All games played at the TD Center in Boston
Feast your eyes on a good deal of chalk. Three of the region's top four seeds -- Syracuse, Ohio State, and Wisconsin -- managed to navigate safe passage to Boston, and your nominal Cinderella, Cincinnati, is a No. 6 seed who went 12-6 in the Big East. There's a lot of weight being thrown around in this first-ever Big East/Big Ten Challenge.
(4) Wisconsin vs. (1) Syracuse (Thursday, 7:15 on CBS)
If you've wondered who "this year's VCU" is going to be, I would like to nominate Wisconsin. Just as the Rams did in 2011, the Badgers are sending opponents into oblivion in win-or-go-home settings by alternating fiendishly accurate three-point shooting with stout defense.
Not that the fiendish perimeter accuracy is particularly reliable, mind you. On paper Bo Ryan's men have hit 41 percent of their threes in four postseason games (including the Big Ten tournament), but there's a 30 percent effort against Vanderbilt woven into that particular paper. Still, when the Badgers aren't hitting their threes, they simply shrug their shoulders and lock down on D -- again, very Virginia Commonwealth-in-2011-like. If this keeps up Illinois may want to consider making a run at Ryan.
A lot of the attention in this game will focus on what happens when a three-happy offense like Wisconsin's intersects with the Syracuse zone defense. Well, there will be a lot of threes. In four games that have taken place after the close of the regular season, the men from Madison have been notably perimeter-oriented: 47 percent of their shot attempts have been flung up from beyond the arc. Just bear in mind these guys hardly need to face a zone in order to shoot threes.
The Badgers performed well below the Big Ten average this season in scoring efficiency inside the arc, and in Taylor they're led by a star for whom interior production has never been a strong suit. So Taylor, Ben Brust, and Jared Berggren will shoot threes. The Cuse zone won't "chase Wisconsin off the three-point line" as much as it will try to extend itself out far enough to make those threes miss. There's no Fab Melo on the back line of that zone, of course, but the way Rakeem Christmas is playing (seven defensive boards and three blocks in 34 minutes against Kansas State) that absence is likely of little consequence in the Badgers' game planning.
Actually if you're a fan of strength-on-strength collisions, you need to keep your eye on the possessions where the Syracuse offense faces the Wisconsin defense. This is the best Orange offense we've seen in recent years, and Dion Waiters is the star. In the last four games he's taken 31 percent of his team's shots during his minutes. It's early, but so far Waiters is having a postseason that can rightly be put up there on the same bleachers as Jeremy Lamb 2011: in the Big East tournament and in the rounds of 64 and 32, the Syracuse sophomore has made 56 percent of his twos and, coincidentally, 56 percent of his threes. (In the four-game postseason he's also turning the ball over less frequently than even Taylor.) As I've said before, I'm not sure it's terribly important that he's sitting on the bench at the opening tip. Waiters is The Man, and his excellence has been especially important in light of Kris Joseph's recent high-minute, low-efficiency struggles.
Last point: forget tempo, and especially forget talk about "the importance of controlling the pace." I already know the pace this game will be played at, and if I do Jim Boeheim does too. This game will have 58 possessions, plus or minus a couple. That's the speed at which all four of Wisconsin's post-regular-season games have been played. That won't inconvenience Syracuse unduly. Their postseason games (including the Big East tournament) have raced along at 61 trips per 40 minutes. Pace won't be a factor.
(6) Cincinnati vs. (2) Ohio State (Thursday, 9:45 on CBS)
Fans of a hypothetical major-conference-only tournament are already getting what they want to see if they simply follow Cincinnati. UC opened against that darling of laptops everywhere, Texas, and after some very shaky moments late in the second half the Bearcats sent the Longhorns home by the score of 65-59. Mick Cronin's team then dispatched ACC tournament champ Florida State, in a game where the Seminoles led by a point with two minutes remaining but allowed matters to deteriorate rather badly from there.
Now Cincinnati faces Ohio State. Win there and the Bearcats will get the survivor of Wisconsin-Syracuse. That, my friends, is one rugged path to New Orleans.
Since the close of the regular season Cronin's men have played five close games in a row, and they came out on top in four of them. Cincinnati had a nice experience flirting with a perimeter orientation in their Big East tournament win over Syracuse -- for one magical night at the Garden the Bearcats shot a lot of threes, and they went in -- but for the most part this is your standard-issue Cincinnati team: they win with their D. Texas and Florida State combined to shoot 37 percent on their twos against this defense.
Mind you, if I'm Thad Matta right now I'm telling my team they'll still have to be on top of their game on defense. The sum totals for Cincinnati on offense don't look particularly fearsome, but they have a lot of moving parts that can give an opposing coach pause. JaQuon Parker grabbed five offensive boards in 30 minutes against Florida State. In that same game Sean Kilpatrick hit 4-of-6 threes. And Yancy Gates is one of the few players remaining in the field who can stand next to Jared Sullinger and not look like John Shurna.
I just think the Buckeyes will win this game anyway, if for no other reason than their defense is even better than Cincinnati's -- and they're pretty fair on offense too. Even if we label Aaron Craft's 17-point, 10-assist performance against Gonzaga a one-game eruption, Matta still has a good deal of dispersed scoring potential in Sullinger, William Buford, and Deshaun Thomas alone. Thomas in particular is suffering from a hype-to-reality ratio that needs serious adjustment. Since the close of the regular season he's been taking 28 percent of the offense's shots during his minutes. That's clearly a star's share of the action, but if anything Thomas should shoot more: in those five games he's hit 65 percent of his twos and 36 percent of his threes.
OSU right now has that Kentucky thing going wherein somehow players who are excellent on defense are also able to rack up points on the other team. In their win over Gonzaga I saw Craft score a lot of points, and I saw Thomas block at least two shots. Defenders are starting to score, and gunners are noticing defense. Watch out.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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