Sweet 16 Preview: Ranking eight games

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The Sweet 16 is going to kick off in less than 36 hours, which means that it is time for us to dive into the matchups and the games themselves.

Here are the eight games that we have on the docket on Thursday and Friday, with an in-depth look at each one, including some analysis on betting lines and how I expect each game to play out.

8. No. 2 DUKE vs. No. 11 SYRACUSE, Friday 9:37 p.m.

  • Line: Duke -11.5
  • O/U: 133.5
  • Projected score: Duke 72.5, Syracuse 61

All the zone! Syracuse has been playing a 2-3 zone for as long as Jim Boeheim has been a surly, bespectacled basketball coach. But now, Duke is doing the same thing! They couldn’t guard anyone when Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter were forced to run around on the perimeter, guarding small fours and switching ball-screens, but now that Duke is in this zone, they can fully take advantage of their size without having to worry about dealing with the mismatches at the other end.

I think Duke runs away with this. For starters, they have better perimeter shooters than they get credit for — both Grayson Allen and Gary Trent Jr. can stroke it — and Bagley and Carter are both skilled and versatile enough to be killers at the high-post. Throw in that Duke is the nation’s best offensive rebounding team and Syracuse gets annihilated on the defensive glass, and I think the Blue Devils roll.

PICKS: Duke and the under. Betting Duke unders has been very profitable of late, mainly because it took a while for the public to catch up to the pace — and defense — that Duke was playing with this zone. And Syracuse? They’re not much different than Virginia, only they play a zone instead of a 2-3 (and win in the tournament … too soon?) so while 133.5 is low, I would still hammer the under here. I think this ends up somewhere around a 75-55 game. When they played in Cameron a month ago, the final score was 60-44 Duke.

7. No. 4 GONZAGA vs. No. 9 FLORIDA STATE, Thursday 10:07 p.m.

  • Line: Gonzaga -5.5
  • O/U: 153.5
  • Projected score: Gonzaga 79.5, Florida State 74

This Florida State team is not like the Florida State teams that you remember from Leonard Hamilton. In the past, Hamilton has seemingly recruited every big body that he can possibly find to pack into the paint and defend like hell while struggling to buy a bucket. This team? They have a slew of talented guards, they love to get out and run in transition and they’ll even play some small-ball.

To be honest, I think that will play into Gonzaga’s hands. The Zags have enough athletic and mobile big men to be able to handle any kind of matchup, particularly when Rui Hachimura is playing the way he has of late. The big question I have is for Josh Perkins and Silas Melson. They were not their best during the first weekend, and if they are not their best Gonzaga is only going to go so far relying on both Rui and Zach Norvell to have career performances.

PICKS: I do think Gonzaga wins, although I don’t love that line. What I do think is a sneaky-good bet is the over. The line is 153.5 while KenPom projects it at 158 points.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

6. No. 5 KENTUCKY vs. No. 9 KANSAS STATE, Thursday 9:37 p.m.

  • Line: Kentucky -5.5
  • O/U: 138.5
  • Projected score: Kentucky 72, Kansas State 66.5

Let’s pretend that Florida game three weeks ago — the one that happened in the regular season finale for the Wildcats — never happened. Erase that from your memory, and the Wildcats have won their last nine games, and many of them in impressive fashion. They’re defending at the same level they’ve guarded all year long, but with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander playing the way that he has over the course of the last two months and Kevin Knox seemingly finding more consistency, I do think that Kentucky is playing as well as anyone left in this tournament not named Villanova or Duke.

The big question here is the health of Dean Wade. He told reporters after the win over UMBC that he would be playing on Thursday night, but we’ll see if that comes to fruition. If he does play, I can’t imagine that he’ll be at 100 percent.

PICKS: If Wade plays at 100 percent, I like Kentucky here. If Wade doesn’t play or is limited, I love Kentucky. I just think the Blue Wildcats are bigger, more athletic and more talented than Kansas State at every position, and that’s not good. Even if they guard Kentucky well, they are going to get killed on the defensive glass.

5. No. 1 KANSAS vs. No. 5 CLEMSON, Friday 7:07 p.m.

  • Line: Kansas -4.5
  • O/U: 143
  • Projected score: Kansas 73.75, Clemson 69.25

I have, not once this season, believed in Clemson. Not once. And every time I don’t believe in them — in the preseason, after Donte Grantham got injured, heading into the NCAA tournament — they do something to make me look like an idiot for not believing in them. So guess what? I’m not believing in them again!

Let me rephrase that. It’s not that I don’t believe in Clemson. I’ll admit it. I messed up. They’re really good; you have to be really good to beat the SEC regular season co-champions by 41 points. But I think that the way to beat Kansas is to be able to beat them up in the paint. Take advantage of the fact that they play Svi Mykhailiuk at the four. Clemson doesn’t really do that, so I think Kansas scoots on by Clemson to face Duke in the Midwest Regional final.

PICKS: Here’s the interesting thing about this game: The line is Kansas -4.5, and the projection on KenPom is Kansas -1. Generally speaking, those are inefficiencies to capitalize on, and it makes me want to take Clemson and the points even though my gut says go the other way. When that happens, I tend to stay away.

4. No. 7 NEVADA vs. No. 11 LOYOLA-CHICAGO, Thursday 7:07 p.m.

  • Line: Nevada -1.5
  • O/U: 143.5
  • Projected score: Nevada 72.5, Loyola-Chicago 71

I think the worst thing that could have happened to Loyola-Chicago was for Nevada to win the way they won the last two games. It basically came down to Eric Musselman having guys on his roster that could makes play and didn’t care what the scoreboard said or the pressure of the moment. And now those dudes are confident.

Loyola is a good, well-coached basketball team. They execute offensively, they shoot the leather off the ball and they clearly have God on their side with Sister Jean. But I would not want to play this Nevada team with the Martin twins, Jordan Caroline and Kendell Stephens in this kind of a rhythm.

PICKS: Give me the Wolf Pack. They were able to make shots on both Texas and Cincinnati, who were two of the very best defensive teams in the country this season. Playing against Loyola, who is a good defensive team in their own right, will feel like every shot is wide-open as a result. I’d lean the under here, but I probably will stay away myself.

3. No. 3 MICHIGAN vs. No. 7 TEXAS A&M, Thursday 7:37 p.m.

  • Line: Michigan -2.5
  • O/U: 136
  • Projected score: Michigan 69.25, Texas A&M 66.75

This is a fascinating contrast in lineup builds. Michigan doesn’t have all that much size inside but is, instead, built on their ability to limit opponent possessions and stifle the ones they do get; they don’t turn the ball over, they don’t give up offensive rebounds and they are the best defensive team left in the tournament according to KenPom. The Aggies are absolutely massive upfront but have had questionable guard play all season long.

Here’s what I think the key will be: Zavier Simpson vs. T.J. Starks. Simpson can erase a point guard from a game, and Starks is a freshman that has been, at times, erasable. Will he be able to get the ball to Big Bob Williams and Tyler Davis where they can be effective? Will Simpson, and Moe Wagner, be able to create enough in John Beilein’s ball-screen offense to score on one of the nation’s top ten defensive teams?

PICKS: I think they will. I think Michigan muddies this game up, their perimeter pressure prevents A&M from getting any kind of rhythm going and they do enough offensively and on the defensive glass to win a rock fight. Michigan and the under.

Keenan Evans (John Weast/Getty Images)

2. No. 2 PURDUE vs. No. 3 TEXAS TECH, Friday 9:57 p.m.

  • Line: Purdue -1.5
  • O/U: 137.5
  • Projected score: Purdue 69.5, Texas Tech 68

What makes this game so interesting to me is that we don’t really know what Matt Painter has up his sleeve. I’m operating under the assumption that Isaac Haas isn’t playing, and that even if he does, we’re looking at a situation where he is out there for limited minutes as a motivation tool more than his usual self. I don’t care how good your brace is, imagine shooting jump-hooks with a broken elbow. I don’t see it.

Painter will have had three or four days to figure out an answer, and my guess is that they use more spread pick-and-rolls, looking to get Haarms rolling with four shooters around him. Texas Tech should actually matchup with that pretty well — I’d be more concerned about them trying to slow down Haas one-on-one on the block — given their athleticism. Hell, I could see them using lineups with Zach Smith at the five quite a bit. They also have the ultimate trump card in Keenan Evans, who has been one of the best closers in college basketball this season.

PICKS: Texas Tech with the points. The Red Raiders are good at chasing teams off of the three-point line, they matchup well with Purdue and they are, according to KenPom, the second-best defensive team left in the tournament. The best — Michigan — beat Purdue pretty handily in the Big Ten tournament title game three weeks ago. If forced to, I’d bet the under here.

1. No. 1 VILLANOVA vs. No. 5 WEST VIRGINIA, Friday 7:27 p.m.

  • Line: Villanova (-5.5)
  • O/U: 152.5
  • Projected score: Villanova 79, West Virginia 73.5

I love Jevon Carter. I have the utmost respect for what Bob Huggins has been able to do with this West Virginia program. While what he does is the polar opposite from what Tony Bennett does at Virginia, the way they do it is not all that dissimilar: They find and recruit players that are going to buy into the program, that fit what they want to do and then, over the course of four or five years, develop them into stars. Some become pros. Most don’t. But they keep winning games.

But the reason that Press Virginia works is that their defensive identity speeds opponents up and forces them to make mistakes. No one is speeding Jalen Brunson up. No one is going to rattle him. Villanova doesn’t make mistakes. They don’t turn the ball over. But they do make a ton of threes, and what I’m picturing in my head is Jay Wright’s club breaking this West Virginia pressure with relative ease and getting open three after open three at the other end.

PICKS: I think Villanova covers fairly easily. The question here is whether or not you think West Virginia is going to keep their press on for the whole game. If they don’t — if they settle into a half-court defense or play a token, full-court man-to-man — then Villanova sometimes takes the air out of the ball. I’d bet the over, but I’m not entirely confident in that.

Syracuse’s Tyus Battle to test NBA draft waters

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Syracuse announced on Friday afternoon that sophomore guard Tyus Battle will be declaring for the NBA draft without signing with an agent, giving him until the NCAA’s May 30th deadline to withdraw from contention and return to school.

Battle averaged 19.2 points as a sophomore for the Orange, who made a surprising run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

He is a projected late-first round or early-second round pick given his size, shooting ability and skill with the ball in his hands.

Losing Battle would be a massive blow to a Syracuse team that is already going to be without Matthew Moyer, who transferred out of the program, and Dareus Bazley, who is heading to the G League instead of enrolling in college.

Maryland’s Kevin Huerter declares for NBA draft, won’t hire agent

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Maryland wing Kevin Huerter announced on Friday afternoon that he will be declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, giving him the option of returning to school by May 30th.

“This will be a great experience for Kevin to get honest feedback from NBA teams and executives,” said head coach Mark Turgeon. “Taking advantage of this opportunity will allow Kevin and his family to make an informed decision about his future.”

Huerter is a 6-foot-7 wing known for his ability to shoot from the perimeter. He averaged 14.8 points and shot 42 percent from three as a sophomore.

He is also the third player from Maryland to declare for the 2018 NBA Draft. Justin Jackson, a borderline first round pick who missed time last season with a shoulder injury, has signed with an agent while Bruno Fernando is testing the waters. Maryland, who has an excellent recruiting class coming in, will be a preseason top 20 team if Huerter and Fernando both return to school.

Huerter is a borderline first round pick.

Michigan’s Charles Matthews to test NBA draft waters

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Michigan guard Charles Matthews announced on Friday that he will be declaring for the NBA draft, but that he does not intend to sign with an agent, meaning he has until May 30th to withdraw from the draft and return to school.

“After careful consideration with my parents and coaching staff, I am excited to announce that I will be declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft without hiring an agent,” said Matthews. “I give thanks to the Lord for this amazing opportunity, as well as the entire University of Michigan for their support. Go Blue!”

Matthews, a redshirt sophomore that averaged 13.0 points and 5.5 boards for the national runners-up, was a four-star prospect coming out of Chicago and spent his freshman season at Kentucky.

Matthews is a likely second round pick with the potential to climb into the first round should he prove to be a more consistent three-point shooter. He shot just 31.8 percent from beyond the arc this past season.

Virginia’s Hunter to return to school for sophomore season

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De’Andre Hunter announced on Friday afternoon that he will not be entering his name into the NBA draft and will return to Virginia for his redshirt sophomore season, a decision that will have as much of an impact on the 2018-19 college basketball season as any that is made this spring.

Hunter, now a potential top ten pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, was one of the breakout stars of the 2017-18 season. A 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Hunter averaged 9.2 points and 3.5 boards while shooting 38.2 percent from three in just under 20 minutes a night for a Virginia team whose pace severely limits the kind of numbers a player like him can put up.

Throw in his ability to defend on the perimeter and in the paint, and Hunter is precisely the kind of player that NBA teams are looking to land as basketball becomes more and more built on positional versatility and the ability to space the floor.

And it’s that versatility that will make Hunter so important for the Cavaliers next season.

Let’s go beyond the simple fact that he is going to be the only guy on the Virginia roster that can create his own shot against length and athleticism and that there is a chance that he could end up being an all-american next season if things play out the right way. What makes Hunter so important to Virginia his that his defensive versatility is what allows Virginia to matchup with teams that want to try and play small-ball against them.

That’s precisely what UMBC did in the first round of the NCAA tournament, a game that Hunter missed with a broken wrist. We all know how that played out, and I’m not even dumb enough to pin all the blame of a 20-point loss to a No. 16 seed on a guy that played less than 20 minutes a night.

Virginia choked once they realized that there was a chance this could happen, but I would argue that a major reason they couldn’t ever truly assert their dominance was because they were unable to matchup with UMBC’s four-guard lineup without Hunter.

With Hunter back, Virginia is the No. 6 team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25. If he had declared for the draft and signed with an agent, I’m not sure I would have had the Wahoos in the top 20.

He takes Tony Bennett’s club from simply being good to once against being a contender for the ACC regular season title.

Vanderbilt the sixth Kentucky player declares for the NBA draft

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Jarred Vanderbilt is now the sixth Kentucky Wildcat to declare for the NBA draft this spring, joining P.J. Washington and Wenyen Gabriel in testing the waters without signing with an agent.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo have all declared for the draft and signed with an agent.

Vanderbilt announced his decision on Friday afternoon.

“This season wasn’t easy for me,” Vanderbilt said. “At the end of the day, my goal has always been to make it to the NBA.”

“I know I have more to my game to show, but now I’ve got to figure out if the time is right for me to do it at the next level or if I would be better to return to school.”

Vanderbilt missed the first 17 games of his freshman season with a left foot injury, a foot that he had injured twice before during his high school career. He then missed all four of Kentucky’s postseason games with a left ankle injury, and there is a chance that he could end up needing surgery to correct this issue this offseason.

All told, the 6-foot-9 Vanderbilt played in 14 games as a freshman, averaging 5.9 points and 7.9 boards in just 17 minutes a night. But issues with his ability to shoot from the perimeter and a lower left leg that has proven to be extremely problematic, there is a good chance that Vanderbilt would go undrafted should he decide to turn pro.