NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Picks – Friday, March 24, 2017

March 25, 2017 on 12:56 am | In College Basketball | No Comments

The 2017 NCAA Tournament continued on Thursday night with Sweet 16 play, where three of the four games went right down to the wire.  First it was Oregon scoring the final four points of the game to edge Michigan, 69-68.  Gonzaga outlasted West Virginia 61-58 in a slugfest, scoring the final six points to eliminate the Mountaineers.

Not to be outdone for a thriller was Xavier/Arizona, appearing for a while that Sean Miller would get the best of his old school.  Instead, Xavier closed the final 2:40 on a 9-0 run for a stunning 73-71 upset.  There would be no ‘upset’ in the Kansas/Purdue game, although the Jayhawks erased an eight-point deficit late in the first half and steamroll the Boilermakers from there, winning 98-66.

The lineup for Friday should produce more excitement, including with a much anticipated Kentucky vs. UCLA showdown of two heavyweights in the sport…

Hat’s Friday Night Picks:

#4 Butler (25-8) vs. #1 North Carolina (29-7)… Even though North Carolina is 0-2 all-time against Butler, the Tar Heels are plenty confident.  Roy Williams is 12-1 in the Sweet 16 as a #1 seed, including winning twice before in seasons where UNC won National Championships.  His Tar Heels lead the nation in rebounding margin with Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks able to clean up misses, just as they did in their 72-65 comeback win over Arkansas in the Round of 32.  This UNC team has a 38-14 advantage in offensive rebounding in the NCAA Tournament.  Butler is no pushover, however, and must be taken seriously.  The Bulldogs have not trailed yet in the NCAA Tournament, the only team that can say such at this juncture, and they featured an experienced group with three senior starters, none more reliable than 6′7″ junior forward Kelan Martin.  George Washington transfer Kethan Savage gives them another steady vet in the backcourt.  Defensively, they kept down Middle Tennessee’s top scorer in Giddy Potts – 19.7PPG over the previous six games – and held him scoreless.  Containing all the weapons UNC has, including ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson, will be a different story.  Keep an eye on the health and effectiveness of guard Joel Berry – who has gone from 14.4PPG to 6.5PPG and is 3-for-21 from the field in the tourney – for UNC.  He’ll be needed to produce in a big way to get to the Final Four.  Pick – UNC 78, Butler 70

#7 South Carolina (24-10) vs. #3 Baylor (27-7)… What a story this South Carolina team, which just barely missed the NCAA Tournament a year ago, has been.  Frank Martin’s Gamecocks made their first trip to the Big Dance since 2004, notched its first victory in the tourney since 1973 and then followed up an impressive 93-73 win over Marquette with a commanding 88-81 come-from-behind win over ACC Tournament Champ Duke.  In that game against Duke, they overcame a 7-for-35 shooting start to scored 65 second half points.  Senior Sindarius Thornwell, the SEC Player of the Year, is putting up over 26 points per game to go with 8.5RPG and 3.5APG in the NCAA Tournament.  He’s a big guard at 6′6″ and is complemented b 6′6″ sophomore P.J. Dozier quite well.  To beat Baylor, they’ll need 6′9″ sophomore forward Chris Silva to rebound well against a Bears team that can control the inside against most foes.  In fact, in their opening round win over New Mexico State, Baylor finished with a 50-28 advantage when it came to points in the paint.  But versus a South Carolina zone defense that has gotten better lately, Baylor will need the likes of Al Freeman (21Pts. 3-3 on 3’s in that first round), Miami transfer Manu Lecomte and others to knock down shots from the perimeter to take pressure off the front-court players.  Pick – South Carolina 73, Baylor 69

#2 Kentucky (31-5) vs. #3 UCLA (31-4)… This is a National Championship caliber matchup in the Sweet 16.  Back in December, these two teams met and it was UCLA winning 97-92, despite a bevy of turnovers, at Rupp Arena.  Kentucky is playing at a different level than back then, but so too are the Bruins, who lead the country in scoring at 90.2 points per game.  UCLA is also tops in the nation in field goal percentage (52%) and assists (21.6 per contest).  John Calipari is 5-0 in the Sweet 16 at Kentucky, which comes in riding a 13-game winning streak that is longer than anyone else still playing.  Meanwhile, Steve Alford has not advanced past this round as a Head Coach at any of his stops.  Neither defense is probably going to be able to shut down the other, so it’s likely going to become a game full of dunks, lobs and 3’s where whoever outscores the other in a shoot-out is left standing.  Nobody has dazzled more in College Hoops this season than 6′6″ freshman Lonzo Ball, a guy that shot 7-of-10 from the field with 18 points, nine assists, seven boards and just one turnover in a 79-67 win over Cincinnati in the previous round.  Kentucky has the inside presence with 6′10″ freshman Bam Adebayo, who had four second half jams in their 65-62 white-knuckler with Wichita State.  Bam, a virtual Dwight Howard clone, also blocked the game’s final shot.  There are so many talented players on the floor for both teams, many of whom will go on to the NBA.  The guy Kentucky is hoping can put them over the top is Malik Monk, who earlier in the season scored 47 points on UNC, yet is just 6-of-21 from the field in this NCAA Tournament.  As good as 6′3″ senior guard Bryce Alford is on the offensive end of the court, UCLA may look to hide him some defensively and knows a strong performance skilled 6′10″ freshman T.J. Leaf in the post is paramount.  Pick – UCLA 91, Kentucky 89

#8 Wisconsin (27-9) vs. #4 Florida (26-8)… Making their fourth consecutive Sweet 16 appearance are the Wisconsin Badgers, led by the veteran play of senior forward Nigel Hayes, who scored the game-winner in the team’s 65-62 comeback win over defending National Champ Villanova.  In that game, Nova led 57-50 with 5:16 to play, but the Badgers fought back with timely plays from tourney tested players like Hayes, senior guard Bronson Koenig, senior forward Vitto Brown and sophomore forward Ethan Happ.  The Badgers won thanks to that 15-5 run and largely because they finished +10 in the paint.  Will they be able to get similar results on a long and athletic Florida team coming into its own?  No one is flourishing more on the Gators than 6′8″ junior Devin Robinson, fresh off a double-double of 14 points and 11 rebounds in a 65-39 rout of defensive-minded Virginia.  Robinson had a career-high of 24 points in the game before that, an 80-65 win over East Tennessee State where the Gators shook off an 0-for-8 start from three-point distance.  Given that Florida can be hold from three-point range, it’s essential that 6′1″ senior guard Kasey Hill penetrate with success and finish on the drive as well as set up others to score.  While many eyes will be on the UCLA/Kentucky game in the second window, and understandably so, don’t be surprised to see this one produce a buzzer-beater or get decided on the final possession.  Pick – Florida 66, Wisconsin 65

NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Picks – Thursday, March 23, 2017

March 24, 2017 on 2:17 am | In College Basketball, Uncategorized | No Comments

The 2017 NCAA Tournament has seen the field trim from 68 teams to the Sweet 16.  There weren’t too many upsets or surprises in the first two rounds.  In fact, we had no overtime games or buzzer-beaters.  However, tourney favorite (per the oddsmakers in Vegas) Duke was knocked out in the Round of 32 as well as defending National Champ Villanova.

Let’s take a look at the Thursday night slate and offer up predictions since pretty much everyone’s brackets have been blown to smithereens.  We’ll call this Take 2…

Hat’s Thursday Night Picks:

#7 Michigan (26-11) vs. #3 Oregon (31-5)… Down 11 early in the second half against Rhode Island, Oregon is fortunate in some respects to still be playing as they used a 7-0 run over the final 2:09, capped by a tie-breaking three-pointer from Tyler Dorsey, to beat the Rams 75-72 in the last round.  They’re also playing without injured rim protector and 6′10″ senior Chris Boucher.  Michigan also is fortunate for different reasons.  The Wolverines had a plane crash prior to the Big Ten Tournament, remarkably won it as a #8 seed with four victories in four days, then rallied past the likes of Oklahoma State and Louisville to get to this point.  Guard Derrick Walton has been playing at a tremendously high level with 17 assists compared to just three turnovers in the NCAA Tournament, while 6′10″ sophomore forward Moritz Wagner is coming off a career-high 26 points on 11-of-14 shooting against Louisville.  Coach John Beilein of Michigan is a brilliant offensive mind and his team doesn’t turn it over, pluses uses the 3-point line better than most.  With a healthy Boucher, the Dukes probably win this one rather handily, but they will need an unsung hero to emerge to contain Walton, plus help out the talented trio of Dorsey, Dillon Brooks and Jordan Bell to keep marching towards the Final Four.  Michigan’s confidence is through the roof.  Pick – Michigan 80, Oregon 78

#4 West Virginia (28-8) vs. #1 Gonzaga (34-1)… There probably hasn’t been a quieter #1 seed with as lofty a record as this Gonzaga, who entered with the best winning percentage of any participant in this year’s NCAA Tournament, yet some wanted them to be a #2 seed because of the strength of schedule not being as fierce as some of the other Top 25 ranked teams in the nation.  Don’t let that or previous exits at this point of the tourney – this is their eighth Sweet 16 trip, but they’ve only appeared in the Elite eight twice (19999, 2015) – fool you.  Junior 6′3″ guard Nigel Williams-Goss is a pick-and-roll maestro, 7′1″ senior center Przemek Karnowski is strong in the low block and 7′0″ freshman center Zach Collins has given them another solid big man to utilize.  West Virginia, known for their outstanding pressure on defense as they lead the country in turnovers fored, had success turning over both Bucknell and Notre Dame in the last two rounds.  The Mountaineers also shot it exceedingly well in beating the Irish; canning 8-of-14 3’s an 21-of-26 free-throws.  Will guards Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles be able to duplicate that against a Gonzaga team that is pretty good defensively in its own right?  While West Virginia is a physical tough bunch, they’re going to need to produce in the paint and see 6′9″ senior forward Nathan Adrian give them a big effort on the glass to knock out the top-seeded Bulldogs.  Pick – Gonzaga 75, West Virginia 70

#4 Purdue (27-7) vs. #1 Kansas (30-4)… After beating a pesky Vermont team 80-70 in the opening round, Matt Painter’s Boilermakers got up as many as 19 points against Iowa State, lost the lead, but recovered to prevail 80-76 over a dangerous Cyclones team.  Sophomore forward Caleb Swanigan of Purdue leads the nation in double-doubles with 28.   He was the Big 10 Player of the Year and an argument could be made for him as National Player of the Year.  Kansas fifth-year senior Landen Lucas, their best rebounder, will have his hands full with him on the inside as well as with 7′2″ junior center Isaac Haas.  Kansas counters with a dynamic perimeter attack, headlined by Big 12 Player of the Year Frank Mason (20.8PPG, 48.7% 3’s) and  and Big 12 Freshman of the Year Josh Jackson.  That duo combines for over 37 points per game, and if anyone questioned the value of potential first round pick Jackson, just consider they went from losing to TCU in the Big 12 Tournament quarterfinals without him to winning these last two games by a total of 58 points.  Included was a 90-70 romp of a Michigan State team known for being to score on over the years.  Purdue can win this game, but playing from in front is paramount because they are 19-1 when ahead at half-time this season.  Kansas seems to have more ways of scoring. Pick – Kansas 76, Purdue 73

#11 Xavier (23-14) vs. 2 Arizona (32-4)… The interesting subplot to this one is that Arizona’s Head Coach, Sean Miller, used to be at Xavier.  He’s trying to break through and get Arizona to the Final Four for the first time since 2001.  The Wildcats didn’t blink in the second round against St. Mary’s, who led them by 10 in the first half, as they made 13 consecutive free-throws at one point to rally for a 69-60 win. Arizona is giving up nearly six fewer points per game on the defensive side of the ball and shooting 39.6% from three-point range compared to Xavier’s 34.9% on the season.  Xavier’s zone defense gave both Florida St. and Maryland issues, defeating each by double-digits.  A lot of the focus for the Musketeers will be slowing down sophomore guard Allonzo Trier as well as 6′11″ senior forward Lauri Markkanen, the stretch ‘4′ who can deliver inside or out.  It’s remarkable the job Xavier Head Coach Chris Mack has done to get this team to its sixth Sweet 16 since 2008 without injured sophomore guard Edmond Sumner (15PPG, 5APG), their second leading scorer.  Someone will have to help out 6′6″ junior  swingman Trevon Bluiett in shouldering the scoring load.  Junior 5′11″ guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright could be the x-factor for Zona in this one.  He’s a capable outside shooter and also can set others up to score, something they’ll need him to do whether it’s in the open floor or half-court.  Pick – Arizona 69, Xavier 59

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