EAST REGION SWEET 16 PREVIEW
Site: New York
Three of the top four seeds made it to Madison Square Garden, the World's Most Famous Arena, for the East Regional Sweet 16. Despite a No. 4 seed, the Michigan State Spartans are healthy and favored to win this region, holding up their end of the bargain so far. MSU knocked off spunky underdogs Delaware and Harvard en route to the Sweet 16. Meanwhile, top-seeded Virginia shook off some suspect offensive performances to defeat Coastal Carolina and Memphis to advance. At the bottom of the region, No. 3 Iowa State overcame a season-ending injury to sophomore Georges Niang, as well as an eight-point deficit late in the contest against North Carolina, to advance to the Round of 16.
The surprise team in the region, perhaps, is the Connecticut Huskies. UConn took care of A-10 tournament champ St. Joe's in an overtime thriller in the Round of 64, then knocked off former Big East foe Villanova in a mild upset to reach the Sweet 16. Obviously, the Huskies and Wildcats were intimately familiar with each other from their conference days, making the victory for UConn not terribly surprising. The Huskies could have a small advantage in the Sweet 16 in that they have played many games at MSG while in the Big East and will not be fazed by the bright lights of Manhattan.
No. 4 Michigan State vs. No. 1 Virginia
Key Matchup: Michigan State's Gary Harris vs. Virginia's Malcolm Brogdon. The Cavaliers aren't the most athletic squad, but Brogdon is the exception, and his ascension to stardom has been one of the main reasons for the improved play of Virginia this season. Brogdon can break down opposing defenses and get to the rim, find open three-point shooters and also rebound the ball extremely effectively for his size. Meanwhile, the sophomore Harris might be their best player on a deep and experienced Michigan State squad. A dangerous perimeter shooter, Harris is also a superior slasher with surprising hops. He is also stellar on the defensive end and likely will be tasked with the assignment of slowing Brogdon. If Harris puts the clamps down on Brogdon, it could be a long night for the Virginia offense.
Michigan State will Win IF: the Spartans take care of the basketball. Michigan State shares the basketball well, but the Spartans become very pedestrian when they stop valuing their possessions. In their last two losses this season, the Spartans turned the ball over 16 times each. Limiting turnovers will be vital against the No. 1 defense in the country, particularly if the pace of the game is slow and possessions are limited.
Virginia will Win IF: the Cavaliers can get to the free-throw line. The Cavaliers play a slowdown pace, limiting possessions and holding down the score. They are the top defensive team in the country, but Virginia struggles scoring at times. The Cavaliers need to get the extra opportunities to put points on the board, since they are not efficient on the offensive end. They hit 12 more free throws than Coastal Carolina in their tourney opener and won the game by 11. Drawing fouls, getting to the line and further slowing the game should only benefit the Cavaliers.
Player to Watch: Adreian Payne, Michigan State. Payne leads an experienced, savvy, veteran group of Spartans. The 6-10 senior's offensive game has evolved during his time in East Lansing. Payne poured in 41 points in the opening-round victory over Delaware, including stepping out behind the three-point line for four treys. He also hit an NCAA record 17-of-17 free-throws. By contrast, Payne hit just one three-pointer during his first two SEASONS at Michigan State. He also shot an abysmal 48.6 percent from the foul line as a freshman. He battled foul trouble against Harvard, which allowed the Crimson back into a game that looked all but over at halftime. When Payne is on the court and scoring, though, the Spartans become virtually impossible to guard due to the bevy of options at the disposal of head coach Tom Izzo.
Prediction: The Spartans are too big, too strong, too talented. The Cavaliers have been a great story this season, but their inability to score will ultimately be their downfall. Michigan State does not mind playing in a defensive-minded battle, and it should dominate the glass with the likes of Branden Dawson and the aforementioned Payne. The Spartans are a better offensive team than the Cavaliers with options like Payne, Harris, Dawson, Travis Trice and Keith Appling, and ultimately, that will carry the day for Michigan State.
No. 7 Connecticut vs. No. 3 Iowa State
Key Matchup: Connecticut's Shabazz Napier vs. Iowa State's DeAndre Kane. The point guard matchup should be simply sensational, as both are the catalysts for their respective squads. They're both big guards who can score, dish and even rebound. With ISU's Georges Niang sidelined with a broken foot, the Cyclones will rely even more heavily upon Kane's talents. Kane nearly had a triple-double against North Carolina, while also scoring the game-winning bucket. Meanwhile, as Napier goes, so do the Huskies.
Connecticut will Win IF: the Huskies hit the glass with ferocity. A poor rebounding squad during the regular season, the Huskies outrebounded each of their opponents in the first two rounds of the tournament. The emergence of 7-foot center Amida Brimah has really helped push this UConn squad to the next level, giving the Huskies size, strength and shot-blocking on the interior. Iowa State is among the top rebounding teams in the nation, so the battle on the boards will go a long way toward determining this outcome.
Iowa State will Win IF: the three-point shot is falling. The trey saved the Cyclones against UNC, as they canned 12-of-26 (46.2 percent) from beyond the arc in the 85-83 triumph over the Tar Heels. The Cyclones looked dead in the water down the stretch without the playmaking Niang before a few threes went down. With Kane and Napier possibly negating each other, the Cyclones will need another standout performance from long distance to advance.
Player to Watch: Melvin Ejim, Iowa State. It's not often that the Big 12 Conference Player of the Year would get overshadowed on his own squad, but that is exactly what happens from time to time due to the emergence of Marshall transfer DeAndre Kane. Ejim averages more than 18 points per game, shooting more than 50 percent from the field. He can score from almost anywhere on the court, sporting a vastly improved outside shot as a senior. However, he truly excels when using his body down low. When the inside-out game is clicking between Ejim and Kane, the Cyclones' offense runs like a well-oiled machine, and ISU is tough to stop.
Prediction: In many ways, this game will be a huge clash of styles. The Cyclones want to get up and down the court, put the pedal to the metal. Meanwhile, the Huskies are a stellar defensive squad, built by coach Kevin Ollie in the mold of mentor and former UConn coach Jim Calhoun's Big East teams. Connecticut would prefer to lock down on defense and turn this into a lower-scoring affair. However, even without the services of Niang, the Cyclones will be difficult to stop on the offensive end and will simply be too physical on the boards for UConn. Iowa State is among the most efficient teams in the country on offense, and Kane and Ejim give the Cyclones enough offensive firepower to send ISU to the Elite 8.