WEST REGION SWEET 16 PREVIEW
How will the West be won? Coaching will have a lot to do with the outcome in this region. Rick Pitino and Tom Izzo, two coaching icons and surefire Hall-of-Famers, lead their teams into battle for an epic clash. In the other game, Billy Donovan and the Florida Gators will take on one of the hottest names among the coaching ranks in Marquette's Buzz Williams. Three of the four coaches in this region have won NCAA championships.
Meanwhile, despite Mizzou's shocking early exit at the hands of Norfolk State, the rest of the bracket pretty much held true to form, as three of the top four seeds remain. Even the lowest seed, the Florida Gators, were ranked in the Top 25 for most of the season and returned most of their squad from a year ago. An experience-laden region, the West will be won on talent and execution. Let's dive a bit deeper into the Sweet 16 to get a better handle on what it will take for each team to advance to the Elite Eight.
No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 1 Michigan State
Key Matchup: Louisville's Peyton Siva against Michigan State's Keith Appling. Siva is the catalyst for the Cardinals offense, but his play has been erratic throughout his Louisville career. At times he can look like a star, and other times he looks completely lost. Siva manages 3.5 turnovers per game despite making some incredibly athletic and acrobatic dives to the rim. Meanwhile, Appling's first year as a bona fide starter has him second on the Spartans in scoring and first in dishing. He's not a great shooter, but neither is Siva. Likewise, Appling has the luxury of being able to let Draymond Green operate as a point forward. Siva has no such help from his squad. Siva needs to slash to the rim and find his teammates for open threes and lay-ups, while limiting his mistakes. A low-turnover, high-assist game would be ideal for Siva; however, Appling averages 1.2 thefts per game and will be hot on his tail the majority of the contest.
Louisville will Win IF: the Cardinals get hot from three-point range. Louisville didn't need many treys to beat Davidson but connected on 7-of-15 three-pointers in the 59-56 victory over New Mexico in the third round. In their last three losses, the Cardinals have shot a horrific 8-for 58 (13.8 percent) from beyond the arc. Kyle Kuric in particular needs to get going; the senior shot just 33.3 percent from long distance this season, after hitting 44.9 percent of his three-pointers as a junior. Kuric shoots an astounding 6.2 threes per tilt.
Michigan State will Win IF: the Spartans limit their turnovers. Michigan State is 14-3 in its last 17 games; in each of their three defeats, the Spartans coughed the ball up at least 13 times. Although Green has been Magic-esque in this tournament thus far, he averaged 2.9 turnovers per game during the season. Point guard Appling averaged 2.3 turnovers per game this year. The Spartans don't score a ton, so they must maximize their possessions and opportunities and allow their above-average shooting, rebounding and assist-making a chance to take hold. Obviously, turnovers won't allow them to do this.
Player to Watch: Michigan State's Draymond Green. The Big Ten Player of the Year posted his second triple-double in NCAA tourney play against the LIU Blackbirds, becoming just the third player to record multiple-triple-doubles in the Big Dance. The other two players? Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson. Not bad company. He wasn't too shabby in the third round against St. Louis either, tallying 16 points, 13 rebounds and six dimes. Green's combination of size, touch, athleticism and court vision makes him a nightmare for opponents. With his ability to dominate the game on both ends of the floor, Green has the inside track to garnering the Most Outstanding Player honors in the region.
Prediction: Louisville showed its potential in winning the Big East tournament crown. However, the Cardinals remain inconsistent. Will we get the team on a six-game winning streak? Or the squad that dropped four of its previous six games before that? Siva needs to take control of this game and show he can be a true superstar. Since that has not happened yet during his career, the proven commodity in Michigan State's Green will prove too much for Louisville to handle. The Spartans have unmatched strength inside with Green, Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne. Appling will be a nuisance to Siva, and the Spartans should march on the Regional Final.
No. 7 Florida vs. No. 3 Marquette
Key Matchup: Florida's Bradley Beal vs. Marquette's Darius Johnson-Odom. With all due respect to Florida's leading scorer Kenny Boynton, as well as the ultra-feisty Erving Walker, Beal is the Gators' most talented guard. The 6-foot-3 freshman averages 14.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.1 dimes per game for Florida. His counterpart for the Golden Eagles is DJO, the 6-2 senior from Raleigh, N.C., who leads Marquette in scoring at 18.5 points per game. Johnson-Odom hits 38.9 percent of his three-pointers, while also managing 3.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. DJO and the rest of the Marquette backcourt must keep a body on Beal when shots go up, as the freshman is the Gators' leading rebounder. DJO can score at will but also will find the open man if necessary. Florida needs to disrupt the two-man game between Johnson-Odom and Big East Player of the Year Jae Crowder.
Florida will Win IF: the Gators win the battle of the boards. Marquette runs the type of guard-heavy offense that matches up well with UF. Thus, Florida needs a big game from freakishly athletic big man Patric Young. Young can jump out of the gym, but remains raw. His effort can sometimes be less than stellar, as well. That will do no good against the high-motored Golden Eagles, particularly the beastly Crowder. The Gators struggled on the boards at time during the year; in fact, the aforementioned 6-3 Beal led Florida in rebounding this season. If the Gators allow second-chance points to the Golden Eagles, it could be a long night for Florida.
Marquette will Win IF: the Golden Eagles force turnovers and get easy buckets in transition. Marquette forced 33 turnovers in their first two NCAA Tournament games. Playing stifling defense is a must in the Big East if you want to win, and coach Buzz Williams and the Marquette Golden Eagles put forth exactly that type of hard-nosed effort on the defensive end. Despite not being tested yet in this year's tourney, the Gators have still managed 12.5 turnovers per game during March Madness. If the Golden Eagles can force some more poor decisions from Florida, that will cause breakdowns at the other end and lead to solid looks for the Golden Eagles.
Player to Watch: Marquette's Jae Crowder. The Big East Player of the Year has been flying under the radar most of the season, if that's possible. Crowder has the type of natural instincts that make coaches salivate; he always seems to come up with the key play for Marquette, whether it be nailing a clutch shot, taking a charge or securing the tough rebound. At 6-6, 235, he is forced to play power forward and even sometimes center for the undersized Golden Eagles, who play guard-heavy sets with Johnson-Odom, Vander Blue and Junior Cadougan. The senior has posted five consecutive double-doubles for Marquette, including a monstrous 25-point, 16-rebound effort in the second round against Brigham Young. The Golden Eagles will go as far as Crowder takes them.
Prediction: Marquette is basically a better version of the Gators. Walker, Boynton and Beal compare favorably to Blue, Cadougan and Johnson-Odom. However, the difference is the aforementioned Crowder, the best player in the most bruising conference in the country. Florida can be sloppy with the ball as well, and Marquette has feasted on turnovers throughout the year. Without much of a height advantage, Marquette should put on a dazzling display of team unity and passing skills in eeking out the victory over the Gators. The Golden Eagles are seventh in the nation in assist per game, averaging 16.8 dimes as a unit. In 2012, the Golden Eagles just seem to have that Buzz.