NCAA Tournament: Elite Eight Sunday preview and predictions

College basketball fans, the second weekend of the tournament is almost over! Just two games remain between now and the  Final Four.

Yesterday, a pair of top seeds, the Wisconsin Badgers and the overall top-seeded Kentucky Wildcats came away with close, hard-fought victories. Both games were highly entertaining, with the latter prevailing in an all-time classic, in the minds of some.

Today, a pair of two completely different games will take place, in order to decide which two teams will make it to the same level as the Badgers and the Wildcats.

First, the seventh-seeded Michigan State Spartans will take on the fourth-seeded Louisville Cardinals, in order to decide the winner of the East Region. Then, the top two seeds in the South Region, the Gonzaga Bulldogs and Duke Blue Devils, will battle to earn the right to call themselves regional champions, as well as lock up the final spot in the 2015 NCAA Tournament Final Four.

As for my picks, I went 2-0 with my picks from yesterday. Combined with my 7-1 record from the Sweet 16, I am currently 9-1 over the course of this weekend. I have yet to recalculate my record from the tournament’s opening weekend, so the overall total is currently unknown. Alas, I’ll have it all put together before the Final Four, and hopefully, it’s good. Still, I hope today’s game are much better.

East Regional Final (2:20/1:20c, CBS)

(7) Michigan State Spartans (26-11) vs. (4) Louisville Cardinals (27-8)

First up is the ever-so-rare combination of seeds where the winner of the region is guaranteed to not be a top-three seed. Alas, that is the case with the East Region this year. Expectedly-weak top seed Villanova was taken out by eighth-seeded North Carolina State last weekend, while the Spartans eviscerated the second-seeded Virginia Cavaliers and third-seeded Oklahoma Sooners in their most recent tournament games. Meanwhile, the Cardinals controversially won their first game against 13-seeded UC Irvine ten days ago, before upending eight seed Northern Iowa last Saturday, and getting to this point with a 75-65 win over NC State on Friday.

Without question, neither team is close to perfect. They have both been subject to offensive lulls this season, and are never a guarantee to advance to the Final Four, despite seemingly making the tournament every single season.

That said, each squad consists of a pretty solid core. The more reliable core belongs to Michigan State, who boast the experienced trio of Travis Trice (team-high 15.3 points/5.1 assists, 3.1 rebounds, 1.1 steals per game), Branden Dawson (11.9 points, team high 9.1 rebounds/1.6 blocks, 1.2 steals per game) and Denzel Valentine (14.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, 4.4 assists per game). They also have a terrific sharpshooter in Bryn Forbes (8.6 points per game, 42.6 three-point percentage) and Matt Costello (7.1 points, 5.3 rebounds per game) to cover for the trio when need be.

Meanwhile, the Cardinal only go three deep. After the dismissal of guard Chris Jones, (13.7 points, 4 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 2 steals per game) only Montrezl Harrell (15.7 points, team-high 9.2 rebounds, 1.2 blocks per game) Terry Rozier (team-high 17.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3 assists, 1.9 steals per game) and Wayne Blackshear (11.1 points, 4.3 rebounds per game) are dependable players. However, Blackshear has been far from great this postseason, and Hazel still has his occasional moments of inactivity, putting all of the pressure solely on the shoulders of Rozier.

Granted, Valentine has struggled over the last two games for the Spartans. Still, Trice and Dawson have held down the fort for the team. In the end, I believe they will have their dry spell in the game. However, I do not see it lasting as long as Louisville’s might, and I see Tom Izzo overcoming Rick Pitino this go-around. Prediction: Michigan State 61, Louisville, 54.

South Regional Final (5:05/4:05c, CBS)

(2) Gonzaga Bulldogs (35-2) vs. (1) Duke Blue Devils (32-4)

In the final game of the Elite Eight, we’ve got a pair of NCAA Tournament staples, looking to continue shedding the recent molds they had cast for themselves (more on that in the prediction segment). This time, we’ve got the second 2 vs. 1 matchup of the tournament. In the first, which took place yesterday, the Wisconsin Badgers rallied, then held on to defeat the Arizona Wildcats to win the West Region. Today, two varying teams will meet in a similar situation.

Having made the tournament every year since 1999, the Gonzaga Bulldogs are finally looking to break through the dividers and into the Final Four. This is just the second time ever that the Bulldogs have advanced to the Elite Eight, and the last time they did it, they almost upset the eventual champions, the Connecticut Huskies, back in 1999.

This game should be all offense. So, for anyone who enjoys high-octane basketball from start to finish, this is a must-watch game. Granted, a game of this magnitude should almost always get that sort of treatment. However, this one might be a lot more high scoring than the earlier game of the day.

Gonzaga statistics:

Led by Kyle Wiltjer (16.8 points, 6.2 rebounds 2 assists per game, 54 percent field goal shooting, 46.9 three-point percentage), the team leads the nation in field goal percentage (.524), scores nearly 80 points a game, and shoot over 40 percent from three-point distance. There are five other players that play major roles for this team. They are Kevin Pangos (11.8 points, 2.7 rebounds, 4.9 assists 1.3 steals per game, 43.8 three-point percentage), Przemek Karnowski (11.1 points, 5.8 assists per game, 62.1 percent field goal shooting), Byron Wesley (10.6 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.3 steals, 1 steal per game, 51.7 field goal percentage) Domantas Sabonis (9.7 points, 7.1 rebounds per game, 67.5 field goal percentage), and Gary Bell Jr. (8.3 points, 2.4 rebounds, 2 assists per game).

Gonzaga key wins/losses:

For anyone who questions whether or not this team is battle tested enough, not only have they been to the NCAA Tournament 17 years running, they have beaten the likes of Saint Mary’s and BYU twice, and have defeated fellow NCAA Tournament contestants Georgia, St. John’s, UCLA twice, and SMU. Granted, none of those squads is at the level of Duke, but this team is still quite a loaded one.

They soared past North Dakota State in their first game of the tournament, and followed up with a 19-point beatdown of the seven-seeded Iowa. In the Sweet 16, they took control against UCLA early, eventually winning by a score of 74-62.

Duke statistics:

For the Blue Devils, it’s all about offense. They score over 80 points a game, and shoot 50.2 percent from the field, good for fourth and second best in the country. Star freshman Jahlil Okafor (18.7 points, 8.7 rebounds, 1.5 blocks per game) leads the charge, with Quinn Cook (15.7 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists, one steal per game), with Justise Winslow (12.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.3 steals per game) and Tyus Jones (11.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 1.5 steals per game) aiding him along the way.

Duke key wins/losses:

As is usually the case with teams from major conferences, there are several opportunities to play other top teams. For the ACC’s Blue Devils, that was definitely the case. Sure, they played eight games against teams not in the top 150, and 12 against teams not in the top 100. As expected, they won each of those games with relative ease, except at Virginia Tech, Florida State, and at home against Georgia Tech.

They went 6-1 against teams ranked 51-100, including four games against NIT participants. The lone loss came against Miami over two months ago, in a game where the Blue Devils led at the half, but were outscored by 17 in the seconds stanza.

As for top 50 competition, the Blue Devils faced 14 teams of that nature. They went 11-3 against such opponents, including an impressive 7-2 mark against top 25 teams. The biggest wins include a 10-point road win at fellow top-seeded Wisconsin back in December, as well as road wins at Louisville, North Carolina and Virginia.

Meanwhile the three losses against top 50 competition came at North Carolina State, and two losses to Notre Dame; one on the road, and the other in the ACC Conference Tournament Semifinals. Simply put, this team is battle tested, and ready to play any opponent at any given time.

Prediction:

Without question, I’m rooting for both teams. For Gonzaga, it would be a monumental victory for a team that has become the face of the mid-major teams in Division 1 college basketball, to the point that they are even more notable than Boise State is in college football!

On the other hand, the Blue Devils are the Blue Devils. Like the Bulldogs, they seem to have shredded their recent mold. Whereas Gonzaga struggled to get past the Sweet 16 since doing so in 1999, the Blue Devils had lost twice in the first round over the last three seasons, including last year’s loss to 14th-seeded Mercer, and the infamous loss to 15th-seeded Lehigh back in 2012. Now, both have gotten through to this point, and share a variety of similarities.

In the end, it all comes down to one question: can the Bulldogs continue to be offensive, and get Jahlil Okafor into foul trouble? If they can, they’ve got a great chance to win. If not, their shot off attaining a victory, as well as the first Final Four berth in school history is likely an uncertainty. I believe that the Blue Devils will continue to shine offensively, Okafor will stay out of foul trouble, and lead his team to become the third one seed to make it to the Final Four this tournament. Prediction: Gonzaga 78, Duke 86.

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