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Breaking Down the Sweet 16: The X-factor in each game

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We’re down to the Sweet 16, when teams will have more time to study unfamiliar opponents and figure out what needs to be done in order to advance. With that in mind, here are the x-factors for each of the eight Sweet 16 games that will be played later this week.

Click here to browse through all of our Sweet 16 previews

EAST REGION

No. 3 Marquette vs. No. 2 Miami: Who makes the plays down the stretch?

Marquette may be the best team in the country when it comes to winning close games. Just ask Butler, who Marquette beat in the round of 32, or Davidson, who watched a team that can’t hit threes makes a flurry of them in the final minute. That said, Miami may have the most clutch player left in the tournament in Shane Larkin. This will be a close game. Who makes the big shots and the big plays down the stretch to win it?

No. 4 Syracuse vs. No. 1 Indiana: Can Indiana play two point guards?

We already told you that the key matchup in this game is going to end up being how Victor Oladipo defends Michael Carter-Williams. It only makes sense that the Hoosiers would matchup that way. MCW is the most important player on the Syracuse roster, and Oladipo is one of the best defenders in the country. But if Oladipo is on MCW, than does that mean that one of Jordy Hulls or Yogi Ferrell is stuck on James Southerland? That can’t happen, which puts Indiana in a tough spot. Can they go 2-3 zone against the Orange to get both of their guards on the floor? Will Will Sheehey or Remy Abell see the majority of the minutes at the three, allowing Indiana to better matchup with the Syracuse size? If Indiana is forced to play bigger, does that hurt how they can execute against the Syracuse 2-3 zone?

WEST REGION

No. 6 Arizona vs. No. 2 Ohio State: Who has to adjust their lineup?

Arizona is as big as anyone in the country, especially at the times where they slide Solomon Hill down to the three and play two of their freshmen bigs together. Ohio State, currently the hottest team in the country, has made their late season run by going small, using Deshaun Thomas, Sam Thompson and LaQuinton Ross as their front court rotation. Will the Buckeyes be forced to play big, or will Arizona have to play small to matchup with Ohio State?

No. 13 La Salle vs. No. 9 Wichita State: Cleanthony Early

Early is the guy that solves Wichita State’s matchup problem. The Explorers play four guards at once, especially with Steve Zack still injured. Early is the most talented player on the Shockers, a 6-foot-8 forward with perimeter skills. He can defend on the perimeter as well, and while you might not want to stick him on Ramon Galloway, he should be able to hold his own against Sam Mills. If he does, he creates the matchup problem at the other end with his size.

MIDWEST REGION

No. 12 Oregon vs. No. 1 Louisville: Oregon’s defensive execution

We already know about Oregon’s turnover issues against Louisville’s press, but if the Ducks want to avoid facing that press, they need to get stops. When Louisville scores, they smother you. When they don’t, they drop back and defend in the half court. The best press break is a good defense.

No. 3 Michigan State vs. No. 2 Duke: Mason Plumlee vs. Derrick Nix

Part of what makes Duke’s offense so effective is that Mason Plumlee can overpower people in the post. If he gets doubled, he’s got four sharp-shooters and capable passers surrounding him that can make teams pay for leaving them open. Plumlee isn’t going to be overpowering Derrick Nix, however. If there is no double team coming, is Duke going to be able to get enough good looks offensively against Michigan State’s defense?

SOUTH REGION

No. 4 Michigan vs. No. 1 Kansas: How does Kansas defend ball-screens?

The way that Iowa State almost pulled off a pair of wins over Kansas is that they were able to pull Jeff Withey away from the rim by engaging the guy that he was guarding in ball-screen actions. While the Cyclones used Georges Niang and Melvin Ejim in pick-and-pop actions, Mitch McGary is as good as anyone in the country at rolling hard to the rim off of a ball-screen. Trey Burke is terrific coming off of a ball-screen as well, and with the number of knockdown shooters that Michigan has on the perimeter, help defense becomes even more risky.

No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast vs. No. 3 Florida: Dunk City

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the way that FGCU beat both San Diego State and Georgetown is that they hung around long enough that, when they went on their big second half run, it just ripped the will out of both teams. Will the Gators allow Dunk City to hang round long enough to do that?

No. 22 Cincinnati’s loss to No. 16 Butler shines light on AAC’s struggles

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 10: Head coach Mick Cronin of the Cincinnati Bearcats reacts against the Butler Bulldogs in the first half of the game at Hinkle Fieldhouse on December 10, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Kelan Martin scored 20 points and Andrew Chrabascz added 12 points, four boards and five assists as No. 16 Butler bounced back from a tough loss at Indiana State to beat No. 22 Cincinnati, 75-65.

The Bulldogs had been undefeated on the season prior to the loss to the Sycamores, but their ranking was built on the fact that they had beaten Arizona, who was No. 8 at the time, as well as a trio of high-major programs that look destined for the NIT.

Cincinnati probably isn’t destined for the NIT. Their top 25 ranking is justified, which is what makes this win valuable. Quality non-conference wins matter, and this is just one of a handful of good wins for what has proven to be one of the most top-heavy conferences in the country. Villanova, Creighton, Xavier and Butler all look capable of reaching the Sweet 16 this season.

The opposite is true for Cincinnati, who look like the flag-bearer in a conference that isn’t really all that good. They’re the best team in the AAC this season, but that’s a conference that has consistently disappointed this year. SMU, Temple and UConn have all struggled more than we expected them to. Tulsa and Memphis are in rebuilding mode. Houston was supposed to be good this season but they’ve yet to live up to the preseason hype.

Think about it like this: The only team in the AAC without multiple losses on the season is now UCF. That’s … not ideal, and it’s going to be interesting to see just how many bids the league is able to generate.

Think about it. Temple has beaten West Virginia and Florida State while losing to New Hampshire and UMass. SMU’s best win is either Pitt or TCU, both of whom are borderline tournament teams. UConn beat Syracuse but has some atrocious losses on their resume. Houston beat Rhode Island but lost to Arkansas and LSU. Memphis beat Iowa, but Iowa’s not all that good. UCF’s best win is … Mississippi State?

Cincinnati’s lone quality win is at Iowa State, who is about to drop out of the top 25.

POSTERIZED: Wichita State’s Daishon Smith dunks on Oklahoma big man

WICHITA, KS - NOVEMBER 13:  Guard Daishon Smith of the Wichita State Shockers drives up court past forward Roschon Prince #23 of the Long Beach State 49ers during the first half on November 13, 2016 at Charles Koch Arena in Wichita, Kansas.  (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images)
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Daishon Smith is 6-foot-1.

Kristian Doolittle is 6-foot-7.

The lil guy won this battle:

Here’s another angle of the dunk, which sent Wichita State’s bench into hysterics:

POSTERIZED: Duke’s Grayson Allen with a Dunk of the Year candidate (VIDEO)

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It looks like Grayson Allen’s toe is healthy. I’d say his explosivness is back:

Whoa.

Yeah.

POSTERIZED: Five-star Class of 2017 guard Trevon Duval dunks on 6’8″ defender

CHARLOTTE, NC - JULY 9: Trevon Duval during the 2015  Under Armour All-America Basketball Camp on July 9, 2015 at Queens College in Charlotte, NC. (Photo by Ned Dishman/Under Armour)
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Class of 2017 point guard Trevon Duval put down a huge poster dunk on a 6’8″ defender on Saturday as the five-star prospect showed why many consider him the top lead guard in high school basketball.

The 6-foot-2 Duval is considered the No. 3 overall prospect in the Class of 2017 by Rivals.

Nigel Hayes shines against as No. 17 Wisconsin beats Marquette

MILWAUKEE, WI - DECEMBER 10:  Nigel Hayes #10 of the Wisconsin Badgers is fouled by Luke Fischer #40 of the Marquette Golden Eagles during the first half of a game at the BMO Harris Bradley Center on December 10, 2016 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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What a difference a year makes.

Last season at this time, Wisconsin dropped a home game to a Marquette team that was headed to the NIT.

This year?

The Badgers put six players in double-figures as they went into Milwaukee and knocked off Marquette, 93-84.

Bronson Koenig continued his hot shooting, finishing with 18 points and six assists while shooting 4-for-6 from beyond the arc. Vitto Brown chipped in with 15 points, Khalil Iverson had 16 and Ethan Happ chipped in with 11 despite battling foul trouble all afternoon.

But the really story here – hell, the story of Wisconsin’s season to date – has been the change in the way that Nigel Hayes plays.

Hayes was terrific again on Saturday. He had 17 points, nine boards, four assists and three steals. He shot 6-for-10 from the floor and attempted just a pair of threes, making one of them. He had the ball in his hands when Wisconsin was trying to kill off the game, and, more importantly, head coach Greg Gard has seem to start to take advantage of just how good Hayes can be as a facilitator.

There are a couple of points that need to be made here:

  1. When Hayes plays like this, he deserves to be in the all-american discussion. He’s averaging 18.0 points, 7.3 boards and 6.7 assists in the three games Wisconsin has played against high-major competition since the change, and the Badgers have won five straight games while playing easily their best basketball of the season.
  2. And it’s not just because of the numbers he puts up. When Hayes operates as Wisconsin’s de-facto point guard, it makes everyone else on the roster better. For starters, it allows Koenig to play off the ball, where he seems to be more effective. He’s at his best when he’s hunting shots and trying to create off the bounce, but his aggressiveness can be detrimental when he’s the only one touching the ball. It also means offense runs through Happ more often since Koenig isn’t dominating possession, and it lets guys like Brown space the floor because they’re actually able to get rhythm threes.

As of today, Wisconsin is the favorite to win the Big Ten, even if Indiana is far more likely to end up being a No. 1 seed in March.