Despite the underdog runs of teams like Wichita State, La Salle, and Florida Gulf Coast, we’re set up to have a high-quality second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Three games tonight feature match-ups between teams ranked in the top 15 of RPI. You can’t really ask for much more in the Sweet 16. Here’s a look at the four games on tap for Thursday night:
East Region: #2 Miami vs. #3 Marquette – Approx. 7:15 p.m.
The big news out of Miami this week is that Reggie Johnson is out for the weekend in Washington D.C. The Hurricanes’ starting center has a knee injury that wouldn’t allow him to play this week, so he had surgery in the hopes that he’d be able to play in the Final Four if Miami made it there. Johnson hasn’t been the offensive factor in recent games that he has in the past, but Miami will miss his size against Marquette’s two headed monster of Davante Gardner and Chris Otule. Thankfully Miami is deep and can throw Julian Gamble and Tonye Jekiri out there in Johnson’s absence. Johnson missed eight games earlier this season, including the beginning of ACC play, so Miami is used to playing without him. Marquette has been rather lucky to make it through their first two games. Then again, they’ve been rather lucky all season. Will their luck run out or is it just a sign of things to come? I picked Miami to make the finals and even this little Reggie Johnson speed bump won’t stop me from thinking that’s going to happen.
East Region: #1 Indiana vs. #4 Syracuse – Approx. 9:45 p.m.
Two of the most talented teams in the country face off in the night cap of the East Regional. Things weren't pretty for Indiana against Temple, but at least they can say they executed their offense in the last four minutes. (Temple on the other hand looked like five guys who had never played with each other before and a few of the guys even looked like they'd been picked off the street. They really gave the game away, scoring only two points over the final four minutes with three of their starters shooting a combine 0-21 in the game. Yikes!) But it's all about surviving and advancing, right? Now Indiana gets to face a team that should allow them to play to their strengths. Syracuse will run their patented 2-3 zone on the defensive end, which won't cause Cody Zeller too much of an issue. He struggles when other teams get physical with him in man-to-man defense. Syracuse not only doesn't have the bodies to get physical with Zeller (starting forwards CJ Fair and James Southerland are more finesse than physique), but Zeller, and Christian Watford, should be able to settle in and create offense at the foul line (the weak spot in any 2-3 zone) quite comfortably. Indiana will be just dandy as long as Indiana doesn't settle for bad jump shots against the zone.
Syracuse likes to get out on the break and run, which Indiana loves to do as well. You can't beat Indiana by trying to outscore them in a run-and-gun affair. Cuse will have to limit their turnovers, something Michael Carter-Williams struggles with at times, and attack Indiana off the bounce to give themselves a shot. Unfortunately they don't have a big man who can get easy baskets and try to get Zeller in foul trouble with a post-up offense, something they've struggled with all season. I think Indiana should win this one quite comfortably.
West Region: #2 Ohio State vs. #6 Arizona – 7:47 p.m.
Two coaches who know each other very well face off in the first of the two games in the West Regional. Sean Miller worked under Thad Matta for three seasons at Xavier before taking over the reins when Matta left for Ohio State. There’s plenty of talent and experience on both sides. The winner of the game will be the clear favorite to advance to the Final Four, so there’s a lot on the line. Arizona has the talent advantage in the backcourt, but there’s no defender in the Pac-12 that gets after you like Ohio State’s Aaron Craft. Craft showed he’ll do whatever it takes to win, drawing a (possibly poorly called) charge on Iowa State in the final minutes before making the game winning three. I’m also not ready to overact on Arizona’s last two games because of the inferiority of their opponents. They had lost 3 of their previous five games prior to the NCAA Tournament. Ohio State may not win in elegant fashion, but they grind things out and win close games. That’s exactly what we’ll have here.
West Region: #9 Wichita State vs. #13 La Salle – Approx 10:17 p.m.
It’s pretty obvious that the game between two upset specials will be much less viewed than the Indiana vs. Syracuse game airing around the
same time. The game sets up pretty well for Wichita State because of the styles of both teams. La Salle is a good offensive team who ranks 132nd in defensive efficiency, while Wichita State is a decent offensive team who plays good defense. Bad offensive teams are more successful against bad offensive teams than good offensive teams are against good defensive teams. Look for Ramon Galloway to be frustrated against a Wichita State group in the upper echelon of steals and blocks per game. The Shockers also have a major rebounding edge, averaging 6.7 rebounds more per game than La Salle and grading out well in offensive rebounding against La Salle’s poor defensive rebounding. That specific edge on their offensive glass creates extra possessions for Wichita State to score. Mississippi had a similar edge, but Marshall Henderson shot them out of the game. Ron Baker’s return from a stress fracture in his left foot has helped catapult Wichita State to new heights. Soon all the cool kids will want to have his shaggy head of hair.
Vegas Best Bets:
Indiana -5.5 over Syracuse – In a battle between two coaches whoaren’t great with in game adjustments, you have to take the team that executes their offense more precisely on a general basis.
Wichita State -4.5 over La Salle – Gotta go with Baker’s flow and the better defensive team.