“The NCAA Tournament is all about matchups” is top-tier March cliché. But behind every cliché is some truth, and that’s no different here.
When Louisville’s seeding was revealed, it appeared to be fairly favorable path to Phoenix. But while that path became clearer on Selection Sunday, there’s still plenty to be wary of over the next few weeks.
So which Midwest teams should you me the most afraid of? Let’s find out.
The Big West champs are making their first NCAA tourney appearance and first time emerged from their First Four victory over what was believed to be the best 16 seed in North Carolina Central. The Aggies are hot garbage offensively, with the 291st adjusted offense on KenPom. It is of course quite unlikely that the Cards meet UC Davis in the Elite Eight. However, if it were to occur I can’t say that I’m particularly scared of a team that has the ball stolen from them nearly 1 out of every 10 possessions.
Iona is one of those mid-major teams that for whatever reason feels like a staple of March Madness. The Gaels are making their fourth NCAA appearance in the past six years, but have never really done anything in the Big Dance. As the fourteen seed, it’s doubtful 2017 is the year that changes. The Gaels are quite deadly from behind the arc shooting 39.7 percent as a team. But they lack the height and rebounding ability to accumulate the shots they’ll need to make up for their lackluster defense.
Previously on the Ray & Rick Show: Coach Harper’s Western Kentucky Hilltoppers entered a matchup with Louisville by engaging in overly aggressive and physical tactics before eventually falling. After a long hiatus, this riveting drama is back with more on the line than ever before: an NCAA Tournament 2nd round game.
Okay but seriously, it’s so odd to see such a familiar face in the tournament in this way. There’s little doubt that Harper has earned the ire of Louisville fans with his past transgressions. His Jacksonville State Gamecocks (who aren’t even from Florida) are shockingly in their first NCAA tourney ever in their first year of eligibility. Statistically the Gamecocks fail to do anything really well. They have a high turnover rate and are also pretty bad at turning over their opponents. The Cards should be able to dictate whatever pace they’d like as well as muscle around a significantly smaller team.
While the 12-5 upset is classic March, the Wolf Pack appears to be the team getting the least amount buzz for the upset. Especially as they face an Iowa State team that many are tabbing as a dark horse to make the Final Four. Nevada’s only significant opponent was Saint Mary’s who housed them in the season opener, 81-63. The Pack prefer a brisk game pace, but lack the ability to impose their game on defense. Despite that, Nevada can certainly stroke it from behind the arc, shooting 38.5 percent from threes. They’re certainly dangerous, but something I think Louisville can handle.
The fighting Ryen Russillos are riding a tremendous 21 game winning streak into the tournament, they haven’t lost since 2016. While Vermont failed to capitalize on big games against Providence, Houston, South Carolina and Butler, they were the only team in college basketball to go undefeated in their conference slate. Vermont plays a very slow and deliberate style of play, ranking very near the bottom in tempo and possession lengths on both ends of the floor. Speed them up and you should be able to survive.
This season, the Rams were tabbed as the Mid-Major darling with a top 25 ranking under the leadership of guard EC Matthews. Last year, he suffered a season ending knee injury just ten minutes into the season, but was able to return this season. The Rams started the year with a loss to Duke and needed to make a big run in the A10 tournament to lock up their place in the Dance. URI plays very solid defense, ranking ninth in effective FG percentage. The key to unlocking them is shutting down Matthews, as he goes so does Rhode Island.
After losing Maurice Watson for the year, things really started to unravel for the Blue Jays. They completed their Big East slate with a 10-8 record, casting a shadow on what was a tremendous start to the season. Creighton still does have some firepower, and shoots an effective FG percentage of 58 percent (third nationally.) Despite the brilliance of junior guard Marcus Foster, Watson’s absence has led to an abysmal rebounding percentage on both ends. Control the boards and the game is won.
Death, taxes, and Tom Izzo in March. Despite how bad the Spartans are this go-round, there’s still that feeling in the back of your head when you face off against MSU in the tourney. Despite having a sure fire top ten pick in Miles Bridges, Michigan State lost fourteen times. Yes, that is a lot. There are plenty of ways to beat them. You can make them turn the ball over since they do that on 16.1 percent of possessions, you can speed the game up and force them to take bad shots or you can even send them to the line because they’re not very good from the stripe. They are halfway up this list because of Tom Izzo, he isn’t a hall of famer for nothing.
It feels like ages ago that Louisville pulled off a massive bounce back win against Purdue. The Cards were able to force the Boilermakers into 17 turnovers with a fairly brisk pace. The key to toppling Purdue is still to turn them over, as they are quite apt to do. Caleb Swanigan will get his double-double, but if you can limit the rest of Purdue you should be in good shape. I wouldn’t be thrilled to play Purdue again, but I’d rather have them than several other potential opponents.
The Cards of course have already toppled Miami, but the Hurricanes have shown their ability to win big games on several occasions already. With victories over UVA, UNC and Duke under their belt, a rematch would need to be taken pretty seriously. Louisville handled Miami by limiting the Canes on the offensive board and making 11 threes. Rebounding has been a sore spot for Miami of late, and giving Louisville’s shooters extra opportunities is another great way to overtake what is at times a sluggish Canes offense.
After losing six straight games to start Big 12 play, the Cowboys finished the year winning 10 of their last 14. The Pokes have the top offense on KenPom and are led by star guard Jawun Evans. Evans has the third best assist rate in the country, proving himself as an elite passer. OSU is especially deadly from downtown, where they shoot 40.3 percent. They also ranked sixth in the country in offensive rebounding. The good news when playing Okie State is that they as prolific as their offense is, their defense is equally pathetic. Offensive rebounding against them should be a breeze and they give out plenty of tickets to the free throw line.
The Ducks’ season took a massive turn for the worse last week when they lost center Chris Boucher in the Pac 12 tournament. Boucher was a major part of their offense and defense, helping the team excel at scoring near the rim as well as protecting it. The Ducks finished the regular season with the highest block rate in the country (17.7), but that will now be less of a concern for opponents without Boucher. Despite the tough loss, Dillion Brooks and Tyler Dorsey still make this team incredibly dangerous. They shoot a high three-point percentage, and take excellent care of the ball. The loss of Boucher means that Oregon has plenty more questions to answer, Arizona was able to expose them on the interior during the Pac-12 championship, but who knows what answers March will bring.
Michigan is like Voldemort around this city right now, say his name and everyone gets scared. Never has there been so much fear from a relatively mediocre seven seed. But there are just so many intangibles working for John Beilein’s team at this moment. This will be the coach’s third attempt to spoil Louisville in the tournament, where’s previously been 0-2 against them. The narrative is ripe to tip in his favor. And of course the new lease on life this team has after a terrifying traveling mishap is precipitating their best basketball of the season.
On the court, the Wolverines have the offensive stylings that a Beilein team should. When they’re hot, there are few offenses better. Derrick Walton has emerged as a star for this team, and will undoubtedly need to be the one to watch. One could say Louisville is a great matchup for the maize and blue, because rebounding has been a struggle for them all year. The taller and longer Cardinals should be able to keep the Wolverines from getting extra possessions.
Nearly a month ago, it felt like Kansas was an unstoppable force on their way to an unquestioned number one overall seed. Since then they’ve been wonky, struggling against Oklahoma State and losing to TCU in the Big 12 Tourney’s opening round. You’ll notice that TCU is not in the Big Dance. The loss to TCU revealed that without Josh Jackson, KU is very beatable. Getting him into foul trouble could be the key to unlocking an otherwise weak frontcourt.
Despite their recent struggles, it’s hard to discount how formidable Kansas is. This season Coach Bill Self has done things a bit different by instituting a four guard lineup. It has made this Kansas team more offensively minded than ever before. Frank Mason is the likely player of the year, and has been magnificent at scoring and making the Jayhawk offense run smoothly. The aforementioned Jackson is a one-and-doner who will be the perfect fit in the NBA. The unique four guard look has resulted in the Jayhawks being a bit suspect defensively.
Beating KU in Kansas City will be extremely difficult, and that adds to the scary factor. But here’s one last thing to keep in mind: Bill Self has only led one Kansas team to the Final Four as one-seed.
After spending the middle portion of their season in a constant up and down, I think Iowa State has finally levelled off into a very very good basketball team. Monte Morris has been absolutely extraordinary as the engine for the Cyclones. He’s averaging just one turnover a game this year, and only commits one every 47 minutes on average. He’s the classic March Madness senior guard who is impossible to shake. Iowa State also has five players who shoot over 38 percent from beyond the arc. They’re patient on defense, refuse to let teams impose their will on game tempo, and don’t commit many fouls. They don’t really do a whole lot wrong.
Where they are vulnerable is at the boards, and a bigger, stronger Louisville team could excel there. That of course won’t matter if their offense continues to run like it did in Kansas City. Speaking of KC, while the city is also easy for Cyclone fans to travel to and they made their presence known in the Big 12 tournament. If the Cards meet ISU in the Elite Eight, they will have defeated Kansas. Something they did once and nearly twice in the regular season. For all of these reasons, Iowa State feels like the most dangerous team for Louisville in this region.