Sweet Sixteen Predictions
by Trevor Whenham - 03/24/2009
With the Sweet 16 just a couple of days away, here's my attempt to offer some Sweet 16 predictions on which teams are the best bets:
Connecticut (-7) vs. Purdue - Strong defense tends to thrive in the tournament, and both of these teams have top-rate defenses - in the Top 5 by defensive efficiency. The difference here is going to be the pace of play. UConn plays a far more up-tempo style that capitalizes on their size advantage over virtually everyone they play. Purdue will need to slow things down and set the tone if they want to have a chance. As much as I like the Big Ten, I don't think the Boilermakers can pull it off. It's a near-certainty that the Huskies will have a significant rebounding edge. Purdue has struggled against fast, hot guards this year, and UConn's backcourt is on fire right now. I expect this one to be tough and fun, but I think in the end Purdue just won't have enough to measure up.
Pitt (-7) vs. Xavier - The Musketeers beat Wisconsin in the second round largely by lulling the Badgers to sleep in the second half. Xavier is very solid defensively, and they set the tempo as well as any team in the country. They can also score pretty well, though not as well as the Panthers. Pitt is bigger and stronger, and they use that size to assert themselves offensively with ruthless efficiency. That means that this game will be a battle of wills. I probably favor the Panthers, but Xavier is playing very well, they have the experience of being in this round just last year, and they have nothing to lose. My hunch is that this line gives the Panthers too much credit.
Memphis (-4.5) vs. Missouri - Perhaps more than any other game, this one comes down to one player - Memphis freshman point guard Tyreke Evans. Memphis has a lethal combination - a relentless, ball moving offense, and the most efficient defense in the country. They haven't lost since Evans moved to the point, but he has only been okay so far during the tournament. If he returns to his impressive late-season form then the Tigers should be able to roll here much like they did against Maryland. Even if he doesn't, Missouri has perhaps the smallest margin of error of any remaining team - they need to play as close to flawless as they can or they will be vulnerable against a better team. I expect the Tigers to roar.
Duke (-2.5) vs. Villanova - Maybe I am drawn to Villanova just because I dislike Duke so very much. Or maybe I just like the matchup for the Wildcats. Duke is as much of a one-dimensional perimeter team as there is. If teams can contain and control that then the Blue Devils are likely in trouble. Villanova can probably do that. Their guards use speed and pressure to disrupt opponents and take away shots. That speed will also let them exploit Duke on the break like Texas did in the last round. Duke also doesn't have an answer for Villanova's big man, Dante Cunningham. Villanova has the advantages and the momentum, and I give them a solid edge.
Louisville (-9) vs. Arizona - I'll keep this one brief - Louisville was my pick to win it all before the tournament, and they still are. That being said, I'm not convinced that this line makes sense. The Wildcats have a trio of talented players, an explosive offense, a defense that is playing well of late, and momentum. Louisville is the better team and should win, but it could very easily be by less than nine points.
Oklahoma (-1) vs. Syracuse - Oklahoma beat Michigan by 10 points, but the game was closer than the score. Michigan was penalized by the refs far more than the Sooners, had absolutely no answer for Blake Griffin, and went long stretches displaying ridiculous offensive futility, and still were in it until late in the second half. Syracuse has more size, more speed, better shooting, and much more momentum than Michigan. I see them getting through this one and keeping their hot streak alive.
Michigan State (-1.5) vs. Kansas - I have a hard time respecting Kansas right now. They deserve credit for getting where they are considering what they lost. Still, it's hard to argue that they aren't overachieving. They benefited from a relatively weak conference to get their seeding, and don't have the experience or seasoning to go further in my eyes. That's not the same for Michigan State. They are deep, tough, seasoned, and focused on playing in the Final Four at home. The Kansas repeat bid ends here.
North Carolina (-8.5) vs. Gonzaga - Every time I look at this one I change my mind. Since before the tournament started I have had a feeling that UNC is vulnerable and poised to fall. That hasn't changed. Sometimes I think that Gonzaga is the team to end the Tar Heels' run. When they play their best they certainly could. Unfortunately, the Bulldogs also have the ability to disappoint and underwhelm when the pressure is on. To pick Gonzaga to win, or even to cover, you have to take a leap of faith that they can perform at their best. Given the number of points they are given, I'm willing to bet that they will. UNC is vulnerable in two key ways - they don't play great defense when pressed to do so, and they get frustrated when teams are able to get back defensively and limit the effectiveness of the North Carolina fast break. Gonzaga is offensively potent and defensively sound, and they have the potential to manage both feats.