WEST REGION SWEET 16 PREVIEW
Site: Anaheim, Calif.
The West Region fell one favorite shy of the four top seeds advancing to the Sweet 16. Among the chalk that remains, No. 1 seed Arizona, No. 2 seed Wisconsin and No. 4 seed San Diego State took very different paths to reach Anaheim. Thursday's matchups will feature one of the tournament's better defensive units, one of the top offenses and arguably its most well-rounded bunch. The surprise of the region has to be No. 6 seed Baylor, which crushed Creighton by 30 points and eliminated the field's most decorated player, Doug McDermott. The Wildcats arrive after regaining their midseason form against Gonzaga, coasting into a tussle with Steve Fisher's squad in their second Sweet 16 appearance in school history. Somewhat forgotten in the wake of the other headliners in this segment of the bracket, Bo Ryan's Badgers quietly enter the action Thursday with a real chance of playing during the final weekend of the season.
No. 1 Arizona vs. No. 4 San Diego State
Key Matchup: Arizona's Nick Johnson vs. San Diego State's Xavier Thames. Johnson is averaging 17.5 points per game in postseason play and has just three turnovers through two games. Thames, a fifth-year senior, exploded for 30 points in the Aztecs' win over North Dakota State, and his defensive effort has helped set the pace for one of the nation's stingiest units. This game likely will be won in the backcourt, by the combo guard who dictates tempo and forces the other to cough up the basketball.
Arizona will Win IF: Aaron Gordon continues to be a stat-stuffing monster on both ends of the floor. The freshman forward tallied 18 points, six rebounds and six assists in the rout of Gonzaga that propelled his team to the round of 16. Playing the role of facilitator is not something he would have been trusted to do earlier this season, but Gordon has improved as rapidly as any player left in the field. Arizona is the less-experienced team, but boasts a number of blue-chip prospects who comprise the most talent head coach Sean Miller has compiled.
San Diego State will Win IF: the Aztecs can frustrate Arizona by not turning the ball over and preventing the athletic Wildcats from getting out in transition. In the teams' regular-season meeting in November, San Diego State was unable to find an answer for Gordon. The freshman was very active on the boards and in the passing lanes, as he recorded three steals during a 69-60 victory for Arizona. The experience and length of the Aztecs will need to be more of a factor this time around if they have any chance of knocking off an elite club playing its best basketball at the end of the season.
Player to Watch: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona. Hollis-Jefferson has grown from little-used role player early in the season to one of his team's leading scorers, garnering 18 points in his last outing. The freshman has flourished in the absence of Brandon Ashley, lost for the year earlier this season. San Diego State's frontcourt will have to take away at least some of the Wildcats' weapons, and Hollis-Jefferson seems like he could be an especially troublesome matchup.
Prediction: Arizona did not finish the regular season strong, nor did the team look sharp in its opening-round win. Against Gonzaga, however, it looked the part of a Final Four team most projected throughout the season. The Aztecs present a unique challenge in that daunting defenses are not exactly the trademark of the Pac-12, so it seems entirely possible the Wildcats could have a more difficult time scoring in this one than at any point in the season. There is simply too much talent, though, to imagine Arizona not making the Elite 8.
No. 2 Wisconsin vs. No. 6 Baylor
Key Matchup: Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky vs. Baylor's Isaiah Austin. The frontcourt battle between these two promises to be quite entertaining. One of college basketball's rare breeds, Austin is a true 7-footer who contends just about every shot taken in the lane. Kaminsky, on the other hand, is a more proficient scorer who poured in 19 points against Oregon. The contrast of styles makes it difficult to predict which player will establish himself in the post, but Kaminsky's ability to stretch the defense and potentially draw Austin away from the basket makes him a matchup problem Baylor will have to solve.
Wisconsin will Win IF: perimeter shooting for the Badgers can effectively neutralize the shot-blocking ability of Baylor. Alongside Austin, 6-9 senior Cory Jefferson anchors Scott Drew's frontcourt. He is a load inside offensively and serves as the leading glass cleaner, averaging 8.4 rebounds per contest this season. Coach Bo Ryan has assembled a roster this year different than the model that became his trademark. Instead of interchangeable pieces that fit into a plodding, methodical offensive system and relentless defense, Ryan now has athletic wing players capable of filling it up. Sam Dekker must play well for Wisconsin to advance. If he and his fellow shooters get a few early three-pointers to fall, it could be a long night for the Bears.
Baylor will Win IF: Austin and Jefferson get the Badgers' frontcourt in early foul trouble. The best way to limit a shooting barrage is to get the shooters off the floor. Dekker and Kaminsky represent real threats to take Baylor away from what it does best (defending the paint). The Bears must find a way to take Wisconsin out of rhythm in the first half to avoid a game played in the 80s.
Player to Watch: Ben Brust, Wisconsin. Five Badgers scored in double figures against Oregon. One of the things that makes this particular Wisconsin team so hard to beat is its balance offensively, and it frequently generates shot opportunities for several key players. No one capitalizes on those opportunities more than Brust, a 1,000-point scorer who is making 39 percent of his attempts from long range this season. He is a volume shooter, so he will need to get a few open looks to get going, but if he does, he will become Wisconsin's most dangerous weapon.
Prediction: A contrast of styles, the game between these two opponents will come down to which team dictates the flow. Although Wisconsin's offensive firepower has carried it through the first two games, Baylor's frontcourt toughness and physicality will wear down its opponent. Advancing in the tournament is about exposing the opposing team's weaknesses, and the Bears are big and strong enough to fatigue their counterparts. If Baylor gets enough production from its guard play, the lower seed should once again pull the upset and advance to the Elite 8.