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East Sweet 16 Preview: Top Seeds on Collision Course

Daniel Kennedy

Daniel Kennedy

Kennedy covers college football and college basketball for RotoWire. A veteran reporter, Kennedy has covered sports for various newspapers in the Southeast.

East Region Sweet 16 Preview
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EAST REGION SWEET 16 PREVIEW

Site:
Boston
Tip-off: Thursday

The East Region moves to Boston this week as three of four top seeds advance to the Sweet 16, with No. 1 seed Syracuse finding its way northeast without starting center Fab Melo. The Orange narrowly escaped UNC Asheville with a controversial win in their first game and dispatched Kansas State to punch their Sweet 16 ticket. Ohio State netted a win over Loyola-Maryland before overcoming Gonzaga in arguably Aaron Craft's most dynamic offensive performance to date en route to Boston. Cincinnati shocked Florida State on Sunday when the Bearcats notched a 62-56 victory over the cold-shooting Seminoles. Having held Florida State to 38 percent shooting from the field, Cincinnati has developed a killer defensive instinct that allowed the team to hold Texas to just two points in the first 10 minutes of its first game. The East Region has remained fairly intact, as No. 6 Cincinnati is the lowest seed to crack the Sweet 16. Finally, Wisconsin advanced with wins over Montana and Vanderbilt. The Badgers could face a familiar opponent if they somehow manage a win over Syracuse and fellow Big Ten member Ohio State also emerges victorious. The following pair of Sweet 16 contests will decide the East Region.

No. 4 Wisconsin vs. No. 1 Syracuse

Key Matchup:
Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor vs. Syracuse's Scoop Jardine. Given the absence of arguably the region's most dominant defensive force, the Orange will be forced to rely even more heavily upon the strong play of their backcourt. Center Fab Melo was suspended immediately prior to the tournament and must sit out Syracuse's remaining games. For the East's top seed to be successful, it will need a stellar game from one of the nation's top point guards in Jardine. Similarly, Wisconsin boasts one of the nation's premier playmakers. Taylor's numbers against Vanderbilt were relatively pedestrian, and he will certainly need to raise his level of play for the Badgers to have a shot at knocking off the top seed. Ultimately, the defensive edge may go to Taylor, but Jardine has more weapons at his disposal. If the Orange can make Taylor into a one-dimensional scorer, Syracuse has to like its chances to advance.

Wisconsin will Win IF:
the pace of the game favors the Badgers. Syracuse would like nothing more than to speed up the game, increase the number of possessions and put up points. It will be largely Taylor's responsibility to keep Jardine and company from getting started in transition. If he manages the game well, makes effective use of the shot clock and avoids costly turnovers, Wisconsin can find itself in a position to win the game. A ball game played in the 50s and 60s favors the Badgers.

Syracuse will Win IF:
its bench replicates its success from earlier rounds. Dion Waiters and James Southerland combined for 33 points in Syracuse's last game and will look to do the same for the second game in a row. If the Badgers do not find a way to limit scoring opportunities for the Orange by cutting out at least one facet of the offense, the No. 1 seed could find itself on the verge of moving on to the Elite Eight. A backcourt of Jardine, Brandon Triche and Waiters, combined with a frontcourt of Southerland, Kris Joseph, C.J. Fair and Rakeem Christmas, gives Syracuse the deepest offensive arsenal in college basketball and a great chance to advance.

Player to Watch:
Wisconsin's Ryan Evans. The Badgers' offense runs through Taylor, but the team is desperate for an established second scoring option to emerge. Evans, a junior, had 11 points, five rebounds and four assists against Vanderbilt and appears the most likely to give the Badgers additional points necessary to upset Syracuse. Considering the goal for Wisconsin is to limit possessions, Evans must produce points efficiently. Maximizing his opportunities by refusing to settle for contested jumpers and forging his way to the basket may be the key to the game for the Badgers.

Prediction:
For 30 to 35 minutes, Wisconsin executes its gameplan to perfection. Syracuse struggles to find easy points and has to earn their scoring opportunities by grinding it out in halfcourt sets. In the final five to 10 minutes of action, however, the depth and firepower of the Orange ultimately wears down Bo Ryan's tenacious defense. The three-point line will favor Syracuse, and the Badgers have to expend so much energy on defense, the rim will get tighter and tighter as the game wears on. Because Taylor, Evans and company are unable to manufacture points down the stretch, Jim Boeheim guides his team to the Elite Eight.

No. 6 Cincinnati vs. No. 2 Ohio State

Key Matchup:
Cincinnati's Yancy Gates vs. Ohio State's Jared Sullinger. The battle of Ohio features a matchup within the game that pits two of the nation's elite big men against each other. Sullinger is the cog through which the Buckeyes offense runs and recently unveiled an improved jumper, making him even tougher to defend. Gates will have to step out away from the basket to guard Sullinger, but may be one of the few players in America who is capable of establishing an advantage in the paint. Gates averages 12.4 points and 9.1 rebounds per game and uses his thickness to dominate down low in almost the exact same way as his counterpart. Both players have had successful tournaments thus far, but Gates has the advantage of playing his fourth season with the Bearcats. Sullinger, a sophomore, will have to battle Gates to at least a draw for Ohio State to maintain the advantage many perceive it to have over the lower-seeded Bearcats.

Cincinnati will Win IF:
it can keep Ohio State from receiving second-chance opportunities. With shooters on the wings like Deshaun Thomas, William Buford and Lenzelle Smith, Ohio State is a team one can ill-afford to give more than one look at a shot on each possession. Meanwhile, Sullinger and Evan Ravenel remain the only traditional post presences for the Buckeyes. If Gates and company can get either into foul trouble, it will cause extreme depth issues in the frontcourt for Ohio State.

Ohio State will Win IF:
it shoots the ball well from beyond the arc. The Buckeyes were able to mostly rely on airtight defense to get through the first two games of the tournament, limiting both opponents to fewer than 70 points. Cincinnati has proven it can win ugly, as it notched a 62-56 victory over Florida State last time out and packs an inside-outside punch of Gates and guards Dion Dixon and Sean Kilpatrick. To win, the Buckeyes might have to rely more on their offense than defense, a distinct possibility with a stable of shooters capable of matching points with any team in the country.

Player to Watch:
Ohio State's Aaron Craft. The Buckeyes sophomore point guard may impact the game in ways unlike anyone in the country. Craft is responsible for harassing the opponents' best player throughout the game while being tasked with the responsibility of running Thad Matta's offense. He has thrived amidst the expectations set for him, as he had 17 points and 10 assists his last time out against Gonzaga. As Sullinger has found himself in foul trouble, Craft has picked up the slack and keeps the offense running fluidly while flying around, stripping opposing players of the basketball.

Prediction:
Cincinnati's inside-out combination proves too much for Ohio State to defend. Sullinger picks up two early fouls and is relegated to the bench for much of the first half. While operating among undersized defenders, Gates dominates the paint and racks up double-digit rebounds, including several offensive boards that lead to second-chance points. Thomas and Buford keep the Buckeyes in it to the very end by combining to shoot better than 40 percent from long range. Ultimately, however, Cincinnati continues its run deep into the tournament thanks to a balanced effort that propels the team to the Elite Eight.

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