#4 Butler vs. #12 Middle Tennessee StateOnly during March Madness could a team with a record of 31-4 be considered a Cinderella, but hey, if the slipper fits, right? Despite a large contingent of Minnesota fans rooting on their Golden Gophers in Milwaukee, the Blue Raiders were able to withstand a furious second-half rally from Richard Pitino’s squad. The game itself featured a series of runs. Minnesota scored the first seven points of the contest, only to see MTSU respond with ten straight points of its own. But the real story of this 5-12 matchup was the Blue Raiders’ defense. A review of Kermit Davis’ team reveals that they prefer to play man-to-man defense and they excel at it. For this game, however, Davis employed a variety of zone looks, including the less popular 1-3-1 defense. This strategy prevented Minnesota from using ball screens to create mismatches. The result? Minnesota looked confused offensively for stretches and connected on just two shots from the corner all game.
Butler's Avery Woodson tied a career high with six three-pointers on Thursday afternoon, an offensive barrage that quickly buried the overwhelmed Eagles of Winthrop. As for the rest of the Bulldogs, they put the clamps on Keon Johnson, Winthrop’s leading scorer. The diminutive playmaker finished 7-for-19 from the field and five points below his season average. With the Sweet 16 at stake, the matchup to follow closely on Saturday will be MTSU’s frontcourt against Andrew Chrabascz and Kelan Martin. While Chrabascz is an excellent post defender, Kelan Martin is simply average and also struggles in isolation. If JaCorey Williams can match Reggie Upshaw’s production from their first round game, we could be looking at a double-digit seed in the Sweet 16.
#2 Arizona vs. #7 St. Mary’s (CA)
The Gaels spent the majority of the season in search of national respect, and unfortunately, a three-pack of double-digit losses to Gonzaga did little to help them in their quest. Despite their shortcomings against their conference rival, St. Mary’s established themselves as an impressive team. Statistically, SMC is an offensive force. Randy Bennett’s bunch is ranked in the top ten nationally in scoring margin (15.3), effective field goal percentage (58%), and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.56). The Gaels shot 55.6-percent from the field against VCU in the first round, an impressive achievement in its own right. But the real takeaway from their eight-point victory was that they took 39 foul shots, a total 24 shots higher than their season average. If the Gaels can once again combine that many opportunities at the charity stripe with their offensive efficiency, it’s hard to picture a loss for SMC against Arizona.
The Wildcats played free and loose against North Dakota, reaching triple digits for the first time this season. Rawle Alkins had a perfect night, connecting on all eight shots from the field and both of his foul shots. He also dished out five assists without a single turnover. As impressive as his offensive outburst was, it wasn’t as important as Lauri Markkanen’s continued re-emergence (Shot Chart During Wins Above). After a putrid February, the Finnish freshman forward now has three 20-plus performances in his last four games. In Zona’s four losses this season, Markkanen shot 33-percent from the field and a lowly 2-for-13 from deep. If he can continue his efficient play, the Wildcat offense is arguably the best in the field. Oddsmakers have installed Arizona as a slight favorite (3.5), indicating that this will likely be a nail-biter.
#4 Purdue vs. #5 Iowa State
Both the Boilermakers and Cyclones scored impressive first round victories over pesky mid-majors with a lot of scoring pop. Purdue utilized their interior size on both ends to wear down the undersized Catamounts, pulling away late for a ten-point victory. Caleb “Biggie” Swanigan finished with 16 points and a game-high 14 rebounds. Iowa State had five players score in double-digits during their rout of Nevada. Monte Morris finished with 19 points, eights assists, and eight rebounds. Both programs’ superstars came to play, and if they hope to get a crack at Kansas in the next round, they’ll need similar outputs from Morris and Swanigan, respectively. Interestingly, despite both programs shooting over 40-percent from three during the season, neither relied too heavily on the three-point shot in their first round matchup. And this is where we see a significant division between the two teams. Purdue plays excellent three-point defense, while Iowa State is content to let teams fire at will from the perimeter.
As we mentioned in the Thursday Viewer’s Guide, Iowa State’s Deonte Burton’s boom-or-bust nature could define the Cyclones’ March Madness run. The senior wing shot 7-for-14 from the field against Nevada and collected eight rebounds without showing any hometown jitters returning to Milwaukee where he played high school basketball. If Steve Prohm’s team hopes to drop Purdue in the Round of 32, Burton will likely need to play a major role. Purdue's Dakota Mathias made the Big Ten’s All-Defensive team and will likely match-up against Burton all game. Purdue exclusively plays man-to-man defense, so keep an eye on these "games within a game."
#2 Louisville vs. #7 Michigan
Louisville’s laugher against Jacksonville State didn’t reveal anything new about the Cardinals. Defensively, Louisville continues to protect the rim and force turnovers, while running their offense through its backcourt duo of Quentin Snider and Donovan Mitchell. When you think Rick Pitino-coached teams, defensive pressure, and high-scoring offenses usually come to mind, but this Louisville team would prefer to play a bit slower. The Cardinals posted a 10-2 record in games in which they scored in the 70s. The challenge, obviously, will be for the Cardinals to impose their tempo upon Michigan who will undoubtedly look to jam down on the accelerator all game long. Derrick Walton Jr., fresh off a monster game in the first round, pilots the Wolverines devastating offense, so don’t count on him to slow the pace.
Michigan’s three-point prowess gives them a chance to make a deep run, evidenced by their absurd 16-for-29 performance against the Pokes in the Round of 64. Just look at the two shot charts above, something’s gotta give. The canary in the coal mine for Michigan appears to be D.J. Wilson. In seven of the Wolverines' 11 losses, Wilson scored 11 points or fewer and was often saddled with foul trouble. If Anas Mahmoud and Jaylen Johnson can prevent Wilson from contributing offensively, they may be able to stop this historic run that the Big Ten tournament champions are currently on.