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#pounditFriday, June 14, 2024

Most important match-ups in the Sweet 16

Coach K

The Sweet Sixteen is so perfectly timed in the college basketball world. We spent last weekend ingesting unhealthy amounts of hoops at all hours of the day, cutting back on sleep, healthy habits, and appropriate levels of emotion. We all need the three day break to catch our breath, let the dust clear, and figure out where we go from here.

The Sweet Sixteen is not the sixteen best college basketball teams in America. Many of the best teams were bounced by buzzer-beaters or crazy comebacks. The Sweet Sixteen is simply a list of survivors. Some have title aspirations, while others are playing with house money. The important thing now though, is that every team can keep their momentum going. No team is doomed, out of it, or incapable of making the Final Four.

To do so, however, every team needs to exploit the match-ups and advantages in their favor. Here are the nine biggest match-ups that will determine winners on Thursday and Friday.

1. Texas Tech’s Keenan Evans vs. Purdue’s Carsen Edwards

As far as one-on-one match-ups in the Sweet Sixteen, this match-up of two of the best scoring guards in college basketball has to be considered one of the best. Evans and Edwards both give their teams an aggressive scorer, able to create with a ball screen or some free space on the wing. Both are capable shooters and passers, requiring tons of attention from opposing defenses.

If they actually guard each other, we could see both eager to test their opponent defensively. We could see them battle back and forth, with each fully able to get hot and take over the game. With the way both Edwards and Evans attack, foul trouble could be crucial. If either of these guards pick up early fouls trying to slow down their counterpart, the game could be drastically changed.

2. Villanova’s young players vs. West Virginia’s press

Beating West Virginia can be boiled down to breaking the Mountaineers’ pressure. If you can avoid turnovers and continue to get good shots on offense, West Virginia will struggle to match your scoring. That task is excessively easier said than done.

Villanova’s veterans have played in multiple NCAA Tournaments, with their older players having helped the Wildcats win a national championship in 2016. They have seen defenses as intense as West Virginia and played in bigger moments.

For some of the younger Wildcats, this game will be a real test. Donte DiVincenzo feels like he’s been at Villanova for years, but is only a sophomore, playing in the second weekend of the tournament for the first time in his career. Omari Spellman is just a redshirt freshman, about to face the nation’s best shot blocker in Sagaba Konate. Collin Gillespie has been impressive in his minutes as a freshman, but has never faced anything like West Virginia. Similarly, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree has been a good energy guy, yet can’t be trusted with the ball against the Mountaineer press.

If those players can respond to the moment, Villanova will crack West Virginia’s defense and advance.

3. West Virginia’s Jevon Carter vs. Villanova’s Jalen Brunson

Elsewhere in that game, we’ll see a match-up of two of America’s best guards. Jalen Brunson is an elite floor general who has an incredible low-post game for a point guard, not to mention a silky outside jumper. Jevon Carter is, quite simply, the best perimeter defender in college basketball. Carter’s footwork and hand speed are unmatched.

Carter will find himself on Brunson for much of the game, with a chance to slow down Villanova’s best offensive creator. So much of Brunson’s success comes from head fakes, shot fakes, up fakes, and ball fakes that open lanes for him to score. Carter will need to be disciplined enough to ignore those fakes and force Brunson to go by him, over him, or through him to the basket.

How often Carter guards Brunson is also key. In the Mountaineers’ press, they look to double or trap. If Carter leaves Brunson, Villanova could find a more favorable match-up, like the tiny Beatle Bolden on Brunson, ripe for an attack on the block.

4. Duke’s zone vs Syracuse’s zone

College basketball is a volatile game, with 3-point shooting able to save or bury any team at any time. Just ask Arizona and Virginia.

Playing against an active zone defense can turn any team jump shot dependent. In the Midwest Region, two teams who now play zone will each try to force bad shots from outside.

Syracuse has been playing zone for years under Jim Boeheim. The Orange attack has grown legendary, especially in recent years as the zone has led mediocre Syracuse teams on deep runs in March. Michigan State was befuddled last weekend, settling for lackluster scoring opportunities. Against a Duke team with only two shooters, Gary Trent and Grayson Allen, the Orange will pack into the lane and dare the Devils to beat them over the top.

Meanwhile, Duke’s team defense was sloppy early in the year. Guarding the complicated schemes and actions seen in college basketball proved too difficult for Duke’s freshmen. Instead, Coach K moved to a zone and the Devils have played far better. The last time these two teams met, Duke played zone the whole game and held Syracuse to just 44 total points and only .69 points per possession.

Moritz Wagner

5. Michigan’s Moritz Wagner vs A&M’s Tyler Davis and Robert Williams

Texas A&M derives so many of its advantages from having a large frontcourt. Davis and Williams are two of the tougher covers for any big man in college hoops. Davis is built like a truck, using his wide shoulders and hips to push for position on the block and on the glass. Williams is a springy athlete with quick feet for his size.

Michigan will ask Moritz Wagner to cover Davis or Williams for most of their match-up. He’ll need to hold his own in the rebounding battle and keep the Aggie big men away from easy baskets. Most importantly, he’ll need to do all of that while staying out of foul trouble.

Wagner is Michigan’s most versatile scorer and he will be able to make the Aggie frontcourt respond to his ability to hit outside shots.

6. Kansas State’s Dean Wade vs Kentucky’s defense

Kansas State has made a run into the Sweet Sixteen without the services of its leading scorer. Dean Wade has missed three consecutive games with a foot injury, yet the Wildcats have been able to win in his absence. This week, when asked if he’d play against Kentucky, Wade gave himself a “98 percent” chance of doing so.

Wade’s 16.5 points and 6.3 rebounds per game make him a potential game-changer. Kentucky will need to focus their defensive game plan around Wade, without any recent tape off of which to base that game plan.

John Calipari might have superior athletes, but Bruce Weber can use Wade in a game of cat-and-mouse to test the young Kentucky defenders.

7. Loyola Chicago’s Clayton Custer vs Nevada’s bigger defenders

Loyola Chicago has advanced on two late game-winning buckets and the prayers of Sister Jean, but will need to take their game to another level to reach the Elite Eight. The Ramblers will face a Nevada team that needed just as much magic to make it this far, winning in overtime and a wild comeback in the first weekend.

For Loyola to succeed, Missouri Valley Player of the Year Clayton Custer will need to be aggressive and efficient with the ball in his hands. Custer is the straw that stirs the drink of the Rambler offense, in transition or patiently in the halfcourt.

Against Nevada, Custer will be challenged by longer, taller defenders. Nevada plays just one player under 6-foot-7 — guard Hallice Cooke, who is 6-foot-3. Custer is only 6-foot-1. His size held him back at Iowa State before he transferred down to the mid-major level. Custer may see more difficult match-ups than Cooke, with each of the Martin twins standing 6-foot-7, with long wingspans that would challenge Custer’s court vision and shooting release.

8. Kansas vs itself

Clemson is a good basketball team, as evidenced by its recent drubbing of Auburn in the round of 32. The Tigers will test Kansas in many ways and can win this game.

If Kansas plays at a high level though, Clemson is in trouble. When the Jayhawks are firing on all cylinders, almost no one in this tournament has a prayer of slowing Kansas down (even Sister Jean). With four shooters all fully capable of catching fire, Kansas can shoot its way to a blowout lead in any game. If all of those shooters are getting shots in the rhythm of the offense and making them, the Jayhawks are impossible to stop.

When they start to force shots or miss the looks they are getting, the Jayhawks plummet back to Earth. It sounds dismissive of Kansas’ opponents to say that the Jayhawks are really battling themselves, but if Kansas plays the perfect version of its own game, they can’t be touched.

9. Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura vs the Florida State frontline

Gonzaga survived a first-round scare from UNC-Greensboro before topping Ohio State in an impressive second round win. Sophomore forward Rui Hachimura played vastly different in the two contests and was a large part of why the first round proved so difficult for the Zags.

Hachimura scored just 4 points on 1 of 6 shooting from the field against UNCG. He came out against Ohio State looking noticeably more comfortable and more energetic. Hachimura scored 25 points against the Buckeyes, on 9-11 shooting, and reached the free throw line 12 times. He also posted four blocks against Ohio State, after failing to turn away a single shot against UNCG. Clearly, his improved play had a major effect on the Zags.

Florida State has a more athletic and longer frontline than either of the teams Gonzaga has already faced in this tournament. Hachimura is the Zags’ best option for scoring and activity on their interior against a lineup like the Seminoles. If Mark Few and his staff can put Hachimura in a position to succeed, the Zags likely return to the Elite Eight this weekend.

Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.

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