Games of Saturday, March 29
Both games on CBS
US Airways Center (Pheonix, AZ)
Matchup: #3 Seed Xavier (30-6, 14-2 Atlantic 10) vs. #1 UCLA (34-3, 16-2 Pacific 10), 6:40 P.M. EST
Rankings: Xavier, #15 in Pomeroy Ratings (1st of 14 in A-10); UCLA, #2 (1st of 10 in Pac 10)
Pomeroy Prediction: UCLA, 68-62 in 64 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 26%
Prospectus: Xavier advanced to the Elite Eight on Thursday by winning one of the best games of the tournament to date, a 78-74 overtime thriller in which the Musketeers came back from a six point OT deficit thanks to three huge three-pointers, two of them from 6'6 junior B.J. Raymond, the team's leading shooter from long range (76-of-183 on threes, 41.5 percent). UCLA, meanwhile, found itself in an unexpected dogfight against Western Kentucky, which trimmed a Bruins lead that was 21 at halftime down to four with seven minutes to play. In the end, however, freshman Kevin Love's career-high 29 points were too much for the Hilltoppers to overcome, and UCLA sneaked by in its second straight tight game against a significantly lower seed.
This West regional final features two of the top 10 offenses in the country by adjusted efficiency--Xavier is tenth, and UCLA is sixth. Both teams have a Love on offense who is lethal on the glass. Kevin for the Bruins ranks seventh in offensive rebounding percentage, while Xavier sophomore Jason is second, grabbing 18.1 percent of his team's misses while on the court. The 6'9 Jason Love was especially strong in the Musketeers' win over West Virginia, grabbing five offensive rebounds and 10 total in just 21 minutes of play.
While the Love-Love matchup will be of interest, perhaps the biggest battle will involve UCLA's big man and Xavier forward Josh Duncan. Will the 6'9 Duncan, one of Xavier's three seniors, be able to contain the 6'10 Love? That seems perhaps too tall of a task, and something that virtually no one has been able to accomplish this season. But even should Love hit his marks, what the Musketeers really need is for Duncan to penetrate UCLA's vicious defense, second in the country in adjusted efficiency, to the same extent that he has been while shredding defenses of late. Duncan wasn't even a starter during the regular season--he won the A-10 Sixth Man of the Year award--but he has started all three NCAA tournament games, and his importance to the team has grown with that promotion. Duncan has averaged 20.7 points per game in the team's three tournament games. He can score in the post, and he can also hit from outside, where he has nailed 6-of-14 threes, and he can also contribute in less-tangible ways--because the Mountaineers were so worried about Duncan at the basket, two defenders went with the big man on the seminal play of the game last Thursday in overtime, leaving Raymond open for a skip pass off the inbounds and the three pointer that sealed the Musketeers' victory. In the three tournament games Duncan has posted a 54 eFG%, but perhaps most importantly for Xavier's chances, has gotten to the line 28 times, and made 24 of those shots. The Musketeers rely on the free throw line to generate a good percentage of their offense, and a key to this game is whether they will be able to reach the stripe against a defense that has been excellent at not giving opponents opportunities at the line this season.
For the Bruins, the key could be how much offense the team gets from shooting guard Russell Westbrook, who has been slumping of late. Over his last five games, Westbrook has scored an average of 10 points on 30 eFG% shooting, as compared with his seasonal averages of 12.4 points on 49 eFG% from the floor. Westbrook, who is 6'3, will likely be guarded in large part by Xavier's 5'7 point guard Drew Lavender, so this could be an opportunity for Westbrook to put up some points. UCLA's point guard, junior Darren Collison, will draw the Musketeers' best perimeter defender, 6'3 senior and Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year Stanley Burrell. Collison will be looking to have a big game tonight after suffering through his worst performance of the year on Thursday--he fouled out after scoring just four points and committing four turnovers in 28 minutes--but very few scorers have been able to hit their seasonal marks against Burrell.
Xavier has a long and rich history of success, but Burrell and the rest of the Musketeers will be playing tonight to put Xavier into the final four for the first time in school history. UCLA, of course, is arguably the greatest college basketball program of all time. The Bruins have been to 17 Final Fours, including in each of the last two seasons.
Charlotte Bobcats Arena (Charlotte, NC)
Matchup: #3 Seed Louisville (26-8, 14-4 Big East) vs. #1 North Carolina (35-2, 14-2 Atlantic Coast), 9:05
Rankings: Louisville, #6 in Pomeroy Ratings (1st of 16 in Big East); North Carolina, #4 (1st of 12 in ACC)
Pomeroy Prediction: North Carolina, 77-75 in 74 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 43%
Prospectus: The Tar Heels continued their remarkably dominant run through the tournament on Thursday. They did it, however, not with offense, which they had used to devastate their first two opponents, but by completely shutting down the Washington St. attack, which scored just 0.71 points per possession in the 68-47 loss. There were questions about North Carolina's ability to defend in the halfcourt against a slow-paced, methodical offense, questions which were recorded in this space on Thursday, and the Tar Heels answered those questions with authority. Now North Carolina faces its toughest test to date, against a Louisville team that has also rolled over the competition thus far in the tournament. The Cardinals destroyed No. 2 seed Tennessee 79-60 on Thursday, a game that was supposed to be extremely tight, to reach the Elite Eight. Louisville won easily despite the fact that it committed 20 turnovers, more than one for every four trips down the court, as the Cardinals suffocated the Volunteers from both three-point range (5-of-20 shooting) and two point range (14-of-36, 39 percent), forced 17 turnovers of their own, and out-rebounded Tennessee 42-24.
With the blowout of the Vols, Louisville has now outscored its three tournament foes by an average of 22.3 points per game. North Carolina's average margin of victory in its three wins has been a stunning 30.3 points. This game, consequently, is a true clash of college basketball behemoths, and has the potential to be the best matchup of the year. North Carolina's No. 2 rated attack goes up against one of the best defenses in the land, which held Tennessee's fine offense to less than 0.8 points per possession on Thursday. Both teams are extraordinarily athletic at the small forward and guard positions, and both also boast two of the most skilled post players in the country in Tyler Hansbrough of North Carolina and David Padgett of Louisville. The 6'11 Padgett is one of those players about whom commentators love to say that he can change the game without taking a shot. He took five of them on Thursday, making four, and also validated the announcers by chipping in eight rebounds and three assists. The all-around star for the Cardinals, however, was forward Earl Clark, who led all scorers with 17 points on 7-of-10 from the floor, grabbed 12 rebounds, picked up two steals, and blocked four shots. The Tar Heels for their part won without even needing Hansbrough to contribute--the Player of the Year candidate had just two points at halftime, but the Heels led by 14 anyway thanks to strong play from Danny Green, Wayne Ellington, and Ty Lawson.
Conspicuous in his absence from the Tennessee rout was Louisville sophomore guard Edgar Sosa, who had perhaps his most frustrating game in a season full of frustration, fouling out for the first time all year in just seven minutes of play, and scoring two points. Sosa has almost completely disappeared as a scoring threat, with just 19 points in his last six games, in which he has averaged 18.2 minutes. Despite his down season from last year's rookie campaign, Sosa has still been one of the team's best three-point shooters, having made 46-of-123 (37 percent). He scored 31 points in a memorable second round game of the NCAA tournament last season, but it seems that nothing has gone right on the court for the young point guard from New York City since that game.
One other thing to note in regards to this game, which was neglected in Thursday's preview, is that North Carolina is playing in its home state, in Charlotte, not far from its stomping grounds of Chapel Hill. The crowd Thursday night was heavily partisan in favor of the Tar Heels, as ringing chants of "defense" could be heard throughout the arena in support of North Carolina, cheers which the Heels' players clearly took to heart. If you make this game a "semi-home" contest for North Carolina, rather than a neutral game, the Pomeroy Prediction shifts to favor the Tar Heels by 78-74, with a slimmer chance at an upset (35 percent).
North Carolina will be looking to advance to its first Final Four since its national championship year of 2005. Louisville was also in the Final Four that season, losing in the semifinals to Illinois, which then fell to the Tar Heels.
Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Basketball Prospectus. He can be reached here.