WEST REGION SWEET 16 PREVIEW
Site: Anaheim, Calif.
Chalk dominated the first weekend in the West regional as the higher seed won all but one game. The lone upset was a 4-5 matchup that featured Texas and Arizona. That's not to say there weren't exciting games as the two top-seeded teams, Duke and San Diego State, were both taken to the brink of defeat in the round of 32. Maybe the most unexpected development in the West regional is the comeback of guard Kyrie Irving to the Duke lineup. Now in Anaheim, San Diego State, the No. 2 seed, should enjoy a bit of a home-court advantage.
No. 5 Arizona vs. No. 1 Duke
Key Matchup: Mason Plumlee will have his hands full with Arizona's Derrick Williams. Williams can not only dominate in the low post, but he can step outside and knock down an open shot. This season he shot more than 60 percent from behind the three-point line as the Pac-10 Player of the Year. In his first game against Memphis, he posted 22 points and 10 rebounds and made the game-saving block. Against Texas, he had 17 points and nine rebounds and gave his team the lead late in the game with a traditional three-point play. Plumlee's assignment will be to keep Williams out of the paint and off the boards, while hopefully staying out of foul trouble. If Plumlee can not corral Williams, it could be a long game for the Blue Devils.
Arizona will Win IF: it can shut down Duke's three-point shooters. If Arizona can contain Duke's outside shooters and force the Blue Devils offense into the low post and paint, Derrick Williams should be able to do the rest with his shot-blocking ability. In three of Duke's four losses this season, it shot less than 25 percent from beyond the arc. In their win over Michigan in the round of 32, the Blue Devils were held to exactly 25 percent from three-point range, and they almost lost the game. The Wildcats are more than capable of accomplishing this task as they ranked fourth in the nation in opponent's 3-point field goal percentage.
Duke will Win If: they can play smothering man-to-man defense and keep Arizona off the glass. Arizona is a fantastic shooting team (20th in the nation in effective field goal percentage), so Duke will have to do its best to contest all of the Wildcats' shots, especially in transition. The easiest way to do this is to keep Arizona off the glass. Derrick Williams and Solomon Hill do the majority of the rebounding for the Wildcats, so it's imperative for the Plumlees (Mason and Miles) and Ryan Kelly to box them out and not allow them to get second-chance shots or start fast-breaks. It's also important for the Blue Devils to not get caught in mismatches when the Wildcats run screens and pick-n-rolls with Williams. The more physical Duke is around the rim, the greater chance it has of winning this game.
Player to Watch: Duke's Kyrie Irving. So far he's played about 20 minutes in his first two games back from a toe injury with 14 points against Hampton and 11 against Michigan. Defensively he's been able to get a few steals and disrupt the opposing teams' offense. Offensively, though, he's still yet to hit his stride. He was 1-for-4 from the field against Michigan with his lone basket helping put Duke over the top late in the game. When healthy, he's an explosive guard who can get to the rim, hit open shots and create for others. He's still shaking off rust, but the more he practices and gets into game shape, the more effective he should be.
Prediction: Duke advances to the Elite Eight. Arizona has the athletic low-post presence to give the Blue Devils fits and a defense that defends against the three better than almost anyone, but an experienced Blue Devils team with Coach K is tough to pick against.
No. 3 Connecticut vs. No. 2 San Diego State
Key Matchup: How well UConn does defending SDSU's frontcourt will go a long way toward determining who wins this game. The Aztecs have skilled offensive bigs in Kawhi Leonard, Malcolm Thomas and Billy White. They can all shoot, pass out of double teams and rebound well. Experience is also on their side as Thomas and White are both seniors. This is in contrast to UConn's front-court, which is young and inexperienced with freshman Roscoe Smith and sophomore Alex Oriakhi. The two will have to find a way to keep them off of the glass and out of the lane. If they can do this, they can force SDSU into taking more shots from the outside, where the Aztecs are less comfortable and effective.
UConn will Win IF: Kemba Walker continues to make plays. When Walker is getting loose balls and creating turnovers, he's creating easy baskets for himself and his teammates in their transition offense. That, mixed with his uncanny ability to get his own shot whenever he wants, is what makes this UConn team go. Earlier this season he went through a lull with his shooting and the team suffered. Fortunately for UConn, Walker is coming off an impressive Big East Conference tournament performance and a 33-point effort against Cincinnati in the round of 32. As goes Walker goes, so go the Huskies.
San Diego State will Win If: they contain Kemba Walker and dominate the paint. At this point it seems impossible to stop Kemba Walker, but that's the assignment SDSU's D.J. Gay is tasked. Gay must keep Walker in front of him and not allow him to get into the open court where he creates shots for himself and his teammates. The other half of this equation is the Aztecs' advantage in the low post with Kawhi Leonard and Malcolm Thomas. The two need to clog the middle and redirect any shots that Walker puts up in the lane. Doing so should help push Walker to the outside, where he can struggle at times, and help their ability to collect rebounds.
Player to Watch: UConn's Kemba Walker. Walker is an amazing player to watch on both ends of the court. He has fast hands, quick feet, a hair-trigger release to his shot and a drive to succeed that cannot be stopped. He's the reason the Huskies won the Big East tournament with five games in five days and the reason they're in the Sweet 16. He can struggle against good zone defenses, but SDSU plays man-to-man, so he should be able to roam around and pick his spots. He thrives in pressure situations, and should this game come down to a single possession, expect the ball to end up in his hands.
Prediction: San Diego State advances to the Elite Eight to face Duke in the Aztecs' own back yard. Leonard, Thomas and White prove to be too much for Oriakhi and the young UConn frontcourt.