The Sweet 16 will kick off on Thursday, and the beautiful thing about the final four rounds of this year’s NCAA tournament is that we are guaranteed to have 15 games that will feature dynamite matchups.
There’s an argument to be made that the top 15 teams in the country are still alive, with the 16th being the hottest team in all of college basketball.
With that in mind, we are going to dive into every team left, region by region, and give you the biggest question that needs to be answered if they are going to have a chance to win the national title.
We covered the South here. Next up, the West.
GONZAGA: How will Josh Perkins handle the pressure you know is coming?
I’m getting tired of beating this drum, mostly because ripping an unpaid amateur over and over again for what he does on a basketball court seems unfair.
But when it comes down to it, he is how Gonzaga is going to get to the Final Four. The offense the Zags run, when they’re actually playing in the halfcourt and not flying up and down the floor in transition, is typically ball-screen heavy, and Josh Perkins is the guy that carries that load. For the most part, he has been just terrific this season. It shows up in Gonzaga’s computer metrics, their win over Duke in Maui, the fact that they are currently sitting on a 32-3 record this season.
The problem with Perkins is that he is apt to have some terrible games, and when he has his terrible games, Gonzaga’s offense can go in the tank. Don’t believe me? Go watch Gonzaga’s WCC tournament loss to Saint Mary’s.
That leads me to the West Region, where the Basketball Gods didn’t do Perkins any favors. In the Sweet 16, Gonzaga will be facing off with a Florida State team that does like to pressure in the fullcourt and features a half-dozen guards and wings that are all somewhere around 6-foot-5, 200-plus pounds and super-athletic. Whether it’s Terance Mann, or Trent Forrest, or M.J. Walker, they are going to be hounding Perkins all over the floor for 40 minutes, a method that allowed Florida State to land an upset of Gonzaga last year in this same region and same round.
That’s not all.
Should Gonzaga get past Florida State, they will play the winner of Texas Tech (the nation’s best defense) and Michigan (the nation’s second-best defense), meaning he will draw a matchup against either Matt Mooney or Zavier Simpson, both of whom are just nightmares for opposing point guards to deal with.
Gonzaga can get this done, but it is not going to be easy.
MICHIGAN: Can the Wolverines score enough to get back to the Final Four?
One of the more impressive feats of John Beilein’s career is getting this Michigan team to finish the season as a top 20 offensive in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric. Because this group really doesn’t have the dudes to be that good.
Jordan Poole is dangerous, but he’s very streak. Charles Matthews is an elite defender that has struggled to consistently produce big offensive games. Jon Teske has really improved on the defensive end of the floor, but he’s still a guy that shoots just 30 percent from three and has not consistently taken advantage of switches when he gets a guard on him in the post. And as much as I love Zavier Simpson, and as lethal as his running sky-hook can be, he’s not someone that defenses are going to be all that worried about outside of his work in ball-screens.
Iggy Brazdeikis is really their only guy that is something other than limited offensively, but he’s still a freshman that will throw up a dud every now and then.
I know the numbers say that this team is better offensively, but it’s hard for me to buy that. They were a better three-point shooting team last season in the sense that they have more guys you had to worry about. Defenses had to find Mo Wagner at all times. Same with Duncan Robinson and same with Muhammad- Ali Abdur-Rahkman. This year, that spacing just isn’t. That’s part of the reason that Matthews has regressed. It’s part of the reason there are so few driving lanes for Brazdeikis.
At some point you just trust that John Beilein will figure it out, but it is worth mentioning that the tools at his disposal are not going to be as sharp
TEXAS TECH: Just how good is Jarrett Culver’s supporting cast?
I don’t have a question about Culver because I know how good he is. I’m not even all that worried about the matchup with Charles Matthews, one of college basketball’s elite wing defenders. Great offense can beat great defense.
The issue with this Tech team is that they can go through some real droughts offensively. In their five regular season losses, they never scored more than 64 points, and in one of those losses they gave up just 58 points and lost by 13.
Some of that was a direct result of Culver trying to carry too heavy of a load this season. There was a while where he tried to do everything for the Red Raiders, and it didn’t work out well. Culver thought he had to carry that load because there isn’t another star on the roster. Matt Mooney, Davide Moretti, Tariq Owens. These are guys that really, really excel in roles, but they aren’t exactly the type to go out and win their matchup regardless of opponent.
Now, if we’re being fair here, they’ve been terrific down the stretch of the season. I’m not sure Moretti has actually missed a shot in February or March, Mooney has grown into the role as a secondary creative outlet, and he’s thriving there. Owens has been awfully effective as a rim-running lob target. The pieces are there, the question is just how “there” they will be against the defenses they are going to be facing this weekend.
FLORIDA STATE: Mfiondu Kabengele is the key that unlocks Florida State, but will he play enough?
For me, the most tilting thing that happens with the way that college basketball coaches use their rotations this season is the way that Leonard Hamilton has opted to use Mfiondu Kabengele.
The 6-foot-10 is not only Florida State’s best player, he is one of the best players in all of college basketball, point blank. We had him ranked at the 16th best player left in the NCAA tournament, and that might be low. He’s averaging better than 13 points this season despite coming off the bench and playing less than 22 minutes a night. He’s a terrific shot-blocker given his length and athleticism — he is, after all, kin to Dikembe Mutumbo. He can rebound the ball. He’s athletic enough to handle his own on the perimeter when Florida State is switching everything 1-through-5; hell, he’s the reason they can do that.
With all due respect to Christ Koumadje, Kabengele is the guy that Florida State needs to have on the floor, particularly now that they are playing against Gonzaga, not the likes of Vermont and Murray State.