All games played at the US Airways Center in Phoenix
While I was watching it unfold in real time, last weekend certainly seemed suitably wacky, but viewers tuning in to CBS and TBS for some hoops on Thursday night will be forgiven for wondering what happened to all those plucky and endearing underdogs. In addition to the East's lineup of usual suspects -- Syracuse, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Cincinnati -- the West also features four major-conference powers, three of whom were "supposed" to get this far. The good news is that this high concentration of chalk can often make for some very competitive hoops.
(4) Louisville vs. (1) Michigan State (Thursday, 7:47 on TBS)
Since the close of the regular season, the Michigan State offense has been tested by some of the nation's finest defenses. Just in the past 11 days Tom Izzo's team has faced Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Saint Louis on neutral floors, a gauntlet that could have been billed in advance as "America's Got Defense!"
Against those three opponents MSU scored 1.11 points per possession, a remarkable figure which for better or worse was entirely uninfluenced by standard Izzo-variety offensive rebounding. (In fact the Spartans were weak on the offensive glass in those three games). Instead, this team is taking magnificently good care of the ball and drilling their shots from both sides of the arc. If they can do so against the Badgers, Buckeyes, and Billikens, they can very likely do it against anyone, even teams whose nicknames don't start with "B."
Toss in State's outings against Iowa (to open the Big Ten tournament) and LIU Brooklyn (round of 64) and the five-game postseason numbers become downright Kentucky-like. MSU has scored 1.20 points per trip, on 58 percent shooting inside the arc, and 45 percent accuracy outside it. Three of those five games have been slow-paced, so the point totals attracted little or no attention. Well, I'm here to direct your attention. The Michigan State offense is on a ferocious tear right now, and it's all happened without the injured Branden Dawson, one of Izzo's most efficient regular-season options for points (from the field, at least).
You might assume that Draymond Green has a little to do with all this, and you would be correct. At the risk of oversimplification, if Michigan State is taking good care of the ball it's because Green is taking good care of the ball. His shooting percentages in the postseason are very good but not necessarily eye-popping. Rather, Green's value is more Jordan Taylor-like: he simply adds possessions on offense that weren't there before. Izzo's senior owns both the highest assist rate and the highest defensive rebound rate on the roster. The ease with which Green carries out these customarily antithetical responsibilities suggests to me that the senior who's arguably the most hyped college player in the country could also be the most under-hyped.
When Rick Pitino looks out onto the floor Thursday night and sees Green in action, it probably will all look very familiar. Pitino had one of those non-traditional assist guys a while back (David Padgett, anyone?), but in the KFC Yum! Arena era this team has been less varied and more focused. The Cardinals have now won six straight games, and they have done so with defense. Not one of those six postseason opponents has been able to score a point per trip.
Louisville games in March have presented abundant opportunities for statistical enhancement to good defensive rebounders on both teams, as Pitino's men have forced many misses while continuing to struggle from the field in their own right (though the Cards did shoot well against Notre Dame and in spurts against New Mexico). And if there's a troubling omen in that record for fans of the 'Ville, it's the fact that the "best" outings recorded by opposing offenses in the postseason have occurred back-to-back in the last two games, courtesy of Davidson and New Mexico. "Best" is relative, of course. The Wildcats and Lobos eked out just 0.93 and 0.97 points per possession, respectively, against this tough defense. Still, the most outstanding feature of Louisville's D during the win streak is the fact that opponents have shot just 18 percent on their threes.
When that percentage corrects upward -- and it will -- the Cards will have to compensate somehow, whether it's better defense in other categories, still more timely threes from Russ Smith, a few more surprising jumpers (!) by Gorgui Dieng (trust me, it happened in Portland), or a fusillade of assists in transition from Peyton Siva. As a team that had the No. 12 rated offense in Big East play this season, Louisville faces a tall task in taking on the high-scoring Spartans. Tall but not impossible: Saint Louis kept it close against MSU. Don't be surprised if Louisville does the same.
(7) Florida vs. (3) Marquette (Thursday, 10:17 on TBS)
No one's talking about Florida, and it's easy to see why. They're not the best SEC team left standing -- that distinction belongs to a certain No. 1 seed in the South -- and even if they were to beat Marquette and reach the Elite Eight for a second straight season, they would be viewed as decided underdogs against Michigan State, and possibly even as slight underdogs, at least by seed, against Big East tournament champion Louisville.
But for a team no one's talking about the Gators are playing extremely well. In four games played in their conference tournament and in this current NCAA get-together, Billy Donovan's men are hitting an incredible 61 percent of their twos. Yes, that includes a game where Kenny Boynton, Bradley Beal, Erving Walker, and Patric Young got to hone their scoring craft against overmatched Norfolk State, but look at the other three opponents: Alabama, Kentucky, and Virginia -- tough defenses all. We've seen this before from perimeter-oriented teams like Florida. All that spacing and all those threes lead to opportunities for point-blank shots. So it hasn't mattered, really, that the Gators' perimeter shooting has been mediocre (34 percent) over those four games. They're scoring 1.18 points per postseason trip even with mediocre outside shooting. Threes are prevalent, and they sure do come in handy if they fall, but the Florida postseason shows me they are not "key." In fact, in the game where UF drained just 17 percent of their threes, they won by 26 (against the Cavaliers, in the round of 64).
A while back I remarked upon the SEC's new slow pace in a tongue-in-cheek manner, but with Florida vs. Marquette we arrive at perhaps the first instance where the league's more deliberate style really will have a tangible impact. The one constant in the Golden Eagles' postseason has been a fast pace, win (BYU and Murray State) or lose (Louisville in the Big East tournament quarterfinals). That will change in the West Region semifinals. The Gators will almost certainly slow Buzz Williams' team down to somewhere under 65 possessions.
During the regular season Marquette won 14 of 18 Big East games by extending their multi-season run of highly efficient offense and blending in some newly strong D. Jae Crowder had a Big East Player of the Year kind of season that next to no one saw coming, and Darius Johnson-Odom was, as always, a highly effective scorer from both sides of the three-point line. More recently the return of the foul-drawing and free-throw-making Davante Gardner would also figure to be a plus for Williams, though in the four games he's played since coming back from a knee sprain the sophomore has averaged less than 14 minutes per contest.
In their two NCAA tournament games, Marquette's held opponents to 38 percent shooting inside the arc, meaning, clearly, something's going to have to give when this defense faces Florida. Also note that this season Williams' men excelled at getting themselves to the line, however Donovan's Missouri-like gang of three-point shooters (plus Young) was, as you'd assume, a relatively low-foul outfit. I'm expecting a closely contested game between two evenly-matched opponents, either of whom I can envision in New Orleans with a break here or there.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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