas, 67-66 in 62 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 49%
Prospectus: While just a spot apart in the Pomeroy Ratings, these two teams are built completely differently. Stanford is the top team in Division I by effective height thanks to 7'0 twins Brook and Robin Lopez, and has very little guard play to speak of, while Texas is driven by its sub-6'0 duo of D.J. and A.J. (Augustin and Abrams). The picture is a little more complicated than simply Stanford's inside power versus Texas's outside power, however. For one thing, the Longhorns are actually significantly better defending the two-pointer than the three--they have held opponents to 43.1 percent shooting inside the arc, while allowing 35 percent of the points scored against them to come via the three-pointer, the 26th highest figure in the nation. Can Stanford take advantage of Texas's somewhat-lacking perimeter defense? The Cardinal shoots threes on just 27 percent of field goal attempts, so it remains to be seen. Returning to our complication of the seeming one dimensionality of these teams, Stanford's defense is actually very good at preventing teams from shooting threes, and instead funneling attackers in towards the paint to get stymied by the Lopezes, so Augustin and Abrams might not be able to warm up their three-point shots to the extent that they'd like.
Stanford's defense, while an excellent unit which ranks ninth in adjusted defensive efficiency, has nevertheless eschewed trying for turnovers in order to focus on the other aspects of protecting the goal. The Cardinal doesn't go for steals at all, as evidenced by its ranking ninth from the bottom in D-I in steal percentage. There's a very good chance, then, that you will be able to count the Texas turnovers on two hands, for the Longhorns are the best in the country at protecting the basketball, paced in this regard by Abrams.
As far as the players go, the key to this game for Texas might well be Augustin, the Longhorns' best player, who has gone into a slump of late. Over the last three games, Augustin has shot just 41 eFG% from the floor, and scored an average of 12.7 points, as compared with his seasonal averages of 51.8 eFG% and 19.2 ppg. The Horns won't survive much longer in the tournament if Augustin posts another poor offensive performance. It might be that the sophomore is wearing down a little bit. Texas plays its starters more than any other team in Division I, and Augustin is the starter that plays the most, 92.7 percent of the minutes in 34 games. Last year, he played 86.5 percent of the minutes. If the four days of Texas earned after beating Miami last Sunday rejuvenated Augustin, then the Longhorns will be in good shape. On the Stanford end, the team needs a guard to step up and join the Lopezes in the scoring column. Mitch Johnson put up a stellar line of 16 assists against just one turnover in Stanford's 81-80 overtime win over Marquette that allowed the Cardinal to reach the Sweet 16, a remarkable performance considering he leads the squad in turnover rate. But Johnson is not much of a scorer, and the 6'3 junior shooting guard Anthony Goods, second on the team behind Brook Lopez in percentage of shots taken, was just 2-of-10 versus Marquette. Goods will have to perform better than that, and give his big men more support, for the Cardinal to go much deeper in the tournament.
Another thing to note in this game is the possible home-court advantage for Texas playing in Houston. If the contest is counted as "semi-home" for the Longhorns, their chance of winning jumps from 51, a virtual toss-up, to 59, a two-point advantage. That's bad news for Stanford, which is trying to make its first Elite Eight since 2001. Following that year, when it lost to Maryland in the regional final as a No. 1 seed, the Cardinal has lost in the second round of the tournament three times and the first round twice. Texas last went to the Elite Eight in 2006 as a No. 2 seed, when it lost to LSU.
Matchup: #5 Seed Michigan St. (27-8, 12-6 Big Ten) vs. #1 Memphis (35-1, 16-0 Conference USA), 9:57
Rankings: Michigan St., #14 in Pomeroy Ratings (2nd of 11 in Big 10); Memphis, #4 (1st of 12 in C-USA)
Pomeroy Prediction: Memphis, 70-65 in 67 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 31%
Prospectus: Michigan St. advanced to the Sweet 16 with a truly impressive defensive performance, holding a prolific Pittsburgh offense to just 0.89 points per possession in a 65-54 win on Saturday. The Spartans have been very up and down this season--particularly on offense, as their attack has been the second-most erratic unit of the past three seasons, according to John Gasaway's Winehouse Factor--and therefore, not knowing what it will get in terms of scoring output, the team especially needs its defense to be strong. The key in that regard lies on the defensive glass. The Spartans did a great job of keeping an excellent offensive rebounding Pitt team off the offensive boards, allowing the Panthers just seven rebounds of their own misses despite the fact that Pittsburgh had 35 opportunities. Michigan St., which ranks 86th in the country in defensive rebounding, but which is a good deal taller than Memphis on the frontline, will have to come up with a similarly thorough defensive rebounding performance against another good offensive rebounding team in the Tigers in order to knock off the No. 1.
If Memphis cannot grab the rebounds it is used to getting on the offensive end, it could be in serious trouble. That's because the Tigers' offense projects to be somewhat one-dimensional against Michigan St. Memphis is middle-of-the-pack from three-point range, but the Spartans shut down three-point shooting to the tune of a 31.2 percentage, 22nd best in the country. And while Memphis' free throw woes are definitely overstated, as Ken Pomeroy
recently pointed out--especially with regard to the team's chances in close games--the fact is that the Tigers get very few points at the free throw line, not just because they are a terrible shooting team from the stripe but because they don't get there very often at all (230th nationally in free throw rate, at 23.5 attempted per 100 field goal attempts). That leaves the interior, second-chance game around the basket as the main avenue for scoring against the Spartans. Therefore, senior forward Joey Dorsey, whose one job in the offensive is to grab offensive boards and score on putbacks, could be especially important to Memphis's chances, along with junior forward Robert Dozier and sophomore Shawn Taggert, the team's other contributors on the offensive glass.
Having said that, it is worth pointing out that Memphis is of course capable of winning any game strictly by virtue of its fearsome defense, which ranks third in the nation in adjusted efficiency, fifth in eFG% defense (42.9, a number arrived at through equally good work against both two- and three-point attempts), and eighth in block percentage. Michigan St. has had its shots blocked more than most D-I teams this year, so Memphis might be able to come up with a similar performance to last Sunday, when the team's 11 blocks of Mississippi St. allowed it to hang on for a 77-74 victory. Offensive rebounding will also be hugely important for the Spartans, who shoot fewer three-pointers as a percentage of total field goal attempts than all but five other teams, but rank seventh in the country in offensive rebounding percentage, thanks to the 6'10 junior Goran Suton and 6'7 sophomore Raymar Morgan. The Michigan St. offensive glass will provide an excellent matchup of strength-on-strength, for Memphis is also a very good defensive rebounding unit, with Dorsey, Dozier, and Taggart again being the three main contributors in that arena.
Essentially, then, this game will come down to the work done on the glass. Can Suton and Morgan, and to a lesser extent freshman Durrell Summers coming off the bench, hold off the bruising trio of Dorsey, Dozier, and Taggart? In addition to holding their own on the boards, the Spartans also have to worry about holding down their turnovers, which were a huge problem for the team up until mid February, when Michigan St. remarkably began taking excellent care of the ball. The Spartans slid back a bit against Pittsburgh, giving it away on 23 percent of their trips, and can't afford another such performance against Memphis.
Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Basketball Prospectus. He can be reached here.