Monday, 23 March 2015

Sweet 16 Preview: ACC dominance

After the first mad weekend of March Madness, where all teams play two games in three days over the second and third round before the semi-finals of the regions that we call the Sweet 16.  Numerous things occur including shocks and surprises aplenty culminating in the removal of 48 teams since Thursday.  Here are my thoughts along with the prediction of the Sweet 16

Izzo and Pitino stand firm
Following regular season campaigns that brought all manner of inconsistency, it is telling that some teams can be relied upon come the tournament when parity is established by only playing what is in front of you.  In terms of Michigan State who had a problem with depth and talent, come the tournament they have a coach in Tom Izzo who now has more Sweet 16 appearances than first weekend eliminations. 

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Tom Izzo - Michigan State

Izzo out-coached Virginia's Tony Bennett for the second season in succession schooling them in a 60-54 victory helped by a breakout by Travis Trice who had 23 points as they held the Cavaliers to under 30% shooting.  Michigan now play Oklahoma, for the right to play either Louisville or NC State; again this is a tough one to call, but as Rick Pitino has showed, he is capable of fitting in a system that benefits the nervy tension of tournament play as they stifle offenses and allow their own dynamic players such as Montrezl Harrell to be explosive in transition.

Can we play you every year?
Rock Chalk Wichita Shock. Kansas Jayhawks are the big noise in Kansas, the blue chip program but it shares a state with Wichita State Shockers who have now had the better tournament resume than the Jayhawks in the last three years now.  The Shockers keep asking to play Kansas year in, year out in a non-conference match that will help both programs. Kansas refuse and Wichita State feel disrespected and feel Kansas are scared to play them on the road or at a neutral site.  Sunday in the third round in Omaha held court for this in-state battle and the Shockers swept aside Bill Self's side in a convincing 78-65 win.  They now play Notre Dame on Friday with the prospect of facing Kentucky in the regional final.

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Ron Baker - Wichita State
The Shockers are a tight unit who hustle and can score from deep led by Ron Baker in points and helped by Fred VanVleet and Tekele Cotton.  The defeat makes sure that Kansas will likely not play Wichita State again until they absolutely need to again.  As for Kansas, they need to come back next year - hopefully reloaded with talent as no-one looks likely to leave for the NBA - but return with a scorer possibly Clint Alexander who was suspended for academic reasons.

Duke have the answer
Watching Duke's dominant performance over San Diego State on Sunday, their play showed the answer to possibly to defeating the Kentucky Wildcats who they can only meet in the National Championship.  That is my selection for the title game and whilst I think Kentucky are too battle hardened for this tournament, perhaps Duke remain the best team to combat the Wildcats procession to historical perfection.
In Jahlil Okafor they have one of the best three players in the nation, his size and scoring prowess can combat Towns and Cauley-Stein in the paint.

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Justice Winslow - Duke
 Yet it was the tempo of Duke's play in transition that made me stand up and take notice; led by Tyus Jones dishing it out to Quinn Cook and sometimes you will get a breakout game like you had from Justice Winslow (26pts, 6rbs) did on Sunday to help matters.  Duke will be happy with the match up versus Utah this weekend and then probably Gonzaga who have been impressive thus far, but you get the sense that Duke are aware of the possibility of their own run to the Final Four.

ACC is the best conference
All regular season it was touted that the Big 12 was the best conference in the nation due to the possibility of 8 teams - only 7 got selected - making the dance, yet that was due to the fact that so many teams beat each other that no team separated itself from the rest as Wisconsin did in the Big 10.  The first day eliminations of Baylor, Texas and Iowa State left the Big 12 sheepish at best, and now the presence of five ACC teams in the sweet 16 (ND, NC, LOU, NC State, Duke) means that the argument is dead, the ACC is best league because it is the toughest game and makes players ready for the tournament due to the high intensity and close matches they experience in the regular season.

Sweet 16 predictions (selection in bold)
Kentucky v West Virginia                                   NC State v Louisville
Notre Dame v Wichita State                              Oklahoma v Michigan State
Wisconsin v North Carolina                               Duke v Utah
Xavier v Arizona                                                UCLA v Gonzaga

Elite 8:
Kentucky v Notre Dame - Wisconsin v Arizona - Louisville v Michigan State - Duke v Gonzaga

That leaves your NextToTheAisle Final Four of Kentucky v Wisconsin and Louisville v Duke
What an amazing line-up of talent, teams and legendary coaches going head to head in Indianapolis. The Louisville-Michigan State match-up should it materialise is a toss-up and too close to call. For me it remains there for Kentucky to lose, although the possible matches versus the Fighting Irish and Badgers will be as true a test as they have faced all season.

Follow me @JamieGarwood

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