Sweet 16 Preview: The x-factor in each game this week

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Jahlil Okafor vs. Jakob Poeltl: Anyone that has seen No. 1 Duke play this season will tell you that slowing down Jahlil Okafor is a prerequisite to beating the Blue Devils, and after watching Okafor single-handily demolish San Diego State’s formidable defense last weekend, it’s hard to imagine freshman Jakob Poeltl having a real shot at slowing down Okafor. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that Dallin Bachynski is probably the better option defensively, given his strength.

That said, I’m not sure either player is going to be able to take Okafor away, which creates an interesting dilemma for Larry Krystkowiak. Where Okafor truly struggles is on the defensive end of the floor, particularly in ball-screen actions. Poeltl may not be all that advanced offensively, but he is mobile, has great hands and works well with Delon Wright in the pick-and-roll. Utah’s best chance to beat Duke may be using Poeltl and hoping that, A) he can hold his own defensively, and B) he can take advantage of Okafor defensive struggles on the other end of the floor.

READ MORE: Sweet 16 Power Rankings | Which are the best Sweet 16 matchups?

Kyle Wiltjer vs. Kevon Looney: Kyle Wiltjer is such an incredibly important piece in what Gonzaga wants to do on the offensive end of the floor. Not only does his shooting ability create a ton of space for drivers and post touches, but he’s excellent in high-low actions with Przemek Karnowski and Domas Sabonis and even better working with Kevin Pangos in the pick-and-roll. It’s not an accident that he is Mark Few’s best scorer.

That said, Wiltjer can be a liability on the defensive end of the floor, which is where UCLA may end up having an advantage. Kevon Looney is arguably UCLA’s most talented player, an athletic combo-forward that averages 11.6 points and 9.2 boards and shoots 43.1 percent from three. Wiltjer will likely be matched up with Looney. Will he be able to keep Looney off of the offensive glass? Will he keep him from going off for 20 points? If Looney’s healthy — he’s been playing with a mask since fracturing a bone in his face during the Pac-12 tournament — he’s the kind of player that can force Wiltjer to the bench, and that makes the Zags a much different team. In the first matchup between these two teams, Wiltjer had 24 points in 30 minutes, shooting 9-for-13 from the floor while Looney went for 14 points, eight boards and four assists in 36 minutes.

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Kentucky’s defensive rebounding: All anyone has talked about regarding the matchup between No. 1 Kentucky and No. 5 West Virginia has been the Mountaineer press. Can they force the Harrison twins and Tyler Ulis to turn the ball over enough to keep the game close? And while that will always be a major factor in any game that West Virginia plays, the other key is going to be how well the Wildcats can rebound the ball. Kentucky ranks 191st in defensive rebounding percentage, according to KenPom.com, while West Virginia is No. 6 nationally in offensive rebounding percentage. For West Virginia to have any shot at beating the Wildcats, they’re going to need to get easy baskets off of turnovers and second chances.

J.P. Tokoto vs. Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes: The biggest weakness for Wisconsin on the defensive end of the floor is a quick, versatile slasher at the small forward spot, a kid — like, say, Maryland’s Dez Wells — that can take advantage of being guarded by the slower Sam Dekker and/or Nigel Hayes. Tokoto fits that bill. Where Wisconsin generally takes advantage is the mismatch at the other end, as there are very few wings that are strong enough to be able to handle either of those two in the post.

Who guards Jerian Grant?: The perimeter battle between Notre Dame and Wichita State is going to be phenomenal, but the key is going to end up being who Gregg Marshall decides to put on Grant. The best matchup may end up being Tekele Cotton, who is Wichita State’s premier on-ball defender. What the Irish do so well is allow Grant to make plays off the dribble in isolation or in ball-screen actions, drawing help and finding open shooters. Cotton’s ability defensively could help keep Grant out of the lane, but the question then becomes who slows down Demetrius Jackson? Jackson is one of the quickest players left in the tournament, and if he’s defended by either Fred VanVleet or Ron Baker, he should have an advantage off the dribble.

Which N.C. State team shows up?: The Wolfpack needed a collapse from LSU just to get past the opening round of the tournament. Then they went out and soundly beat No. 1 Villanova. The only reason that makes sense is because this is what N.C. State has done all season long. They lost to Wake Forest, at Boston College and to Wofford while beating Duke and winning at Louisville and North Carolina. I know. I don’t get it.

The Wolfpack have the pieces to win this game and get to the Elite 8, but it all depends on whether or not they come to play. The key will be their back court, where Cat Barber and Trevor Lacey are better than Terry Rozier and Quentin Snider.

Matt Stainbrook vs. Arizona’s front line: Dee Davis is going to have his work cut out for him trying to slow down T.J. McConnell defensively, but to me, the key to this game will be how effective Stainbrook is against the bigger Wildcats. Stainbrook is a skilled passer and scorer in the post, a guy that the Musketeers can run their offense through. And given how good Arizona is defensively, that’s critical. Can he hold his own defensively and on the glass?

Branden Dawson vs. Tashawn Thomas: Dawson is and always well be Michigan State’s x-factor. He’s a perfect power forward at the college level, one that can routinely post double-doubles when he motor is running. The problem? That motor isn’t always running. He’ll be matched up against Thomas, who is Oklahoma’s best low-post scorer. The Sooners have made a habit of isolating Thomas on the block with a shooter throwing him an entry pass. Can Dawson keep Thomas from getting into a rhythm offensively?