After a 6-2 mark in the Sweet 16 round – - including a perfect 4-0 on Friday night – - we take a look at the Elite Eight, beginning with Saturday night’s Regional Final matchups pitting #5 Butler against #2 Kansas State, followed by #2 West Virginia taking on #1 Kentucky . . .
#5 Butler vs. #2 Kansas State – 4:30 PM: Both teams are enjoying arguably their best season ever. Butler, riding a nation-long 23-game winning streak, hasn’t been beaten since a December 22nd road loss at UAB, and the Bulldogs are trying to make it to the Final Four for the first time ever. As for Kansas State, the Wildcats outlasted Xavier 101-96 in a double-overtime thriller where their guards Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente exchanged clutch shot after clutch shot with the Musketeers’ terrific sophomore backcourt duo of Jordan Crawford and Terrell Holloway. Coach Frank Martin has the Wildcats in the Elite Eight for the first time since 1988 during the days of Lon Kruger guiding the team, and a win on Saturday would secure the school its first Final Four trip since 1964.
Pullen has really elevated his game to another level during the NCAA Tournament, averaging 25.7 points per game over the last three contests while shooting 15-for-30 from deep and committing only four turnovers. Both he and Clemente are major reasons why they’ve won a school-record 29 games this year. The guards can shoot it, are unselfish at times and know how to feed the post. On the inside, the Wildcats are persistent and it has led to them attempting and making more free-throws than any other team in the country. Curtis Kelly was really effective as the game progressed against Xavier and stepped up in overtime with 21 points, eight rebounds, four assists and five blocks. Another effort like that where he really does damage late on the interior should be enough to help them move a step closer to a National Title.
Butler forced 18 turnovers by Syracuse, including 13 steals that led to them getting chance at transition points in their surprising 63-59 upset of the top-seeded Orange. Brad Stevens’ Bulldogs were patient attacking the 2-3 zone, but most importantly they dug in defensively when their offense went in a dry spell, scoring 15 points the first 16 minutes of the second half after scoring 31 points in the first 16 minutes of the first half. Most teams wouldn’t be able to survive that against an opponent of Syracuse’s quality, but Butler did because their defense, headlined by guard Ronald Nored, didn’t give up any easy baskets and offensively they protected the basketball. To be successful and reach the Final Four, they’ll need to be able to have similar results defensively, plus get strong offensive games from Gordon Hayward (17 vs. Syracuse), Shelvin Mack (only 1-of-10 from deep the last game) and Matt Howard, a key inside player who sometimes gets in foul trouble.
While fatigue from the double-overtime classic could be an issue potentially for KSU, Butler is coming off a pretty emotional win themselves over Syracuse, and I’m not sure the Bulldogs have quite the amount of weapons or firepower offensively to keep up with the Wildcats provided the score gets above the 60’s like I anticipate. Pick – Kansas State by 6
#2 West Virginia vs. #1 Kentucky – 7:05 PM: John Calipari in year one at Kentucky has the Wildcats three wins away from their eighth National Championship and the program’s first since 1998. Quickly and with a bunch of freshmen, he has put them back in the national spotlight with their average margin of victory in the NCAA Tournament by 25.3 points a game, and holding opponents under 35% shooting from the field. For West Virginia, they are in the Elite Eight for the second time in six years. In 2005 they lost to Louisville 93-85 in overtime. Reserve the outcome this time around and it’ll mark their first trip to the Final Four since 1959. Both teams won comfortably by double-digits in the Sweet 16 as Kentucky ended the Cinderella story of #12 seed Cornell, whereas West Virginia rallied from a half-time deficit to beat #11 seed and Pac-10 Tournament Champion Washington.
Kentucky’s team is stacked with potential NBA lottery picks in guard John Wall, big man DeMarcus Cousins and sharp shooter Eric Bledsoe. Wall is putting up 13 points and 8.6 assists per game in the tourney; many believe he’ll be the first pick in the 2010 NBA Draft as this point guard may be the best player in the country and just as a freshman. Cousins is a double-double threat at 13.3 points and 7.7 rebounds a game in the tourney. As for Bledsoe, he’s drilling it from the outside at a 64.5% clip to go with his 15 points a game over the past three contests. When this team rebounds, and most times they do, they’re even more dangerous. The only areas where they aren’t really strong are outside shooting and foul shooting, but make no mistake about it, this team is close to impossible to beat when they are shooting a high percentage from both long distance and at the charity stripe.
West Virginia counters the speed, strength, talent and size of Kentucky with interchangeable parts and a tough 1-3-1 zone defense. Over their last six games the Mountaineers have held each opponent under 60 points. Like Kentucky, West Virginia has not been a terrific outside shooting team, but also like the Wildcats, they crash the glass, particularly on offense to get their points. West Virginia out-rebounded Washington by 16 and had 19 offensive boards. They’ll look to the long 6-foot-9 wingspan of Devin Ebanks, their point forward, to try and disrupt Wall, and Da’Sean Butler is an all-around performer that fills the stat sheet and has seen his scoring responsibility increase in postseason play. The point guard play has not been overly consistent in a good way for West Virginia, and they can’t afford costly turnovers if they want to beat the Wildcats. They committed 23 of them against Washington, though the expected return of Darryl ‘Truck’ Bryant should help. Coach Bob Huggins knows in order to take his alma mater to the Final Four, they have to be able to keep Kentucky’s lethal transition game in check.
My personal feeling is that the winner of this game will go on to win the National Championship. That was my thought when the brackets first came out, and I still stand by that thought. Kentucky is the most talented team in America, even with their youth and inexperience. That being said, anything less than an A-level performance could keep them from getting to the Final Four. Personally, I feel that Kentucky is playing a little bit better than West Virginia going into this matchup, though I’ll stick with my original pick before the tournament began of the Mountaineers to win the title. Pick – West Virginia by 1