Games of Thursday, March 27
All games on CBS
U.S. Airways Center (Pheonix, AZ.)
Matchup: #7 Seed West Virginia (26-10, 11-7 Big East) vs. #3 Xavier (29-6, 14-2 Atlantic 10), 7:10
Rankings: Xavier, #16 in Pomeroy Ratings (1st of 14 in A-10); West Virginia, #19 (4th of 16 in Big East)
Pomeroy Prediction: Xavier, 67-66 in 64 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 48%
Prospectus: As Ken Pomeroy stated in his breakdown of Day Three of the NCAA tournament last week, Xavier and West Virginia couldn't be more evenly matched. The Mountaineers have had the greater test thus far in the tourney, beating Arizona and then No. 2 seed Duke, while the Musketeers, who beat Georgia and Purdue, had the better regular season. Thanks to its convincing come-from-behind win over the Blue Devils, West Virginia helped coach Bob Huggins avoid another second-round exit from the NCAA tournament--he has had eight of those--and move into the Sweet 16 in his first season guiding his Alma Mater from Morgantown. It is fitting that Huggins should meet the Musketeers, his old team Cincinnati's in-city rival. The storyline of Xavier from the past weekend was that of a senior-laden squad getting past the round in which last year it was tripped up in overtime by Ohio St.
A possible area of exploitation for Xavier in this one is the free throw line. The Musketeers rank 11th in the nation in free throw rate--the best of any team still in the hunt for a national title--having shot 32.5 times from the line per every 100 field goal attempts. Derrick Brown and C.J. Anderson, Xavier's deadly pair of slashing small forwards, are particularly adept at cutting through the heart of opposing defenses and drawing contact, as each has shot more than half as many free throws as field goals. In the team's two tournament wins, Xavier has posted free throw rates of 70 and 66, respectively. This could prove troublesome for West Virginia, which is prone to fouling, with a national rank of 238th in free throw rate defense. The Mountaineers allowed both Arizona and Duke to get to the line more often than they did, and it didn't hurt them, but Xavier definitely has the ability to defeat a team at the stripe--it built its comeback from a double-digit second-half deficit against Georgia in the first round by pounding it inside to 6'9 forward Josh Duncan and making the foul shots that resulted. The Musketeers might also be able to get their excellent three-point game going--they shoot 39 percent from long range--as West Virginia has been sup-par at preventing makes from long range this season, Duke's 5-of-22 performance from deep in the last game notwithstanding.
Xavier, in turn, must worry about turning the ball over. West Virginia has the third-best defense in the Big East at forcing turnovers, with an opponent rate of giveaways on 22.8 percent of possessions. Furthermore, the Mountaineers' defense has thrived to an unusual extent upon forcing turnovers this season, as the correlation between West Virginia's opponent turnover rate and defensive efficiency is a very high -0.73. Xavier, meanwhile, has been prone to cough it up at times, with a seasonal rate of a turnover on one in five possessions. The Musketeers must be particularly wary of thieves Alex Ruoff and Joe Mazzulla. A sophomore guard, Mazzulla is coming off the best game of his life, in which he scored 13 points against Duke, set career highs with 11 rebounds and eight assists, and was compared afterwards to Jason Kidd by Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski.
If you're looking to root for the underdog squad which hasn't gotten this far in a long time, you have a tough call to make in regards to which team should receive your allegiance. West Virginia is the lower seed, but is from a power conference and was in the Elite Eight under coach John Beilein in 2005, while Xavier last made it to the Elite Eight just one year before that.
Matchup: #12 Seed Western Kentucky (29-6, 16-2 Sun Belt) vs. #1 UCLA (33-3, 16-2 Pacific 10), 9:40
Rankings: Western Kentucky, #61 in Pomeroy Ratings (1st of 13 in Sun Belt); UCLA, #2 (1st of 10 in Pac 10)
Pomeroy Prediction: UCLA, 75-61 in 68 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 8%
Prospectus: The Mountaineers will cede the court at the U.S. Airways Center to the Hilltoppers, who have a considerably more formidable climb ahead of them than their brethren from West Virginia. Western Kentucky beat No. 5 seed Drake in spectacular fashion in the game of the tournament to date, 101-99 in overtime thanks to senior guard Ty Rogers' three-pointer at the buzzer, and then ended the run of another low seed, San Diego, which had beaten No. 4 Connecticut. UCLA held Mississippi Valley St. to 29 points in the opening round, then allowed Texas A&M just twenty more, but barely squeaked into the Sweet 16 by scoring just 51 points itself. The Bruins were down with just over three minutes to play in that one, but freshman forward Kevin Love and junior point guard Darren Collison combined to score four straight baskets on four trips to send UCLA to its third straight Sweet 16. Love and Collison, arguably the nation's top duo, scored 40 of the team's 51 points for the game, with just one other player--sophomore guard Russell Westbrook--contributing more than a single bucket.
UCLA's game tonight with Western Kentucky won't be the ugly 55-possession affair that was the death struggle with the Aggies--which was the Bruins' slowest game of the year--as the Hilltoppers play at a relatively swift 69 possession/40 minute pace. Despite the lasting image of Rogers' clutch three-pointer from a game in which Western Kentucky took 41 percent of its field goal attempts from deep, the Hilltoppers do not rely extensively on the long ball, shooting threes on 33 percent of field goal attempts for the season. Instead, the Hilltoppers offense is powered by the all-around games of guards Courtney Lee and Tyrone Brazelton. UCLA, like Duke, St. Mary's, and Stanford, clamps down on the perimeter to prevent opponents from attempting threes, so you can expect to see plenty of drives and shorter jumpers by Lee and Brazelton (and not many threes in the game from either side, as UCLA gets just 22 percent of its points from deep). Lee, the Hilltoppers' best player, has shot 176-of-326 from two-point range (54 percent), which is remarkable for a player who is just 6'5. While the Bruins two-point percentage defense is not invulnerable--46 percent shooting allowed, 75th in the nation--the team has done an excellent job at keeping opponents off the free throw line, especially impressive considering that the vast majority of field goal attempts against the Bruins come from inside the arc. And, of course, UCLA is third in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage (thanks almost entirely to Love) and second overall in adjusted defensive efficiency, behind Wisconsin.
What chance does WKU have? Well, besides a sublime outburst from Lee, which is always a possibility, it will likely have a shot if it forces a ton of turnovers. The Hilltoppers rank 19th in the country in opponent turnover percentage, forcing giveaways on just shy of a quarter of possessions. They have three dangerous perimeter defenders in Lee, junior Orlando Mendez-Valdez, and sophomore A.J. Slaughter, who all rank in the top 160 nationally in steal percentage, and the 'Toppers defense has been propelled to a large extent by forcing turnovers, according to the team's correlation data. UCLA, however, is not a sloppy ball-handling team, with a rank of 41st nationally in turnover percentage. It has been especially difficult to pry it away from Love in the post. Still, if the Bruins allow the Hilltoppers' pressure to loosen their hold on the basketball--and UCLA is coming off its worst turnover performance since January 10 in the close win over Texas A&M--then the 'Toppers might just be able to hang around long enough to have another shot at a last-second victory. If Western Kentucky managed to pull off the major upset, it would head to its first Elite Eight since 1971.
Charlotte Bobcats Arena (Charlotte, NC)
Matchup: #4 Seed Washington St. (26-8, 11-7 Pacific 10) vs. #1 North Carolina (34-2, 14-2 Atlantic Coast), 7:27
Rankings: Washington St., #7 in Pomeroy Ratings (2nd of 10 in Pac 10); North Carolina, #5 (1st of 12 in ACC)
Pomeroy Prediction: North Carolina, 71-69 in 66 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 43%
Prospectus: The obvious theme of this game is the clash of tempos, which is about as extreme as you are going to see on the college level. Washington St. averages 59 possessions per 40, which is the sixth slowest pace in the nation this year, while North Carolina runs along at 75.6/40, the fourth quickest. It will also clearly be a battle of the unstoppable force (Tar Heels offense) versus the immovable object (Cougars defense). Both of those units, in fact, are coming off two of the most impressive performances of the college basketball season. North Carolina's attack is operating on another plane right now--after putting up 1.5 points per possession against a not-terrible Mount St. Mary's defense, the Tar Heels absolutely demolished Arkansas's respectable D to the tune of 1.6 points per possession in a 108-77 Hog-walloping. Just as notworthy, however, was Washington St. holding Notre Dame--which ranks in the top 25 in offensive efficiency--to its lowest output of the season, 0.69 points, in the Cougars' 61-41 victory.
Washington St.'s defense, which ranks sixth overall in adjusted efficiency, is keyed by strong defensive rebounding and the ability to keep opponents off the line. The Cougars will be tested in both areas by North Carolina junior and probable national Player of the Year Tyler Hansbrough. The 6'9 forward is the best offensive rebounder on a squad that ranks first in the nation in offensive rebounding, and has shot more free throws than anybody in the country. Another serious problem for the Cougars is the seeming return to full health by Tar Heels sophomore point guard Ty Lawson. In his first six games back from an ankle sprain that caused him to miss six games, Lawson averaged just over 8 points on 42 eFG% shooting in an average of 23 minutes per game. In the two tournament games, Lawson has been far better: he has scored a combined 40 points on 83 eFG% shooting in 42 minutes, handed out 11 assists, and turned it over not once. The Heels will be extraordinarily tough to beat with Lawson playing so well.
One other thing to consider in this game is what the likely slow(er) pace will do to Carolina's defense. It's a very small sample, but in the five games that the Tar Heels have played this season that have averaged less than 70 possessions per 40 minutes, their defense has been shaky:
Opponent Pace DE
Old Dominion 66 1.23
Boston College 67 1.19
Arkansas 67 1.15
Florida St. 67 1.03
North Carolina St. 69 1.01
DE=Defensive Efficiency (points per possession allowed)
Of course, there are disclaimers to be made here, chief among them that the Arkansas game was basically garbage time from the opening tip. The correlation data on North Carolina's game plan page, however, backs up the somewhat tenuous assertion that North Carolina plays worse defense the slower the game gets: pace is related to defensive efficiency for UNC with a correlation of -0.56, which means that as the pace of the game goes up, the Tar Heels defense gets better. Again, disclaimers abound--it could be that North Carolina has played strong halfcourt defense in games that were turned into high-possession ones by the Tar Heels' transition offense--but the trend is definitely something to keep an eye on tonight. Washington St.'s offense is a vastly underrated unit because of the tempo the Cougars play at. Any squad that scores 1.27 points per possession against Winthrop can stick a feather in its cap, and Wazzou is 14th nationally in adjusted efficiency on the year, at 1.18 PPP scored. The Tar Heels aren't exactly huge on the frontline (104th in effective height), and it shows up in their two-point field goal percentage allowed (47.3), which ranks them seventh of 12 ACC teams. The Cougars have a very big frontline, conversely, of 6'10 forwards Robbie Cowgill and Aron Baynes, and the team shoots 53.4 percent from inside the arc, 19th best in the country, so Washington St. could damage the Heels by pounding the ball into the post.
All that means that the Cougars, who are making just their sixth NCAA tournament appearance (to North Carolina's 40), have a fighting chance to advance to the Elite Eight for the first time ever.
Matchup: #3 Seed Louisville (25-8, 14-4 Big East) vs. #2 Tennessee (30-4, 14-2 Southeastern), 9:57
b>Rankings: Louisville, #6 in Pomeroy Ratings (1st of 16 in Big East); Tennessee, #13 (1st of 12 in SEC)
Pomeroy Prediction: Louisville, 73-71 in 72 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 40%
Prospectus: The Louisville Cardinal mascot had plenty of opportunity to lounge lazily on the baseline, his favorite spot from which to enjoy the action, as Louisville rolled over both Boise St. and Oklahoma to make the Sweet 16 for the first time since its Final Four run in 2005. Tennessee, meanwhile, had to sweat in both of its games--an unexpectedly trying 72-57 victory over No. 15 seed American, and then a 76-71 overtime win over Butler, a game in which the Volunteers might have lost if not for Mike Green's improbable airball in the final minutes. But, the Vols survived to make it to their second straight Sweet 16, and now they'll look to chart new territory with another win, as Tennessee, which is playing in its 16th NCAA tournament, has never been to the Elite Eight. In that quest, the Volunteers got the higher seed than Louisville, and some members of the team felt they deserved higher, with guard JaJuan Smith going so far as to write "No. 1 Seed" on his sneakers. The reason that Tennessee got even a No. 2 was because of its record in close games: 8-2 in contests decided by three points or less or in overtime. Louisville, contrastingly, was 2-5 in such games. All signs point to this being another tight one, and very possibly the best game of the Sweet 16.
While it's an open question as to which high-profile coach has the higher-profile suit--Bruce Pearl's Tennessee orange or Rick Pitino's Kentucky white--what is not in doubt is which coach commands the better defense. That would be Pitino, whose Cardinals defenders have steadily improved throughout the season, and, after a choking of Oklahoma (0.78 points per possession allowed), stand fifth in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency (0.84 PPP allowed). While the offensive rebounding of Tennessee's forwards could potentially pose a problem for Louisville, the Volunteers are not a great shooting team, which is what a squad has to be to crack Louisville's eFG% defense (43.8, seventh in the nation). The Cardinals offense, however, could also have serious problems with Tennessee's pressure defense. As has been well documented, the Vols rely to a great extent upon generating steals and forcing turnovers, and while that is a risky way to shut down opponents, especially come tournament time, it might work well against a Louisville offense that gives it away on one in five possessions (99th in the country om offensive turnover percentage). Junior swingman Terrence Williams, who turns it over on 23.5 percent of his possessions used, the highest rate on the team, might be a particular target of the Vols ball hawks, a.k.a. the Smiths--guards JaJuan and Ramar and forward Tyler (the three aren't related, besides the fact that all are excellent pickpockets on the court).
What about free throw shooting? It has been a weakness for both teams. The Vols have had the more well-publicized struggles at the stripe, but Louisville has actually been slightly worse (64.4 percent compared with Tennessee's 65.6), and has gotten to the line less frequently than the Volunteers. That has led to the Cardinals getting just 18 percent of their points from the stripe, as compared with 19.1 for Tennessee, which are both low figures. Both teams instead rely to a large extent on the three pointer, as both take 39 percent of their field goal attempts from long range. Tennessee is slightly better from beyond the arc, with a 36.1 percentage to Louisville's 35.2, thanks to senior guard Chris Lofton's 113-of-284 long range performance (40 percent). While the Volunteers' three-point attack is largely a two-man game between Lofton and JaJuan Smith, with senior guard Jordan Howell occasionally getting into the mix, the Cardinals have four players who will fire it up in Williams and guards Jerry Smith, Edgar Sosa, and Andre McGee. You can expect to see a large number of three-pointers shot on both sides, as neither team is strong at limiting its foe's attempts from deep.
Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Basketball Prospectus. He can be reached here.