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The eight most important individual matchups in the Sweet 16

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The first weekend could not have been more thrilling, beginning with Vee Sanford’s runner that sent No. 11 Dayton past No. 6 Ohio State and ending with the dunk show that Aaron Gordon put on for No. 1 Arizona.

In between, we unbelievably only had one true buzzer-beater — Cameron Ridley dispatching No. 10 Arizona State — but we did manage to put together the best day of Round of 64 games ever and the single best college basketball game since Louisville beat Michigan for the 2013 title.

We now have just 16 teams left in the dance. Here is our list of the eight most important individual matchups in the Sweet 16:

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Deandre Kane vs. Shabazz Napier: Two of the best point guards in the country. The engines driving two of the best offenses in the country. Two all-americans going head-to-head. You don’t really need any analysis here, just enjoy the fireworks.

Glenn Robinson III vs. Jarnell Stokes: I’m not sure if these two will end up guarding each other, but the fact of the matter is this: Tennessee has a massive, physical front line that can be overwhelming when Stokes plays the way he has this tournament. Michigan often uses Robinson as their four and plays a finesse game compared to Tennessee’s power. What wins out?

Nick Johnson vs. Xavier Thames: This is simple: Xavier Thames is San Diego State’s offense. Case in point: late in the win over North Dakota State, his 30 points and eight assists accounted for 46 of SDSU’s 55 points and 15 of their 19 field goals. Nick Johnson is one of the best defenders in the country. Slow down the all-american Thames, beat SDSU.

Frank Kaminsky vs. Isaiah Austin: Baylor beat Creighton because they were able to stretch out their 2-3 zone, hug the Creighton shooters and dare the Bluejays to try to score over Isaiah Austin in the paint. Wisconsin takes 40% of the field goals from beyond the arc, which is top 40 nationally. If Scott Drew employs the same tweak in his zone on Thursday night, Kaminsky will become the most important player on the floor.

Russ Smith vs. the Harrison twins: The most fun matchup in the Louisville-Kentucky game will be Julius Randle vs. Montrezl Harrell, but the most important will be between Russ Smith and the Harrisons. Smith, as well as Terry Rozier and Chris Jones, are going to have to get the Wildcats sped up and force some live-ball turnovers. Offensively, Smith needs to play like the guy that was a first-team all-american, not the guy that shot 6-for-19 with 11 turnovers in the first weekend.

Devin Oliver and Dyshawn Pierre vs. Josh Heustis and Dwight Powell: Stanford beat Kansas because their size overwhelmed a smaller Jayhawk front line. Oliver and Pierre and unquestionably smaller than Powell and Heustis, but they are more skilled on the perimeter than some of the Jayhawk fours. They’ll need to take advantage of that if Dayton wants to make the Elite 8.

Akil Mitchell vs. Adreian Payne: There may not be a more physically overwhelming player in the Sweet 16 than Adreian Payne. If he has a flaw, it’s that he can be inconsistent, even quiet, at times. Akil Mitchell, as well as Mike Tobey and Anthony Gill, will be charged with keeping the big fella in check. Gary Harris might be Michigan State’s best player, but when Payne gets it going, Michigan State can be near-unbeatable.

Scottie Wilbekin vs. UCLA’s defense: Florida is not the kind of team that gets blown out. They’re good enough on the defensive end of the floor that even a team that can put up points the way that UCLA can won’t be running away from them. And assuming this does come down to being a close game, the guy that Florida goes to in the clutch is Scottie Wilbekin. He’s their closer. Keep him from getting big buckets in big moments, and the Bruins will have a chance to pull an upset.

Michigan State playing zone? It’s possible

Tom Izzo
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Throughout Tom Izzo’s tenure at Michigan State the team’s half-court man-to-man defense has been a staple, and the Spartans have generally proven difficult to have a high rate of offensive success against. The reliance on that defense is why Izzo’s conversations earlier this summer about using some token full-court pressure due to the shortening of the shot clock caught some people off-guard.

According to the Detroit Free Press there’s another wrinkle the Spartans may use, and it’s likely that this wrinkle will show up more often than the full-court press. During Friday’s opening practice the Spartans worked on a 2-3 zone, and Izzo wants his assistants to make sure the team works on the defense consistently throughout the season.

That’s also why zone in general isn’t going to get heavy play at MSU, but having it as a tool could be beneficial — especially in games with touch fouls on the perimeter called in droves.

“I told (my assistant coaches): ‘You hold me accountable to working on it every day some’ … I have a tendency to drift off on that, and I don’t want to drift off on it,” Izzo said of the 2-3 zone. “But we will be, rest assured, a 90-some percent man-to-man team still and hopefully take some of those principles to zone.”

As noted in the story one of the risks in using pressure is allowing quality shots, which is why it’s unlikely that Michigan State will go to it. But even with Izzo vowing that his team will work on the zone, that doesn’t mean they’ll be playing it as often as Syracuse does.

Man-to-man has been Michigan State’s staple and it will continue to be. But it doesn’t hurt to look for other ways to keep opponents from getting the looks they want, especially if teams have five fewer seconds to find those shots.

Virginia used 3-on-3 to adjust to new shot clock

Malcolm Brogdon
Associated Press
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When the college basketball rules committee made the decision to trim the shot clock down to 30 second from 35, one reason for the switch was the desire to improve offensive production. With offensive numbers at their lowest point in years, proponents of the move see the shot clock change as a necessary move if scoring is to improve.

Whether or not that winds up being the case will be seen throughout the upcoming season, but teams are still having to make adjustments during the preseason.

Virginia, which has played at a snail’s pace (and with great success, mind you) in recent years, made some adjustments to their summer work in anticipation of playing with a 30-second shot clock. One adjustment was more games of 3-on-3 with a 15-second shot clock, which forced all involved to be more decisive in their offensive decision-making.

While the pack-line defense will always be a staple of Tony Bennett’s teams, the feeling in Charlottesville is that they’ve got the offensive firepower needed to both play faster and be more efficient offensively than they were in 2014-15 (29th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy). One of the players who will lead the way is senior guard Malcolm Brogdon, who led the team in scoring and was a first team All-ACC selection, and he discussed the team’s outlook with Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

And even though Anderson’s highlight-reel shot blocking was the thing that frequently fueled fast-breaks for U.Va. last season, Brogdon and [Anthony] Gill said they expect this year’s team to actually push the tempo even more.

“I think we’re going to be a team that gets out and runs more,” Brogdon said. “I think we’ll have three guards on the floor, most of the time, will be able to handle the ball as a point guard and get out in transition. I think we’ll play a lot faster.”

Brogdon and Gill are two of the team’s three returning starters with point guard London Perrantes being the other, and the Cavaliers also return most of their reserves from last year’s rotation. That experience will help them on both ends of the floor as they prepare for a run at a third straight ACC regular season title. And in theory it also allows them to extend themselves a bit more offensively than they did a season ago.