Sweet 16 Previews: Why Crowder will be so valuable vs. Florida

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Ed Isaacson of NBADraftBlog.com contributed to this post.

Jae Crowder is Marquette’s most important player, and based on the fact that he won Big East Player of the Year of Kevin Jones, the West Virginia power forward that led the conference in scoring and rebounding, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that he was the most important player in the league.

The problem is that most people don’t understand that. They don’t see what he provides this team beyond the box score. (And he gives the box score plenty, averaging 17.4 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 2.1 apg, 2.5 spg and 1.0 bpg while shooting 35.3% from three.) They don’t see why he is going to be the most difficult matchup when No. 7 Florida takes the against the third-seeded Golden Eagles on Thursday night.

What makes Crowder so dangerous is his ability to play multiple positions on the floor. He’s big and strong enough to finish around the rim and make a move in the post when he has a smaller defender on him, but his quickness, mobility and skill with the ball allows him to play on the perimeter when he has a power forward (which is the norm, he plays the four for Marquette) guarding him.

It goes beyond the simple ability to make a play on the perimeter. Take a look at this example from the Golden Eagle’s opening round game with BYU. You’ll see Junior Cadougan running off of a high ball-screen set by Jamil Wilson. Crowder is in the far corner:

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Cadougan is able to turn the corner on the screen and get all the way to the rim in large part because Noah Hartsock, BYU’s power forward that was guarding Crowder, was late to help. He couldn’t leave Crowder open:

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Erik Murphy is likely going to be given the task of guarding Crowder, at last early in the game. It will be interesting to see if he can keep up with Crowder 20 feet from the basket.

That is far from the only area that Crowder contributes to Marquette’s offensive attack. The Golden Eagles love to get out an run. They are 16th nationally in pace, according to Kenpom, with 21.3% of their possessions coming in transition. Only two teams in the country (Iona and Alabama A&M) have a higher percentage of possessions in transition.

There are a couple of ways Crowder adds to Marquette’s ability to run. The first is, well, his ability to run. In this example, you’ll see Crowder guarding Tyler Olander of UConn, who is setting a ball-screen for Jeremy Lamb:

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Lamb ends up driving and finishing a layup, but notice the clock and look at where Crowder (No. 32) is located is relation to Olander (No. 10 in white) and Andre Drummond (No. 12 in white):

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Crowder beat them both down the floor for a layup and an immediate answer to Lamb’s basket:

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Marquette’s ability to score quickly can be demoralizing for an opponent. When their transition game is working well, a misstep defensively and you get burned. Here, you see Crowder — who was playing safety in Marquette’s press — grab a rebound in traffic at one end of the floor. Notice the time on the clock:

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Crowder throws a picture-perfect outlet pass to Cadougan — in stride as he heads the other direction:

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And in just five seconds, Wilson is finishing a lob at the other end of the floor:

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It happens that quickly. Even when he’s barely involved in the play, Crowder plays a huge role in Marquette’s ability to get up and down the floor.

The other part of Crowder’s game and deserves to be noted is his versatility defensively. He can defend in the paint and he can guard on the perimeter. In this example, you’ll see Crowder win the battle for position with BYU’s Brandon Davies on one side of the court:

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He then wins the battle again on the other side of the floor, forcing BYU’s star center to catch the ball 18 feet from the rim:

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When Davies tries to back Crowder down, he “pulls the chair” — he steps back so Davies momentum makes him fall — and creates a turnover:

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But as you can see in this example, Crowder can keep the quickest guards in the country in front of him as well. Here, you see Crowder step up and stop the head of steam that UConn’s Ryan Boatright had in transition:

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Boatright realizes he has a power forward on him, so he pulls the ball out and tries to dribble by Crowder:

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But Crowder is quick enough laterally that Boatright is forced to take, and miss, a tough, step-back jumper:

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Florida is going to have to pick their poison when it comes to Crowder. He will be able to defend anyone that they can throw at him at the four spot. Crowder is also the reason that Florida’s mismatch — Murphy, who is a 6’10” sharpshooter at the power forward spot — will be nullified. Crowder can help and recover onto Murphy like he’s guard, but Murphy won’t be able to take advantage of the matchup in the paint. Using freshman Bradley Beal likely won’t be all that much better. Beal will be overwhelmed by Crowder in the paint without being able to blow-by him on the perimeter.

It’s amazing. Crowder can single-handedly ruin the way that Florida’s offensive attack creates matchup problems.

And you wonder why he’s so valuable?

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Elite 8 Preview: Sunday’s picks, predictions, betting lines and channels

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No. 4 FLORIDA (-3) vs. No. 7 SOUTH CAROLINA, 2:20 p.m., CBS: If you’re a fan of uptempo, wide-open basketball, of teams running beautiful offensive sets, spreading the floor and using the three-point line like it should be used, this game probably is not going to be for you.

This is going to be as physical and as tough as any game you watched all season long. Both the Gamecocks and the Gators are top five teams in defensive efficiency, and both of them get out and pressure defensively, Florida in the full court and South Carolina in the half court. They shun shooters for the toughest athletes on their roster. They pride themselves in being tougher, both mentally and physically, than whoever they end up playing.

And they think that a game played in the 50s is beautiful basketball.

So bet the under if you can.

But the pick I like is Florida here. Their ability to defend is going to make it very difficult for South Carolina’s offensive renaissance to continue, and their guards will be able to make the plays offensively that South Carolina dares you to make.

PREDICTION: Florida (-3)

No. 1 NORTH CAROLINA (-2.5) vs. No. 2 KENTUCKY, 5:05 p.m. CBS: This is the rematch we all wanted, right?

Ever since that day three months ago, when Kentucky got 47 points from Malik Monk in a 103-102 win over North Carolina in Las Vegas, I don’t think there is a soul in the country that would have told you otherwise.

There are two major differences between these two teams now and those two teams then. The biggest is the presence of Theo Pinson, North Carolina’s best perimeter defender. Pinson has dealt foot injuries all season long, and when these two got together in December, he was not yet healthy enough to play. I assume that he will draw the assignment of Malik Monk, chasing around the man that had definitively been Kentucky’s most dangerous scorer. Pinson will make life more difficult for Monk than it was the first time around.

But is he going to spend the entire game on him?

Because after De’Aaron Fox’s 39-point outburst against UCLA on Friday night, it’s fair to wonder whether or not Pinson may be better suited to taking on the task of keeping Fox from getting into the paint. Whatever Roy Williams opts to do, the bottom line is pretty simple — if he needs to find a way to keep Kentucky’s back court in check.

The other difference between now and then is that Bam Adebayo has been playing up to his potential for the past six weeks. He was solid earlier in the year. He can be dominant at times now, and that is going to be critical for the Wildcats, who are going to be outsized by a significant margin by UNC’s front line. The Tar Heels lead the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, and they are one of the only elite teams that thrives playing two bigs at the same time. In other words, one of Wenyen Gabriel or Derek Willis are going to have to deal with Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks and Tony Bradley. That’s a matchup that favors UNC, which is why Aebayo is going to have to play up to his size.

In the end, I think Pinson’s presence and North Carolina’s size advantage will be too much.

But if Fox and Monk play their game, they can carry Kentucky a long, long way.

PREDICTION: North Carolina (2.5)

Lawrence Police Department trolls Bill Self following Elite Eight loss

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Kansas had its season ended with a 74-60 loss to No. 3 seed Oregon.

The Jayhawks were the top seed in the South region. They were playing a de facto at the Sprint Center, which is 40 miles away from the school’s campus. As you can imagine, fans in Lawrence were likely unhappy, especially since it’s the second year in a row KU has been bounced one-game shy of the Final Four.

The Lawrence Police Department, while prepping for potential riots, couldn’t help tweeting a joke at the future Hall of Famer’s expense.

Bill Self’s teams have been eliminated seven times in the Elite Eight during his tenure at Kansas. He’s led the Jayhawks to a pair of Final Fours, winning the national championship in 2008.

Kansas finished the season 31-5.

Gonzaga passes the title of best program without a Final Four to Xavier in win

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In 1999, Gonzaga was not yet “Gonzaga”.

A No. 10 seed in just their third NCAA tournament, the Zags won three games against high-major competition, coming within a possession of reaching the Final Four in a loss to No. 1 seed UConn.

UConn, at that point, was one of the best programs in the country under Jim Calhoun, but the knock on the Huskies at that point was that they couldn’t win the big one. They had been to three Elite 8s and three more Sweet 16s in the previous eight seasons, but it wasn’t until they knocked off that Gonzaga team that they finally were playing on college basketball’s biggest stage.

For 18 years, Gonzaga tried and failed to get to a Final Four, becoming one of the nation’s premier basketball programs without having the postseason success to legitimize themselves in the eyes of idiots around the country. That ended on Saturday night in San Jose, as No. 1 seed Gonzaga ended No. 11 Xavier’s thrilling run to the Elite 8 and passing on the torch that UConn passed to them.

Xavier can now claim the title of the best basketball program that has yet to make a Final Four, which is both a compliment and a curse.

The Musketeers have been to the NCAA tournament 25 times since the bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985. They’ve been to nine Sweet 16s and three Elite 8s. They had a winning record in NCAA tournament play until Saturday’s loss and now lay claim to the title of the team with the most NCAA tournament wins without an appearance in the Final Four.

Xavier is going to get there eventually. Chris Mack is one of the best coaches in the business. Hell, if Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner both return to school, it could very well be next season that they snap that streak. It’s coming at some point.

I don’t even think it’s an insult to say this about Xavier. I don’t think it’s a shot at the program or the coaches that have come through it. Getting to the Final Four is hard. Bill Self is a lead-pipe lock to be a Hall of Famer, and he’s been to just two Final Fours in his career. He’s 2-7 in the Elite 8, and if Derrick Rose could make his free throws, the discussion of just how good of a coach Self is if he can’t win a title would be raging with the Jayhawks flaming out of the tournament on Saturday night.

But as with Gonzaga and UConn before them, Xavier is going to have that monkey on their back every time they suit up in March.

VIDEO: Tyler Dorsey hits dagger after dagger in upset of Kansas

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Tyler Dorsey is building himself quite the reputation for being a big-shot maker.

He hit the game-winner that got Oregon to the Sweet 16. He hit two threes at the end of the first half to push Oregon’s lead to 11 points over Kansas. And he hit this three, the dagger through the heart of Kansas:

Dorsey finished with 27 points. He’s scored at least 20 points in every game since the NCAA tournament began.

No. 3 Oregon heading to first Final Four in 78 years

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Oregon, the No. 3 seed in the Midwest region, made what looked to be a smooth path to Phoenix into a bumpy road. But after 78 years, the Ducks are going back to the Final Four, defeating No. 1 Kansas, 74-60, in Elite Eight on Friday night in Kansas City.

Everything went right for the Ducks in the first half. Josh Jackson was called for two fouls in the less than three minutes. The Jayhawks were limited in transition. Tyler Dorsey’s two 3-pointers in the final 40 seconds gave them a double-digit lead at halftime. Oregon stretched it to as many as 18 in the second. Kansas couldn’t buy a basket from three (a far cry from the 3-point barrage it put on Purdue two nights earlier). When the Jayhawks drove to the basket, it was Jordan Bell (11 points, 13 rebounds and eight blocks) who either blocked or altered their shots.

However, the Ducks not only left the door open for the Jayhawks, they held it open. Kansas’ comeback attempt was a mix drink that was equal parts KU putting the clamps on defensively, Oregon playing a bit of hero ball, and the Ducks playing not to lose instead of to win. Up six with less than two minutes remaining, Dorsey (27 points) buried a dagger 3-pointer that all but sealed the win — and a spot in next week’s Final Four — for the Ducks.

Oregon will play the winner of the South region, which will either be No. 1 North Carolina or No. 2 Kentucky on Saturday.

The slogan of the NCAA Tournament is “The Road to the Final Four”.

Outside of Duke, the runaway preseason favorite, and it’s months-long narrative of “Is Duke back?”, you could make the case there wasn’t a Final Four contender with a journey filled with more ups and downs than Oregon.

Weeks following a season-ending loss to Oklahoma in the Elite Eight, Oregon learned that both Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey would return to school for the next season. In July, Dylan Ennis was granted a sixth-year of eligibility. With Chris Boucher and Jordan Bell returning, and Payton Pritchard joining the program, the Ducks were an easy choice for a preseason Final Four pick.

Brooks’ offseason foot surgery — and the recovery that followed — raised concern about whether or not Oregon could fully reach its preseason potential, entering conference play without a notable win. Brooks’ Pac-12 Player of the Year season put to rest the status of his foot, leading the Ducks to a 16-2 Pac-12 record.

Hours before Oregon was set to battle with Arizona, it was announced that Chris Boucher had torn his ACL and would be out for the remainder of the season. Not only could this have played a role in the team’s seeding by the selection committee, but Boucher offered more than rim protection, as he helped space the floor given his ability to step out and shoot from the perimeter.

After fending off a good fight from Iona, the Ducks looked to be part of a Rhode Island’s magical postseason run. Tyler Dorsey ended that. In the Sweet 16, Oregon was matchup with Michigan, dubbed as the team of destiny. Bell and Dorsey, Oregon’s two tournament stars, stepped up in critical moments once again. Slated as an underdog for the second straight game, Oregon proved its Final Four worth by handing Kansas its worst tournament defeat of the Bill Self era in a regional final game that was played 40 miles away from the KU campus.

“I’m happy for our team,” Oregon head coach Dana Altman said following the game. “I’m happy for, as I mentioned, our university and our state. It’s been a long time coming and now we just need to go continue to play well.”

For Oregon, its road to the Final Four has come full circle.