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EAST REGION SWEET 16 PREVIEW
Site: Washington, D.C.
In an NCAA Tournament filled with upsets, the East Region has stayed true to form thus far. All four top seeds advanced, albeit struggling at times to get to the Sweet 16. Still, they survived and advanced, and that's all that matters this time of year. A powerhouse matchup between Syracuse and Indiana looms in one regional semifinal, a rematch of the 1987 national championship and the infamous Keith Smart game-winner. Syracuse dismantled Montana and then held off Cal in the first weekend of the Tournament, while the Hoosiers crushed James Madison and then were taken down to the wire by the Temple Owls. Indiana swingman Victor Oladipo saved the day with a 3-point dagger down the stretch.
On the other side of the region, upstart Marquette faces this season's feel-good story and sudden juggernaut Miami. The Golden Eagles surprisingly earned a No. 3 seed and squeaked by Davidson and Butler in successive rounds with their usual grit and resilience. Meanwhile, the Hurricanes dominated Pacific and subsequently overcame a stiff defensive effort from Illinois to get to Washington, D.C. Miami reserve guard Rion Brown had a career game with 21 points, hitting five 3-pointers in the 63-59 triumph.
With the Goliaths firmly taking hold of this portion of the bracket, let's delve into the Sweet 16 matchups in the East.
No. 4 Syracuse vs. No. 1 Indiana
Key Matchup: Syracuse's Michael Carter-Williams vs. Indiana's Victor Oladipo. Carter-Williams is the catalyst for the Orange offense, one of the nation's top assist men this season. Despite being a point guard, his size makes him a logical matchup for Oladipo, the frontrunner for NCAA Player of the Year honors. Oladipo was matched up with Temple's Khalif Wyatt in the third round and was exposed at times for his over-aggressive play. Carter-Williams is crafty but younger than Wyatt, meaning Oladipo could more easily frustrate MCW with his on-ball pressure. If the 'Cuse can't get into its offense, penetrate and dish for treys, it could be a long night for the Orange.
Syracuse will Win IF: the 3-point shot is falling. The Orange have been dynamite from beyond the arc during their recent rejuvenated stretch. Syracuse hit 10 treys against Seton Hall in the opening round of the Big East tournament, followed by 12 against Pitt in the quarterfinals. The long-range shot is going to be the great equalizer for the Orange, who are undersized compared to Indiana big men Cody Zeller and Christian Watford. James Southerland and C.J. Fair should attempt to pull the Indiana bigs away from the paint, which would open the lane for slashes by Carter-Williams and senior guard Brandon Triche.
Indiana will Win IF: the Hoosiers can take advantage of the Syracuse 2-3 zone. It is often tough to rebound in a zone because of the lack of a man assignment. Indiana will bring its bruising Big Ten style of play to this game, attempting to pound Syracuse on the glass, find cracks in the zone and get easy buckets. Look for quick interior passes and back-cuts by the Hoosiers to set up Zeller, Oladipo and Will Sheehey near the rim, as well as kick-outs to the 3-point line for treys by Watford and sharpshooter Jordan Hulls. As long as the Hoosiers keep the ball moving and eventually find the open shooter, they will be a nightmare to guard.
Player to Watch: Syracuse's James Southerland. Southerland missed six games earlier this season due to academic issues, and it took the Orange some time to get acclimated to his presence upon his return. However, in the Big East tournament he hit a record 19 treys, shooting a blistering 58 percent from downtown over that span. Despite his outside shooting acumen, at 6-foot-8, Southerland is also a vital part of the Syracuse rebounding scheme. He had a team-high nine boards in the third round victory over Cal. Southerland will need to be at the top of his game for the Orange to advance.
Prediction: The Orange are playing about as well as any team in the country, but the Hoosiers should be able to grind this one out. The rebounding advantage will play a huge role in this contest. Expect Cody Zeller to have his way along the interior of the zone. Syracuse could light it up from beyond the arc, but the strength of the Hoosiers should wear down the Orange in the end and take them to the Elite Eight.
No. 3 Marquette vs. No. 2 Miami
Key Matchup: Marquette's Vander Blue vs. Miami's Durand Scott. Blue is the leading scorer for the Golden Eagles this season, averaging 14.3 points per game. His opponent Thursday will be the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, Miami's Durand Scott. Scott can impact the game in a variety of ways. The senior guard scored 32 points in the ACC tournament Semifinal against N.C. State. Meanwhile, he scored just six points in the third-round win over Illinois but made crucial plays down the stretch, including a dunk when the 'Canes couldn't buy a bucket down the stretch, as well as two clutch free-throws in the waning seconds. Scott's ability to keep Blue at bay will be a crucial storyline in this tilt.
Marquette will Win IF: the Golden Eagles can limit turnovers. Marquette turned the ball over 15 times against Butler but somehow managed to come away with the victory. Another poor performance taking care of the ball will spell doom for the Golden Eagles, though, as Miami is an excellent defensive squad that will turn turnovers into dunks or open 3-point looks. In the last four losses for Marquette, coach Buzz Williams's squad has averaged more than 17 turnovers per game. Taking care of the basketball will be of prime importance Thursday for the Golden Eagles.
Miami will Win IF: it dominates the paint. Miami has a supreme height advantage with Kenny Kadji, Reggie Johnson and freshman Tonye Jekiri on the front line. The 'Canes were pushed around a bit by a physical Illinois squad on the interior at both ends of the floor in their last game. Miami missed a plethora of shots close to the basket on the offensive end, while giving up a staggering 15 offensive rebounds to the Illini. Reserve center Chris Otule is the only Marquette player taller than 6-8, and forward Davante Gardner will not be able to push around Reggie Johnson or Julian Gamble in the post. If Miami can get easy looks on the offensive end and keep the Golden Eagles to "one-and-done" on the defensive end, it should have the upper hand in this contest.
Player to Watch: Miami's Shane Larkin. It'd be tough to argue against Larkin being the nation's top point guard this season. The sophomore never loses his cool and always seems to make the right decision with the basketball. His step-back three late in the game against Illinois probably saved Miami's season. He knows when to involve his teammates, but also isn't afraid to take the big shot. Larkin's poise should come in handy against an athletic, guard-laden Marquette squad.
Prediction: Can the Golden Eagles win a third consecutive game in the closing seconds? It won't happen this time, as the Hurricanes are too big and too athletic to overcome. Miami has the guard-play to stymie the Marquette offensive attack, and the physical presence inside to alter shots on defense and impose its will on offense. The Golden Eagles are not big on the 3-point shot, and since they won't be able to slash to the rim with their usual reckless abandon and ferocity due to the size and athleticism of the 'Canes, Miami should take this contest behind the dazzling Shane Larkin and advance to the regional final.