Previewing Sunday's Most Intriguing Round of 32 Games
We're now through the first round - sorry, the second round - of the NCAA Tournament, and we've seen the usual NCAA Tournament surprises. It never gets old though - I think most of America could watch Duke lose to Mercer on repeat. But we know, going into every Big Dance, that crazy things are going to happen. And the 2014 version hasn't been any different.
To get you even more excited, I've taken a look at the four best games, analytically speaking, that we'll be watching on Sunday. While a game like the Stephen F. Austin and UCLA contest will still bring thrills I'm sure, I dug into the ones that didn't seem so statistically lopsided. Take a look at what to expect below.
Wichita State (1 Seed, 10th in nERD) vs.
Kentucky (8 Seed, 15th in nERD)
The Round of 32 matchup between the Midwest’s one and eight seed is one of the most interesting of the day, as Wichita State will take their undefeated record and go up against a young, talented Kentucky squad.
The Shockers breezed through their first-round game against Cal Poly, showing off their eighth-ranked defense – Cal Poly didn’t even hit 40 points. But Cal Poly also ranks 180th in nERD. Kentucky does not.
Wichita State has a great basketball team, and there’s a reason they’re undefeated. But as everyone’s said all season long, the team hasn’t really been tested. Their 90th-ranked strength of schedule saw just three top-50 nERD teams this year in Tennessee, Saint Louis and BYU, and while they won each one, it’s not like those teams were studly competition. Kentucky will be the best team they’ve faced all season long.
Can they be victorious? Yes, most definitely. Kentucky has a slightly susceptible defense (though it showed up in Round 1), and has played inconsistently all season long. But the one area to watch in this contest is to see who wins the rebounding game when Kentucky is on offense. No team in college hoops saw a higher offensive rebounding rate than the Wildcats this season, while South Dakota State was the only team better than Wichita State at grabbing defensive boards. Two of the team’s biggest strengths will be going up against one another in this one.
Iowa State (3 Seed, 13th in nERD) vs.
North Carolina (6 Seed, 26th in nERD)
Iowa State had a decisive victory in their opener against North Carolina Central, but they lost sophomore forward Georges Niang for the rest of the tournament. An offensive-oriented team, not having the 6’7’’ presence will certainly have an impact, and it opens this game up to being a lot closer than it otherwise might have been.
Many will point to North Carolina’s James McAdoo to take advantage of the injury, and he’ll surely have an easier time defensively. But Niang actually was a below-average defender in terms of DRtg, so it’s probably smart to not overstate the change it will make for Carolina’s offense, which has struggled at times this year efficiency-wise.
It’s going to be interesting to see how this loss impacts the Cyclones. No team had more assists than Iowa State this year, and losing a player who finished third in minutes on the team this year could disrupt that flow. It will be up to North Carolina’s defense to take advantage of the lack of offensive weapon.
Arizona (1 Seed, 2nd in nERD) vs.
Gonzaga (8 Seed, 20th in nERD)
I mentioned this earlier in the week, but it seemed as though folks were sleeping on Gonzaga, as Oklahoma State, their first-round opponent, seemed to be peaking at the right time of the year. But the Zags won their opening game against Marcus Smart’s squad in impressive fashion, and will now be underdogs against one of the best defensive teams in the country, Arizona.
It’s going to be an uphill battle for Gonzaga, especially considering junior guard Kevin Pangos will more than likely see Arizona’s Nick Johnson defending him. Pangos was a key reason for Gonzaga’s first-game victory, shooting 43 percent from the floor with 26 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals. Shutting him down is a good first step to a Wildcats victory.
The Bulldogs finished fifth in the nation in field goal percentage though, and shooting near 50 percent would certainly keep them in a game against the defensively-driven Wildcats. They’ll need good play from center Sam Dower considering ‘Zona’s ability to defend guards, too.
Arizona should be able to dictate pace, and it would be borderline shocking to see them drop to our 20th-best team in the country in terms of nERD. But it's March Madness, and we've already seen that anything can happen.
Creighton (3 Seed, 7th in nERD) vs.
Baylor (6 Seed, 28th in nERD)
Led by Doug McDermott, Creighton entered the tournament with the best offense in the country, and a defense that was a little suspect. We saw another bad defensive performance by the Bluejays against Louisianna-Lafayette on Friday, and hopefully, for the sake of Creighton fans, it was a wake up call. Because Baylor is even better offensively.
The Bears have now won 11 of 13 games, and in their six wins since March 1st, they haven’t scored fewer than 74 points. And against a defensively sound Nebraska team, they were able to post 74 more, in what was a very impressive victory.
Quite simply, the Baylor versus Creighton game on Sunday will be a battle of the offenses. The difference is that Creighton’s offense goes through one guy (Doug McDermott) while Baylor’s is more balanced – the Bears have four guys who average 11 or more points per game. Like any contest against Creighton, if you can stop Dougie McBaskets, you’ve got a chance to win. It’s just a lot easier said than done.