Bill Koch, National Columnist
The old boxing truism about styles making fights also applies to NCAA Tournament games, something that will be clear for all to see during the opening night of Sweet 16 action.
Three of the four matchups feature plodding against pace, teams who like to wear down their foes on every possession taking on opponents who are more likely to push the tempo and keep the action on the perimeter. Controlling the ball and dictating how the game is played will go a long way toward determining whose road to the Final Four will continue.
And yes, these last three days have felt like an eternity. You’re not alone in thinking that. Just wait until next week when five days will pass before Saturday night’s national semifinals. Tipoff, please. Now.
No. 1 Syracuse (33-2) vs. No. 4 Wisconsin (26-9)
The Orange showed some spine by wiping away their first round scare against UNC-Asheville with a dominant 75-59 win over Kansas State. The patented Syracuse 2-3 zone held the misfiring Wildcats to an underwhelming 31.3 percent from the field – including a 4-for-17 night from 3-point range – while the Orange offense hit at an efficient 51.1 percent from the floor. Kansas State guard Rodney McGruder was held largely in check after pouring in 30 points in an opening victory against Southern Mississippi, struggling to just 15 points on 5-for-13 shooting and finishing with two assists against three turnovers.
Syracuse’s perimeter players will need to be just as focused against Badgers’ point guard Jordan Taylor, who has led Wisconsin back to the Sweet 16 thanks to his grit and toughness. Taylor topped five players in double figures with 14 points as the Badgers squeezed past SEC Tournament champion Vanderbilt, 60-57, to reach the tournament’s second weekend. Wisconsin’s typically stingy defense held the Commodores to a 5-for-19 performance from 3-point range, a warning to a Syracuse team that too frequently settles for jump shots and doesn’t use the superior athletic talents of C.J. Fair, Dion Waiters and Kris Joseph to force the ball to the rim.
The draw couldn’t have broken any better for the Orange here. Vanderbilt’s usual prowess from the outside and the presence of a bruiser inside like Festus Ezeli could have spelled trouble for Syracuse, but Wisconsin doesn’t have the type of banger in the paint or matchup nightmare along the baseline that the Commodores would have brought with them to Boston to expose the continued absence of Orange center Fab Melo. Look for Syracuse to survive and advance through yet another round.
The pick – Syracuse
No. 2 Ohio State (29-7) vs. No. 6 Cincinnati (26-10)
This battle between in-state rivals could wind up being the tastiest game of the weekend. It’s no secret that every other school in the state loathes the way that the big-budget Buckeyes lord over the sports scene, and this could be a chance for the Bearcats to put a little dent in Ohio State’s dominance.
The best matchup on the floor in this one will be between a pair of star forwards, as Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger and Cincinnati’s Yancy Gates represent more than 500 pounds of Grade-A talent. Let’s hope that both players will bring the best out of one another, because neither has been great to this point in the tournament. Sullinger went a disappointing 4-for-14 from the field in the opening round against Loyola (Md.) and finished with just four rebounds in 26 minutes against Gonzaga. Gates followed a strong opening game against Texas by disappearing against Florida State, posting just 10 points and five rebounds. They’re both capable of much better and won’t have the luxury of waiting until a future matchup in the NBA to show it.
Sophomore point guard Aaron Craft is the key here for the Buckeyes. He was outstanding in Ohio State’s 73-66 win over Gonzaga, scoring 17 points, dishing out 10 assists and committing just two turnovers while playing all 40 minutes. Craft also found time to play his trademark suffocating defense, holding Bulldogs’ point guard Kevin Pangos to just 10 points on 3-for-13 shooting. Craft is likely to be left alone against a swarm of Cincinnati guards, as Sean Kilpatrick, Dion Dixon and Cashmere Wright have emerged as one of the toughest trios in the field. If Craft can hold his own the rest of the Buckeyes should follow suit.
The pick – Ohio State
No. 1 Michigan State (29-7) vs. No. 4 Louisville (28-9)
Two of the most decorated coaches in the field square off here, as the Spartans’ Tom Izzo seeks his seventh trip to the Final Four since taking over at Michigan State in 1995 and the Cardinals’ Rick Pitino continues the quest for his sixth with three different schools (Providence 1987, Kentucky 1993, 1996, 1997, Louisville 2005). This is the third game of the night that features differing viewpoints on how the game should be played, with Izzo’s team looking to grind it out and Pitino’s team employing the running and gunning that he patented during that unlikely run with the Friars 25 years ago.
Izzo counts arguably the best player in the field to this point in his locker room. Draymond Green has been sensational, posting a triple-double against LIU-Brooklyn in the opening round and knocking out Saint Louis, 65-61, with a double-double. Green’s 16 points, 13 rebounds and six assists came against a Billikens’ defense that has made life uncomfortable for most of their opponents this season, but the Spartans play Saint Louis’s style better than Rick Majerus can teach it to his own players. Michigan State shackled the Billikens to the tune of 35.3 percent shooting from the field and a 7-for-25 finish from 3-point range, something that should concern a Louisville team that barely cracked 40 percent against Davidson and endured a 36-25 shellacking on the glass against New Mexico.
Louisville will need to turn up the heat on Michigan State point guard Keith Appling and rotate bodies against Green, leaning on him inside with massive Senegalese center Gorgui Dieng and speeding him up on the perimeter with freshman wing Chane Benahan. The Cardinals need to force turnovers, take the Spartans out of their rhythm and force them to settle for perimeter shots on offense. Failure to do so will result in a long night for Louisville, possession by maddening possession.
The pick – Michigan State
No. 3 Marquette (27-7) vs. No. 7 Florida (25-10)
This matchup is the oddball on the schedule and could end up being the most entertaining. The Golden Eagles and Gators both love to get out on the fast break and fire 3-pointers at a regular clip, with terrific perimeter players dominating the action on both rosters.
Through two NCAA Tournament games it looks like Jae Crowder has more on his mind than taking home Big East Player of the Year honors. Marquette’s wing extraordinaire has been a one-man wrecking crew, piling up 25 points and 16 rebounds against BYU and finishing with 17 points, 13 rebounds and three steals against Murray State.
The major red flag for the Golden Eagles against the Racers came on the glass – Murray State posted a 43-36 advantage, and Florida’s bigs are both more talented and more athletic than anything the Racers possess. Marquette needs to tempt Kenny Boynton and Bradley Beal into launching from distance, a strategy that will benefit a defense that held Murray State to a 4-for-21 performance from 3-point range. The alternative for the Golden Eagles is attempting to defend a Florida team that is hitting at a scorching 76.3 percent clip from 2-point range in the tournament.
Florida has rolled through its first two games by a combined 60 points, far and away the best winning margin in the field. The Gators hammered Virginia, 71-45, in their opener and had the good fortune of playing a Norfolk State team in the third round that was drained by its upset of No. 2 seed Missouri. Florida’s anticipated 84-50 victory was more dominant than expected, as the Gators rolled out to a 47-19 lead by halftime and showed no mercy.
Billy Donovan will earn his fourth trip to the Final Four if defense and rebounding are the true indicators of a championship-caliber team. The Gators have held their first two opponents to a dismal 31.8 percent from the floor, including an ice-cold 7-for-42 from 3-point range. Florida has also dominated the backboards, posting a plus-16.5 rebounding margin. Yes, it can be argued that all of that work was done against inferior opponents. But the Gators were still playing against 13 guys on scholarship each time, and it’s hard to believe that any other team in the field would have been equally ruthless. Marquette’s weakness in the frontcourt is about to be exposed.
The pick – Florida
* * *
Izzo photo courtesy Michigan State Athletics